Student pianist builds finesse and sense of community through job at local Catholic church

March 31, 2022 — by Kavita Sundaram
Senior Sherry Lin’s work as a piano accompanist has helped her grow as a performer

The hum of chatter in St. Nicholas Lonehill Church in Los Altos halted on a recent Sunday as senior Sherry Lin began playing “Glory to God” by Owen Alstott. The people sang along, filling the room with dulce harmonies. When Lin concluded the piece, the crowd erupted into cheerful applause. 

Lin has played for the church every Sunday since her sophomore year as a piano accompanist. During the pandemic, she continued playing through a livestream; what began as a volunteering opportunity suggested by Lin’s piano teacher evolved into a paid job and a lasting passion. 

In addition to her usual five-piece repertoire, Lin receives six new pieces every Monday to sight read and master by the end of the week. Each mass lasts for an hour and includes 11 songs. Because of her 6-year background playing classical music, she said learning the new pieces has been manageable, but is a notably different experience from learning classical pieces.   

“Stepping out of my comfort zone to improvise was a big change,” said Lin. “I learned to stop looking at the music sheet, and build my own chord progressions to play what works best for the singer without overpowering them.” 

Aside from improving her piano skills, Lin said she values being able to foster friendships through her job. 

“I talk to [the cantors] about everything, like college apps and their kids’ experiences, and it’s nice having older friends who can guide me,” Lin said. 

The cantors, many of whom are professional opera singers and high school choir teachers, have attended some of Lin’s choir concerts, and she has attended their opera live streams. 

Lin’s boss at the church, who plays four instruments and sings, “took her under his wing” to guide her through the process of playing for church masses. Despite not being Catholic herself, Lin still feels a sense of community with the people at the church. Many people come to mass early to hear Lin play and applaud her performance.

“I have never been religious, and I’m not baptized, but I’m like a part of the Catholic community because of the connection I feel with them, and I’m listening to the sermons and spreading the sacred music,” Lin said. 

The past three years as a piano accompanist have given Lin a variety of opportunities to learn new music and collaborate with other musicians. 

“I’ve created strong interpersonal relationships with everyone in the community,” said Lin. “They’ve all been a part of my life and taught me a lot, not just music-wise.”

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