Home and Away

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Opalescent shafts of afternoon sun slant through the lobby; the golden walls glow with effortless elegance. I think about home, about the places I’ve lived and the people I’ve loved. I often compose music about water—the rivers and streams running through my life, and that big salty stretch of Atlantic I’ve crossed so often. Sometimes I imagine the ocean is made up entirely of a voyager’s fragile tears.

Song for My Daughter

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Life can be one long love song, a musical scrapbook of your greatest hits, a jumble of waltzes and nocturnes, hip-hop moments, and two-part inventions that weave melodies in your head with harmonies in your heart. Life can also be one long dirge, a monotone drone without shape or nuance, a thin and reedy voice […]

Magic to Do

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Danny Herman and I move from Pittsburgh to New York City around the same time, and quickly learn that the best jobs for young performers are road gigs. When we’re offered a tour of Don Brockett’s Big Bad Burlesque, we jump at the opportunity. Danny is a dancer and an acrobat. I’m a pianist and occasional actress. After an intense rehearsal period back in Pittsburgh, we move to St. Louis, where we spend a few glorious months living at the Chase Park Plaza Hotel. We perform eight shows a week in a sparkling little theater deep in the hotel’s dank underbelly. We are up to our necks in sequins and Spandex and smell like sweat, hairspray, and eyelash glue.

Holding On, Letting Go

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The first time I went to IKEA I was thirty-five and about ten months pregnant. I had my arm in a cast, the result of a slapstick tumble I had taken a few weeks earlier on a rain-slicked street in Astoria, Queens. I had been on my way to a piano gig at the Manhattan Grand Hyatt and was wearing a black chiffon Zsa-Zsa caftan and a parka. My belly was so huge I couldn’t see my feet, let alone the slippery wooden ramp propped on the curb. Down I went. A chorus of Greek women, concerned about the baby, surrounded me and called an ambulance. One of the Emergency Medical Technicians made a joke about needing a crane to get me onto the gurney. The baby was fine; the arm, cracked at the elbow; the ego, deflated. What better time for a little shopping?

The Hostess is on Fire

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I change clothes in the wellness area of the five-star hotel where I currently perform—trading my basic-black stretchy sweat-pants for a basic-black stretchy evening-gown, and my Nikes for a pair of golden sandals that have been accompanying me on piano gigs for several decades. They are as uncomfortable now as they were the day I bought them, but the bling at my toes reminds me, in a good way, of years I’ll never recapture and songs I’ve long forgotten. Besides, I’ll spend most of the evening sitting on a padded piano bench. If I need to make a fast get-away, I can always kick off the sandals and run.

I’ll Take Manhattan

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My taxi from JFK into Manhattan sits in traffic outside the Queens Midtown Tunnel. Every few minutes we creep forward a few feet. A pale blue sky frames vibrant billboards that advertise luxury condos and cosmetic dentistry. Concrete, steel, cranes. The only humans I see are stuffed, like me, in cars—their tiny heads bowed to check text messages. Maybe they are praying. I lower the window and a warm February breeze, greasy and choked with exhaust fumes, teases me with the promise of something better on the other side of the river. If we moved any slower we’d be going backwards.

Silver

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It takes Oliver Rosen exactly eight and a half minutes to cross the Queensboro Bridge from Long Island City to Manhattan’s East Side. That’s on a good day, when he’s not hung over and doesn’t stop to stare at the jagged skyline. He crosses this bridge six days a week on his way to the Neil Simon Theatre on Fifty-second Street, where he plays flute in the orchestra of a Broadway musical called Meet the Piggies.

The Pittsburgh Party

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Jimbo’s car reaches the end of the Fort Pitt tunnel and wham! There’s the Golden Triangle. I’ve been away from Pittsburgh for almost forty years, but the dazzling, jagged skyline reminds me that this peculiar city still feels like home.

Low Country Boil

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I arrive in Charleston, South Carolina, on a balmy February evening after a fifteen-hour travel extravaganza that has led me from Frankfurt, Germany, through Detroit, and into the cushioned arms of Low Country hospitality. I’m here to play a couple of solo piano concerts. My host, a southern gentleman who works as a church organist, concert promoter, and hotel pianist, greets me at the airport. His name is Tom Bailey. I know from emails and phone calls he is neither an ax murderer nor a Trump supporter, but still, I worry. I’m tired enough that most of my trust issues evaporate into the salty night without a second thought as Tom, a dapper guy in a gorgeous suit, grabs my suitcase. We hop in his Nissan, and away we go.

Feathers

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Hope swoops into our lives—a random, fluttering presence we grab when our heavy hearts need a back-up plan. Hope tilts the navy sky and pierces dark corners with jagged spikes of radiance; it frees imaginations, builds footbridges, and boosts our bruised and broken spirits with a gentle quiver of its powerful wings.

Blue

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You’re in Boston, Chicago, on the Jersey Shore. I’m in Hamburg, or Paris; last week was Singapore. I’m missing you, the world feels blue tonight.

The Notes that Got Away

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“See that Burger King? I played there once, before it was a Burger King.” I’m in the car with my musician father and he’s pointing out places where he once played. “The Burger King used to be a Moose Club. Before it was a Moose Club it was a Masonic Lodge. I played there, too. And down the highway, over by the Southland Shopping Mall? That used to be the Ankara. Big night club. Six nights a week, live music, different acts all the time. I was in the house band in the sixties. Mr. Cenemie was the manager. Called him Mr. Centipede. He hated me. I’m telling you, beautiful dancers from the Philippines in that place. Made no sense since it was called the Ankara, but whatever. And up on the hill? That nursing home? I played there for about two years, when it was still a hotel. They had great shrimp cocktail.”

A Broken Hallelujah

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November 9th. One day post election. I live in Germany and, because of the time difference, have stayed awake all night watching the USA empty its bulging veins into a roiling river of fear and hatred. I’m scheduled to perform my concert program tomorrow night for a large group of American women in Berlin. I arrive at Tegel Airport, an out-dated structure with low ceilings and fluorescent lighting that illuminates every crack in my tired face. Laugh lines? Not exactly. I wait for my ride. Do I stand here in the greenish glow or go outside and freeze? I opt for fresh air.

TAPS

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Master Sergeant Grace Elizabeth Wilson balances her eleven-month-old daughter on one hip while she runs through a series of warm-up exercises on her bugle. Arpeggio up. Arpeggio down. Grace’s lip feels good—supple and stretched and strong—and she’s positive today’s ceremony will proceed as planned, despite the early spring chill.

All the Sad Young Men

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“Why do they call it a fake book anyway? Is it for fake piano players?” says Michael the waiter. “That would be good for me.” “You play the piano?” I say. It is five minutes to five and I’m standing in the kitchen of the Omni Park Central, eating spicy corn chips and drinking a […]

Pretty Pretty: Piano Girl vs. Trump

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My hair is big. My dress is too tight. It’s 1986. I’m sitting at a Steinway on a Saturday night in Manhattan. The name of the cocktail lounge where I play is “Trumpet’s.” Donald J. Trump, with the sponsorship of his father, has partnered with the Hyatt Corporation to build the glass and granite behemoth currently […]

Playback 2011: The Summer of Love

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I perch on my padded piano bench, inhale the mingled scents of jasmine, Jo Malone, and musty French cheese. I sip a glass of Agrapart Champagne, contemplate the months ahead of me, and marvel at my good fortune. The summer of 2011 offers more than the typical number of castle weddings. This year, we’ll be hosting a gaggle of international couples, who will tie the nuptial knot in a location that meets storybook expectations.

Good News Only: Mister Rogers for Adults

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What would Mister Rogers say?

I watch the news at six o’clock. Terror, death, chaos, stupidity, racism, extremism, more terror. I hardly recognize the world. I certainly do not recognize my home country. America seems to be swallowing itself whole. It’s depressing. But still, we stay tuned, gorging on enormous bites of hate speech, punch drunk and nauseated by reports of blood and guts and grit and gore, hanging onto the prophesies of ego-bloated politicians and chest-thumping pundits.

Remember Me: A Gentleman, a Steinway, and a Couple of Stubborn Ghosts

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It’s June, 2007. I am headed to Steinway Hall. Manhattan, with its counterpoint of horn blasts, sirens, grumbles, whispers, and roars, performs a deafening sonata. I feel energized. I feel defeated. I feel inspired. I wonder how I ever lived here, or why I ever left. To celebrate the publication of my book, Piano Girl, Henry Steinway and Betsy Hirsch have invited me to present a solo piano concert and reading tonight in the famed Rotunda. I open the heavy door of 109 West Fifty-Seventh Street and step from the bashing, flashing, pulse of the city into an embroidered oasis of tranquility. The high-domed ceiling, hand-painted by Paul Arndt in 1925, seems to scrape the sky. Reach high, it says to me. Reach high, and you’ll touch something worth remembering.

Hold the Zucchini

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Thanks so much for inviting us to dinner at your apartment next Saturday. Steve and I are truly looking forward to your “June Moon” menu. A clever theme—you know how I adore a good clean rhyme! How kind of you to ask if we have any food allergies or dietary restrictions. Not every host bothers to inquire, and, after several recent trips to the emergency room (following meals at the homes of former friends)—we welcome your concern. You may have heard that South-North Airlines refused to let us fly last week simply because we complained about pretzel dust in the air. The incident was humiliating for poor Steve, who did not for one second enjoy being hog-tied and carried off the plane—by security thugs!—while having an asthma attack. The sound of his wheezing still haunts me.