It is usually with enthusiasm that I sit down about now each year and look back through our web site to remind me of all the past year’s achievements that I would like to talk about and share with you. And perhaps speculate a little about what is lining up for the year ahead.
As we embark on this New Year, just now put into a 3rd national lockdown, it has never been harder to find the energy to pick up my metaphorical pen and concentrate on the task.
While the challenges of running this business pale into insignificance compared with those in the teeth of the storm in hospitality and the arts, the inability to do any planning eventually saps ones energy. There is an overwhelming sense of sadness for the plight of our musician customer base, the churches and schools in which many of them play, all whose lives have been pitched into turmoil.
The other day we received a request from a young musician, Casius Lee hoping to take his ARCO in just 10 days time with now no access to any local church and so in urgent need of a home practice option. I am pleased to say we sorted this for him so he at least had an instrument for 7 of the remaining 10 day window.
Less Demand for Church Organs
In 2019 we completed over 40 church organ installations but we managed only 20 last year. This is the first time in 5 years that church organ sales have not moved forward. Even so there were some notable and satisfying projects.
We started the year in the lovely country church of St John’s in Great Gaddesden where the marvellous Envoy 35-F instrument was installed on a speaker system hidden in the pipe organ casework. This church has amazing memorials in the side chapel and an impressive floor brass. It is the quintessential ‘English’ church in a wealthy country parish.
Little did we know what lay ahead as we completed another nine church organ installations before the March lockdown took effect.
Surge in Demand for Home Practice Organs
By April all staff bar myself were on furlough. From time to time I would ring the office just to check that the lines were still working! Being ever a ‘numbers man’ later in the year I mapped the monthly phone call pattern. A usual month would see 300 calls. April was less than 50 and many of those were our dealer colleagues ringing for a chat and reassurance that the vacuum that they also now found themselves in was not unique to them.
By May many organists, especially students were realising access to instruments for practice was going to be a long time away. We received a number of calls for help from professional musicians many of whom we were able to help.
I took the view that it was better to have our considerable stock out in use than sat silent in the showroom or warehouse. The two sub organists at York Minster and the Sub Organist of St Paul’s Cathedral (pictured above) were amongst those we were able to keep playing at home.
There were also considerably more musicians of all ages willing to purchase organs but this also moved into a rather odd mode as they were buying what ever we recommended without first visiting and playing.
My core advice rule ‘never buy anything without first coming to play it’ (Tip number 2 in my article “Ten tips for buying a digital organ“) went out of the window. The challenge in the latter part of lock down was now how to safely make the deliveries to people’s homes. At times this actually resulted in the customer arranging for instruments to be collected, again an event that had never before happened.
The pandemic also generated far more interest in the 2 manual Cantorum Duo. This portable organ can be used alone or with a separate pedal board which comes with or without expression pedals and stands of different sizes depending on whether a pedal board will or will not also be purchased.
All of our instruments except the Duo arrive as a single packaged item. The Duo accessories all arrive individually flat packed from Italy for easy further transport. Handling the larger volume of these smaller boxes in limited space has given me an insight into the ‘Ikea’ business model for which I now have increased respect. Not a business I would like to emulate well at least not when I am the only person in the warehouse!
Complex Regent Classic Organ Installation
By July we believed we were seeing the light at the end of the tunnel and Regent Classic undertook what is possibly its most complex UK installation to date in the church of St Andrew in Sonning.
This is a very wealthy and ancient parish church that sits next to ‘Deanery Gardens’ held to be architect Lutyens best private house with gardens by Jekyll. Nothing is visible from the street as the house is surrounded by high walls on all sides but one can imagine the ‘secret paradise’ that is so tantalisingly close.
This job took us a full week and required a substantial scaffold structure to place speakers high at east and west ends of the nave ceiling. Due to the scaffolding, it was already agreed that the church would be closed for this job, a process lockdown made even easier to achieve!
Obtaining scaffolding quotes was also made easier as suppliers could just view our 3D model of the church online to understand the scope of the job. They did not need to visit the church; a bonus we had not expected at the time we made the model below. Read more about the Regent Classic installation at St Andrew’s Church in Sonning.
Unexpected Consequences of the Lockdown
A bizarre bonus of lockdown was a steady stream of ‘skip divers’ usually politely asking if they could take our non-standard pallets away. We have to pay for their disposal as they are only used for transportation of organs, but in lockdown they just disappeared, with our skip being on an open area behind the warehouse. Those that asked were using the wood to build decking or for other purposes in their gardens but many pallets just vanished saving us the job of disposal.
Oh and I have had time to explore a marketing tool called Doodly. If you view social media you will see it in use a lot. But a bit like my organ playing, my Doodly skills so far need considerable improvement too! (see my video below).
Church Installations Using Remote Voicing
July also saw the completion of the Moravian Church in Hornsey which had undergone a full restoration and so was also closed while we worked inside.
At Hornsey and earlier in the year in Botley we used for the first time our ‘remote voicing’ set up. This allows the voicer to carry out the tonal adjustments from a location in the center of the building and not restricted by the console location to carry out the work.
After all we want the sound to be best set up where the congregation hear it and the console is often located far away from that position. Another small but helpful development of our process that you will find illustrated in more detail in the blog “Organ Voicing Challenges“.
Support for Organ Outreach Schemes
As well as individual requests, we also get asked to help with larger organ outreach schemes, something we always try to assist with where we can. One such scheme was for Holy Trinity School in Ramsgate where we were delighted to loan a Chorum 40-S for their pupils to practice. The scheme was conceived and masterminded by the Rev Paul Blanch.
The Parish has a linked Church of England School, with music a very high priority and choral music being produced to a very high standard. The school choir had achieved engagements singing in Canterbury Cathedral for the Enthronement of the Bishop of Dover, as well as singing at Westminster Abbey.
Rector of the Parish, Fr. Paul Blanch had an idea regarding a loan instrument to teach organ to new students as part of the school music curriculum. Sean Darrock (lead music teacher at the school) took up the idea with Fr. Blanch and explored the Organ loan with us at Viscount. Sean also approached the Royal College of Organists and the RSCM for support and possible funding.
We agreed to loan the organ free of charge and the RCO came up with funds to provide a teaching bursary, and this currently has two pupils being taught by the Organist of St. Augustine’s Abbey in Ramsgate. The RSCM are still watching and are hoping to use this as a pilot scheme that they may roll out in other areas of the country. At present there are two pupils under tuition on the Viscount paid for by the RCO.
Church Organ Installations Continue and Organ Hires are Delayed
Driffield added to our work load in August when a brand new church emerged from the site of the old Methodist Church that had once stood there. Once again we were working on a closed building or more accurately one that had yet to open. You can read about this story in more detail and also hear the first sound the instrument produced in a really large acoustic.
Two major UK Cathedrals were scheduled to take large hire instruments this year while pipe organs were restored. Sadly both these have now been delayed until further notice.
We were however delighted to get an invitation to provide the hire instrument for St Mary’s Church Portsea where their fine pipe organ is now under restoration by Nicholson & Co. Clearly work at York has also been delayed by the Covid pandemic and our two organs at York Minster have had their hire period extended into 2021.
I took September off and with all staff now back was rather hoping that we were in the glide path back to normal times. How wrong could that have been! November saw life thrown upside down again so it was not until December that once again we could resume installation work.
St Paul’s Brighton had been ‘work in progress’ for almost 3 years as they had paid their deposit in 2017 but it was not until early 2020 that a faculty was finally granted, this in part due to the historic and important nature of the pipe organ that was now in a dire state. Heritage Lottery Funding will be near essential for this instrument to be restored to its former glory.
The work was then further delayed by lockdown and later again by contractors replacing the church heating and a decision that 2 sets of contractors should not be in the building at the same time. So it was with considerable relief that we got to complete this job in December and finally convert the work in progress to a completed job.
Demand for Home Practice Organs Continues to Grow
In the background of a weak church market, the demand for home practice maintained a brisk pace for both new and used instruments. And of course, the ‘Brexit Pot’ was coming to the boil, or was it? The last weeks of this situation were agonisingly frustrating and crucial to us as nearly all our instruments start life in Italy.
I had already decided to fill the building in the last month to ensure any port disruption did not interfere with business in January. A 3rd lockdown makes that ambition which we achieved rather prophetic.
Despite booking our last shipment with our haulier 6 weeks in advance of pick up in Italy no vehicles were available and I thought our load would be stuck in Italy until 2021 but finally 25 new organs arrived in Bicester on a Friday morning, having been told they could not possibly arrive until the following Monday. So no staff here to unload and adding to the fun the batteries on the fork truck needed charging.
It was, I suppose the classic ending to what has without doubt been the hardest business year, both physical and emotionally I have ever experienced.
So What does 2021 Bring Us?
Finally, what does 2021 promise?
The new variant of Covid seems set to close the country down one way or another until Easter so I think we are steeling ourselves for another tough year ahead.
As I keep reminding myself while the outlook could not be more different than the one of a year ago, at least when we close, the inventory does not have to be thrown away and we have seen new home demand to help mitigate the considerable reduction in church business. The government furlough scheme has enabled hard personal decisions to be deferred and we are consequently far better placed than many companies, so there is a lot to be thankful for.
I will end with a final thought for all those musicians whose life has been so dramatically disrupted by this wretched virus. It has been inspiring seeing so many adapt to the new circumstances and taking to the internet to continue, albeit in very different forms, entertaining us from their homes and also joining together to give ensemble and choral performances.
Congratulations to them all but we hope this will soon be over and some normality return soon to our social, musical and spiritual way of life.
Stay safe, stay well, hope to see you soon!
I have had a passion for church organs since the tender age of 12. I own and run Viscount Organs with a close attention to the detail that musicians appreciate; and a clear understanding of the benefits of digital technology and keeping to the traditional and emotional elements of organ playing.