Yesterday, I learned that an organist who had accompanied my singing, Joe Jacobs, had died.
This blog is a thank you to accompanists and other unsung heroes everywhere.
I’ve sung with good accompanists and bad ones. When I sang with one accompanist, I felt like she was the organ grinder and I was the monkey. I followed her playing and direction. When she stopped, the monkey (me) stopped singing. Sometimes I felt like I was singing an obstacle course on a reality show, with the congregation as the viewing audience.
Then there’s the other kind. The accompanist who listens. He can spot when I’m shaky on a melody line and emphasize the melody. We would watch together to see how many verses of a hymn to sing and when to stop. We had hidden cues we both understood – when I set my hand on the side of the organ, he knew I thought we needed to finish this verse and end. When he nodded at me, I knew to pause between verses so he could improvise an interlude.
Great accompanists are patient with singers and roll with our stumbles. Once, while I was cantoring, as we exchanged peace, I saw the priest shaking hands with my son, who was serving. I was caught up in the moment, overwhelmed with mama pride, when I heard a hissing, “Mary!” I had forgotten it was time to sing the next response. Back to the job. If I sang the wrong verse or stumbled, he added emphasis to his playing so I could get back on track.
They are also reliable. Musicians don’t have the luxury of only performing when at the top of their game. They play in sickness and in health, for richer for poorer, in good times and in bad. When there was an ice storm one Christmas Eve, services were cancelled and everyone forgot to tell the organist. So he braved the slick roads and ice, arriving at a darkened church with no services, and never complained about the oversight.
When he played we had those moments when I could feel music flowing from us through a whole sanctuary.
My friend died unexpectedly yesterday. I didn’t get a chance to tell him thanks. Look around you – who do you know who’s reliable, forgiving, and empathetic?
Thank them while you can.