Archives for December 2012

Tanya Baum, The Acoustic Miracle, and the Ghost of Christmas Past

Robin Meloy Goldsby remembers a Pittsburgh shopping mall, a tree named Tanya, and a pianist with a booming voice and a fondness for Maker’s Mark.

When I was a teenager, I won the role of the South Hills Village talking Christmas tree. Not knowing that I would some day end up living in Deutschland, I called myself Tanya Baum and spoke with a Hogan’s Heroes German accent. The kids were a little scared of me, but I cracked myself up, which, I’ve since discovered, is the main point to just about any job. I also made twenty-five bucks for crawling inside the tree suit and yelling seasonal stuff at kids for a couple of hours. My Tanya was a little nasty. She had a slight prison matron edge to her, softened by her coat of fake blue spruce and tinsel. I could turn her lights on and off with hand controls. And I could see out of the suit by looking through the angel on the top of Tanya’s head. Tanya was the shiznit.

I got the gig because my dad was the bandleader of a  jazz-comedy group called The Steel City Stompers, a trio popular in Pittsburgh. For years, he ran the “Wake-up Santa Breakfast” at South Hills Village—a shopping mall that featured frozen cokes, soft pretzels, and Florsheim shoes. “Wake-up Santa” became popular after several failed attempts at having Santa parachute into the mall parking lot, an annual disaster that once culminated in Santa crash-landing in a tree next to a gas station two miles down the road, where he was rescued by a crane and transported to the hospital by ambulance. Santa wasn’t very good at judging wind currents. Or maybe it was Rudolph’s fault—when all else fails, blame the damn reindeer. The shopping mall officials decided it would be safer to place Santa in a comfy bed onstage inside the mall, with Dad’s band, Tanya Baum, and hundreds of screaming children yelling for him to wake up.

Poor Santa. I mean, let’s face it, you have to be pretty desperate to take a Santa gig, especially one where you’re in bed for hours. We tortured that unfortunate fellow. A few years into the gig he started drinking long before the event even started. As a matter of fact, so did Bookie, the pianist in my dad’s band. Bookie, who has since joined that elite group of juiced-up stride piano players in the sky, had one of those really LOUD voices. We used to call him the Acoustic Miracle, because his voice could penetrate any crowd without amplification. With a deep and slightly guttural timbre, he growled his way through songs, announcements, and the occasional prayer. Dad had to turn Bookie’s microphone volume down to minus 2 when Bookie was drinking, because you could never be sure what he might bray across the room. Even Bookie’s whisper had legs.

At one of our annual “Wake–up Santa” events, after we had jumped on Santa’s bed, played a trumpet in his ear, slapped him in the face with a wet wash rag (a child’s suggestion), smacked him in the stomach with a pillow (another child’s suggestion—the kids never ever suggested anything gentle), and tickled his feet with reindeer antlers, Bookie raised his hand—and his voice—and said he had an idea.

“Yes, Grandpa Bookie?” asked Dad. “What’s your idea?”

Bookie, it seemed, had been hitting the holiday sauce with Santa at the local whiskey joint down the road.

“Santa,” announced Bookie, in a tone that could only be described as stentorian. “If you don’t wake up, we’re gonna kill all the kids.” (Keep in mind, dear reader, this was 1972. It was a different time. Or was it?)

Dad, sharp-witted but slightly hard of hearing from all those years of playing the drums, put down his microphone, looked right into my angel-head eyes and said: “Did he just say what I think he said?”

“Ja!” I said, as Tanya Baum. I prided myself on staying in character. We were horrified. Aghast. But most of the parents and kids in the audience were laughing. Sort of a nervous laugh.

“Jesus Christ,” said Dad. “Okay kids, never mind Grandpa Bookie—now it’s time for ‘Deck the Halls.’ Bookie, get back to the piano! NOW! Stick out your tongue out on the fa-la-la part. And look, kids! Grandpa Bookie is gonna wear the elf hat. Maybe that will wake up Santa.”

That was the last year we played for the “Wake-up Santa Breakfast.” I like to think that Santa, forty years later, is still there—sleeping off an early morning bourbon buzz, oblivious to the innocent, but violent threats of little kids, and the earsplitting rants of bored and tipsy piano players. The jesting and jabs and slapstick violence seemed slightly amusing back then, in the naive days of “The Three Stooges” and “Tom and Jerry.” These days it wouldn’t be so funny. Especially if Santa, the pianist, or an outraged parent (or child for that matter) were packing heat.

I’m sure the live music is gone. Maybe the mall went back to the parachute theme, just to keep things edgy. Or maybe Santa sits in a throne now and kids come to sit on his lap while nymphs (or are they elves?) in red velveteen mini-skirts and thigh-high white boots dance to Mariah Carey Christmas songs blaring from speakers covered in plastic holly. Or maybe they shoot Santa out of cannon—I’ve read about places doing that. That’s one way to wake up Santa, even if he’s drunk.

Schlosshotel Lerbach in Early Spring

www.schlosshotel-lerbach.com

Photos by Julia Goldsby

Music: Pachelbel Canon in D: Variations on a Theme
From the recording SONGS FROM THE CASTLE
Arranged and performed by Robin Meloy Goldsby

Waltz of the Asparagus People – Book Trailer

The Piano Girl journey continues. Waltz of the Asparagus People follows Robin Meloy Goldsby and her family to Europe, recounting their adventures and frustrations as they learn a new language, adapt to a new culture, and find new friends.

Waltz of the Asparagus People has also been translated into German. It is called Walzer der Spargelmenschen and is available from Amazon.de.

Goldsby’s newest CD (same title) presents solo piano pieces that correspond with the stories in the book. It’s available from Amazon and iTunes.

This video features Goldsby’s performance of the title track, Waltz of the Asparagus People.

Touch The Rain

“Touch The Rain,” performed by Jessica Gall, lyrics by Robin Meloy Goldsby, video by Julia Goldsby

Still Married to the Bass

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December 9th marked the occasion of my seventh “Concert in Candlelight” at Schlosshotel Lerbach. John survived the shoveling, I survived the drive (over the icy river and through the snowy woods), and we only had a handful of bad weather cancellations. What fun we had. There was such a nice vibe in the audience—I knew (personally) about half the people there, and the complete strangers who happened to show up were welcomed warmly by those more familiar with what I do. After the concert people were seated at tables of ten and—oh boy—did they ever whoop it up during dinner—not something I expect at a candlelight dinner, but there was such a festive mood to the evening. I think we were all just happy to be alive after risking life and car just to get there.

John (the husband) and I have sort of a rule about not working together—we figure our marriage is more important than a couple of gigs, but we broke with tradition for this one concert and he played a few pieces with me, most notably a musical version of “Married to the Bass” a story from Piano Girl. I recited the story while he stood behind me and played. You can just imagine. I am posting the story below, in case you’re not familiar with this piece. Bass Player Magazine published it a few years ago and I started getting emails from bassists who were carrying it around with them so they could show it to babes they wanted to impress. There you go.

One funny thing happened at the concert. We did the program, took a bunch of bows, and then the audience wanted an encore. I sat down to play, and a cute guy in the front row, who was wearing an AMERICAN FLAG tie, shouted out “ROMEO AND JULIET.” So there you go, once a cocktail pianist, always a cocktail pianist. I should have told him to write the request on the back of a twenty.

Anyway, that’s it for me and the high pressure gigs for this year. I have quite a few cocktail piano gigs coming up between now and January 1st, but those jobs will be easy and fun.

Here’s the Married to the Bass story. Happy reading.

Married to the Bass
Excerpt from Piano Girl: A Memoir
Courtesy of Backbeat Books
©2006 Robin Meloy Goldsby

Okay, Ladies, listen up. Bass players make great husbands. There is no scientific data to support my claim. But having worked my way through the rhythm section, the technicians, and a handful of brass, reed, and string players, I’m a qualified judge.

First, consider this. A man who plays an upright bass is strong. He lugs the instrument around, carries it up steps, slides it in and out of cars, and maneuvers it through large crowds of people. If you marry a bass player you’ll be getting a physically fit husband. Okay, there is the occasional back problem. This crops up two or three times a year—usually when you want him to move your grandmother’s walnut armoire or need him to stand on a ladder and drill a hole in the ceiling. But you can cope with such minor inconveniences by calling a muscular clarinet player who is handy with a power drill. Good luck finding one. Here’s the thing: When your bass player is pain-free, he’s as strong as a bull. He has to be in order to make the gig. And he might even throw you over his shoulder and carry you over the threshold every so often, just because he can.

Next, ponder the shape of the upright bass. It’s shaped like a woman. A bass player knows about bumps and curves—he even likes them. He has dedicated his life to coaxing beautiful music out of voluptuous contours. He’ll do the same for you. Just don’t marry a stick-bass player, unless you look like Kate Moss or intend to spend the rest of your life eating lettuce.

Examine the bass player’s hands, especially when he’s playing a particularly fast passage. Now imagine what those fingers can do to you. Enough said.

A great bassist is an ensemble player, a team member who executes, with confidence, a vital role in any band with the strength of his groove, the steadiness of his rhythm, and the imaginative logic of his harmonic lines. This doesn’t just apply to the bassist’s music. It also applies to his outlook on life. A bass-player husband will be loyal, true, and interesting, and will help you emerge from life’s challenges looking and sounding better than you ever imagined. If you’re in a bad mood, don’t worry. He’ll change keys. On the other hand, if you marry a pianist, he’ll try and arrange everything and then tell you what your disposition should be. If you marry a guitarist, he’ll try to get ahead of you by analyzing your temperament in double-time. If you marry a drummer, it won’t matter what kind of mood you’re in because he’ll just forge ahead with his own thing. A bass player follows along, supports you, and makes you think that everything is okay, even when the world is crashing down around you.

There are some minor drawbacks. You need to have a house with empty corners, especially if your husband owns more than one upright bass. I know, you have that newly reupholstered Louis XV chair that would look fabulous in the corner by the window. Forget it—that’s where the bass has to go. You can come to terms with these trivial decorating disappointments by reflecting on the sculpture-like quality of the instrument. Even when it’s silent, it’s a work of art.

If you have children—and you will because bass players make great fathers—your most frequently uttered phrase will be “WATCH THE BASS!” You will learn how to interject this phrase into every conversation you have with your children. For instance: “Hello, sweetie, watch the bass, did you have a nice day at kindergarten? We’re having rice and broccoli for lunch, watch the bass, do you want milk or water to drink?”

You will be doomed to a life of station wagons, minivans, and SUVs. You might harbor a secret fantasy of zooming around town in a Mazda MX5 convertible, but this will never happen unless you go through a big messy divorce, give your bass-player husband custody of the children, and marry a violinist, which would be no fun at all. Better to accept the hatchback as an integral part of your existence and get on with it.

Any trip you make with your family and the bass will be a pageant that requires detailed organization and nerves of steel. In addition to your two children (one of whom probably wants to be a drummer—heaven help you), you will commence your journey with suitcases, bass, bass trunk, backpacks, amp, car seats, strollers, and diaper bag. Your husband, weighted down with an enormous backpack and a bass trunk the size of a Sub-Zero refrigerator, will leave you to deal with everything else. As you try to walk inconspicuously through the airport terminal, people will point and stare.

First Spectator: “They look the Slovenian Traveling Circus!”

Second Spectator: “Hey buddy, you should have played the flute!”

Things like that.

You will learn how to say ha, ha, ha, stick your nose in the air, and pretend that you are traveling with a big star, which of course he is, to you.

Your bass-player husband will know the hip chord changes to just about every song ever written in the history of music. This is a good thing. Just don’t ask him to sing the melody. He might be able to play the melody, but he won’t sing it—he’ll sing the bass line. And, if you happen to play the piano, as I do, don’t expect him to just sit there silently and appreciate what you are playing without making a few suggestions for better changes and voicings. He’ll never give up on trying to improve your playing. But that’s why you married him in the first place. He accepts what you do, but he pushes you to do it better.

If you marry the bass player, you marry the bass. Buy one, get one free. Your husband will be passionate about his music, which will grant you the freedom to be passionate about the things you do. You might not worship the bass as much as he does, but you’ll love the bass player more every day.

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Let’s Talk Weddings . . .

I’ve been threatening to do a wedding video for years, and now, here it is!

I spend a lot of time playing the piano for brides and grooms. It’s a happy way to make a living. Most of the time I play for events at Schlosshotel Lerbach, but if you’re living somewhere other than Germany and you’re looking for pretty solo piano music for your Big Day, then send an email to me and we’ll talk.

Many thanks to the photographers who contributed photos to this video.
Here’s a little wedding excerpt from my book, Piano Girl:

I love weddings. I love going to them, I love being in them, I love playing for them. I adore the Gone with the Wind white dresses, the pomp and circumstance, the father giving away the bride, the drunken weepy speeches, the little girls in their patent-leather shoes, and the little boys throwing rice. There’s something about a wedding that gives me faith in humanity. The very idea that the love between two people can make the world a better place for each of them is, to me, a reason to celebrate.

At Schlosshotel Lerbach, it’s not unusual for the bride and groom to arrive in a gilded carriage pulled by white horses. I play for big weddings and small weddings, for ceremonies and receptions, for wedding lunches, wedding dinners, and wedding cocktail hours. I play in the rose garden in the blazing sun of July or in the golden entrance hall with tremendous gusts of winter wind sweeping through the iron gates of the castle as the ermine-clad bride makes her first appearance. I play on the balcony, in the bar, and out on the old stone terrace surrounded by huge pots of fragrant herbs. Whenever the client has requested quiet background music, I’m the girl who gets the call. I’ve made a niche for myself playing music that doesn’t interfere. Less is more. It’s hard to find musicians who understand this, and even harder to find good musicians who are willing to put up with being ignored. But I love it. An elegant man once came to the piano while I was playing, took my business card, and said, “Your music is so perfect. I can hardly hear it.” He called me a week later and booked me to play for his wedding.

Playing the piano for four or five hours straight is hard work. There’s a meditative state that I sink into when I’m doing one of these marathon jobs. I call it the Piano Zone, and when I’m there I’m happy. I play for myself, I compose on the job, I improvise, I let my fantasies take me far away. I’ve always figured that my job is to tame the chaos beast, so that the people around me can feel as peaceful as I do. Married life is chaotic enough. You might as well get off to a nice quiet start.