TAO February 2018–Dancing with the Stars

Back to the Basics, Part I

Dancing with the Stars

What you think of me when you find out that one of my favorite television shows is Dancing with the Stars? Just like you, I can’t stand the behind-the-scenes drama; the hyped-up judges make me crazy; and the humiliation of weekly eliminations makes me squirm for the losers. Despite these distractors, I remain a fan. It’s not because I like to dance, either. Frankly, I just don’t get the point of dancing. I can never remember the steps, I hate to lead, and I have yet to relax and enjoy it. I even dread wedding invitations, because I know there will be dancing. Nevertheless, I love to watch others dance: ball room, ballet, or bolero. I think it’s amazing to watch two fully-coordinated bodies in motion. If only…
Do you remember the movies of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers? It was said that while he was the movie star, she did everything he did backwards and in heels. Unlike those poor amateurs on the television show struggling to master a new routine each week, these two are perfection! How did they achieve such a high level of mastery? I think it has something to do with their vision that, in dance, they could reach their highest level of artistic expression, their mutual desire to achieve excellence in their performances, their strong work ethic, and their surrender to the dance itself. Unlike the amateurs on Dancing with the Stars who seek fame for its own sake, Ginger and Fred were dedicated to the art of the dance itself. The difference is obvious!
I may not be any good on the dance floor, but I am still a dancer. My chance to “Dance with the Stars” comes when the choir meets for its weekly rehearsal. As a choral accompanist, my main job is to be a good dance partner. The first goal: become a Ginger by letting the conductor take the lead. To the choir, we are a team, and they are sensitive to the dynamics between us. Many misunderstandings can be avoided by consulting the conductor for her stylistic concepts, tempi, dynamics and articulations ahead of time. Watch your feelings–don’t take correction personally. Let any friction be handled behind the scenes: it’s the professional thing to do.
Before the first rehearsal of any anthem, it’s essential that you have already learned the score well. The choir rehearsal should not be YOUR rehearsal. You are there to help everyone else learn their parts, so you must be able to forget about your own playing to help them. Your accompaniment needs to be accurate, so you can be adaptable. Once your part is solid, it’s time to learn the choral parts. You must be able to play all of them together and in any configuration the conductor calls out in rehearsal. This is not the most personally rewarding work, I know. Just as Olympic ice dancers must demonstrate their “compulsories,” perfect circles, straight lines, etc., we must demonstrate our commitment to the choir’s success, even if they take this skill for granted.
Being an excellent accompanist means being on time with music in rehearsal order, pencil on the music desk, ready to give ears and eyes over to the conductor. Be responsive to every gesture—that’s the dancing part! With you on board, the conductor can run a streamlined rehearsal, allowing the choir to accomplish more than ever before. But, it’s not just the two of you in isolation. The most effective accompanists identify themselves with the choir by modeling ideal chorister behavior. Participate fully during their physical warmups and as chant along with them as they rehearse their words and rhythms. Hum along with a cappella passages. The more you align yourself with the choir’s sound, the more responsive you can be to their needs. If you are listening critically, you which missing or inaccurate choral parts to add into your playing. Though you are at the keyboard, your best playing will emerge from within the ensemble, not outside of it.
The conductor’s influence upon the choir is obvious. Yours as the accompanist is subtler, but equally important. The spirit of cooperation you bring to the rehearsal, along with the excellence you put into your playing, influences the singers’ morale more than anyone knows. Your job is to provide the foundation for their music making. How you play encourages them and gives them confidence. Make your vocal warmup accompaniments clean, accurate and musical. Quietly establish the key of the next piece as the choir looks for it in their folders. Be ready to give pitches for the conductor’s vocal demonstrations, as well as for the choir’s starts. Mark all directions in your score. Stop playing at the first cut off. Anticipate where and what the conductor will do next. Make them think you are a mind reader!
Are your service playing skills developed to such a high level? If not, the difference will be obvious to your choir and your congregation. We simply cannot take the art of accompaniment, the art of hymn playing, the art of sight reading, and the art of registration and repertory for granted. So, this winter, we are getting get back to the basics. Most churches assume their keyboardists come fully loaded with all the skills they need. Unfortunately, many organists have never made them a priority, while others downplay their importance, favoring their own solo playing over the humbler tasks that make up the service playing portfolio.
If you are not quite caught up in accompanist fever, I don’t blame you. From the outside, it’s a lot of work and often there is little reward.
What is the right perspective on this work? Television competitions reveal a desire for excellence without paying a price. Fred and Ginger reveal the results of hard work in service to their art. The harmony of their bodies in motion inspires all who see them. But what did it take to achieve such a high level of grace and poise? The same thing it takes to accompany your choir: commitment, dedication and sacrifice.
As we approach the season of Lent, let’s consider how accompanying others reflects the very model of self-emptying we see in the “Lord of the Dance.” He, too, was asked to buy into a vision greater than himself and to surrender his power for others’ sakes. It’s essential that we who sit at the keyboard remember that we are part of something much larger than we know: Christ is the great worship leader who is conducting all of life—and the anthem in front of you. Sydney Carter’s famous hymn reminds us, “I am the Lord of the Dance, said he. And I’ll lead you all wherever you may be, and I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.” Now, that’s Dancing with the Stars!”

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