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!"
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
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
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.
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
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
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
Needless to say, I was
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
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.