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The Show Must Go On . . .

and Other Advice from a Church Accompanist

It probably all started in Mr. Klyn’s class. As fifth graders, we weren’t too cool yet to sing together every morning, and Mr. Klyn decided that anyone in the class who could play piano well enough would accompany that singing. He chose a tune from the Folk Hymnal for each of us newly-anointed accompanists to play the following week. I went home and practiced “He took my feet from the miry clay; yes, he did! Yes, he did!” until my parents begged me to stop.

The following Tuesday, with pounding heart, my short, stubby fingers barely able to stretch an octave, I raced through that song, forcing my classmates to gallop through it along with me. I ended the song a full measure before they did.

That was my introduction to playing piano for a group, mostly for church and school events. Piano lessons tend to stress individual playing—the timing, the mood, the fingering. But in real life, accompanists play for the group, and it’s a whole different ballgame than playing solos.

Since my wild introduction to group accompaniment thirty-four years ago, I’ve been in situations no piano teacher could ever have warned me about: situations involving unwelcome animals, weather oddities, unpredictable pastors, and an illness that kept me off the piano bench for several months. I’ve learned that if you make a mistake (and you will . . . oh yes, you will), 99 percent of the time no one will catch on if you act like you didn’t make a mistake. I’ve learned that if you’re going to be a church pianist, you’d better have a thick skin, a varied repertoire, and an ability to roll with the punches.

Animals Not Welcome

Playing outdoors is always tricky. If it’s not one thing, it’s another: the wind blowing your pages around, traffic sounds blaring from the street next to you, or the lack of a speaker system, which causes your music to fade before people can hear it.

One summer when I was seventeen, I was playing outdoors for an annual Mission Fest held in West Market Park in Pella, Iowa. It was a beautiful evening for the youth gathering, and people spread out on the lawn in front of the park’s pavilion.

As we were setting up, a large, overly friendly Irish setter with no apparent owner nearby began to pester us by pulling on our electrical cords, running off with our jackets, and making a general nuisance of himself.

As I broke into the final stanza of “Let Us Break Bread Together,” this dog, who had been sitting on the grass about ten feet away, lunged forward, jumped up next to me, and pulled my book off the keyboard stand, playfully wagging his head back and forth as the book went soggy in his drooling mouth.

Lesson 1: A good accompanist knows the music well enough to play from memory when necessary, even if that just means adding a few of the right chords here and there.

Wind, Fans, and Other Miscellaneous Breezes

Playing piano in a breeze is hard, but at least you expect it when you’re outside. Indoors, however, you never know what to expect—a fan turns on suddenly, or a breeze from a nearby open window or door turns into a gust at an inopportune moment. I cannot tell you how many times music has gone flying everywhere. That results in very nervous praise teams and soloists, who have to continue a cappella while you scramble around on the floor picking up the music and putting it back in the right order.

Finally I took a cue from a piano-playing friend of mine and began inserting my music into plastic sleeves in a three-ring binder. When I couldn’t do that, I made sure everything was taped down.

Lesson 2: A good accompanist always carries a roll of tape with her and keeps one in the piano bench at church. She also heeds lesson 1, above.

Give Me a Song with Six Flats

Playing for a congregation week in and week out has the plus of predictability. You know what the songs are going to be ahead of time, so you can practice them. If a song contains something tricky, like a syncopated chorus or 2/2 time, you can work on it.

But any piano player worth his or her salt will be thrown into situations where the song leader will ask, “Are there any requests?” This usually happens at a retirement home, or at services at the local homeless shelter, where the piano is always beyond tuning, has a couple of notes that don’t work, and is so tinny it sounds like a reject from a Wild West saloon.

While you’ll get requests for a few of the old standards like “Amazing Grace,” I absolutely, positively guarantee that one of three things will happen when the song leader invites requests: (1) Someone will choose a song with 5/4 time or some other weird time signature that you don’t know how to play; (2) the song will be an absolute favorite among the group, but you’ll never have heard of it; (3) the song will have six flats—or even worse, five sharps. On a really bad day, all three will occur simultaneously. (I don’t know what it is about playing sharps that I hate. From a technical standpoint, they’re no worse than playing flats, but I’d rather play a song with six flats than one with four sharps. There’s something intrinsically wrong with playing a D-sharp.)

Requests aren’t the only thing that can mess you up. Once, as a member of our young people’s group on a mission trip in Cary, Mississippi, I attended church at a small Southern Baptist, African-American congregation. The pastor asked if anyone among us could play the piano, and my group volunteered me. I quickly riffled through the bulletin and saw that most of the songs were familiar. I heaved a sigh of relief.

What I didn’t know is that this congregation didn’t sing in standard 4/4 time . . . or 3/4 time . . . or 6/8 time. They sang as the Spirit moved them, which might be fast, then slow, and then silent altogether. At some points they sped up and I lagged sedately behind. There were measures where I cantered ahead of them. I finally found myself playing alone with no one singing, because they evidently didn’t intend to sing the fourth verse.

With good grace, they accepted my feeble accompaniment as my gift to them, even though I heard one small boy say to his mother, “Mama, that girl don’t get it.”

Lesson 3: Be ready for anything. If it gets too bad, just quit playing and announce, “Let’s do this verse without accompaniment.” They won’t know you didn’t plan that.

You’re a Popular Person

You’re probably a nice person who’s well-liked by all, but as an accompanist you’ll be wildly popular when it’s time for school music contests, funerals, praise teams, or special music.

Considerate singers or instrumentalists will provide you with music well in advance, call or e-mail you to set up a practice time (not vice versa), and thank you afterward for playing. The less considerate will show up at the first practice (which you begged them to attend) with the music in hand and then ask you to transpose it “a few keys lower.”

This is not a problem if you have a keyboard like the one our congregation has, because it can lower or raise the key signature with the touch of a button. It is, however, a problem when you’re using a standard piano, the singer has never practiced with you before (“It’s really easy—you’ll have no problems with it”), the wedding starts in 45 minutes, and she wants the song two steps lower.

Music theory was never my, well, forte—so in the case I’m thinking of, the prima donna ended up singing too high. (I even took a bit of malicious glee in the screechy notes she couldn’t reach.)

Lesson 4: You’re just the accompanist. If someone doesn’t want to practice, you can’t make them. Alternately, if they want to practice fourteen times before the event, you have the right to say “Uh, can’t do that.”

Roll with the Punches, My Friends

Accompanying church and school groups is one of the most gratifying, joyous, frustrating, and unpredictable things I’ve ever had to do. It has taught me many lessons about music and about life in general—lessons like these:

  • the show must go on, even when something dire happens;
  • keep smiling when the pastor throws a few new songs into the service at the last moment;
  • encourage those kids you’re playing for who are warbling their little hearts out, even if they’re off key;
  • and, like the Boy Scouts say, ALWAYS BE PREPARED.

You won’t ever catch me playing anywhere without a roll of tape.