An Accompanist's Journey

By Richard Huggins
From AccompaList, a Resource for Church Accompanists
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What follows recounts the events in my life that influenced me to become a Christian accompanist. I have tried to make it as much like a story as I can, hoping that it meets the test of being as interesting as a good story should be.

My reason for writing this is because I feel that it might effectively illustrate the power of influence that we accompanists can have on budding pianists and organists. And in chronicling the events of my journey perhaps it will cause you to reflect upon those people and those events that were an influence upon you as well. If you breathe a prayerful thank-you to the Lord for those people or events, it will have served its purpose. If it leads you to think about young people to whom YOU might be or might become a musical and spiritual influence, it will have met the "Hallelujah!" test!

--Richard Huggins


Falls Creek


Falls Creek Conference Center is located near Davis, Oklahoma, nestled in the Arbuckle Mountains (they would be "hills" to any of you in Colorado!). This is a conference center owned and operated by the Southern Baptists of Oklahoma. While it is a year-round conference center, the "crown jewel" of its activities is a summer youth gathering called Falls Creek Assembly.

Falls Creek Assembly has been going on almost since 1917, when the Falls Creek site was established. With valuable input from youth pastors, they've kept the Falls Creek program "youthified" with the most current techniques in reaching young people for Christ. What a testimony in this day and age to see a Christian youth conference burgeoning rather than losing steam!

Falls Creek also is a most special place related to my journey as an accompanist, and it's the story of that early journey that I will tell you. I hope and pray that somehow it rekindles in you your own reflections, as well as the fires that drive you as an accompanist.

The Influence of One Man


I began going to Falls Creek Assembly as a youth, sitting in the hot tabernacle, climbing the hill to my church's cabin several times a day, trying to outsmart the counselors at night, playing softball and doing all the other sorts of things kids do at such a place. But as a piano student I also found myself keenly fascinated by the Falls Creek pianist of that day, a marvelously-talented person named Max Lyall.

Max, now deceased, not only was an outstanding classical pianist, but also was revered for his improvisational ability. He was a master of styles, moods and uniquje harmonies at the piano, wonderfully fresh and appealing to hear. But even beyond these things, he was a most gifted accompanist.

(Max once said something that I also say about myself: that accompanying is so enjoyable that he'd rather play for a fine soloist than play a solo himself. Letting the soloist be responsible for the melody frees the accompanist to decorate that melody with the most appropriate, creative and fresh accompaniment possible. It's wonderful!)

It was Max's attitude about accompaniment---I call it *artistic* accompaniment---to which I was exposed as I listened and talked to him during those Falls Creek days. It made a great impression! As I sat there as a teenager amidst teenagers, listening to Max construct such gorgeous accompaniments, playing them with the same artistry he would have given a piano solo, hearing his tantalizing harmonic substitutions and his amazing hymn accompaniments, I knew that that was the type of pianist I wanted to be, that I wanted to do artistic accompaniment like that. I even dared to think to myself, "THAT (playing at Falls Creek) is what I'd like someday to do." Never would I have dreamed I would get that chance.

"Uncle" Gene


Gene Bartlett, also now deceased, headed up the music department for Oklahoma Baptists for about 25 years. Everyone who got to know him affectionately called him "Uncle" Gene. Falls Creek music was his responsibility as well. Gene was a man of very few words; he led by example and well-articulated expectations. He was highly respected nationally for his denominational church music program, so of course, to a young musician such as myself, he was an intimidating figure.

One late winter day, a few years after those early days at Falls Creek, I received a call. It was from Gene Bartlett's office, asking me if I would come down to the Oklahoma Baptist headquarters and meet with him. Gulp! I was but 15 years old! I had been playing for my home church for several months, and someone who heard me play brought me to his attention.

When the day for the appointment came, I met Gene in the chapel of the Baptist Building in Oklahoma City. We chatted for a few moments, then he asked me to sit down at the piano and play a hymn for him. "Play it right out of the book, as is," he said. After I finished, he said, "Now, play it again and this time show me what you can do with it."

Well, ever since I had been impressed by Max Lyall's playing I had set my sights on learning to be that kind of player. At home I had practiced creating solid, enhanced hymn accompaniments and octavo accompaniments at every opportunity. So, I knew what Gene meant and I knew what he was looking for; the only question was would I be able to show him those things! After I finished, he said little (not unusual!). We repeated this process with one or two other hymns. Then the appointment was over.

Time passed and spring began to inch its way into Oklahoma. Because I would turn 16 in September, my parents had enrolled me in a summer driver's education course. I was anxious to be ready to get my license that following September. But one afternoon I got a call from Bill Littleton, my music minister. "Richard?" he said, "Gene Bartlett just called. He said he'd like for you to play at Falls Creek this summer."

Falls Creek!! My mind raced. The dream had come true!

Except...could you possibly believe?...there was that driver's education course! I searched (begged, pleaded, etc.) for a way to bypass it, but there was none. With a broken and disbelieving heart, I had to say no! No to my dream! Sensing my sorrow my music minister wisely counseled, "Richard, if he asked you once, he'll ask you again." What could I do but hope he was right?

Well, he indeed was right. I was invited to go next summer and play for Falls Creek. And this time, nothing was going to stop me!

The summer weeks seemed to drag on, but eventually it happened that there I was! Sitting at the grand piano in the 6,000-seat open-air tabernacle at Falls Creek, about to join the roster of Falls Creek pianists! A few months shy of turning 17, it was heady, scary stuff! Gene Bartlett met me in the tabernacle and we went over the service for the evening. Leading off the service would be the theme song, a song Gene's father had written. It's a song you, the reader, probably know well, "Victory in Jesus." What a way to start! After our afternoon run-through I settled in to where I'd be staying for the week and waited for evening to come.

An Evening to Remember

That evening the throng of young people ambled into the tabernacle, like so many thousands before them had done, like I once had done all of, what, four years ago? My adrenaline rose with every group of ten people it seemed. When the time finally came to start the service, Gene Bartlett, already a legend in Baptist music, stepped to the podium to lead the theme song. At last I would be playing for a Falls Creek service!

Well, boy did I ever! Remember that pumping adrenaline? I was pouring everything I had into "Victory in Jesus." Man, It was a cliche roundup: I was "going to town." with it, I was "playing that thing up one side and down the other" It was "Katie bar the door"time...

Problem was, I also was playing it too fast!

Little by little I realized something was not in sync. I looked up and, to my horror, saw this imposing figure looking straight at me. He had turned his body away from the audience and was facing me, one v-e-r-y l-o-n-g arm and finger pointing squarely at me and the other arm rigorously beating a very definite four-pattern. Just for me!

For you see, in my attempt to prove that I could do what needed to be done at Falls Creek, (to prove myself, in other words) I had gotten so involved in the task that I had gotten lost in my labor and had rushed the beat.

Needless to say, I was mortified.

Thankfully, nothing else bad happened in the service, but even so my thoughts were consumed with the big mistake. Would I ever be invited back, I wondered? Would I even be allowed to finish the week?

The next morning I met Gene at the steps to the choir loft prior to choir rehearsal. Grim and just a little scared, I simply said, "I'm sorry about last night." Gene just looked at me and displayed a slight smile, then said, "That's allright....but don't let it happen again!" I almost wanted to salute him in my haste to assure him that it wouldn't. And it didn't.

Thus began not only my first week as a Falls Creek pianist, but, truly, a lifetime dedicated to being the best artistic accompanist I could be. Since that momentous week, I have been privileged to play for a great variety of events, both big and small, local and national. I have played for many wonderful soloists. I am also an organist, and at many events it has been that instrument at which I've been seated, even being the Falls Creek organist many times! But through it all I have never forgotten where it all started for me, and the influence that one accompanist was upon my life, even when he didn't know he was!

As for Falls Creek, it has never lost that mystical aura it has for me, and even though I've played there a great many times since that first summer, it never ceases to be very special to walk onto the stage and sit down at an instrument and play there, and to remember...with thanks.


Epilogue

Several years ago, Max and I happened to be asked to play the same week at Falls Creek. On that occasion I was playing the organ and he the piano. One day after lunch I said "Max, have you got a few minutes? I'd like to take you someplace special," I told him.

He followed me as I led him around to the back of that cavernous Falls Creek tabernacle (since replaced with a *6000 seat* modern worship center). Calling upon the vivid memory I have from so many years ago, I walked over to the section of seats close to where I'd been sitting that evening when I heard him play. Standing there with Max, I told him the story I've just told you. Perhaps you can imagine my emotions as I stood with him. I told him that I just had to bring him to the place where it all started for me, to stand there with him and thank him for the influence he was upon my life and upon what I became as an accompanist. He received my comments graciously, as was his way, and then, after a few moments of reflection, we went on with our day.

A part of me, though, stayed in the tabernacle.

A part of me always has.