Thursday, January 20, 2011


The poem in the Writer's Almanac for the 17th January this year was The Accompanist, by William Matthews.

The title naturally caught my attention, since I've spent a good deal of my life accompanying singers on the piano, and though Matthews is talking about a jazz situation, the elements are similar:

Don't play too much, don't play
too loud, don't play the melody.
You have to anticipate her
and to subdue yourself.

Wow, that's so familiar! Matthews puts those who suggest that the accompanist and the singer have a 'partly sexual' relationship in their place with the line:

it's partly
sexual but it's mostly practice
and music.

There's a similar thing goes on in playing for 'worship' times at church. Both the Assembly of God (which we used to attend) and the Baptist church (where we still are) lean towards an element of improvisation in the music. Some of the song leaders (often ones that don't play an instrument) think that worship doesn't really require attention to the details of the music. They think that even though we'll have a 'practice' this practice should also be a worship time. Nope, it's a time to practise. I could paraphrase Matthews on this point:

it's partly
worship but it's mostly practice
and music.

There's no worship without the fingers knowing where they're going to go. Musicians in worship bands have a difficult role to play. They're leading the congregation into a place of worship, but they often don't get there themselves, because they have to use a good deal of their brain to keep track of what the rest of their body is doing: keeping to the chord structure, playing the right rhythms for the particular moment, hitting the right notes (or turning wrong ones into right ones). It's a servant role: the guests enjoy the food, the servant brings the dishes in and clears them away again.

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