November 21st, 2008

“I think I’m in trouble!” he announced as I entered his home and began preparing for his weekly piano lesson. “I volunteered to play the piano for our church’s Christmas program,” he continued, his voice betraying a mixture of both fear and pride. “Can you help me with the music?”
He stared at me wistfully through a pair of very eager, twelve-year-old eyes, his hands holding up a crowded folder of sheet music. It was clear his young ego had been seduced by being asked to perform for the yearly children’s pageant. He appeared to be more than a little nervous but he was also obviously excited by the prospect of being on stage. Although he realized this experience would dramatically test his musicianship he seemed fairly confident that he could handle this important task. After all, hadn’t I told him how talented he was? Hadn’t I bragged to his parents and others about his potential? So why was I searching my mind for a delicate, tactful way of suggesting he might be in over his head?
Over the last three years I had watched as he rapidly progressed from an absolute beginner to an impressive, intermediate student capable of playing both classical and contemporary pieces including transposing some works by ear to a number of different keys. Among those I was currently teaching he undoubtedly exhibited the most talent. Yet as I leafed through the music for the children’s program I quickly realized it was considerably more advanced than his level of expertise. I had enough confidence in his ability that I felt with a few adjustments we could probably find a way to make it work. But something inside me brought forth a reluctance to agree to his request for my help.
Why was I so uneasy about encouraging him to accompany the Christmas production? Being an accompanist may be the most difficult task in the world of music. There are only a small handful of virtuosos who can perform a difficult composition in a way that always elicits enthusiastic applause from an audience and rave reviews from the critics. Yet there are even fewer musicians who are capable of accompanying such performers in a way that actually makes the virtuosos of the world sound even better. While every musician dreams of one day being the soloist who brings down the house in some great concert hall, not many aspire to being the lowly accompanist. Even though they are absolutely essential to a concert and their performance can make or break the way a soloist is received, the accompanist is fortunate if he or she gets one token bow and their name spelled correctly at the bottom of the third paragraph in the critic’s column. For the most part they remain in the background, anonymous and under-appreciated. Remaining in the background and helping someone else sound good and get the applause does not come naturally to most musicians, nor does it come easy to most people in general, for that matter. However, realizing that my young student’s church was very small and likely didn’t have any other young person who could do an adequate job, I reluctantly agreed to help coach him through the performance.
“Remember,” I told him often over the next several weeks, “the accompanist is not the star.”
“But I thought the piano player is sort of like the leader and that everyone else is supposed to follow him,” complained my young protégé one day.
“Your concept of leadership is highly flawed,” I responded. “As the accompanist, you must always follow whoever is singing, whoever is on stage. If they speed up, so do you. If they slow down, so do you. If they skip a measure, change the tune, forget the lyrics, or fall off the stage your job is to make everything sound like it was intentional. You exist to make them look good. At the end of the performance if the singers get a thunderous round of applause you have done your job well. If people applaud you more, you have likely failed.”
Yes, the role of an accompanist may be the most difficult job in the world of music. But it strikes me that the role of a follower of Christ is very similar. Like an accompanist, we exist to help make the real virtuoso, Christ, appear to perform as flawlessly, minister as graciously, and relate to others as lovingly as possible. And like most musicians, being a servant does not come naturally to those of us in the church. Our egos crave the spotlight and hunger for applause. Yet we should count it as the richest blessing if others even briefly take notice of our efforts done for Christ. For the most part, Christian accompanists remain in the background, usually anonymous, almost always under-appreciated. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves…Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant…” – Philippians 2:3-7.
Incredibly, Jesus came to earth to be our accompanist, to make our performance better, to make us successful, to make us appear perfect in the eyes of our admiring audience, namely, God. Now we have been asked to play the part of an accompanist to the Accompanist, a servant to the Servant. How much more “in the background” could we be? And yet our Lord has chosen to make much of the success of His church dependant upon our performance. What an amazing honor, and what an amazing opportunity for failure. All it takes to destroy the concert is for us to control the stage, to dictate the tempo, to overshadow the Soloist, to drown Him out with our own music, to covet all the applause.
“But Bill,” others have complained to me, “what about the leaders in the church, you know, those whose job it is to stand before the congregation and preach or teach or lead worship or make decisions? Don’t they have the authority? Aren’t we supposed to follow our spiritual leaders?”
In many gatherings of the faithful, the concept of leadership is highly flawed. In the church, leadership should take on the mantle of servanthood. We are not to be the stars! Instead we are to sacrifice ourselves in order that others might be acclaimed; we are to yield the spotlight so others might receive the applause. We are, in fact, the accompanists for the accompanists of the Accompanist, the servants for the servants of the Servant. Jesus, Himself, is the perfect example of servant leadership. “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” – Mark 10:42-45.
Does this mean Christian leaders are unnecessary? Are we better off without them? Of course not; otherwise, why would Scripture mention the spiritual gift of leadership (Romans 12:8)? Christian accompanists are essential to a concert and their performance can make or break how the true Soloist is received. The problem, tragically, is that true servant-hearted leaders are rare. Far too often the accompanist ends up stealing the spotlight away from Christ. Leadership in the church involves training up others to be accompanists, not soloists. That, of course, places leaders one more step further removed from the applause, as accompanists for the accompanist of the Accompanist.
My advice to my young student rings true on this stage as well. Remember, the accompanist is not the star; that billing always belongs to Christ. As the accompanist, we must always follow the Soloist. If He speeds up the tempo, so do we. If He slows it down, we match His pace. If He transposes to another key, we meet Him there. We must modify our playing to match His voice. If He changes the music in any way, we must follow Him and keep on playing no matter what. He is the composer, the conductor, the maestro, and the chief musician. The glory belongs entirely to Him. We exist to make Him look good! And leaders exist to help others make Him look good! “And whatever you do, whether in word or in deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus…” – Colossians 3:17.
At the Christmas pageant my talented young piano student did an admirable job accompanying all the other children. It wasn’t totally flawless, but he performed as I had taught him. He made the entire program sound better and kept the focus on stage, not on himself. As for me, I sat in the audience, anonymous and very proud of my student. It was reward enough for me to receive a hearty hug and a heartfelt “thank you” from the boy and his parents.
At the end of the performance if Jesus gets a thunderous round of applause, we have done our job well. If they applaud us more, we have likely failed. If our own identity is obliterated amidst the clamor of adoring fans rushing the stage to heap praise upon the Master for a performance we helped to accompany, then we are truly great in God’s eyes. But let us not complain about our anonymity. Instead, rejoice, my fellow accompanists, for a time is coming when we will walk out on the greatest stage ever created, bow before the largest audience ever assembled, and receive a long over-due standing ovation, along with the following words coming from the throne: “Well done, good and faithful servant!” – Matthew 25:21.

Bill, a child of God and just another lowly accompanist

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