Campus wide, Staff News, Student Life

Staff, students restore Chapel organ; fully functional first time in 29 years

By CSU Media | September 26, 2018
Matthew Swingle and Jacob Turner

When the first notes from the organ in Lightsey Chapel sound at the HSM Faculty Recital Thursday, September 27, and the Combined Choral and Wind Ensemble Concert Friday, September 28, it will be the first time the organ has been fully functional since it was damaged during Hurricane Hugo 29 years and 1 week ago. 

As the years progressed since Hurricane Hugo, the Moller organ would face growing challenges with portions of the organ no longer playing, increasing damage to a large percentage of the pipes, troubles with the motor that provides the air to organ, inconsistent tuning and some mechanical issues with the organ keyboard console itself.

There aren’t many organ technicians around these days, so the approximate $100,000 cost to totally restore the Moller organ was prohibitive for the Horton School of Music. Matthew Swingle, adjunct faculty and staff member in the Horton School of Music, and students Jacob Turner and Cameron Buskirk have spent more than 30 hours this semester repairing the organ – for free.

Swingle, who is also director of music and organist at Advent Lutheran Church and maintains an organ maintenance and service business throughout the Lowcountry, felt driven to tackle the CSU organ renovation. He approached the HSM leadership to ask for a chance to finally revive the organ after almost 30 years.

Turner, a music education major, describes himself as a big organ fan; he has been playing organ since he was 12 and wanted to play the Lightsey Chapel organ. He jumped at the chance to help Swingle restore it. In order to fully diagnose the challenges of the renovation Swingle, Buskirk and Turner first had to crawl through the ranks and divisions of pipes and support systems, high in the side walls of Lightsey Chapel to determine what needed to be done.  

Matthew Swingle plays the organ in Lightsey Chapel to test the pipes.

One of the main challenges they found was the pipes were not fully supported when the organ was first installed; therefore, many pipes had caved in under their own weight, prohibiting them from creating a full sound. They also uncovered minor mechanical issues with the pneumonic valves which provide air to the pipes to create a sound but nothing that would determine the organ unplayable. With enough time and patience, Swingle, Buskirk and Turner knew the organ could return to its previous glory and splendor.

Swingle’s main objective in beginning the organ repair was recruiting students who are interested in 
traditional church music and the study of the organ. CSU already offers a contemporary-focused Music and Worship Leadership degree, but he believes this extra breadth in offering will attract even more students to study music at CSU. “Instruments and hymns are not going anywhere,” said Swingle. “We can put traditional instruments alongside or within a contemporary setting, and they can survive together.”

Swingle said hundreds of organist jobs throughout the country go unfilled because there are not enough trained organists. “With a working organ, we will be able to recruit students who wish to learn traditional church music,” he said. 

Although the organ will be played at the HSM Faculty Recital and the Combined Choral and Wind Ensemble concert, Swingle and the students still have about a month of work to do to bring the organ back to its full glory. Their goal is to have it fully restored for President Dondi Costin’s inauguration ceremony on Oct. 29.

More about the Lightsey Chapel organ:

  • Pipe organs are divided into divisions – collections of pipes providing various choirs of sounds and colors.
  • The pipes that are visible in the Chapel represent two divisions. There are five divisions total – three divisions are not visible.
  • The ideal environment for a pipe organ is a consistent temperature setting. Heat and cold affect the pipes, so the environment around the pipes stays around 72 degrees at all times, which is a very optimal temperature consistency for the organ.
  • The pipes that are visible can be tuned by standing on a tall ladder. Those which are hidden behind the mesh have to be accessed by climbing a backstage ladder and crawling through the catwalk across the ceiling of the Chapel.
  • To tune an organ, technicians must go through each pipe of every stop on the organ. 
  • It takes at least two people to tune the organ: one at the keyboard and one or more working on each pipe.
  • The larger pipes can produce such a loud sound that the tuner must wear earplugs while working.
  • Organs should be tuned between two and four times a year. Swingle estimates that once the organ is fully functional it will take about 10-12 hours for each tuning.
  • An organ has two different types of pipes: flue pipes and reed pipes. By using different stops, the organist can create different combinations of sounds, timbres and tone experiences. 
  • An accomplished organist can emulate a large ensemble through the single instrument. Swingle said, “That’s why the organ is referred to as the king of instruments.”

The HSM Faculty Recital is at 2 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 27, and the Combined Choral and Wind Ensemble Concert will begin at 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 28 in Lightsey Chapel Auditorium. Both programs are free and open to the public.

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