Clean as a Whistle

A close up look at the reeds on the "principal pipes" on the on the pipe organ at First United Methodist Church in Ashland. Jim Craven 2/5/2008Jim Craven

It's not your typical sales and service job. Clients might buy one every century and then decide after a few decades it's not worth keeping.

In between, they call on the likes of Lanny Hochhalter to maintain their pipe organs' majestic tones.

Lanny Hochhalter

Age: 52.

Job title: Pipe organ technician.

Job description: Anything to make the organist and church happy.

Annual income: $30,000.

Education: Church music major at La Sierra University in Riverside, Calif.

How long on the job: 27 years.

If you could have your dream job today, what would it be? "I wouldn't mind spending more time gardening."

Hochhalter fell into the routine during his college days at La Sierra University in Riverside, Calif., where he played the organ while studying church music.

A representative from a major Canadian organ builder wanted someone who knew about organs to help him work on some of his projects.

"It paid better money than I could get anywhere else on campus," says Hochhalter, who grew up in Santa Monica but has spent most of his adult life in Oregon. "I got into large instrument installation and repair and it went downhill from there."

It's been his gig since 1981.

"Churches are more willing to pay someone to have pipe organs repaired and tuned than to play them," says Hochhalter, who works for about 100 churches on a regular basis along with a handful of private and collegiate clients, including Southern Oregon University. "If I played for one church and they got mad at me, I wouldn't have a job. If one gets mad at me now, I still have 99 more."

Besides, he confesses, he's not all that wild about sitting at a console for hours.

Hochhalter lives in Salem, the center of his self-imposed territory bounded by Astoria and Pendleton to the north and Coos Bay, Ashland and Lakeview to the south. He calls on 10 Rogue Valley clients twice a year, tools and tuning knives in hand.

"An organ is an extremely complex mechanical beast," Hochhalter says, noting organs are categorized by rank — generally the number of pipes corresponding to a 61-note keyboard. "Things go wrong. My job is to catch it before it's noticed by the organist."

Not to mention the congregation.

"You're dealing with thousands of pipes and you don't want to disturb anything that's not wrong," he says. "Generally, when an organ is out of tune, it's just parts of it; the goal is to find those parts and take care of them."

Dust is often a culprit, as are changing temperatures.

"Pipes expand and contract with temperature and never go back exactly the same way they were," he says.

His tuning knives are merely pieces of metal you whack pipes with, he says. "You could replace them with a very large kitchen knife just fine."

Wiggling in and out of tight crawl spaces in 19th century buildings has its challenges.

"There are some places where I shouldn't eat before I go," Hochhalter admits. "It's certainly an unusual job, but it's better than repossessing cars."


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