Jason Byassee: The difficulty and glory of collaboration

An unusual musical partnership shows Christian institutional leaders how and why to work together.

Simone Dinnerstein, a celebrated American classical pianist, apologized to the audience for not bowing when the show opened, contrary to classical convention. Her collaborator for the evening, Tift Merritt, the folksy singer-songwriter, explained that she had suggested they not do so: “We haven’t done anything yet!”

The two were performing together at Duke as a sort of experiment. Can a classical musician most renowned for her performances of Bach and a crooner whose voice makes hearts ache in smoky bars and honky-tonks from Texas to North Carolina make each other better? Or would they simply row in different directions?

I attended the concert thinking of collaboration among Christian institutional leaders and came away with several observations:

1) The two musicians met when Merritt interviewed Dinnerstein for “The Spark with Tift Merritt,” a radio show she hosts for a public radio station in Marfa, Texas, a tiny south Texas hamlet with a penchant for down-home music. The two women hit it off, became friends, and started to wonder what it would be like to play together.

What would it be like for Christian institutional leaders to go out of their way to seek creative partnerships with people similar enough to pursue shared ends but different enough to make one another better?

2) Collaboration can be difficult, even awkward. At times these two joked about it: Tift tried to launch into a song directly after a Dinnerstein solo, and had to stop. “My guitar’s out of tune,” she explained. “So much for the smooth transition we planned.” In some ways, playing together made less of each musician. Tift is used to playing with a whole band. Yet here she provided her own percussion in the form of stomping her high-heeled boots.

The best way to deal with such difference is with as much grace as we can muster. Tift made a joke at one point at Coach K’s expense (she’s a Carolina grad, poor thing). Then she looked over at Simone and apologized: her counterpart had no idea what she was talking about. They recalled rehearsing together when Dinnerstein asked Merritt whether she was employing a certain vocal technique. She named it with an Italian word known to classical singers. Merritt responded, after an awkward pause, “sure”-- making clear she had no idea what Dinnerstein was talking about.

Real difference means, well, real difference. And the best way to negotiate is probably self-deprecating humor.

3) Collaboration culminates in making one another better. As Tift played a handful of solos, she explained that, “Simone sweetly convinced me to play my newer stuff tonight.” After one opera piece on which Dinnerstein played and Merritt sang, Simone explained, “I always imagined a voice like Tift’s singing that part.” Safe to say most don’t imagine opera in a voice that sounds like it’s from down the holler. After another duet Tift thanked Simone for letting her not sing in German. I imagine if one partner doesn’t have to say “uncle” at least a few times, the other isn’t pushing hard enough.

This seems to be the greatest benefit of collaboration: pushing each party to be their best, and better than they thought they could be before they got together.

4) One of the highlights for me was watching each musician take turns as a member of the audience. When Tift first walked out on the stage, she waved and sat down and watched Simone open the show. As Tift played her music, Simone looked on with admiration. Each took turns showing us how to listen -- with attention, appreciation, and even love.

Working together requires us to appreciate one another and model for others how to listen deeply.

5) The payoff for collaboration is harmony and delight. At one point, Simone was playing an elegant piece, when Tift bent down and came up playing . . . a harmonica. Not a normal accompaniment to classical piano, yet it worked. Their concluding song was the cover band mainstay, “I Can See Clearly Now.” Tift crooned and tapped her guitar while Simone played . . . Beethoven. Neither could perform this way without the other.

Individually these two are great in their own worlds. Yet together they could do things that neither could do alone.

In such collaboration we can see the wisdom of ancient Christian accounts of music. To make music is not to invent anything. It’s to discover something that’s already there, to which we only rarely have access. A musician gives access to something, a holy of holies to which we rarely get admittance -- the harmony of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in world-creating mutual embrace.

Little wonder that echoes of such harmony come more often by way of collaboration than by way of individual performance.