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.