There’s a moment in the classic Marx Brothers movie “Animal Crackers” when Chico is performing one of his signature piano numbers and gets caught in a loop, playing the same few stanzas over and over. This goes on for two or three minutes, and finally Chico admits he is stuck. “I can’t think of the finish,” he says.
His brother Groucho deadpans, “Funny, I can’t think of anything else.”
I can’t imagine Lis Jones ever forgetting the finish. She was a consummate professional and a beloved piano teacher at Harding. For years she was a fixture at graduations and recitals, cheerfully providing the music as students performed.
The piano accompanist has a delicate role. She must play with the same amount of skill and poise as a featured performer, but her goal is not to be noticed — it is to let the star shine. A good accompanist should put the performer at ease, do nothing to distract and even cover up mistakes. She is the musical equivalent of an English butler. A very melodious English butler.
You aren’t really supposed to watch the accompanist during a recital, but I must confess that at graduations, I enjoyed watching Lis. As her students belted out “Climb Every Mountain” or “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” I would see Lis beaming at every note. She loved watching them succeed, and that sweet trademark smile would be on display from start to finish.
She was a gentle, nurturing soul. Of course, piano teachers have to be patient, sometimes endlessly so. I’m an English teacher, and when students misuse semicolons, my spirit wilts a little. But at least I don’t hear it happen out loud. Piano teachers must keep their cool as students mangle notes and chords on their way to proficiency. Students adored Lis, who treated them with grace and patience. When she passed away Sept. 16, one of her former students said that she was a piano teacher, accompanist, coach, cheerleader and mom all rolled into one.
That’s not to say that she didn’t vent frustrations from time to time. One colleague recalled that since she was asked to accompany so many recitals, she insisted on receiving the song lists well in advance. “If not,” she would threaten, “my cat will play the piano for you.” Students who failed to show up for rehearsals would provoke a much-dreaded frown of disapproval. The only remedy, so I hear, was a gift of chocolate.
Under a surface of gentle calm, there was mischief. Once she and another colleague were discussing the challenges of dealing with frustrating people in general. “Here’s what you do,” Lis whispered, “Take a piece of masking tape, and write the person’s name on it. Then stick it to the bottom of your shoe.” She may have been teasing, but ever since I heard that, the name of a certain telemarketer has been pounding the pavement under my Rockports.
I was once on the same bill with Lis. We were invited to entertain the spouses of the Board of Trustees at a tea party hosted by Harding’s first lady. Lis was there to accompany Laura Eads as she sang. Since the goal was to entertain people, I was not asked to sing. Instead, I gave a reading. But I’ll never forget Lis, smiling broadly in one of those huge, summer hats the ladies were asked to wear. She would have looked right at home at Downton Abbey.
We chatted over strawberries and scones. I learned that Lis grew up in Minnesota in a family of Scandinavian heritage. After graduating from Harding, she lived in Scotland for a while as a missionary. She went on to teach music at Harding for 30 years, while also founding and directing the Searcy Community School of Music. She discovered further outlets for her soft-spoken patience as a beloved first-grade Sunday school teacher.
She loved gardening. When one of her friends mentioned that she liked the color of moss, the next day Lis brought her an old brick from her garden. It was covered in lime green moss. Lis named the brick “Clay,” and every so often, she would ask how Clay was doing. That was classic Lis — whimsical and kind in equal doses.
She applied that same whimsy to raising three daughters — for the most part as a single mom. Once she asked one of the girls to pick a vegetable for dinner. The daughter said, “Cheesecake.”
“That’s not a vegetable,” Lis corrected, so she chose again. And Lis prepared the requested green beans, but that did not stop her from also serving cheesecake.
Another friend recalled Lis’ gifts as a seamstress: “She mended wedding dresses while brides were wearing them on their wedding day. She taught children at church to knit so they could help make blankets for homeless people. When my daughter Emily was in a serious car accident in high school and had to stay in bed for weeks, Lis bought her several pairs of shorts, cut them up the sides and sewed velcro onto them so that Em could have some ‘real clothes’ on without having to pull things up over the casts that were on her legs and feet.”
Her friends tell me that Lis was at peace during her three-month battle with cancer. She chose the music for her own memorial service. When a friend complained that her illness was unfair, Lis answered, “We get what we get, and we don’t pitch a fit.” Another close friend described the next-to-the-last day:
“I sat by her bedside, and we spoke of how much we treasured our friendship. I asked her, ‘Can I read to you about heaven?’ Lis smiled with her crinkled-up nose and said, ‘That would be wonderful.’ As I read to Lis, she would drift in and out with a look of peace and joy, then she would wake and say, ‘That is so beautiful; read some more.’”
Groucho said he couldn’t stop thinking about the finish. I can’t either. Lis finished this life as graciously as she lived it, with a gentle calm, an expectant hope and a song in her heart. She was 60 years old.