The art of accompanying

In Mark 9:36 Jesus tells the disciples the one who leads must be “the servant of all.” An accompanist leads as a servant of all.  Artistry is ever in service of supporting and augmenting the song of the assembled faithful. Instilling confidence is foremost. Listening and responding is constant. When those around them falter, a good accompanist knows to be clear and solid. And when others are solid, a good accompanist knows how to add artistry.

Most written piano parts for Roman Catholic church music are in the beginner to intermediate range and many lack the fullness and subtlety needed for lively music. This leaves a gap that can only be filled by artful improvisation. These artistic choices, going beyond what is on the page, are crucial to effective music ministry.

There is an art to introductions that make it clear when to start singing. A skilled accompanist can, for example, accentuate a singer’s starting note before they sing it to help them sing with confidence. There is an art to filling in the spaces in-between sung phrases. The rhythms in these passages are most effective when they organically set up what follows. Then there is the art of making mistakes. The flow of the music comes first. As when we speak, we keep the focus on the flow of meaning. 

Probably most important of all is permeability–allowing yourself to be affected by what you hear, to moved by it and gear into it. Closely woven into this is double-listening–simultaneously hearing the others around you and hearing yourself. More than this, hearing the chemistry in between, responding to it, noticing how what you play affects the in-between. Going deeper, there is listening with an inner ear to how the music resonates in your heart and how the hearts of all speak. Then add the Spirit, that other voice that sings in ours; that other heart that quickens our own…

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