The Accompanist

by the Rev. Paul McLain


My mother told me about the greatest compliment she ever received. A music director once said to her,


‘Marilyn, you are the best accompanist I have ever heard. You know, the tendency of most concert-quality pianists and organists like yourself is to outshine and often overpower singers and other musicians. You don’t do that. You know when to hold back so that others shine. You are more concerned about the integrity of the piece as a whole than your individual performance. That’s a rare gift.’


It was somehow fitting that my mother’s funeral took place last week when we celebrated the Feast of the Nativity of John the Baptist. When Jesus came on the scene, John the Baptist’s disciples were worried. They were afraid of their beloved mentor being upstaged. John pointed to Jesus and told them, ‘He must increase, but I must decrease.’ John checked his ego and took a place in the wings to give Jesus the rightful place of center stage.


John the Baptist clearly understood his role. He took on the role of accompanist to Jesus. One musician went so far as to describe the work between soloist and accompanist as ‘a mystical communion.’


John the Baptist also knew that the best place in which to prepare himself, his disciples, the audience, and even Jesus, was not on the center stage of the great temple in Jerusalem, but instead in the wilderness. For my mother, her wilderness was the practice piano. At Mom’s funeral, her sister Margaret shared about the countless hours my mother practiced a variety of musical instruments. I can imagine Margaret and my grandparents enduring young Marilyn playing quite a few wrong notes along the way. It is the wilderness that breeds great accompanists.


One of the first tasks of a musician is to select, and sometimes compose, the pieces of music to be played. John the Baptist knew his audience, and us, well enough to know that the music needed for preparing the way was not all beautiful and comforting melodies. Instead, he selected music that was edgy and choppy to cause us to hear our own inhumanity and injustice. John the Baptist was not afraid to sound the discordant notes when needed, even if it meant telling truth to power, as he did with King Herod. That music cost him his life. Throughout it all, every one of John the Baptist’s and Marilyn’s notes points us to Jesus. And even Christ is willing to humble himself to take on the role of accompanist on our journeys, making way to give us new life, meaning, and hope.


As I think of Mom in quiet moments this week, I am reminded of all the big and small ways she played a little softer to give me and others room to shine. One of the hymns that she requested for her funeral was “To God be the Glory.” Even as we were saying goodbye to her earthly life, she reminded us that our lives are to point to something and someone greater, always seeking to give space for Jesus to shine in and through our hearts.

27 thoughts on “The Accompanist”

  1. What a beautiful and meaningful tribute to your Mother, Paul. Thanks for sharing your memories of her. God bless and keep you, dear son.

    1. Thanks, Linda. It is a blessing for me that you and I accompany each other on our spiritual journeys.

  2. I listened this morning to the sweet accompaniment of the birds singing as I read your tribute to your mother. What BBC a great blessing!

  3. I listened this morning to the sweet accompaniment of the birds singing as I read your tribute to your mother. What a great blessing!

    1. Thanks, Linda. So glad the birds gave you sweet accompaniment this morning. And I’m grateful for the way you accompany and support all our journeys as a caring person of prayer. Love, Paul

    1. You’re welcome, Clay. Thanks for all the ways you accompany and support the journeys of so many. Love, Paul and Ruthie

  4. your thoughts about your mother were provocative and memorable. quite a wonderful reflection. both on your mother and on John the Baptist.
    thank you as always

    1. You’re welcome, Kathleen. Glad you find this reflection meaningful. You know too well what it means to grieve, to remember, to persevere, and to hope. Love, Paul

  5. Paul, what an amazing and poignant tribute to your Mother. As a secular rock singer (as you know) the same applies that the accompanying musicians should be more concerned about the integrity of the piece as a whole than your individual performance. Many times that is not the case, especially in rock music. It is a true blessing to have musicians backing me sacrifice ego for the integrity of the music. Any musician shows how great they are when able to do that. Your Mother must have been an incredible musician!

    1. Thanks, Gary. Yes, she was quite the musician and one of the hallmarks of being an accompanist is a generosity of spirt. I saw and see that in her and you, not just as musicians but as children of God. Love, Paul

    1. You’re welcome, Terre. Thanks for the many ways you and Henry accompany and support so many of our journeys. Love, Paul

  6. Paul, you share yourself with us with the same humility that your Mother did with her music. The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree. It’s just one of your many qualities that enable us to see Christ through you.

    1. Kate, thank you for this. You’ve made my weekend! I hope to live more and more into being an accompanist like Mom. I’m grateful for the many ways you accompany and support me and so many on our journeys. Love, Paul

  7. Paul,
    As I read your beautiful words about your mother and what she considered her greatest compliment, I was reminded of your kind humility as you do your life’s work in a way that lifts all of our spirits. I can only imagine how much your mother adored you.

    1. Thank you, Julie. This means a lot. She set a wonderful example for me and radiated love and kindness to me as you have given your amazing children. Love, Paul

  8. Paul, your wonderful memories of your mother as accompanist reminded me of the eulogy delivered at the funeral of my dear friend Larry Wilks. The eulogy was delivered by Larry’s son John who was a star center on his high school basketball team. John recalled how his father once told him that his fondest memory of watching him play basketball was not seeing him score points, but rather making assists. John said, “But Dad, I was a center, not a guard.” His father replied, “Yes, but I loved watching you get a rebound under the basket, and then passing the ball out to an open man for a shot!”
    John concluded the eulogy saying “That is what my father’s life was all about. It was about assists…throwing the ball to an open player, and having that player, not my father, make the basket!”

    1. Thanks, Bill. I think God is pleased most when we make assists. Perhaps that’s when we’re closest to divinity.

  9. Thank you Paul for once again showing us that being in the shadows is as important as being on the central stage. We all have roles in the Kingdom and they all have value.

    1. You’re welcome, Whit. It’s hard for us Southern boys to lose Mama. Glad this post was meaningful to you, my friend. Love, Paul

    1. Thanks, Lynda Gayle. Coming from your love of church music and your family background, I’m sure you can relate to the value of being an accompanist. It is offering a gift of generosity of spirit, and is very beautiful. Love, Paul

    1. You’re welcome, Mary. And thank you for your condolences. I have felt surrounded by prayers and healing thoughts.
      Love, Paul

  10. Paul
    What sweet sentiment you expressed in regard to your mother. She passed it on to you as I said to Cristina today. You are the type person I feel comfortable giving a big hug as my family has done through the years. I can tell you loved her dearly as she you as well.

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