This article first appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of GIA Quarterly magazine.
SHE COULDN’T HAVE BEEN MORE THAN FIVE FEET TALL. Shorter, I’m sure, since I can remember that the top of her head was barely visible from the other side of the organ. That poof of red hair was a near- permanent fixture inside the church building for as long as I can remember. Her name was Roberta, but everyone knew her as “Bobbie,” and the bright buoyancy of her name matched her ardent passion for liturgical music.
She had her own children, but I never met them. They were grown by the time my family came around, so it was easy to feel adopted by her—first my parents, and then me. The space she made for me in her life was always abundant, always exciting. It seemed that wherever she was, there were opportunities, there was escape, and—perhaps most intriguing to one particular aspiring pianist—there was music.
I don’t remember being introduced to singing, since it was always a given in our small, rural parish community. She made sure of that. So it was easy to take for granted that my experience of church and my experience of music were inseparable. To me, our God was a God who sang, and we as God’s people sang back. She gave that to me, long before I knew I was accepting the gift.
I do remember saying “yes” to those first opportunities to do more. It was that dignified sense of dialoging with God in song that made me straighten up and pay attention to her invitation to sing in a small schola at my First Communion. When I was eight, she bestowed on me the distinct privilege of playing the wind chimes at the end of each verse of Fran O’Brien’s “The Lord of Glory” (G-3778). I can still feel those butterflies of nerves and excitement of getting to be a part of it all.
It wasn’t until middle school when I had my first piano lesson—years after most of my peers had theirs. But I was determined to catch up. I can still remember when she handed me the Mass of Creation and I thought there was simply no way I would ever be that advanced. I would pull it out every so often and plunk out the familiar melodies for a few minutes before I’d stash it away again, frustrated at my slow sight-reading pace. It was years before I’d be brave enough to accompany a singing church as they sung the Eucharistic Acclamations. She waited.
In the meantime, she gave me a space to learn. Whenever I wanted, I was welcomed to her home to practice on her beautiful baby grand. She was the only person I knew who had one. Even our church only made room for a little upright. But Bobbie made lots of space for beauty and music-making.
What’s in a mentor
Bobbie is the one who made sure I had funding to go to Music Ministry Alive!, a summer music camp to for young pastoral musicians. She made sure that I was supported and connected when the Coro Hispano became my first regular responsibility as an accompanist. She always made room for me to be a part of both the English and the Spanish masses, and she helped me take pride in being a bridge between the two communities who found a home in our church building. She was the first one by my side when my passion for music-making led me to begin a community choir at 15. She never made me feel afraid to make a mistake. She celebrated my successes. She was present. She believed in me.
It might be true that mentorship looks different for each mentor and mentee. But I think there are a few things that incredible mentors like Bobbie have done for me that work across the board:
- Mentees choose their mentors, not the other way around. Nothing is more off-putting than being approached by a well-meaning music director who leads with “I’m going to mentor you.” Mentees are listening to an inner call that only they can hear, only they can judge. That sacred inner dialog with God will lead them toward people when they are ready. Be ready when that person is you, and be careful not to let your ego drive you to decide who needs your help.
- Lean in, but don’t lean over. Be near enough to their work that they need not feel alone, but take care not to overburden them with scrutiny. Part of learning is making mistakes. And part of being vulnerable enough to make those mistakes is knowing that people won’t abandon you when you do.
- Play the long game. Remain faithful even if it means it will be years before she plays theMass of Creation. She’ll get there. And she’ll remember that you waited.
- Make space. It’s hard for new voices, younger voices, and voices from outside the dominant culture to feel like they can be loud enough to be heard. It’s easy to see that all the jobs are full, all the ministry spots are taken, other people have things taken care of. So make the spaces obvious. It might mean moving over.
- Stay present. Be careful that in your efforts to make space, you don’t remove yourself from the equation. Find a way to stay present even if your moving out of the way is providing an example of what it means to be community. When your prime has passed, you’re still teaching others what it means to love the end of things, to love each season of life as holy and beloved.
It’s always more than music
It was just this past April when the choirs of angels welcomed her into paradise. Two things were a constant with Bobbie: that she would never miss a chance to make music, and that she’d always be giving cancer a run for its money. Even more evidence of her commitment to me came to light after her passing. I never knew she was writing checks to my family so we had what we needed. I never knew she was a counselor to my mom. As much as her love of music was teaching me how to live, her humble example of servant, teacher, and a life well lived was teaching me about how to die. For weeks after her death, and still sometimes on my drive to work, I see a pair of hawks just in front of my car, leading the way. And in a strangely intimate way that I know words alone will never express, they make me think of her. They’re forging ahead, making a path. They’re becoming a fixture of my morning call to prayer, like a poof of red hair over the top of an organ console.
Kate Williams is the senior managing editor at GIA Publications, Inc. She serves as workshop leader, consultant, and music minister in the Archdiocese of Chicago, following a passion to serve in multicultural, multigenerational communities.