Archives for May 2015

Curves

7.Shape_Moon

Crescent shapes please me: a sliver of moon, a warm croissant, a freshly manicured fingertip. I enjoy a raised eyebrow, a half smile, a bunch of bananas, the soft spot on the top of my foot where the shoe stops and my skin begins—toe cleavage, I think the fashionistas call it.

A good circle brings me joy: a perfect white plate that holds my not-so-perfect dinner; the silver-blue irises of my daughter’s eyes; a symmetrical pancake I’ve cooked myself; a bagel, unadorned. I love my wedding ring—three circles of gold braided together—one for you, one for me, one for us; I cheer for the circle of life, the family circle, the vicious circle (as long as the tail being chased isn’t mine). I marvel at the musician’s circle of fifths, run circles around myself, come full circle, and circle my wagons when I feel threatened. I circle back to start over and circle forward to find my way back. Loops define my life.

2.Shape_Trees

I should mention here that I like to eat pie, my favorite toy as a child was a Spirograph, and that I’ve been known to bribe travelers to bring Pittsburgh’s Eat n’ Park smiley face cookies to me on trips to Europe.

Spheres also deserve attention: beach balls and crystal balls, globes—the old fashioned kind that spin, blueberries, clear glass marbles, iridescent bubbles, an Italian peach, a home-grown tomato in August, emerald-green beads, a hand-painted Christmas bauble splattered with glitter. Snowmen. Pearls. A falling star.

Crescent, round, spherical. Curves dictate my triumphs and failures. Nothing against the straight line—the zipper is truly an efficient invention—but give me a meandering stream, a velvet bow, a cliché rainbow, and I’m hooked. A smudged or muted plot line that takes a subtle twist is one I’ll follow with joy. I want a slope (not the slippery kind), a long and winding road (less-travelled or not), a twisting path leading to an arched tunnel, a feathery cloud muting the harsh noon light. Give me the curl of a breaking wave, the soft curve of my son’s broad shoulders when he returns home, the drape of a girl’s hair when it sweeps across her forehead, a baby’s clenched fist, the bowed tail of an orange tabby cat, the bent bough of the cherry tree hanging over my skylight.

Shapes show up in sound, too. A guitar, an acoustic bass, a grand piano, a cello—curved instruments that make round sounds when played with grace. I listen to Ravel or Debussy and I hear life coiling around itself. I fall into the spiral harmonic underpinnings of Maria Schneider’s music and travel through an aural serpentine, an oval labyrinth of enchantment. The music I love most makes me feel like I’m inside a Slinky on a steep and narrow staircase, somersaulting over myself, getting where I need to go, but taking a scenic route that includes flips, back-bends, and an occasional coin-shaped bruise.

A career can take on a rounded shape. As a young artist I tried to travel efficiently from Point A to Point B. I craved logic in my life, but life kept throwing me, yes, curveballs. Confused, I curled into myself and rolled away from the pitch. I ran a good race, but usually, when approaching the finish line, I tripped over my Jimmy Choos and ended up with scraped knees and a brush-burned heart. I ignored my beautiful toe cleavage and, in my haste,  snubbed more than a few perfectly round, splash-worthy puddles. It took a decade or so, but I realized the logical way to live—the straight-line way—would forever elude me. I discovered I could have a fulfilling career as long as I took my time, bypassed  clogged intersections, and took a roundabout, more scenic route—one including suspension bridges, tree swings, and Ferris wheels.

Sometimes the Ferris wheel gets stuck, but at least while I’m waiting for the repair gal to show up, I can lean back and take in the view.

5.Shape. Ferris_Wheel

I’m a slow traveler, but moving in ever-widening circles gives me time to heed the curvy things I missed the first time around: braided wreaths made of naked vines, for instance, or slightly scary shadows on windy days. I cherish a landscaped line of tulips snaking towards a lake, the nape of a girl’s neck, the swell of a woman’s breast where it meets her rib cage, an eight-year old’s handmade Valentine, the scalloped lace on my grandmother’s piano shawl.

My body plays along with the shape of things. Less angular than I used to be, curvy and yielding, I listen to music that bends in the middle, observe the soft colors of an early summer twilight, taste grains of salt in the silvery-blue ocean air. The world is round and so am I. In the plush shelter of a domed canopy I’ve built for myself, I rest. Visions of my rangy youth run circles around me.

***

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is also the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

Coming soon: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians.

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The View from Here

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It’s a Saturday night in June. I pull into the Schlosshotel Lerbach parking lot, ready to play my regular weekend piano job. Because of the World Cup football frenzy, I expect to find a half-empty castle. But since it’s the height of wedding season and there’s no stopping a determined summer bride, the hotel is buzzing with well-heeled guests all trying to have a good time, even if many of them would rather be home watching tonight’s match.

I’m not much of a sports fan, but—never one to miss an opportunity to look at grown men in Brazilian Boy Scout uniforms—I’ve been digging the various team outfits. The players look adorable in their multicolored tricots and matching knee socks, and the German coaches, in their lavender silk knit sweaters and perfectly tailored navy blazers, look as if they might be getting ready to play a jazz duo gig at a chichi supper club owned by Calvin Klein. Who’s their stylist? Sign me up.

I’ll be playing in the main hall tonight. With five minutes to go until my start time, I throw my purse into the back room, change my shoes, adjust the height of the piano bench, grab a glass of water, and head out to the rose garden to see what’s going on.

The bride has hired a solo saxophonist to play for her two-hour predinner cocktail party on the terrace. As much as I like the saxophone, I’m not sure that 120 minutes of solo sax is such a great idea. But I admire the bride’s resolve to present something a little different. I know the saxophonist, a spunky jazz musician named Thorsten, who’s blowing like crazy even though it’s boiling hot outside. Thorsten spots me in the doorway and salutes while continuing to play the sax with one hand. Cool guy. It’s a wedding gig, so no one is listening to him. Well, really, only about fifty percent of the guests are not listening to him. The other fifty percent have sneaked into the bar to watch the soccer game. Ghana is playing Uruguay tonight. This is a match that makes me wish all countries would adopt the American custom of marching bands at halftime. Imagine a Ghanaian marching band or a drill team from Uruguay. Swinging.

In the banquet room a DJ is setting up to play after-dinner dance music—probably a mix of Gloria Gaynor, Village People, and Donna Summer. I’ll be long gone by then, but my coworkers, the hardest-working bunch of young adults in Nordrhein-Westfalen, will be pouring and serving champagne until daybreak.

Time to start playing. I sit down at the grand piano in the lobby and begin my set with Mancini’s “Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet.” I try to block out the saxophone sound leaking from the garden. Not bad. I’ll be fine if I play loudly and don’t take too many dramatic pauses.

Boom!

Oh no. The DJ in the dining room is conducting a last-minute sound check, and Celine Dion’s voice blasts through the lobby and bounces off the walls. The DJ cranks it up. My God. Does he think this is a football stadium in Cape Town?

I believe your speakers are working, I want to shout. I wait for Celine to stop braying, but she keeps singing about how her heart is going on and on and on. I ask our intrepid banquet manager, Herr Ries, to put an end to the sound check before Ms. Dion can modulate to an even higher key and my brain explodes. I don’t know what Herr Ries does to the DJ—maybe he conks him on the head with an ice bucket—but the music stops abruptly. I continue with “Romeo and Juliet.”

The wedding guests float in and out of the lobby. I check out the blushing bride, the little boys in their starched white shirts, and the fresh-as-spring young ladies in their sorbet-colored evening gowns. One dress, a golden-vanilla strapless creation, makes me wonder if I should revamp my Piano Girl wardrobe, but to wear this dress I would need to lose fifteen pounds, have breast reduction surgery and a tummy tuck, and give up playing the piano. Better to stick with the German football coach wardrobe. It’s more my style these days.

I play Bach’s Air on a G-String. Bad title, but, really, it’s a lovely piece of music.

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The service staff, smiling and carrying enormous trays of crystal glasses, glides through the lobby, bypassing clumps of guests and dodging the children who dash back and forth in a chocolate-induced race to the front door, where they will be given more chocolate before they streak back to the other side.

I play some music from The Wonderful World of Amelie. A sturdy woman in a lace mother-of-the-bride dress smiles at me. I wonder if she actually is the mother of the bride, or just a look-alike.

On top of the piano is a silver urn holding a cluster of eleven dark pink orchids. I know it’s eleven, because I count them. God, I love this place—beautiful colors, beautiful clothes, beautiful people. The large window over the staircase diffuses the light and directs it to the lobby, where it hangs in a soft golden stupor. The guests around me dash through the beams, unaware that, for a few moments this evening, they’ve been airbrushed by the setting sun.

Two men, on their way into the bar to check on Ghana’s progress, stop a waitress and ask if they can exchange their champagne for beer.

Four preteen boys discover the antique kicker table in the corner of the lobby. It’s a low-tech toy with little hand-operated soccer men. Four players can play at once, two on each side. It’s hardly an attraction for a five-star hotel, but this table, made of burled wood and featuring hand-painted players, is more of a hip World Cup art statement than a recreational device.

Klak, klak, klak, klak, klak.

The boys have gathered around the table, and the sound of the little wooden men kicking the ball echoes through the lobby, along with the shouts and cheers of the kids. They’re cute for about three and a half minutes, at which point the noise reaches an almost unbearable level. Where are their parents?

Klak, klak, klak, klak, klak.

I’m playing “Moon River.”

“TOR!!!!” one of the boys shouts.

I can hear Thorsten playing a blues in a key that clashes with my song.

Klak, klak, klak, klak, klak.

The DJ cranks up Celine again. Her heart is still going on.

“TOR!!!!” the boys yell again.

Monsieur Thomann, the maître d’ of the gourmet restaurant on one side of the lobby, peeks through the French doors. He smiles at the boys. Monsieur, the poster child for graciousness, always keeps his temper in check when he’s around the guests. He’s particularly kind to children.

Bonsoir!” he says to the boys.

“TOR!!!” they scream.

Mon Dieu,” says Monsieur.

Klak, klak, klak, klak, klak.

I give up. I do not blame the boys. They are eleven. In two years they’ll be sullen and subdued and doing everything they can to look like gangsters. Let them have their fun. I go to the bar, sip a glass of very nice champagne, watch Ghana score a goal, and thank my lucky stars that I have a job. It’s usually so peaceful in this place. One night of extreme noise never hurt anyone, least of all a musician.

***

Fifteen minutes later I slip behind the grand piano to begin my second set. The lobby is blissfully quiet. I can see from the piano bench that most of our guests have been seated in their respective dining rooms. Thorsten has finished playing his two-hour saxophone extravaganza, Ghana has won the match and the television has been turned off, the DJ is eating an expensive dinner until it’s time for the Titans of Industry disco contest to begin, and the kicker boys have gone to the lake to feed the swans. Monsieur assures me that the kicker ball has mysteriously disappeared for the remainder of the evening.

I play through a selection of original music, songs I like to break out when there’s no one listening except me. They are pretty songs from my younger years, with girly-girl names like “Twilight” and “Peaceful Harbor.” I close my eyes and play and play and play. I pretend like I’m somewhere else. It’s what I know how to do.

Zoom, zoom.

I look up and see a vehicle the size of the Popemobile rumbling through the lobby. Maybe it is the Popemobile; this castle is known for celebrity sightings. Oh no. It’s an extremely large electric wheelchair driven by a very assertive-looking middle-aged man. Like most good hotels in Germany, Lerbach accommodates disabled guests, but this is no regular wheelchair—it’s huge. The man, who is quite tall, is standing in the vehicle, making it less of a chair and more of a slanted bed with wheels, straps, and a motor. His feet are about at my eye level; the rest of him towers over everything else in the lobby.

I’m playing a piece of mine called “Lerbach Nocturne.” I try not to stare at Wheelchair Guy, but I guess if he’s riding around in a Popemobile he’s used to people gawking at him. A couple of stares from a curious pianist surely won’t send him off the deep end. I’m usually good at being discreet, so I avert my eyes and continue playing. But I can’t stop looking. I’m stunned by the size of this contraption. Several concerned adults chase after him, but they have trouble keeping up.

Yikes! He almost took out one of the banquet waiters on that last turn.

Zoom, zoom.

I decide that when he passes the piano I will greet him cheerfully, the same way I greet all of our other guests, even though most of our other guests are not riding through the lobby in wheelchairs the size of Hummers. Some of them own Hummers, but they usually keep them in the parking lot next to the smaller cars.

Did he just run over that woman’s foot?

Zoom.

Monsieur, who will be seating Wheelchair Guy and his family in the restaurant, stops in his tracks when he sees the size of the vehicle. He smiles, welcomes the guests, then spins on his heels to begin rearranging the restaurant furniture. It’s a challenge: a party of four that needs space for sixteen, arriving right in the middle of a sold-out Saturday night.

“Did they call in advance?” I ask one of my coworkers as she passes by the piano.

“Yes,” she says. “But they said they were bringing a wheelchair, not a tractor with a hydraulic lift system. The poor guy has to eat standing up. He can’t bend. At all.”

“Oh no,” I say. Words fail me. Now the size of the vehicle makes sense.

I’m still playing “Lerbach Nocturne.”

“We would like to have drinks on the terrace,” says a member of Wheelchair Guy’s party. “So we can enjoy the view.”

“I would suggest you have cocktails here in the lobby,” says one of the managers. “There’s indeed a beautiful view of the park from the bar terrace, but there are steps onto the terrace, so you won’t be able to get outside from this direction.”

Unless you have a crane, I think. It makes me sad. What a thing—a view that remains invisible because of a few steps. Just as Monsieur turns to talk to the other members of the party, Wheelchair Guy, with what I perceive as a look of defiance—he’s so high up I can’t see him all that well—steps on the gas and speeds into the bar.

“Good evening,” I say as he flies past the piano.

Behind me, I hear a tray of glasses crash to the floor. Then I hear another voice—maybe the bartender’s—patiently explain that this part of terrace is not wheelchair accessible. There’s no room for a three-point turn in the bar, so Wheelchair Guy, pissed off, backs up at about eighty miles an hour.

Zoom.

It’s as if he’s being shot out of a cannon backwards. The Popemobile whips into the lobby and crashes into the grand piano so hard that it lurches sideways and pins me to the wall.

Mon Dieu!” says Monsieur.

“Help,” I say. The piano is jammed against my upper thigh (thank goodness for fat). My upper arms and elbows are flush against the wall, and my wrists and hands are flapping like little birds in the air over the keys.

I reach down with the tips of my fingers and play the final chords, because, well, I have to end the song. The piano is wobbling and Wheelchair Guy doesn’t realize that his Popemobile fender is hooked onto the underside of the piano lid. He jams his shift stick to forward, then reverse, then forward, then reverse. The piano rocks back and forth, and I am certain it is going to crash to the ground, taking me, Wheelchair Guy, Monsieur, and six waiters with it.

“Straight ahead, drive straight ahead, s’il vous plait,” says Monsieur to Wheelchair Guy in a firm but pleasant voice. “Straight ahead! Straight ahead!”

“Robin, don’t move,” says one of the managers. Like I have a choice.

Zoom. Reverse. Zoom. Reverse.

Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.

“Straight ahead!” says Monsieur. “S’il vous plait!

Wheelchair Guy looks down at me. I look up at him. Neither one of us much likes what we see.

Finally, like a desperate mother lifting a Volkswagen off the legs of a trapped child, Monsieur lifts the piano enough to unhinge the Popemobile. It races forward and nearly collides with the tea cart. For a moment I think I’ve escaped having my legs crushed by a grand piano only to be hit with the world’s largest samovar, which is, of course, full of boiling water. But Wheelchair Guy misses the tea cart. Instead, he zigzags to the entrance of the restaurant, followed by the newly appointed Popemobile Task Force, a group of employees designated to prevent more castle damage. A lot can go wrong in a gourmet restaurant, especially when a disgruntled disabled man with a Hells Angels mentality starts zooming around during the soup course.

I am still pinned to the wall. A member of Wheelchair Guy’s entourage, a lovely young woman in a perfect black dress, returns to the piano.

“Has the piano been harmed?” she asks, avoiding my eyes.

“I don’t know,” I squeak. “I’ll have to unpin myself before I can check out the damage.” I wonder why she doesn’t ask me if I’m injured. But she hangs out with Wheelchair Guy. Maybe a pianist with a bruised thigh isn’t such a big deal.

I heave the piano forward enough to slide out from behind, and limp around to the other side. Amazingly, only a small chunk of wood is missing. The legs are stable. I’ve always claimed this Yamaha Conservatory Grand is a warhorse; now I know it’s true. I wonder if the Popemobile has a dent, a ding, or at least a couple of good battle scars.

A bridesmaid approaches the piano. “Can you tell me where the ladies’ room is?” she asks.

“Downstairs,” I say.

“Oh! Are you the piano lady? Can you play the theme from Titanic for me?”

“Actually, I’ve finished playing for this evening,” I say. I rub my leg. It hurts.

“But you can’t stop! I just got here.”

“Okay,” I say. “I’ll be glad to play Titanic for you.” I sit back down at the piano, start the piece, and she leaves to go to the ladies’ room.

That’s enough music for me tonight. I leave the castle through the bar exit, step onto the terrace, and take in the lush June evening. The trees droop in the weighty heat, but the roses seem plump and content. I walk down a stone staircase to the little lake, where a determined black swan paddles to the other side. Determined. We’re all so determined—to have fun, to win the game, to make music, to look good, to get where we want to go.

In the distance I can hear the thump, thump, thump of the DJ’s stadium-sized bass speakers. I wonder if the wedding guests are already gearing up for the Electric Slide or the YMCA dance. I wonder if they’re celebrating in Ghana. I wonder if Wheelchair Guy is enjoying his gourmet meal, and if the other guests in the dining room are succeeding in their efforts to not stare at him. I wonder if those little boys are now at the front desk, begging the manager to give them another ball. I wonder if Wheelchair Guy ever kicked a soccer ball or played a piano or ate a dinner while sitting in a normal chair. I wonder if he ever danced, or paddled across a pond, or held a glass of champagne.

I skip a stone over the dark green pond and watch each ripple dissolve into the next. When the surface becomes calm again, I look down and see my watery reflection.

Then, because I can, I walk away.

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“Sally the Duck,” by Julia Goldsby

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is also the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

Coming soon: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians.

Sign up here to receive Robin’s monthly newsletter. A new essay every month!

I Am Not Tom Wolfe: Celebrating Ten Years of Piano Girl

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New York City, 2005, Piano Girl launch!

Rewind: 2005, Book Expo America, New York City

I am not Tom Wolfe, although I do own a white suit. But today I am wearing a pink dress, purchased this morning during a panicked twenty minute shopping spree at Anthropolgie. What does an author wear, anyway? I’ve got the Piano Girl wardrobe covered, but I can’t very well sport a black evening gown at eleven in the morning. Tom Wolfe stands next to me, and he’s wearing the suit. He looks just as he appears on his book jackets—eccentric, a little arrogant, foppish. I’m bonding with him, even though he has cast nary an eye in my direction. His agent, his publisher, and two or three other well-dressed minions hover nearby. Perhaps one of them keeps the suit clean.

I don’t have an entourage or a minion with me, but I do have lovely Nina by my side. Nina is the PR director for Backbeat Books, my publisher.

We’re guests at Book Expo America, held at the Javits Center in New York City, a convention hall with bad florescent lighting, rock-hard floors, and acres of space for publishers to hawk the newest additions to their catalogs. Because Piano Girl has been awarded a Publishers Weekly Starred Review, I’ve been invited to take part in the traditional Autograph Circle, a name that brings to mind large gatherings of businessmen playing African hand drums. I’m not far off—there’s a lot of chest thumping going on here today. The Autograph Circle, as far as I can tell, offers an efficient way for publishers to create buzz. It also gives conference attendees a chance to score free books from their favorite authors. I’m flattered to be in the small group of authors selected for this event, but a little concerned about the set-up. As a debut author, I’m hardly anyone’s favorite anything.

Writers sit behind podiums next to stacks of their books. A long empty aisle stretches out in front of each author. When the bell rings—ping!— a gate opens and loyal fans swoop down each aisle. One at a time, they meet the favored author, and collect the coveted book, along with the author’s signature. A fine system, assuming one has loyal fans.

“Nina, no one knows me. This is my first book. It’s about playing the piano in hotel bars. The people who like me are currently circling the Marriott Marquis bar, slurping down pina coladas, knocking back martinis, and eating pretzel nubs. Who will be in my line? No one!”

“Don’t be silly,” Nina says. “There’s a lot of buzz about your book. I know about buzz. And besides, that pink dress is, like, perfect. You might want to check your lipstick, though. It’s getting cakey. But really, I love the dress.”

“No match for the white suit,” I say.

“I know,” she says. “Isn’t Tom just dreamy?”

We’ve got Piano Girl books piled high on a table. I can’t imagine who will want them. Maybe the people I wrote about? Tempest Storm, the Gay Baron, Hans the International Tenor, Grandpa Bookie Brown, Roy Boy? They’re busy, dead, or too drunk to care. Tom Wolfe has sold millions of books. I’ve yet to sell my first copy. And what’s all this nonsense about buzz, buzz, buzz? As far as I can tell, the only buzz we’ve created occurred yesterday afternoon, when Backbeat hired a bartender to stand in front of the Piano Girl display and serve happy hour Blue Hawaiian cocktails to anyone willing to talk to me. People lined up for the blue drinks, not for the book, but, hey, buzz is buzz.

Today, for the Autograph Circle, we’re missing the cocktails. No bartender, no buzz, no crowd. At least not in my line.

The bell rings—ping!—and the gates open. Fans flood into Tom Wolfe’s aisle—a mad dash down the lane to the man in the ice cream suit. For a second I think a riot might break out as fans jostle and shove to get to the front of Tom’s line.

“Nina,” I say. “There is no one in my line. No one. I told you this was a bad idea. We need the bartender.”

“We could only afford the bartender for one day. And we’re giving away free books. Isn’t that enough?”

“Evidently not.”

“Look, don’t panic. Sit there and smile,” Nina says. “I‘ll think of something.”

Nina “Buzz” Lesowitz always thinks of something; she’s beyond resourceful. But today, I’m doubtful. Hundreds of people propel themselves—human scud missiles—towards various authors. But my lane looks like Death Valley at the Javits Center, a parched canyon of solitude.

Wait! A solitary figure ambles down the aisle toward my desk. Waddles, actually. Is she limping?

“Look!” says Nina. “A fan! See? You have a fan!”

The aisle stretches a good fifty yards. I have to squint to see my fan. The woman draws closer. I’d recognize that walk anywhere.

“Nina, that’s no fan.”

“Of course it is,” says Nina.

“No it’s not,” I say. “That’s Sue.”

“Sue who?”

Sue, that’s who. She’s in Piano Girl. The college student with rigatoni stains on her sweatshirt? The philosophy major? I didn’t write very nice things about her.”

“Who cares,” says Nina. “Sue is in your line. We love Sue! Sue is our best friend. Sue is your fan.”

“Nina, she might be here to kill me. Look, she’s got that Kathy Bates Misery gleam in her eyes. She might have a baseball bat in her NPR tote bag.”

Misery was a great film.”

“Nina! What should I do?” Sue is gaining ground and she might be packing heat. I look like a stuffed author—a fan-less target, a literary bullseye. Maybe if I remain very still, Sue will think I’m either a memoir-writing taxidermy specimen or made of wax. Maybe she’ll walk away.

“Stay here and talk to our friend Sue while I recruit some more fans.”

“Nina! Wait!” I’m scared to stay here by myself. And I don’t think it’s possible to recruit fans. Either they’re fans or they’re not, right? But Nina has fled into the crowd, poaching fans from other authors and bribing them to step over to my aisle. Take a walk on the wild side. What’s she promising them? Drinks? Cash? Sexual favors? I almost don’t care. A few of my new fans begin to trickle towards me. But first I must deal with Sue.

“Welcome, Sue! Wow, what a delight to see you.”

“Hello, Robin.”

“So! Sue! It has been, how long?”

“Twenty-six and a half years. Loved Piano Girl. I got an advance copy,” she says. Her eyes shift back and forth. I wonder what she has in that tote bag. I envision a chain saw or an ice pick. Maybe a bloodied sledgehammer.

“Oh. Really? Thank you. Love your sweater.”

“Will you sign this for me?”

“Sure. So what brings you to Book Expo America?”

“I’m a publisher,” she says. “Science books.”

“Wow. Science books.” Yesterday’s rigatoni-stained college student is today’s purveyor of chemistry textbooks. There’s a lesson to be learned here, but I don’t know what it is. I wonder what kind of drinks they’re distributing upstairs at the science booth.

“Next!” yells Nina, who has returned from her fan foraging. She practically pushes Sue out of the way. Having coerced a dozen Tom Wolfe fans into my line, she sets about trying to make me look busy and successful.

“Nice to see you, Sue!” I say. Sue turns around and clumps down the exit aisle. I feel like I’m in Walmart. Clean-up, aisle four!

“Step right up,” says Nina, somehow managing to combine California élan with circus-barker barking. “Meet Robin Goldsby.”

“Hello!” I say—perhaps a tad too enthusiastically—to the next man in line. Would you like the book personalized, or with just a signature?” Nina told me most of the fans prefer a simple signature, so they can give the book away later or sell it online.

“Don’t care,” says the man. “I’m your friend Robin Spielberg’s second cousin by marriage. She told me if I didn’t show up in your line she would never talk to me again. I really wanted Tom Wolfe’s book, but I’ll settle for yours.”

“Well. Glad to be of service. I’ll be sure to tell Ms. Spielberg you stopped by. Thank you!”

“Next!” yells Nina.

It’s Harlan Ellis, my New York City music agent.

“Nina said you needed fans, ” he says. “I was trying to get the Wolfe book and she yanked me over here. Just pretend I’m a fan and sign the damn book. I’ll hang out until the line fills up.” I have lots of reasons to adore Harlan. This is just another one.

“Next!”

After Harlan leaves, I meet and greet a good fifty people, most of them disappointed spit-backs from Tom Wolfe’s line. Tom’s new book is called I Am Charlotte Simmons. My book should be called I Am Not.

“Next!”

I sign; I smile at strangers and hand each one of them a copy of Piano Girl. I don’t know whether to be happy or sad as I watch tiny pieces of my musical story escaping, one note at a time, into a crowded and noisy world. Happy seems like a good choice.

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Ten years and three books later . . . .

2015, Cologne, Germany

Ten years have passed since that crazy day. My friend Carole says if I keep writing Piano Girl stories I can call myself Piano Geezer. My literary adventure—combined with my career as a pianist—rewards me every day with new challenges, new obstacles, new ideas. Anyone in the business will tell you—working musicians have a million stories, little gems that, with a bit of polish, make for great cocktail party chatter—vaguely amusing anecdotes that cause people to giggle or guffaw or shout out, “You really should write a book.”

So I did. For better or worse I selected a handful of my finest and most idiotic moments and whipped them into a readable froth.

The publication of Piano Girl changed my life in delightful and unexpected ways. Concerts, interviews, a small but loyal group of actual fans (!)—all the things you might associate with a book that has received some critical acclaim. But that’s not why I wrote it. I wrote it because I love musicians. We lead noble lives, worthy of stories. We keep going because we have something to say. In a fragile world, musicians remain, in so many ways, unbreakable. Good for us.

If you’re thinking about writing your own book, I say go for it. Put on your bathrobe and some black socks and hole up in your office for a year. Avoid vodka if possible (it’s not). Take the risk. You never know what might happen once you release your book into the wild. You might feel intimidated. You might feel free. You might get to sit next to a United States President or play for a German Chancellor. You might get invited to the United Nations or to Paris or Rome or Oslo. You might receive letters from wonderful people and more than a few from prisoners and favor-seekers. Maybe you’ll pick up a stalker or two. You might meet a few of your idols or be reconnected with people you never wanted to see again. You might reinvent yourself, midlife, by realizing through writing, that you’ve grown up. Your mother might be proud of you; your children might be a little embarrassed (or is it the other way around?). You might do readings for full houses or empty ones, agonize over royalty payments, teach a few writing workshops, question your own judgment, work with your very own Nina, worry about what to wear to the launch party.

But forget all that. Here’s what counts: You might find you own a voice that people want to hear. A voice that you want to hear. Look! People are listening. At last. You have a few fans. Music lives in your words. Go on, buy the white suit.

**

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is also the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

Coming soon: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians.

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Life from the Other Side of the Steinway

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Piano Girl in action: Photo by Christian Reckord

It’s not always a Steinway. Sometimes it’s an ugly-looking, beautiful-sounding white Bösendorfer concert grand or a Yamaha conservatory grand with a high-gloss mirrored surface, so polished that I can see the mood of the evening staring back at me. Sometimes the instrument I play barely qualifies as a piano. Sometimes it’s an Army-surplus spinet made by a firm that is a subsidiary of a toy company. Sometimes it’s a beat-up upright piano with four broken strings—and when I press a key I can hear several distinct tones fluttering together and laughing at me with their out-of-tuneness. Sometimes it really is the perfect Steinway Model B, a seven-foot grand with a sound warm enough to make me stay at the piano forever, just listening. I play. I make music. I am the tall blond woman in the strapless cocktail dress, and I sit in the corner and play the piano.

I didn’t set out to be a cocktail pianist. But here I am, wearing something black, a little eyeliner, a little lipstick, high heels. I’m not Shirley Horn, or Diana Krall, or Marian McPartland, or Bobby Short in a blond wig. Not even close. But I work all the time and I’m pretty good at what I do.

There are many terms for my profession. I am called a cocktail pianist, a bar pianist, a hotel pianist, and a lounge pianist. I perform background music that enhances a dinner, a lunch, a chilled prosecco; or atmosphere music meant to embellish a business meeting, a wedding, an illicit affair—without getting in the way. I play music that is comforting, gentle enough to pacify, melodic enough to nudge my audience into the folds of their own memories.

I’ve spent many years underestimating the validity of my job. I’m not really a bar pianist, I tell myself, because I want to be more than that. I’m a student. I’m an actor. I’m a writer. I’m a composer. I’m a single woman living in New York City standing on the edge of a nervous breakdown. I’m a citizen of the world. I’m happy. I’m a mother. I’m a wife. I’m all of these things, true, true, true. But I’m able to be all of these things because playing the piano in a hotel continues to pay the bills. Now, with the wisdom of a maturity that was bound to catch up with me, I realize that being a cocktail pianist is a lovely way to make a living. It started out as a way to earn money for college. It ended up being my profession for thirty years and counting.

I play medleys of great songs and obnoxious songs and make them all sound, well, nice. Plus I’ve been questionably blessed with the ability to be polite, to smile, and to remember the first names of the customers who stray into the joints where I’m playing. These days, some of the joints are castles in Europe. I’ve traveled a long way from the Nantucket Club Car and the Redwood Motor Inn on Banksville Road in Pittsburgh where I had my first steady gigs as a teenager, but basically the scene is the same. Fancier clothes, slightly better piano, same ratio of lunatics to normal people. I play.

Sometimes I’m treated like visiting royalty from a mysterious land, flown to the job in a private jet, showered with roses, fine wine, and compliments from people whose pashmina socks cost more than my entire wardrobe. Sometimes I feel like a frazzled waitress with eighty-eight keys strapped around my neck, taking orders from drunken shoe salesmen who would prefer to see me go-go dance in a green fringed bikini on top of the piano rather than make any sense out of the instrument in front of me.

Every job presents the chance to be a musical fly on the wall—providing a piano score for life as it’s served, straight-up with a side of olives, to the droves of people who pass through the world’s bars and restaurants. Over the years I’ve been appalled, attacked, blown away by kindness, cajoled into fits of giggles, and moved to tears by the tiny dramas that unfold before my eyes and ears. I cry. I laugh. Laughter is a kind of music—the best kind. I’ve always wanted to write the score for a film. But maybe this is better. I’m writing and playing music for life, as it happens. It’s like recording live on tape, without the tape.

One day I’m eighteen years old, sitting down to play my first job. Startled, I wake up on a bright spring morning and realize that I’m forty-six, and that my entire adult life can be documented by a series of forty-minute sets and twenty-minute breaks. I fret about missed opportunities—how I’ve spent the peak years of my life behind an instrument that fights back more often than it complies with my wishes—and the way real time slips away from me like runaway triplets at a children’s piano recital.

I have moments of artistic satisfaction. Many of them. On a typical night—in between requests and idle chit-chat with guests from, say, Helsinki, or Bogata, or Hackensack—I play the music that I want to play, the way I want to play it. I feel peaceful, exhilarated, and sure that I’ve chosen the right profession. It’s almost a magical feeling, and I allow it to sweep me away. Then some drunk-on-his-ass sales rep from a surgical supply company sends me a cocktail napkin with a request for “Memory” from Cats, a twenty-dollar bill, and—as an afterthought—his room number. I check out the man who has sent the note. He is sprawled on the burgundy velvet banquette, smoking a cigar and drinking a brandy. He looks like a cross between a sloth and a walrus. I play the song, keep the money, and make sure a taxi is waiting for me at quitting time.

I go home, slightly amused, a little disgusted. But I come back the next day to play again. In fact, I look forward to it. The smells of cigarette smoke, grilled steak, and too much Chanel No. 5 waft in my direction like a big cloud of fairy dust blown in from a distant yet familiar planet. I sit at the piano. The customers briefly acknowledge my presence, then resume talking. It’s time for my first set. I place my hands on the instrument, not quite sure what to play. I never know what the first song will be until exactly this moment. In front of me is a maze of ebony and ivory, but I don’t see the keys anymore. I see the faces of 30 years of guests, friends, bartenders, and waiters morphing into an impressionistic canvas of something remarkable.

So I play a song to remember.

Steinway Gallerie, Oslo, Norway

Steinway Gallerie, Oslo, Norway, photo by Julia Goldsby.

Piano Girl excerpt courtesy of Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard. Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is also the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

Coming soon: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians.

Sign up here to receive Robin’s monthly newsletter. A new essay every month!