News January 12, 2024

Dear Members and Friends,

I want to share some of my and Dr. Rocke’s plans for our instrumental program at First UU. This past Sunday, we were thrilled to have Charlie Burrus and Steve Colvin join us on guitar and drums for both services, and we celebrated our talented music intern Cymphoni Pringle for her multifaceted contributions to the church; in a few weeks, we will have the String Band providing the music for the services; and stay tuned for an anime music service later this Spring that our indefatigable flutist (but really, multi-instrumentalist) Jim McGehee will be curating! This community has a wealth of passionate musicians who I hope will continue to join us on the chancel and share their talents during service. I’ll happily admit to my own selfish delight in playing alongside all of you - it’s just so much more enjoyable than playing solo! - but the truth is that our collective joy is always amplified by the enthusiasm and expertise these musicians bring, in the wide range of musical genres that they play in - from country and folk to rock, jazz and more. If you have any interest in joining us, even if it’s just to play along with the hymns, or if you have a particular song or piece of music you’d like to share, please get in touch with me at or chat with me on Sunday! In the meantime, Dr. Rocke and I will be reaching out to those who have expressed interest, so we can have you join us for the special services we have coming up in the next few months.

I’m sure many of you have missed hearing the organ in services over the last two months, especially during the Christmas season - I know I have! During the last service in October, while I was playing the final hymn, we had the misfortune of encountering a cypher. When you press a particular key on the organ, a valve opens to allow air to flow to the corresponding pipe to produce the sound. A cypher is what occurs when this valve remains stuck open - a pipe that happily continues singing no matter what you do. Legend has it that the sound continues to this day… in fact, I have turned the organ back on several times since the cypher occurred, and the offending pipe continues to blow.

I must confess, I had never experienced one before, and if you were in the 9:30 am service that day, you might remember how startling it was. Unfortunately, because of some very specific conditions with this particular organ that I will explain, the cypher is yet to be repaired, which is why the instrument is out of commission for now.

I know the organ is a much-loved part of this church, and that many of our members have deeply fond memories of the late Bob Fazakerly and his command of the instrument. I’ve had individual conversations with several members about its current state, but I thought this would be a good opportunity to share some more details with you all. The organ is the creation of the John T. Fort Organ Company, now known as the Fort Organ Company, which began in Dallas in 1958. It was built on what the industry calls a “sliderless-slider” chest design - one that was experimental at the time, and has since proven to be a liability for many reasons. For our organ, it means that basic maintenance as well as larger repairs are difficult and costly. Access to the pipe chamber (through a tiny trapdoor on the back wall behind the choir seats) is very limited, and per our organ technician, “difficult at best” - one reason why the cypher is yet to be fixed. Some of the smaller and more easily repaired issues include several dead notes, missing pipes, and a pedal that is completely dead and blocked off. These I have managed to work around, usually through using more stops (sets of pipes) than I normally would, creating a rather loud sound that lacks some variation and nuance but obscures the missing pipes and dead notes. However, every organ technician we have engaged has asserted that the instrument will need a complete rebuild in the near future. To my knowledge, this was first brought up as early as 2018 or 2019 - we are now dealing with a rather worse state than was first appraised. I will share an excerpt from a more recent extensive appraisal, from August 2022:

“My strong recommendation would be the church consider installing new wind chests and switching at a minimum, to provide the opportunity for easier tuning and service, and assure future generations of an instrument that is reliable and serviceable.”

I’m sure you are aware that the estimate for such an overhaul is considerable - definitely over $100k, possibly up to $400k. This is due in large part to the organ being of an earlier version that is no longer fully supported, with parts that are not readily available from the manufacturer. Just like how we need to upgrade the operating systems on our computers at regular intervals, this organ is in need of the same - and several years overdue. My hope is that this could be our eventual goal, with the understanding that smaller “band-aid” repairs, while cheaper, will only prolong the organ’s life by a few months and be much less cost-effective in the long run. In the meantime, we are working on getting that cypher taken care of, so that we can at least have the organ be a part of service again!

On a more personal note - the end of January will mark two years that I have been at First UU, sharing music with you all. How time flies! My first Sunday at church, I was struck by how social justice and love were the animating forces of the sermon and service rituals; two years and many services later, I have experienced how they permeate all our endeavors, and I have found in you all a community that makes Houston feel like home. The music and arts program has seen incredible growth, from what Dr. Rocke and I could provide in the pandemic-era live streamed services to a robust program with the Sanctuary choir, instrumentalists, String Band, Art Forums, and regular guest musicians.

Happy new year, and I hope all your resolutions are going swimmingly so far.

Chelsea de Souza