Mini-Course: How Do Organ Pipes Work?

“Why are there so many pipes?”

“But how come you sit over here and the sound comes out over there?”

“Why are those pipes so big?”

“Why are those pipes so tiny?”

“Why are some of the pipes made from metal and others are made from wood?”

“How long do pipes last?”

Right after the wide-eyed “Wow!” when folks first see a pipe organ, I am asked a lot of questions about how the pipe organ actually works. The entire pipe organ is an incredibly complex machine, yet the pipes that produce the sound are quite simple.

Related: A fun printable that explains how all those pipes work together to make a most impressive sound.

Each pipe, individually, is an interesting example of the science of sound, but when we hear all of the pipes together, the result is amazing. That is a lot like our time together here on earth, isn’t it? The things we can accomplish when we work together are truly amazing.

Related: Lesson Outline and video links

Related: The Notre Dame Cathedral Paris Pipe Organ

Related: The History of the Pipe Organ

1912 M.P. Moller, Avon Federated Church, Avon, Illinois

The first settlers in Avon, Illinois, arrived in 1835. In just twenty years, the area grew enough to have a post office, changed its name twice, saw the building of a branch of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad (CB&Q) and formed several churches. Among those fellowships were a Universalist Church and a Congregational Church.

The Congregationalist Church in Avon was formed in 1855. Early services were held in temporary locations until a building could be constructed in 1860. Rev. Edward Beecher of First Congregational Church, Galesburg, Illinois, preached the dedicatory sermon. The years that followed were busy with endeavors and growth. The church celebrated its 50th anniversary (1905) with three days of services and celebrations. Rev. C. A.Vincent of Central Congregational Church, Galesburg was one of the speakers.

Some of the earliest families in the Avon area were Universalists, and they often attended services in nearby towns. In 1863, the first regular Universalist Society of Avon was organized. Initial services were held in a local school until a church building was erected. The church was formally dedicated in June, 1867, by the Rev. W. S. Balch of Galesburg. The total cost of the church was $4,000.

The organ in this church was a Mason and Hamlin reed organ, purchased in 1869. Mason and Hamlin organs were considered the very finest reed organs available in their day. Notable composers, including Franz Liszt, created works specifically for Mason and Hamlin organs. The organ was purchased in Galesburg for $153.

In 1906, thoughts turned to a new church building. Since the new church would have the same location as the original, services were held at a temporary facility during the dismantling of the old and building of the new church. In February 1908, the church was dedicated as the “Church of the Good Shepherd.”

By 1912, a committee was formed to acquire a pipe organ for the church. An M.P. Moller organ was selected. It was dedicated in November of that year at a cost of $1,459.99. The old organ, presumably the Mason and Hamlin, was sold to a school for $20.00.

In September, 1928, the Universalist and Congregational Churches voted to unite to form a Federated Church. They continue to meet in what was the Universalist church building.

The action of this organ is a pneumatic style developed by Moller. To this day, the pipes, console, and casework are all original.

The organ produces a clear, strong sound which easily fills the sanctuary. Since the instrument is at the front of the church, the organist sits with their back to the congregation. The mirror mounted above the console helps the organist see what is going on in the sanctuary.

For an organ of this size, it is a nice to find adjustable divisional combination actions (presets). There are two thumb pistons for each manual, very adequate for the organ.

It is significant to note that, like many organs of this era, the air supply to the organ was provided by hand-pumped bellows. It didn’t take too long to see the need for an upgrade, and an electric motor to pump the bellows was installed in April 1914.

One of the charming features of this console is the meter that shows the strength of the air pressure. Imagine the importance of that dial when the organ was being hand-pumped! The more stops that are in use, the more air is needed to make them sound. When the tremulant (vibrato) is added, the meter appears to flit like a butterfly with the changes in air pressure.

The swell division is enclosed and is controlled by pedal (on the right in the above photo). The crescendo pedal, on the left, has a dial on the console to show how much of the organ is being added to the sound. The pedal lever on the far left is sforzando, used to go directly to full organ.

Stop List

Dulciana 8′
Vox Celeste 8′
Melodia 8′
Open Diapason 8′
Flute D’Amour 4′

Dolce 8′
VioleD’Orchestre 8′
Concert Flute 8′
Celeste 8′
Flute 4′


Bourdon 16′
Lieblich Gedacht 16′

Great to Pedal
Swell to Pedal
Swell to Great
Swell to Great 4′
Swell to Great 16′
Swell 4′

Great Adjustable Combinations 1 & 2
Swell Adjustable Combinations 1 & 2

1912 J.P. Moller Organ, Avon Federated Church, Avon, Illinois

The Notre-Dame Cathedral Paris Pipe Organ

The world watched in frozen horror as news broadcasts showed a fire blazing through the Notre Dame Cathedral on April 15, 2019. The fate of the historic building and its contents hung in the balance. The damage was extensive, yet somehow, miraculously even, some things survived. Among the remaining treasures in the cathedral is the pipe organ, known as the Grand Organ.

There were actually two organs in the cathedral. The Choir (smaller) organ received significant water damage, but reports are water flowed down both sides of the Grand (main) Organ case rather than into it, sparing it from flooding.

[Related: A printable and expanded version of this lesson, complete with projects for review, is available here.]

[Related: A pipe organ is one of the most complicated machines ever built but the pipes that make the sound are really quite simple. Here is a fun printable to show kids how those pipes work.]

[Related: Did you know the pipe organ is one of our very oldest instruments? A unit study for older kids is available here.]

Join the Ranks!


Combining my interest in history with performing on a magnificent organ seemed like a great idea, so when Mike Hobbs, from the Civil War Round Table, asked me to provide a program for them I quickly agreed.  I had absolutely no idea, however, how this event would grow…and grow…and grow over the next days and weeks.  What started out as a simple program for a local group has become a much larger event with TV, radio, print and social media coverage.

Click here to watch a KWQC TV Channel 6 segment from “Fran Riley Features…” about the concert.  After watching the video, scroll to find a gallery of photos they took while on location.

During the taping of that segment, John was in the church balcony and took a few photos of his own, shown below.  (Thanks to my daughter Lisa for the great title to the program!)

Thanks to everyone who helped spread the word:  Fran Riley and Channel 6 KWQC, the Galesburg Register-Mail (click here to see the article),  WGIL and Terry Cavanaugh, and all my friends and family (love those Facebook shares!).

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Every Time I Feel the Spirit

It is not always possible to find the story behind a song.  Songs classified as African-American spirituals, like this one, were typically created by slaves living in the southern United States in the pre-Civil War era.  The tunes and words were passed down for generations before even being written.

If we try to guess what might have been the inspiration for any song, it is truly only our personal conclusion, perhaps guided by study, certainly filtered by our own time and experiences.  Such is the case with Every Time I Feel the Spirit, one of my all time favorite songs.   I have read that some people consider Galatians 4:6 as the verse of inspiration for the song.  Could be.  Or not.  We don’t know.

We do know, however, that words of spirituals often had multiple meanings.  This idea of layered meanings in lyrics is still around.  I know of more than a few secular songs –and I bet you do, too– in which the double meaning of the words escapes parents but brings an exchange of winks and sly grins among their adolescent children and friends.  Multi-layered meanings are and were readily understood by the target audience.  For example, the line in Every Time I Feel the Spirit that reads, “There ain’t but one train on this track; It runs to heaven…” is likely referring to the Underground Railroad and the escape to freedom, a message easily recognized and of comfort to those enduring slavery.

It is impossible to separate the message from the form in a spiritual song.  A call-and-response song might contain the coded message in the “call” part of the song.  The “response” could be an indicator that the message was received. Much in the same way, songs with multiple verses and a refrain could contain information sent and acknowledged.  If a variation of a song (or portion of a song)  was sung, it could be an alert that new information was coming, not unlike a “breaking news” banner across the TV screen of today. It was simple yet brilliant and highly effective.

What messages does your heart hear in this song?

Here is a link to an organ setting of this song.  It is great fun to play, and is my postlude of choice on Pentecost.

Every Time I Feel The Spirit

Every time I feel the spirit
Movin’ in my heart I will pray
Every time I feel the spirit
Movin’ in my heart I will pray

Up on the mountains my Lord spoke
Out of His mouth came fire and smoke
Looked all around me, it looked so fine
I asked the Lord could it be mine

Every time I feel the spirit
Movin’ in my heart I will pray

The Jordan river is chilly and cold.
It chills the body but not the soul.
There ain’t but one train upon this track.
It runs to heaven and then right back.

Every time I feel the spirit
Movin’ in my heart I will pray

Oh, I have sorrow and I have woe
I have heartaches here below
But while God leads me I’ll never fear
For I know that He is near

Bunte Blätter, Opus 99, by Schumann

Between 1838 to 1841, German composer Robert Schumann wrote the fourteen piano pieces which later became collectively known as Opus 99, Bunte Blätter (Colorful Leaves).  It is an unusual collection, consisting of Stücklein III (Three Small Pieces), five untitled Albumblätter (Album Leaves), and six individual piano pieces.

Schumann was first a composer for solo piano.  With the support and encouragement of his wife, Clara, Schumann also wrote vocal, choral and orchestral works.  Some of Schumann’s works have been transcribed for organ, and I enjoy playing the fifth Albumblätter, Langsam (slow) as an organ prelude for a Sunday morning.  The quiet and calm of this song gives us an opportunity to meditate and focus.

O God, Beyond All Praising (THAXTED)

It was during the turmoil of World War I that English composer Gustav Holst completed The Planets, arguably one of the most popular orchestral suites ever written.   The suite has seven movements, each named for a planet.  While experiencing the complete suite is certainly ideal, movements are sometimes performed individually.  In the case of “Jupiter,” there is even a section within this movement that is often heard apart from the whole.

In 1921, Holst adapted his theme from “Jupiter” to fit a patriotic poem by Sir Cecil Spring-Rice entitled I Vow to Thee, My Country.  A few years later, Holst’s friend and fellow composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams, included the song in a hymnal he was editing.  From then on, the tune became known as THAXTED, named for the town in England where Holst and his family lived.

Many hymn writers have paired their words with the tune THAXTED.  In 1982, Michael Perry wrote one of the very finest of these hymns.  It is known as O God Beyond Our Praising, and begins with these words:

O God beyond all praising,
we worship you today
and sing the love amazing
that songs cannot repay.

In this recording of the tune, I am playing the magnificent Triumvirate Organ at the Central Congregational Church, in Galesburg, Illinois.  I hope you enjoy this stately, glorious hymn of praise.

The complete lyrics to O God Beyond All Praising can be found at this link:  O Go Beyond All Praising


Ring of Fire

Sometimes, all roads lead to Rome.  For me, all roads led to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.  Many years ago, I was the editor of a journal for the International Association of Organ Teachers.  IAOT was having their annual convention in Valley Forge in tandem with a Home Organists Adventure, produced by Bill Worrall.  A month or so before the convention, organ artist Bill Irwin saw a book I had recently written (All About Registration), and was great encouragement to me.  He suggested that upon my arrival at the event, I should introduce myself to Bill Worrall, and offer to conduct a workshop if needed.  So, I did.   I knew I was prepared. In addition to writing the book, I had recently conducted several similar workshops in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, where I lived and worked at the time. Two days later, I received a very early call from Bill Worrall, asking me if I would be able to lead a workshop later that morning.  The person originally scheduled to appear was unable to make her flight.  I’m not a morning person, and was amazed that the voice that said “Certainly!” sounded eager and awake, even in its pre-coffee state.

I walked into a large convention room filled with the fans of the person who wasn’t there. Awkward! I introduced myself, explained the situation, and launched into the workshop based on my recently published book.  Thankfully, I had several copies of the book with me (ready to be submitted to the IOAT book review committee) to use for illustration and prompts.   I was off and running.

Bill sat in the back row, listening and evaluating. Remember, Bill and I had never met before this convention.  All of this was happening because of a verbal referral from a mutual colleague and friend.  A few minutes into the workshop, I saw Bill slip out.  I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a good sign….or not…but I kept going.  Bill soon returned with one of the organ industry’s brightest stars.   They sat down together and listened.  Bill left again, and soon returned with another performing artist.

One by one, that back row began to fill with artists I admired but had never met.  That, indeed, was my Ring of Fire.


At the end of my presentation, I received a standing ovation, not only from the convention attendees, but from these well-known greats of the organ industry.  I was humbled and amazed.  I ended up selling the books I had brought as review copies, and took orders for many more.  From that moment on, my career began to move in a very different direction.



Liebster Award

Thank you to artist Maria Brinkley for nominating me for this award.  Please visit her site and enjoy her artwork, photography and tales.

The guidelines for accepting the award are as follows:

  • Post the award on your blog
  • Thank the blogger who presented the award to you and link back to their blog
  • Share 11 things about yourself
  • Answer the 11 questions given to you by the person that nominated you
  • Nominate 11 bloggers who have less than 200 followers
  • Create 11 questions for your nominees to answer
  • Notify your nominees by posting your nomination on their blog.

Okay, here we go.

11 things about me?

1.  I love to crochet, but am not a big fan of patterns.  I like to go where the breeze takes me.

2.  The only paying job I ever had that was not related to the music industry or photography was when I was in junior high.  Each Saturday morning, I would walk to the downtown store of a local jeweler, and polish silver. At the end of the day, I had earned a dollar or two, then walked home.

3.  I recently began studying harp.

4.  I wish my body would allow me to have all the coffee I want.  It doesn’t. Ditto for chocolate.

5.  I am an organized neat freak, as my family will confirm.

6.  My mood determines which instrument I want to play.  Piano is when I feel introspective, organ is for when I feel more expansive.  And the volume of my music is directly proportionate to the energy/frustration I need to work off.

7.  I tear up WAY too easily.  A good Hallmark card will do the trick.

8.  I won’t travel by plane anymore, but I love trains!

9.  Love to cook.  Not a big fan of cleaning.

10.  Garden gnomes.  One can never have too many garden gnomes.

11.  The only thing that approaches the joy I get from being with my children is the joy I get from being with my grandchildren.


The 11 Questions that Maria asked me are:

1.  What is your earliest memory?
Disturbing a wasp nest and ending up in the emergency room because of the stings.

2.  What is your dream job?
I’ve already had several dream jobs fulfilled, but my favorite was a staff writer/arranger for Sheet Music Magazine.  I especially enjoy anything to do with writing and teaching.

3.   What is your oldest childhood toy that you still own?
I still have many of my baby toys, teddy bears, baby dolls and such.

4.  What is your favourite music and why?
If I am playing the music, my favorite songs are those that reflect my mood at that moment.  If I am listening to someone else play the music, I want to be impressed by exceptional quality and artistry.  Instrumentation and style doesn’t matter too much to me.

5.  What is your favourite Public Holiday and why?
Thanksgiving. Partly because we all can work towards being more appreciative of what we have.  But also because as a church musician, I usually don’t have extra services to prepare. 🙂

6.  Which food do you like best?

7.  What was your favourite travel destination?  And do you return to the same place or go different places?
My favorite destination is home.   I enjoy going and seeing other places and people, but ultimately, I like to be home.

8.  What is your least liked housework chore?
Whichever one is on the top of my ‘to do’ list.

9.  What movie is special to you and why?
12 Angry Men.  What a powerful reminder of how we are so easily influenced by what others say and do.  Few people have true boldness of conviction.

10.  How do you unwind after a busy day?
I might play organ or piano or harp.  I might crochet.  Hot tea is usually involved.

11.   What is your greatest achievement?
Personally, raising my daughters to be strong, independent, amazing women. Professionally, hearing from people that something I have played, written or taught has made a difference in his/her life.

 My questions for my nominees are:

1.  If you could live in any place on the earth, where would it be?

2. Which historical person do you wish you could sit and talk with for an hour? Why? (and yes, I count that as one question!)

3. How did one particular teacher influence your life (good or bad)?

4. If you could only have a recording of one song, what would it be?

5.  Favorite day of the week, and why?

6. Describe your favorite photograph.

7. Describe your perfect meal.

8. Name something on your bucket list.

9. What one word do you think describes you best?

10.  What one word would your family say describes you best?

11.  Are you glad there are only 11 questions?  🙂



My 11 nominees for the Liebster Award are –

Please take a look at all these  blogs and enjoy!  Congratulations to my 11 nominees.