Blond Ambition 4.0

1.Blond

Coming through, coming through! Musician! Musician!

A November sky, dazzling and crisp, frames the silhouette of the Dom, the Gothic cathedral towering over the hotel where I play the piano. I am scheduled to perform today for Afternoon Tea. The Excelsior Ernst hotel lobby—an oasis of old-money elegance—offers a plush shelter for upscale Cologne residents, travelers from distant lands, hopeful business people, and ladies who lunch. Today’s guest of distinction has created a hubbub. Madonna is staying with us this week. Management has kept her presence a secret from the press (and from me) for the past for several days, but now the blond’s out of the bag, and about a thousand people hover by the hotel’s front door, waiting for a glimpse of their favorite pop star.

Exciting! But the huddled masses make it impossible for me to get anywhere near the hotel’s entrance. Middle-aged women (some of them wearing leopard-print pants) and gay men (tastefully dressed) stand alongside pierced and tattooed teens—necks craned, toes tipped, autograph pens at the ready.

The tightly-packed human wall seems impenetrable. But I’m good in situations like this—all those years of weaving through Puerto Rican Day crowds on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan trained me well. I put on my sunglasses, square my shoulders, assume an attitude of arrogance, and use my Emergency Pianist voice. I figure this particular group might respond to pushy, New York-accented English—they’ll be less likely to argue with me.

Coming through, coming through! Musician! Musician!

It works. The seas part, I make it to the velvet rope. One of the doormen greets me and lets me through. I should mention that no one asks for my autograph, in spite of the sunglasses.

*****

I sit at the Steinway, a 1940 Model A. The lobby area at this time of day usually hums along at a pleasant, lazy afternoon tempo, but it’s unusually quiet right now. Because of our celebrity visitor, the hotel is closed to walk-in pedestrian traffic, and management has politely requested that hotel guests refrain from loitering in the lobby. The result? I am playing to an empty room. I love this. Some performers slip into a low grade funk when no one shows up to hear them, but not me. A gorgeous piano, a room that’s an acoustic dream, and solitude—what’s not to like? I play “Flight of the Cranes,” one of my new compositions. The warm tones of the Steinway permeate the lobby. I catch the eye of the hotel director. He smiles. I feel like one of the cranes in my song, coasting along, gliding through the autumn afternoon, going nowhere and everywhere all at once. I remind myself how lucky I am to be a musician.

“Nice,” says a leather-clad man with spiky hair and a face full of stubble. Where did he come from? Sometimes I close my eyes when I play, and when I open them again—surprise!—people pop up like creepy mannequins in an amusement-park house of horrors.

“Thank you,” I say. He grunts. This guy looks like he’s auditioning for the Spinal Tap sequel.

Pulling the number one choice out of the Idiotic Things to Say to a Musician Handbook, he (let’s call him Spinal Tap) leans on the piano and says: “So, can you make a living doing this?” I have been in this business forty years, and I still haven’t come up with an appropriate response. I tired of the neurosurgeon line decades ago (I’m actually a brain surgeon but I do this to make ends meet).

“Yes,” I say, with one of those fake smiles I reserve for drooling fools and drunks. “And what do you do for a living?”

“I’m a music journalist,” Spinal Tap says.

“And can you make a living doing that?”

“I make documentary films about musicians. But not musicians like you.”

“Excuse me?” My hackles have risen, but I keep smiling.

“What you do is kind of old fashioned.”

“I prefer to think of it as timeless.”

He laughs. “You know what I mean.”

“No, actually, I don’t. There is nothing old fashioned about what I do.”

“These days there aren’t many hotels with piano players.”

“And?” I say. “Does that make me old fashioned? Or does that make me valuable? Or does that mean most hotels are too cheap to provide this little luxury for their guests?” I keep smiling, but I can feel steam coming out of my ears. I’m a little angry, but I’m also amused. The older I get, the more often I find myself entertained by the stupidity of middle-aged men with over-inflated egos. Better to laugh than to fall victim to cocktail lounge road rage. What am I going to do, anyway? Throw a napkin and a handful of toasted almonds at him?

“Classy hotel, here,” Spinal Tap says.

“Yes. And maybe one of the reasons it’s classy is because they have a pianist.”

“Whatever.” He rolls his eyes. “I’m not going to discuss music trends with you. I’m here to interview your colleague.”

“My colleague?”

“Yes. Madonna. The star. That’s the kind of musician I write about.”

Cone bra, fingerless gloves, leg warmers, and a bad perm—visions of the eighties swirl through my fifty year-old brain. “Old fashioned” is a relative term, I guess. If you worshiped a particular phase of pop culture, its glossy icons stay hip and up to date until you drop dead.

I remember hearing Madonna’s “Borderline” in a disco in Haiti in 1984. I was crossing a few borderlines myself that year, working as a lounge pianist in a third-world country and attempting to play songs like “Skylark” for a Merengue-crazed audience. Madonna’s music, spunky and fresh sounding, didn’t appeal to my musicality, but I loved it anyway. There was something edgy about her breakout feminist message.

Be who you want to be, she seemed to be shouting from the center of the dance floor. Be sexy, be strong, be wrong. Dont be afraid. My music may have veered in a completely different direction from her disco-driven style, but I learned a lot from her business savvy. Dont be afraid. In 1984 I needed to hear that as often as possible. I still do.

I continue to play while Spinal Tap yaps at me. I’ve lost my Zen piano vibe, but I’m sure I’ll get it back sometime later this afternoon. I wonder what Madonna is doing right now, as she prepares to greet her fans—the crowd outside has doubled in the last hour. Is she checking her lipstick? Calling her kids? Eating a vegetarian club sandwich and worrying about bloat? Trying to remember her set list for tonight’s concert? Dealing with an annoying case of tennis elbow?

“You know,” I say to Spinal Tap. “Madonna and I have a lot in common.”

Really?” he says, looking sideways at my little black dress and pearls.

Really. We’re the same age, for one thing. We’re both focused on what we love to do. We’re both mothers. And we’re both still working. All the time. Not bad for a couple of women in their fifties.”

He never gets a chance to respond. Madonna enters the lobby. Spinal Tap rushes out to watch her. From the corner of my eye I see a swirl of black, a tumble-weed clump of security, and a gazillion flashes. Wouldn’t it be nice if she stopped by the piano to say hello?

“Have a fun gig,” she might say.

“Thanks,” I would say. “You, too. And good luck with that tennis elbow.”

She doesn’t notice me at the piano. She is Material Girl. I’m Invisible Girl. Happy, but invisible. The irony doesn’t escape me. Here I sit, playing beautiful music on a beautiful instrument to a completely empty lobby. Twenty-five feet away, thousands of people wait to see another blond musician—the famous one—sashay through a sliding glass door and climb into a van. Her fans have waited for hours to watch a journey that takes thirty seconds.

Madonna might argue that her thirty-second journey to the black van actually took thirty years. Good point.

My own musical voyage has taken equally as long, but—on most days—only a select few witness my progress. I coast along, sort of like those cranes, following the seasons, happy to be doing what I love. Blond or not, male or female, in this ego-bloated business it takes a lot of ambition to get off the ground. And even more to keep flying.

Coming through, coming through! Musician! Musician!

More power to you, Louise Ciccone.

*****

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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Nakey: The Concert

DSC_0052Any working musician will tell you: Our professional lives offer challenges both substantial and diminutive, situations blissful and farcical, moments hilarious and tragic. When we’re lucky, elements of our careers cross paths, circle back, and thump into each other, gifting us with a chance to simultaneously experience glory and goofiness during the course of one gig. My recent venture—as a concert pianist in a sauna and wellness center—proved to me once again that art and absurdity can peacefully coexist and thrive in the oddest of settings. Just because your audience is nakey and asleep, doesn’t mean they’re not listening.

Back Story

The novelty of the German sauna has accompanied me through much of my literary career. The first essay I sold—to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette in 1995—chronicled my first hesitant forays into the world of public nakedness. Through a series of wonderfully misguided steps over the course of two decades, my solo piano recordings became part of a popular sauna ceremony at Mediterana, an award-winning wellness center, located twenty minutes from my home in the German countryside. Wellness plus soothing solo piano—the concept made perfect sense to me. It still does.

Full disclosure: I have an annual membership to Mediterana. It’s one of my favorite haunts when I need a tonic to soothe frazzled nerves, repair aching muscles, or chase away the winter blues. It’s Disneyland for stressed adults.

The ceremony in the Kerzensauna (candlelight sauna), called Piano del Sol, features two of my recorded compositions, a flag-waving sauna guy in a plaid loin cloth, a pendulum full of ice that drips water onto lava rocks, and, at any given time, thirty naked, sweating people who have to remain silent and aren’t allowed to leave until the music finishes. My father, Bob, insists this is karmic payback for the decades I spent playing in noisy cocktail lounges and hotel lobbies. Imagine. People sit there and listen, and no one is serving them drinks. The ceremony is wonderful and silly. I love it.

As the nakey gods of fate and good fortune would have it, Mediterana asked me to compose and record sixteen new pieces—four for each season—for use in the Kerzensauna. They licensed the music from our record company and purchased the exclusive rights to sell the physical CD to their visitors over the next five years. I keep hearing rumors that music fans have stopped buying CDs. Perhaps this doesn’t apply to those who are naked, asleep, or both.

Mediterana released Piano del Sol on October 13th, 2015. Keeping with the industry tradition of presenting a launch concert, they booked me for a performance on the drop date. Don’t we just love those music-biz terms? Drop, release, launch. Maybe not such fitting words when your audience is buck nakey, and you’re the only one wearing a bra.

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The Concert

It’s three o’clock. In one hour I’ll be performing in the Indische Hof, Mediterana’s East Indian indoor garden. The English translation of Indische Hof is Indian Square, which makes the event sound like a concert in a teepee. I hope no one asks me to do a white girl rain dance. Circle your wagons while you can.

The Indische Hof, a Mecca of mosaic tile in soothing shades of green and blue, hosts a large granite fountain with floating rose petals, an indoor garden with palm trees and ferns, and a skylight that filters the dusky German light into something both gauzy and gilded. The garden pulses with mingled fragrances of eucalyptus and lavender, myrrh and sandalwood. It is a refuge for meditation and reflection; a place to lie half naked next to a complete stranger and hallucinate. Today, in the middle of the vista of over-sized lounge beds, sits a large Yamaha grand piano, looking like a stout hostess at an “east meets west” cocktail party. A sitar would be more appropriate in this space, but it’s Piano del Sol, not Sitar del Sol, so we’ll work with what we have.

What we have is me, dressed in my Ultimate Pajamas—a black silky outfit with a vaguely East Indian looking cape tossed over my shoulders. With the exception of my blingy flip flops (you can’t wear real shoes here), I’m dressed for a concert in a more traditional location, or a gig in a fancy hotel lobby. This is not true of my audience. Terry cloth—or fairy cloth as my daughter once called it—covers most of the guests. Towels, wraps, bathrobes, more towels. At the perimeter of the performance space, naked people stroll from one sauna area to another, but they don’t spook me. My nearsightedness blurs them into an impressionistic tableau of brown and beige skin. Mostly beige.

I need to warm up—it’s toasty in here, but I want to get the touch of the keys under my fingers. Every piano feels different, and this one, delivered in a rush this morning, schlepped from the cool autumn air into a manmade tropical retreat, might have unique issues. It’s pin drop quiet, people are sleeping, and other audience members are silently taking their places in beds and on velvet sofas. Not a good time for a soundcheck. I figure I’ll take my chances and wait until show time before playing anything at all. I open the piano to full stick, then sit and check the position and height of the bench.

Uh-oh. Not good. Right in my sight line—at the end of the piano—is a corpulent man in a robe. He’s asleep. Not a problem, sleeping seems to be the activity of choice in this space. But he’s got a case of man spread, the robe gaps open, and there, right at eye-level, are things no self-respecting Piano Girl should have to see, at least not while performing, and certainly not while attempting to focus on a new composition that features chord clusters that are a bit advanced for tentative fingers. Concentration is key for this performance. Am I really going to play something called “April Tango” while looking at Benny and the Jets at the end of the Yamaha? I think not.

Or I think so. For better or worse, I’m determined to make this concert work. I escape to the holding area and try to get hold of myself. Forty minutes until I go on. The holding area doubles as a First Aid station. I hope there are no medical emergencies between now and show time. I check out the defibrillators on the wall and wonder how often they’re needed. Imagine, naked, covered in sauna sweat, and having a heart crisis. Every middle-aged woman’s worst nightmare. Not even a chance to put on nice potty pants before being whisked off to the ER. In this place it’s fairy cloth or nothing.

I sip a cup of chamomile tea, thoughtfully provided by the young woman in charge of today’s shindig. The beautiful J wears a cotton sarong. She’s rosy-cheeked and cheerful, excited about the concert, worried about her introduction, concerned that there won’t be enough beds and sofas for the guests. There are 1200 visitors today at Mediterana—about 100 of them will recline and hear my performance. That’s a lot of beds.

I think about the guy in the front bed, then I try not to think about him. Family jewels. Right. Obviously a term invented by a man.

Voice of Reason, a reliable friend from my Piano Girl past, resonates in my head: Keep your eyes closed, Mrs. Goldsby, and imagine your listeners dressed in gabardine and silk. Or at the very least, underpants.

A loudspeaker voice blares through the building: “Please head to the Indische Hof in five minutes for the Piano del Sol concert!” The voice sounds like one of those “stand by for evacuation” announcements I used to hear during a fire alarm or bomb threat at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square. Scary. I remind myself that I’m twenty-one years and 3,755 miles away from Times Square. Sure, we had the occasional naked person roaming Forty-second Street—perhaps a PETA activist or a flasher—but for the most part my daiquiri-swilling Manhattan fans were clothed. They weren’t always wide-awake, but at least their private parts weren’t flapping in a Broadway breeze.

I sit on the paper-covered exam table in the First Aid holding room. I go through my set list—I am scheduled to play all sixteen compositions with musical transitions between the pieces. There won’t be any applause until the end—an intense sixty minutes of new music for me, but a swell opportunity for music lovers to chill out and take a nap.

It’s time. I take another gulp of tea and leave the First Aid area. J introduces me. I take a bow and sit down at the piano. It’s very quiet—management has turned off the fountains and my naked audience, swaddled like newborns in towels and blankets, has settled in for an hour of meditative music.

Voice of Reason: Concentrate. It’s just another concert. It’s just music, with sleeping people allowing you to accompany their dreams.

Voice of Doom: You’ve been putting people to sleep with your music for years. Nothing new here.

Voice of Bob (my father): Now would be a great time for the “Hokey Pokey.”

I swat the voices away—shew!—close my eyes, and focus on the task ahead. Four seasons of music, starting with spring. I play the vamp to Piano del Sol, the title track of my album and let the sound wash over me. Slowly, like a lonely traveler finding her way home, I wander through the faded light of my past. Through my fingers, I feel the relief of a shade tree on a hot summer day, the golden glow of a cloudless sky in mid-October, the miracle of a clear day in February. Fairy cloth and sun dance. For several moments, I even feel young.

I play on and on, caught in my own weird spell. I don’t know if I sound good or bad but it doesn’t matter. I sound like me. Take it or take it not. My sleeping audience frees me—maybe their nakedness frees me as well. We connect with each other—not through eye contact or visual cues, but through sound and trust. Together, we’ve created something magical. Almost. It’s as close as I get in the music business.

I’m dazed and exhausted when it’s over. I sign CDs and do the “meet the artist” thing. I chat with some of our guests, wondering if I haven’t already said enough with my music. Maybe not. But that’s the great thing about art. There’s always more to say.

I’m glad I didn’t play the “Hokey Pokey.”

**

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!

 

Piano del Sol

Here are the words that accompany my new album, Piano del Sol. The CD is available exclusively at Mediterana, in Bergisch Gladbach, Germany. German translation by Dagmar Breitenbach.

***

Piano del Sol takes you on a journey through four seasons of music. These compositions reflect my personal experiences, but I hope you’ll relate to each of the pieces in your own way. Summer, autumn, winter, spring. Close your eyes, dream a little, and imagine a place in the sun. Then you’ll hear the music. It’s there for you.

Piano del Sol nimmt Sie mit auf die Reise durch vier musikalische Jahreszeiten. Die Kompositionen spiegeln meine ganz persönlichen Erlebnisse wider, aber ich hoffe, Sie können sich mit jedem der Stücke auf Ihre ganz eigene Weise identifizieren. Sommer, Herbst, Winter und Frühling. Schließen Sie die Augen, träumen Sie ein wenig, und stellen Sie sich einen sonnigen Ort vor. Dann werden Sie die Musik hören. Sie wartet auf Sie.

Robin Meloy Goldsby

Köln, Deutschland, 2015

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Spring

Piano del Sol

The water shimmers, a breeze traces patterns in dune grass, and a child’s footprints in the sand lead me back to places I love. I listen to the music of the sea as the falling sun paints my horizon with the colors of life.

Piano del Sol

Das Wasser schimmert, eine Brise strichelt Muster ins Dünengras und die Fußabdrücke eines Kindes führen mich zurück an Orte, die ich liebe. Ich lausche dem Klang des Meeres, während die untergehende Sonne meinen Horizont mit den Farben des Lebens herausputzt.

Flight of the Cranes

Eurasian Cranes, headed north, pass over my neighborhood each year in early spring. A gift from nature, reminding me that even birds spend a lot of time searching for home.

Flug der Kraniche

Jedes Frühjahr fliegen Graue Kraniche auf ihrem Weg nach Norden schon früh über unsere Gegend hinweg. Ein Geschenk der Natur, das mich daran erinnert, dass sogar Vögel auf der Suche nach ihrer Heimat lange unterwegs sind.

Apricot Tree

The soft browns and grays of the Lyon winter fade into spring. The old apricot tree in the center of the garden, with its twisted trunk and gnarled limbs, reaches for the clouds. There is a song about this tree, and if I look at it long enough, I’ll hear it.

Aprikosenbaum

Die weichen Braun- und Grautöne des Winters in Lyon verklingen im Frühling. Der alte Aprikosenbaum mitten im Garten, mit seinem krummgewachsenen Stamm und den knorrigen Ästen, reckt sich nach den Wolken. Über diesen Baum gibt es ein Lied, und wenn ich ihn lang genug betrachte, dann höre ich es auch.

April Tango

The rain stops, but the music continues, ugly and beautiful all at once. It’s hard to trust April—a flower child with the soul of an ice queen, she seduces me with the promise of spring, then laughs when the storm begins anew.

Tango im April

Der Regen hört auf, aber die Musik spielt weiter, hässlich und schön zugleich. Es ist nicht leicht, dem April zu trauen—dem Blumenkind mit der Seele einer Eiskönigin, das mich mit einem Frühlingsversprechen verführt und lacht, wenn der Sturm von Neuem losbraust.


Summer

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Turning Point

Fly as far and as wide as your dreams will carry you. You’re the passenger; you’re also the pilot. You’re the reader; you’re also the writer. You’re the singer; you’re also the song.

Wendepunkt

Flieg so hoch und so weit, wie Deine Träume Dich tragen. Du bist die Passagierin; Du bist aber auch die Pilotin. Du bist die Leserin; Du bist auch die Autorin. Du bist die Sängerin; Du bist genauso das Lied.

Giverny

“I would like to paint the way a bird sings.” (Claude Monet)

Hypnotic colors draw me deeper into Monet’s garden. I marvel at the artist’s ability to watch from the shadows, quietly capturing his beautiful flowers in their darkest and brightest moments.

Giverny

“Ich würde gern malen wie der Vogel singt.” (Claude Monet)

Hypnotische Farben ziehen mich tiefer in Monets Garten. Ich staune über die Geschicklichkeit des Malers, er beobachtet aus dem Schatten heraus, leise fängt er seine schönen Blumen in ihren dunkelsten und leuchtendsten Momenten ein.

Sanibel Island

Sanibel in May—soft air, rose-colored light, and opalescent seashells that look like expensive jewels in my aging hands. I search for you across an endless sweep of silver water. There you are—counting your memories, just like me.

Sanibel Island

Sanibel im Mai—weiche Luft, rosenfarbenes Licht und schillernde Muscheln, die in meinen alternden Händen wie kostbare Juwelen aussehen. Ich suche Dich über die endlosen Weiten silbernen Wassers hinweg. Da bist Du —und zählst Deine Erinnerungen, genau wie ich.

Summer Lullaby

It’s a lazy afternoon. I close my eyes, float in a golden pool of summer light, and dream of nothing at all.

Sommerwiegenlied

Ein träger Nachmittag. Ich schließe die Augen, treibe auf einer Insel aus goldenem Sommerlicht, und träume von rein gar nichts.

Autumn

2.Shape_Trees

Atlantic Terrace

A fragile sky stretches over the foaming shoreline of Montauk, Long Island. Memories of summer haunt my daydreams, a September wind chills my face, and the future—like the ocean churning in the distance—promises a season of reflection, renewal, and hope.

Terrasse am Atlantik

Ein zerbrechlicher Himmel spannt sich über schäumende Gischt an der Küste von Montauk, Long Island. Erinnerungen an den Sommer geistern durch meine Tagträume, der Septemberwind streicht kühl über mein Gesicht und die Zukunft—in der Ferne, aufgewühlt wie das Meer—verspricht eine Jahreszeit der Besinnung, Erneuerung und Hoffnung.

Otoño

Soft—a velvet cloak draped over naked shoulders,

Bold—the troubadour’s song on an autumn night,

Smoldering—the dancer’s eyes; he looks right through me,

Sees winter approaching, and turns the other way.

Otoño

Weich—ein Samtumhang um nackte Schultern gelegt,

Kühn—das Lied des Troubadours in einer Herbstnacht,

Feurig —die Augen des Tänzers; er schaut durch mich hindurch, sieht den Winter nahen, und wendet sich ab.

Maybe It’s You

Days grow shorter. The crisp air and falling leaves remind me of another time, another place, another love. I feel a chill run down my spine. Maybe it’s you—your beautiful spirit reminding to pay attention to what counts.

Kann sein, es bist Du

Die Tage werden kürzer. Die klare Luft, die fallenden Blätter erinnern mich an eine andere Zeit, einen anderen Ort und eine andere Liebe. Mir läuft ein Schauer den Rücken herunter. Vielleicht bist es ja Du—Deine schöne Seele, die mich daran erinnert, auf das, was zählt, achtzugeben.

Home

An American in Germany, welcomed by neighbors and colleagues—I belong and yet I don’t. I struggle with language and cultural differences, but I collect experiences of a lifetime—photos and postcards I glue to the fragile pages of my personal scrapbook. I write songs, I travel far, I journey wide, hoping to be understood, but trying just as hard to feel at home.

Zuhause

Eine Amerikanerin in Deutschland, von Nachbarn und Kollegen willkommen geheißen—ich gehöre dazu, und irgendwie doch nicht. Ich kämpfe mit der Sprache und den kulturellen Unterschieden, aber ich mache Erfahrungen für ein ganzes Leben—Fotos und Postkarten, die ich auf die hauchdünnen Seiten meines privaten Sammelalbums klebe. Ich schreibe Lieder und reise in weitentfernte Länder, immer in der Hoffnung, verstanden zu werden, und doch bemühe ich mich genauso sehr, mich heimisch zu fühlen.

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Winter

The Blue Season

A thousand shades of blue, blended together at the end of the year—deepest sapphire and brightest cobalt, turquoise, navy, azure, and aqua. The silver blue of winter swirls in the eyes of a newborn child; the icy blue of morning reflects the falling stars we caught last night. December’s muddy clouds drift away and reveal clear patches of crystal blue sky.

Die blaue Jahreszeit

Zum Jahresende verschmilzt blau in tausend Schattierungen— tiefstes saphirblau, strahlendstes kobalt, türkis, marineblau, azurblau und aquamarin. In den Augen eines neugeborenen Kindes wirbelt das silberblau des Winters; eisblau reflektiert der Morgen die Sternschnuppen, die wir letzte Nacht auffingen. Schmuddelig-graue Dezemberwolken jagen davon, stellenweise blitzt kristallblauer Himmel hervor.

Starlings

Starlings swirl in the distance like a choreographed team of tiny ballerinas, lilting to the left, pirouetting to the right, performing a sky ballet in the November wind.

Stare

Stare wirbeln in der Ferne wie eine choreographierte Truppe winziger Balletttänzerinnen, sie schwingen sich nach links, machen eine Pirouette nach rechts, ein Himmelsballett im Novemberwind.

Echo

Stones and feathers,

Dipped in gold,

Growing wiser,

Growing old,

We’ll wait in the meadow,

Where ravens play,

Let go of the dark,

Hold on to the day.

 

Echo

Steine, Federn,

In Gold getaucht,

Werden weiser,

Werden alt,

Wir werden auf der Wiese warten,

Dort, wo Raben spielen,

Die Dunkelheit lassen wir gehen,

Und fassen den Tag beim Schopfe.

 

December:

Quiet now. The year, anxious to make a graceful exit, tiptoes out the door, whispers goodbye, and leaves nothing but a smoky trail of memories in the dusty snow.

Dezember

Still jetzt. Auf Zehenspitzen stiehlt sich das Jahr davon, bedacht auf einen anmutigen Abgang; es flüstert Adieu, und hinterlässt nichts als eine rauchgraue Spur von Erinnerungen im staubigen Schnee.

 

Picture Perfect: Photo Tips for Real Women

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Most performers, in spite of our occasional “back to nature” urges, want to look as good as we can, especially when a hot-handed social-media expert with a cell phone camera is lurking in the wings. Like so many of my friends, I waltzed into my mature soft-focus years just when the world decided it absolutely needed harshly lit, candid photos of all of us. It’s bad enough dealing with wrinkles and chins and roots and flab, but it’s far worse for those of us in a business that necessitates maintaining a “public face.” I play a concert and flash goes the camera; I play for a wedding and I show up in a dozen home videos, many of which end up on YouTube; I often need new photos for CD launches. I play, I pose, I pose, I play. It’s stupid. I have enough to worry about trying to hit the right keys and make emotional sense out of my compositions. Do I need to worry about the hideous angle of the camera pointed at me, held by a Taiwanese tourist whom I will never see again? At this point in my life do I really need to be concerned about back fat and batwings?

I realize this is a taboo subject. The world is going to hell in a hand basket and I’m worried about how I look in a photo? I’m not the only one. Pretty much every woman I know—skinny, stout, lifted, tattooed, coiffed, buff, chilled, or uptight—thinks about how she looks, probably a little too much. Maybe even a lot too much. Even the deepest of us occasionally wade in shallow water.

In the last month I’ve survived two photo sessions, each one intended to help promote a new project. I worked with two great photographers, Andreas Biesenbach and my daughter, Julia Goldsby, but still, I did not walk willingly into the light. Filled with dread, I complained about the sessions for about a month in advance.

“This, Robin, is an uptown problem,” said my actor-friend, Peg. She has an intelligent sense of humor, soulful eyes, and a wide, quirky smile. She is beautiful. I would paint her if I had that kind of talent. “Complaining about having your picture taken at our age is sort of like crying because you got too many flowers for your fiftieth birthday.”

She has a point. I’m happy people still take my picture. I’m not so happy that I worry about it.

My pianist pal, Robin Spielberg, says she would gladly stop thinking about her appearance if she had a normal job that didn’t mandate new glossy photos every few years. The lovely Ms. Spielberg, with raven hair, green eyes, an hourglass figure, and a husband who takes gorgeous photos of her, worries just as much as I do, even though, most days, she looks as if she slipped out of a beauty and style blog. We joke about being on the celebrity “B” list—well-known enough to warrant looking as groomed as possible; not quite famous enough to call in the cosmetic surgeons, the personal trainers, and the daily Spackle team. Not that we want those things. Or do we?

Actors, musicians, and artists on the “B” celebrity roster aren’t the only women who strive to look good (or at least not fat) in photos. I know prominent businesswomen, doctors, United Nations representatives, judges, lawyers, teachers, and stay-at-home moms who every so often go to battle against  the vanity monster. I know teenagers who stand in front of the mirror and practice poses. I know grandmothers who have perfected the art of using the selfie pole. I know really powerful women—women who take down organized crime syndicates, battle the NRA, and bench press hundreds of pounds— who cower at the idea of having an up-to-date passport photo taken.

Why worry about a silly photo session? It’s not like we don’t have anything else to think about. We are raising families, raising hell, redecorating our dining rooms, making scientific breakthroughs, writing novels, helping to coordinate refugee relief. We are ruling on critical legal matters, planting herb gardens, planning philanthropic events, delivering our children to college, and mending broken hearts. We are repairing skinned knees, visiting autoimmune specialists, balancing hormones, and trying to save the world with a plant-based diet. We are practicing hard, living disciplined Fitbit lives, and getting better at what we do.

Do we really care if our gray hair is showing? Or if we look jowly in the reunion photo?

Uh, yes.

Too bad we can’t post 4D scans of our working brains and full hearts instead of pictures of our laminated smiles and sooty-lashed eyes. Scans that would show kindness and strength and resolve. Humor and resilience. Rage. Is it possible to photograph a woman’s unbreakable spirit?

Less silicone, more sass. Less filler, more fight. Not that there’s anything wrong with filler. If it’s what you want, go for it.

In the meantime, book a good photographer and a stylist. Their photos will compensate for the hideous casual shots that seem to show up on social media. It’s money well spent. Once the photographer sends you the finished photos—if she’s smart she’ll send you the touched-up versions and you’ll think she’s brilliant and you’re a tad more polished than you thought—you can take a deep breath and feel a little foolish about the whole thing. You can step away from the mirror, ma’am, and go back to what counts. You can have a cocktail and a club sandwich and discuss politics and your children and the melting world with your friends. You can practice the piano or the cello or write a poem. You can post your photo everywhere and bask in the afterglow of everyone’s warm comments. “Wow,” they’ll say. “Wow. You haven’t changed a bit.”

But I know better. I think you’ve changed a lot since the last time you had your picture taken. For the better.

If you don’t like your new photo, I suggest taking the Carole Delgado Approach. Throw the picture in a drawer and don’t look at it for ten years. Take it out. You’ll see so much more than an airbrushed face. You’ll see a younger you, picture perfect, windblown and beautiful in all your naivety, ready to take on the world.

If only you had known how good you looked, back then.

***

Put on a Happy Face: A Few Tips

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Yours truly. Photo by Andreas Biesenbach, who perched on a ladder to get this shot. No injuries!

  • Get a good night’s sleep. Try not to dream about your disappearing waistline. Set your alarm so you have enough time to stretch and take a really hot shower.
  • Don’t starve yourself before the session. You’ll faint, or worse, you’ll look pale and spaced out. Heroin-chic might work for Kate Moss, but it probably won’t work for you. Eat bananas. They don’t get stuck in your teeth and they soothe your nerves.
  • A couple of days ahead of time, drink as much water and herbal tea as possible. Your skin will thank you, even if your bladder won’t. The morning of the session, be sure to drink soothing, clear beverages (no, not vodka), but don’t drink too much. You don’t want to be running off to the potty once you’re in gear.
  • Tempting as it might be to tie one on, stay away from wine for a week ahead of time. Okay, maybe just seventy-two hours. Nobody hates this rule more than I do, but wine makes your face puffy and that’s no fun, unless you’re using the photo to audition for a PMS print ad.
  • Same as #3, but substitute the word “sugar” for wine.
  • Take it easy on the salt. It’s all about the bloat.
  • Hire a great photographer—or more importantly, a nice one who calms you. One who appreciates your intelligence. One who laughs at your jokes and acknowledges you have better things to do (solving physics problems, practicing Ravel, baking brownies) than worry about your disappearing cheekbones and falling face.
  • Hire a stylist. It is worth every penny. She will watch out for excessive hair frizz and bleeding lipstick. Ask your photographer to recommend someone.
  • Lighting is everything. Ask Diane Sawyer.
  • Relax your forehead. This is easy if you’ve had Botox, because your forehead won’t move, no matter how excited you get. I am Botox-less, which means I can raise my eyebrows to the top of my scalp. This feels right to me, but it makes me look like I’ve just seen George Clooney in a kilt, or worse, that I am a member of The Young Americans, that singing group that performs patriotic songs. Also, I don’t really have any eyebrows (they are blond and very thin), so I resemble ET if I raise them. A relaxed forehead makes you look happy and calm, even if the world is crashing around you.
  • Keep your makeup natural looking. Don’t get me wrong—you need a good dose of Spackle to avoid looking like an aging and hung-over hippie, but you also don’t want to look like last night’s leftover. Hold off on the Liza eye- and lip-liner. Gloss is good; goo is not.
  • A little contouring goes a long way.
  • Beach shots are always good. Water reflects light nicely and, if you’re not having any fun, you can always jump into the deep end and go for the comedy shot.
  • Wear something really simple. Clean necklines, no fuss. Not too much jewelry.
  • A nice three-quarter-length sleeve is your best friend.If your arms are exposed, face your palms out. This creates a nice arm line and shows off your biceps, assuming you have biceps. If you don’t, grab that pashmina, pronto.
  • Smile, but not too hard, or you’ll look like a cackling Phyllis Diller.
  • Sit up straight, but keep your shoulders down. Does that make sense? No. Practice, you’ll see what I mean.
  • If at any time your photographer gets on the floor and shoots up at you, shoot back. No good has ever come from this angle. Sure, the photographer might get a nice shot of the skyline, but your neck will look really fat and your nostrils will resemble the Holland Tunnel. The best angle for a mature woman is slightly above eye level.
  • If, heaven help you, you find yourself in the dreaded panoramic group shot (popular at weddings and women’s conferences); do whatever you can to be in the center of the picture. Anyone stuck on the end will look enormous. Ships on your hips and all that.
  • Hum “I Am What I Am” or some other confidence-boosting anthem while the photographer clicks away. “Lush Life” works for me.
  • Remember this phrase: “I want to look my best, but I don’t want to look fake.” Your photographer will know exactly what this means—that she should use Photoshop, but no one should notice.
  • Remember, the portrait lens won’t steal your soul, but it will steal your confidence if you let it. Don’t let it; you’re fiercer than that.

*****

I get by with a little help from my friends: I’ve selected photos of women I respect (all of them over fifty). Polished professionals (and skilled artists) who fling themselves in front of a camera with gratitude and confidence. Look at these gorgeous results! They aren’t rail thin or spring-chicken young. They aren’t models or household names or regulars in the tabloids. Not one of them actually likes having her photo taken, but yet they venture forward (hopefully into a rose colored light) when necessary and get the job done. If they can do it, you can, too.

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Robin Spielberg, composer and author. “The false eyelashes were so heavy I had to keep resting my eyes. This photo was a happy accident!”

Robin Spielberg says:

  • If you feel beautiful, your photos will be lovely. Wear something that makes you feel terrific. It could be a fabric that is cozy, or a dress that you love…or a cape that makes you feel special.
  • Avoid shooting first thing in the morning! Eyes might be a wee bit puffy
  • Do hire a stylist for hair and makeup
  • Do take “practice photos” with your hair and makeup set to make sure you like how it looks
  • I once had a  photographer retouch my eyelid area at first to get rid of the wrinkles on my lids . . . then I had him undo it. The wrinkles there are mine. I own them and have earned them. Instead of retouching, we relied heavily on good lighting to fill in and illuminate my face. I didn’t need to look younger…I wanted to look my best self.
  • Jewelry: don’t overdo. Jewelry should not distract from the portrait. Choose statement earrings or necklace but not both. If you have a statement necklace, wear light earrings close to the ear. If you have statement earrings, wear little or nothing around the neck.

*****

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Holli Ross, jazz vocalist

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Holli on the beach.

Holli Ross says:

  • Go for early morning light or the golden hour light-late summer afternoon (an hour before sunset where the sun is still in the sky at a very low angle).  Outdoor shots help keep costs down. A) don’t have to pay for a studio and B) that low angled light helps immensely for filling in (ahem) gravity’s nasty work.  The full length shot was 7 AM above was taken on a Jersey Shore beach. I was dead tired but we used the “Starbucks” app for making me look more awake than I was.  It was pretty hysterical getting dressed in a boardwalk bathroom.  Tasteful mega makeup and flowing gowns are not the usual fare in that part of the world (think Housewives of New Jersey) or their public bathrooms.
  • The headshot (above) was taken at a train station (hence the stone wall building behind me) on a late fall afternoon on an overcast day that was just glowing.  No Photoshop on that one!  Just lucky I guess.
  • Be aware of looser skin if you’re going to lean your cheek on a hand or squeeze those boobs together.
  • Always think sexy!!!  You’re still that twenty-one year old inside!

*****

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Carol Windfuhr, English tutor and actor. She gets film “extra” work playing upscale European women. Carol uses casual photos for a “real life” effect.

Carol Windfuhr says:

  • Try to moisturize inside and out the night before the photo shoot. Eat light food, and try to get as much sleep as possible.
  • Sometimes I apply a moisturizing mask either the night before, or the next morning. It’s all about moisture and fillers at our age. There are some creams that promise to do that, but so far I haven’t found one that could live up to my expectations.
  • Don’t try to look thirty, when you are over fifty.
  • The most important thing for a woman over fifty is to know her style. To be sure of her look and to realize that her perfect bikini body is gone forever.
  • Find clothes you like and wear them often, with different accessories. Be self confident. Our age group is the new thing! We are consumers, travelers, workers, artists, writers etc. We are attractive and experienced, and on the go.
  • Don’t overuse foundation. It sometimes does the opposite of what it is supposed to do—cover! If it is to heavy it can easily dry out, and emphasize the wrinkles or big pores we try to conceal.
  • I use a good moisturizer and under eye cream. Then I use a tinted day cream. Before I do, I dab on concealer with a thin brush (mine is from Mac). Then comes the foundation. I work it in with my hands.
  • If you have someone who can do good make-up, it is nice to treat yourself. Otherwise try out different looks. The more natural, the better. Too much make-up can make us look older.
  • Emphasize either the lips or the eyes. Never both.

*****

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Daryl Sherman, New York City Piano Girl legend and winner of this year’s Hot House award for Best Jazz Vocalist

Daryl Sherman, who makes it a point to shred, crumple, or delete unflattering photos (always a good idea) says she has one iron clad rule: “I play the piano . . . I pose for photos at the piano and around the piano . . . but I  never sit on top of the piano for a photo!” Daryl speaks candidly about the perils of airbrushing and too much retouching: “Kids tell it like it is: a five-year-old boy (his parents are fans of mine) looked at my recent CD cover photo. He looked up at me and asked ‘did you wash your face for this photo?’ I responded “oh, the photographer really washed my face!’ ”

*****

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Anne Hartkamp: singer, composer, lyricist, songwriter. Photo by Ann Weitz.

Anne Hartkamp says: “Hire a good photographer. Ann Weitz, who did my photos is a “real woman” behind the camera! And a very kind and inspiring person, on top of her amazing photographic skills.”

*****

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Tracie Frank Mayer, real estate maven and co-founder of  menopausebarbees.com

Tracie Mayer comes from show-business royalty and gets invited to lots of high profile events, the kind of shindigs that involve red carpets, slinky evening gowns, and paparazzi. Her advice? “If you’re walking through fire, just keep going. You will eventually reach the other side.”

*****

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!

September Song

HandsEvery September the urge strikes me like a ton of books. I want new binders, new pencils, and a new outfit with matching shoes.

In the seventh grade, I leaped over the puberty moat and landed in Miss Padjune’s class at Prospect Junior High. Nothing so dramatic about that, but I was the only kid from Chatham Village attending a Pittsburgh public junior high school. Chatham Village, a stylish and manicured neighborhood encircled by a much larger, run-down community, had gained a reputation for being a place where rich kids lived. So not true. I mean, my dad was a jazz drummer, not exactly a profession conducive to luxury automobiles and fancy vacations. We did have matching towels and decent haircuts, and we ate dinner together most nights before Dad went out to play a gig (or two). Rent in Chatham Village was cheap. Technically, my family struggled just like everyone else’s family, but we somehow managed to look upscale while counting our pennies.

Kids from outside the Village perceived us as snobby, stuck-up, conceited—words I would hear often while slogging through my teen years. I played tennis (free courts), I played the piano, my parents encouraged me to do well academically. Prospect Junior High School in the early seventies offered a safe haven for pot smokers and jocks. They didn’t send a welcome wagon for kids like me. It was common knowledge that the Village offered its residents a semi-annual Gin and Tonic Tennis Tournament, a private day camp that taught kids how to weave baskets and do modern dance, and an annual Fourth of July parade that featured my family marching through a courtyard while wearing three-cornered hats and playing “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.”

If you were a kid from Chatham Village entering Prospect Junior High in 1970, you were destined for the losing side of the popularity contest; destined to end up in Mr. Ging’s office with your mother and a sneering badass girl named Kathy who kept threatening to rip your hair out; destined to be laughed at because you were good at synchronized swimming and liked to play Bach inventions.

We weren’t rich, we were barely hitting middle class, but we were masters of disguise, living stylish lives on shoestring budgets—an attribute that would come in handy in my adult years.

I didn’t know any of this on my first day of seventh grade. I thought all twelve-year old girls showed up for class in a plaid kilt with matching forest-green tights and suede loafers with tassels. Talbot’s Jr, the “kick me now” back to school outfit. Who wears green suede loafers to junior high school? Village girls, that’s who. My little friends from the Village had tottered off to private schools, Catholic schools, schools where plaited hair and knee socks were acceptable. There I stood, friendless in a room full of hipper, cooler kids. I was terrified. Miss Padjune put all of us in a circle and asked us to introduce ourselves. Nervous, but still convinced my outfit was killing, I proudly said, “Robin Rawsthorne.”

Everyone laughed. That’s when I first thought the shoes might have been a bad idea.

I turned to face the boy standing next to me in the circle. He seemed neither stoned nor particularly buff. He was tall and skinny, just like me. “I am Roy Reeves,” he said.

And then, for some mysterious reason, he threw up all over my new shoes. Roy Reeves had the heaves.

Maybe he was terrified, too.

If there is anything worse than going through the first day of junior high wearing green suede loafers, it’s wearing green suede loafers covered in vomit. I scrubbed and scrubbed in the girls’ restroom, but Roy Reeves had left his mark on those tassels and nothing, nothing would remove the stain. Or the stench.

I learned a big lesson that day: It’s better to be subtle when entering a new environment. Save the fashion statement and the look at me now attitude for later on, once you have your feet (and your tassels) wet. Sneak in. Stay in the back row.

And if anyone looks like they might barf, run.

Good advice for musicians, actually. I’m starting a new piano job this month. I love that it’s happening in September, when all of my back to school instincts kick-box into high gear. I tend to keep hotel jobs for long periods of time. The last one, at Schloss Lerbach, lasted fourteen years—a lifetime for a freelance musician. It seemed like one of those gigs that would go forever. But the castle closed. Just like that. Poof! If a pianist plays in a castle and there’s no one there to hear? Never mind. Chapter closed.

I began talking to the fine people at the Excelsior Hotel Ernst a few weeks after Lerbach shut the castle doors. It quickly became clear that the Excelsior—one of those grand European hotels you see in artsy films about eccentric travelers—was a good match for the music I play. Hotel management asked me to select a Steinway for them. I found a 1940 Model “A” with a unique history, the story of which I’ll reveal as soon as I collect enough facts to spin them into fiction.

I’ll be performing every weekend to accompany a very proper British Afternoon Tea. Yes, I’ll be an American pianist playing for a British Tea in a German hotel—a multi-culti mishmash that I’m hoping will work for everyone involved. The hotel is warm, inviting, and snooty enough to make each guest feel stylish. Blues and golds and fine, fine china. Warm scones. Art that looks old and important. Macaroons that arrive daily from Paris. Staff—some of them there for decades—groomed in the art of soothing jittery nerves and inferiority complexes. A place where epaulettes and clotted cream rule the day. I’ve discovered over the years that elegance encourages good manners. A proper tea is civilized, sort of like a set of matching towels or a good haircut.

Nine months have passed since I last worked a steady hotel gig. I’ve played some nice concerts and a few weddings, but, this time, leaping over the back to school moat involves more than a wardrobe choice. I play without notes in front of me—a combination of memory and improvisation—and recalling what I know can be challenging. I remember how to play the pieces; I just don’t remember that I know them. Lists. I am making lists. I am making lists about the lists.

I’ve also embarked on a physical fitness program destined to keep me strong for each of my three-hour piano marathons. Gym, swim, play, wine, sleep—the back to school agenda for older pianists.

I confess to having a new outfit. With matching shoes. No green, lots of black. Perfect for the bruise-colored German palette. I’ll blend in. I’m still thinking about tassels. Should I, or shouldn’t I? I can’t say the word tassel without thinking of poor little Roy Reeves. Maybe I’ll pass.

I shall show up on my first day of work, try to avoid anyone who looks queasy, and joyously embrace the chance to start over. I’m fifty-seven—what a blessing to begin again, at my age.

I’ve purchased a new binder, in case I need to take notes. First entry: Lucky 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.

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

What to Wear

“What to Wear” is an excerpt from Goldsby’s book, Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl. {Bass Lion Publishing}

 

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Photo by Andreas Biesenbach

A middle-aged American woman playing the piano at a castle in Germany has legitimate wardrobe concerns. Most cocktail dresses and evening gowns are designed for chichi events that involve nothing more strenuous than posing in a corner with a tilted head, a shy-sly Princess Di smile, and a fluted champagne glass. They are cut of silk and velvet, feature beaded panels, and often include ruching that slips, slides, and snags if the wearer dares to inhale, laugh, or eat a meatball.

It might look easy, but playing the piano for hours at a time involves an athletic prowess more often associated with trapeze artists and archers. We swing and sway, we remain statue-still while we focus our minds and bodies, we stretch, and we leap without a net when necessary. Imagine one of the Flying Zucchinis performing in high heels and a full-length evening gown with a fishtail skirt and a jewel-encrusted top that chafes her underarms. Treacherous. Or what if William Tell had been forced to shoot that apple from his son’s head while an annoying puffed sleeve with seed-pearl embroidery slipped from one shoulder? Poor little Walter would have wound up with an arrow in his thigh. Or worse.

It might be a niche market, but really, someone should come up with a line of gowns for performing female musicians. Something with a little pizzazz, a little Lycra, and a lot of draping.

“Well,” says my friend Amy. “Except for the pizzazz part, that would be a burqa.” She plays the guitar and has her own wardrobe issues.

I pause for a moment and think about a cocktail pianist wearing a burqa.

“A burqa with bling,” I say.

“Perfect,” she says.

My Wardrobe: A Brief History

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Back in the seventies I loved to dress like Barbie. When I was eighteen I wore tube tops and Dolly Buster halters combined with see-through chiffon skirts so short they had matching panties. They were called Sizzlers. Bad enough to go to school like this, but I was showing up for cocktail piano gigs in these getups. Because I was eighteen and on a budget, I also wore secondhand prom dresses to work—not the prim and proper Little Bo Peep gowns popular with the nice Catholic girls, but hooker-hottie designs intended to make a perfectly healthy teenage pianist look like one of Gangsta Fatboy’s groupies ready to take on the band.

I favored one dress—an electric-blue sateen-spandex thing—that was cut down to here and up to there. It threatened to expose my left breast every time I reached for the bass notes. Did this bother me? No. I learned to play while yanking at the bodice of the dress, wondering why five or six drunken sailors crowded around the piano and stuffed money in my tip jar every time I pounded out “I Feel the Earth Move.” I lunged for the keys and actually believed I had a loyal group of seafaring, gin-guzzling, Carole King–loving fans. But now I know it was the blue dress. They yelled for more. I kept going. In a weird way, that dress taught me how to play. So I suppose it was good for something.

I wore frosted lip gloss and a drugstore fragrance called Wind Song by Prince Matchabelli because my high-school boyfriend saved his money and gave me a bottle for graduation. I decided it would be my signature scent. Forever.

Everything is forever when you’re eighteen.

New York City: The Early Years

In the eighties I dashed from one Manhattan location to another, covering lunches, cocktail hours, and late-night piano shifts in hotels that catered to tourists wearing swollen white tennis shoes with lightning bolts on the sides. When I got to know a high-class call girl named Jennifer who worked the hotel bar sporting a stretchy blue dress similar to mine, I dropped the Happy Ho look and entered a new era of Piano Girl fashion—a makeover inspired by my newfound ability to buy dresses made by companies other than JCPenney.

I developed a fondness for Betsey Johnson, Calvin Klein, and Isaac Mizrahi. I hardly ever paid retail for these beautiful things—I bought them from a member of the Marriott Marquis housekeeping staff who set up shop in a hotel ladies’ room in the toilet stall for the handicapped. She sold her hot-off-the-truck garments by hanging them on rails inside the stall. I shopped at Stall for the Handicapped on my breaks. Maria was a stellar saleswoman, and it was hard to beat the prices.

I remember a bright yellow silk coat I bought from her. It fell to the floor in fragile layers and made me feel like a butterfly when I flitted across the cavernous Marriott lobby. But at the piano the fabric tangled around my elbows and twisted around my knees. I looked like a crumpled piece of birthday-party gift wrap with a head and hands.

Although I hadn’t yet succumbed to support hose or underpants with stretchy tummy panels, I did begin to wear a well-constructed bra. Strap ’em down. During this phase I began searching for the perfect strapless bra, a mission that continues to this day. Structural engineers know how to hold up multiple floors of a building with one set of well-placed suspension cables, so you’d think they could design a comfortable strapless bra for a pianist. But structural engineers don’t have to sit at a Steinway playing arpeggios while wearing an armpit-exposing camisole in a delicate shade of taupe. I doubt that many of them even know what taupe is, which is okay because they have more important tasks.

The thing is, no one forced me to dress this way. It was a choice. I loved dressing up, I loved shopping, I loved leaping out of taxis in my jeans and sneakers and running to the ladies’ room with my gig bag strapped over my shoulder. I never carried music or set lists or sound equipment. Instead, I brought along a collapsible evening gown in a festive color—raspberry! mango!—and a tissue-thin scarf I could throw over my shoulders when the meat-locker air conditioner kicked on in the middle of my second set. I also carried two pairs of high heels, knowing that my pedal foot would start to ache a few hours into the gig and I would want to change shoes. One pair of golden sandals, purchased on sale at Bergdorf Goodman in 1984, has been with me for twenty-five years. They still hurt. They’re still in my gig bag. They are the only things from that part of my life that fit, so I cling to them, thinking they’ll march me back to my twenties if I ever need to return. They are the Piano Girl version of Dorothy’s ruby slippers, twin metallic talismans that remind me of home.

The accessory pocket of my gig bag held glittery barrettes, rhinestone clips, and sparkly pins and necklaces from Grandma Curtis, all of them offering a pain- and risk-free way to smarten an outfit while reminding me of her. Before she died she had packed all of her costume jewelry in a white cardboard box. “These things are for Robin,” her note said. “She’s the only one crazy enough to wear them.” After she was gone I would play her favorite song—“Theme from Love Story”—and feel the weight of her fake-topaz bracelet circling my wrist. Shalimar was my fragrance. Spicy, flashy, a little too expensive, but very grown-up. Grandma Curtis would have loved it.

New York City: The Final Years

For several years my closet resembled a black hole. I became a reverse negative of myself—blonder hair, darker clothes, skinnier body. I was nobody’s trophy wife, but away from the piano I looked the part—half artiste, half social X-ray. I entered my minimalist stage, favoring gowns that didn’t deviate from the color palette of, say, a bruise.

New York City was full of paper-thin women in black crepe dresses. I wanted to be one of them and blend into the gallery-going museum-hopping chic-but-trendy kir-sipping crowd—but, with a grand piano in front of me, I never quite fit in. I hid behind my hair and accessorized my outfits with items from Grandma’s cardboard box. I discovered her clip earrings with dark stones—polished hunks of jet and deep-blue faux sapphire that suited my wardrobe and my mood.

I wore Chanel No. 5 because it smelled the way I felt. There, but not really. I didn’t believe in forever anymore. I tossed the scarves. They were driving me crazy, the way they kept slipping off and falling into fabric puddles at my feet.

I learned to despise hyphenated fashion terms like peep-toe, demi-cup, semi-gloss, push-up, and sling-back when I discovered that all of these things not only looked tacky-tacky, they hurt-hurt. I rearranged my closet, getting rid of anything with ruffles, sequins, bright colors, or feathers. I wanted plain and simple. I wanted people to stop looking and start listening. I wanted loose and light and noncommittal, preferably in a medium-weight silk shantung, with sleeves. I wanted to disappear into a midnight-blue piano mist.

Then I fell in love, an event that called for a new look. I bought an Anna Sui bridal minidress that I could also wear to piano jobs, minus the giant veil. Color returned to my wardrobe. I stopped disappearing and decided it was okay to be both seen and heard.

Forever made a comeback.

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Photo by Andrew W. Renner

Bergisch Gladbach, Germany

Long before I began playing at Schlosshotel Lerbach, I spotted a ball skirt in the window of the Cologne Laura Ashley store. I dragged my family into the store so I could touch the skirt. Pale pink roses were embroidered on the rich crème silk, and three underlayers of silk and tulle gave the garment a gentle poof. It was the perfect skirt for, say, a lunch date in eighteenth-century Versailles. Not exactly optimal for a day trip to the Cologne Zoo, which was the extent of my social life in the late nineties. I had taken four years off from piano gigs in upscale hotels, opting instead for babies and writing at home. Rewarding, but lonely. My glamorous wardrobe, a size too small and several years out of style, sat in the back of my closet. I claimed not to miss the dress-up routine, but I couldn’t explain the sadness I felt whenever I caught sight of all those pretty things, gossamer souvenirs of a past I was happy to have escaped.

In an act of kindness I shall never forget, my husband waited for the end-of-season sale, sneaked back to Laura Ashley, and bought that skirt for me. Two weeks later, the Schlosshotel Lerbach director invited me to play at the castle. It was almost as if he knew I had the right outfit. I wore the skirt, and the maître d’, a lovely man named Monsieur Thomann, tossed pink rose petals on the piano. I’ve been there ever since. I still have the Laura Ashley skirt, along with a large collection of formal dresses purchased on sale over the last decade. They are beautiful things, but decidedly uncomfortable.

My pianist friend Robin Spielberg told me that a grand-piano pedal once ate her ball gown. I never really believed her until it happened to me. The bottom half of a full-length gown can easily become prey to a piano’s pedal system. One moment you’re fine, the next thing you know—schwoop!—you’re being sucked into the piano. And the more you pedal, the further in you go. The only choice is to rip the skirt out of the pedal, accept the damage, and soldier on with the music.

The older I get, the more I consider how nice it would be to get away from all of this twisting, pinching, and gapping and wear, say, a bathrobe to work. Or at least a ball gown cut like a bathrobe. I remember one pianist in New York City—let’s call her Sandy—who got in trouble for wearing a Statue of Liberty outfit, complete with headpiece. It was hard to make a bad wardrobe choice in mid-1980s Manhattan, but Sandy’s caftan and spiked crown caused a minor uproar with the Marriott management. The other Piano Girls and I laughed at the time. What was she thinking?

Now I wonder if Sandy was on to something. I play at a castle. I could, if I wanted to, wear a tiara, preferably something tasteful with very large emeralds. It would draw attention away from my body, which I could then drape in a velvet cape or an ermine-trimmed robe. I’d wear relaxed-fit pants under the cape, along with an expensive support bra capable of sequestering the twins during those bass-note lunges. So far, my fear of looking like Queen Elizabeth has stopped me from following through on this idea. Even Grandma Curtis, lover of all things sparkling and bright, drew the line at wearing tiaras. Plus my teenage daughter would never talk to me again if I started wearing a crown to work.

Fact: I now spend more money on undergarments than I spend on dresses. Ball gowns, with their nipped waists and tight bodices, require major foundation help. Do not get me started on Spanx, those flesh-colored medieval instruments of torture meant to smooth out the mature figure. Other women swear by them. They make me feel like a stuffed sausage—a very mature stuffed sausage—and that’s not a great thing when I’m trying to make music. “If you look good you feel good” does not apply to a fifty-year-old woman who plays the piano for a living. If I feel good, I am probably wearing my Ultimate Pajamas, a sweat suit, or a potato sack. Nobody feels good sitting at the piano in a skintight satin dress with a boned corset—unless, of course, she is eighteen, oblivious to pain, and wearing Wind Song eau de toilette.

Which leaves me with my present-day wardrobe dilemma. Shall I chuck the fancy gear and start dressing like a man? A reliable tuxedo would be a welcome relief after so many years of death by evening gown. I can feel it coming on, another wardrobe makeover—this one, finally, focused on comfort.

Grandma Curtis will continue to provide her glitter-girl accessories. But I shall wear lovely suits in lightweight wool, with loose-fitting pants and non-clinging jackets. I’ll select silken blouses in jewel tones and lingerie that’s soft and non-constricting.

And the Bergdorf Goodman golden sandals? They will stay in my gig bag, polished and ready to go, just in case I have another change of heart. They’d even look good with a burqa.

***

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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Up, Up, and Away

I flew for the first time in 1973, the year I turned sixteen. I was headed to New York City to visit Aunt Pinky. The trip, a birthday present from my parents, came on the kitten heels of an unfortunate incident involving a bottle of vodka mixed with Hawaiian Punch, a football player named Mark, and a front closing bra that didn’t close on time. Hung-over, I had green skin and the kind of spiraling nausea that leaves one woozy for days. Grounded? Not me. My parents drove me to the airport and delivered me to the gate of the Allegheny Airlines terminal. I’m guessing Mom and Dad assumed the swoop-dee-doo motion of the flight would be punishment enough. Even when sober, I’ve always suffered from motion sickness.

A chain smoking middle-age businessman (quite possibly a perv, but no one thought of this in 1973) assured my parents he would look after me. He sat next to me and blew smoke in my ear while clutching my arm and whispering: “All those teeny tiny houses and teeny tiny people down there, drinking their little martinis and making love while we fly over them and contemplate life. Makes you wonder what the hell we’re doing up here. Makes you believe in God. Let’s pray.”

I wasn’t wondering about anything. And forget about praying. My main goal during my first flight was to avoid throwing up all over my new black turtleneck sweater.

Things have changed a lot in the last forty years. As I grow older I’m choosing to stay grounded whenever possible. Still, memories linger—bumpy journeys over oceans, majestic mountains, and amber waves of grain; OJ Simpson inspired dashes through crowded terminals (with diaper bag and stroller); joyous arrivals and tearful departures (or is it the other way around?); moments of anticipation while waiting for my Rimowa at the baggage claim black hole. My most memorable episodes feature my kids. Come fly with me as I take a trip down Memory Tarmac.

 

Head in the Clouds

“Wow, says John. “Nothing like the smell of two hundred passengers opening their peanuts at the same time.” Baby C shares my seat. He is ten months old and a lap-full. We are flying from LaGuardia to Pittsburgh to hand him over to my dear sister, who has graciously agreed to babysit while we fly to Germany to check out a job in Cologne.

I used to fly First Class or Business Class (free upgrades!) but that changed once I had a baby. One look at a gate-checked stroller or a diaper bag, and, well, back of the bus for Junior and me.

“Man,” says John. “Those peanuts really smell awful.”

My eyes cross as the odor hits me. I feel an icky, warm liquid spreading over my thighs.

“That’s not peanuts,” I say to John. “That’s your son.”

Here’s what they don’t tell you in mommy school: Babies are prone to Exploding Diaper Syndrome when flying. Something about the pressure change in the cabin causes a sonic poo detonation so drastic that, unless you are equipped with a complete change of clothing for your infant, a hazmat suit for yourself, and a hose, you are screwed.

I have none of these items with me. I don’t even have a diaper bag. I’m traveling with one extra diaper for C. My sister has a baby boy the same age as C and has instructed me to travel light, since she has a well-stocked baby station.

Passengers stare at me and wrinkle their noses, some of them disguising disdain with vaguely sympathetic nods and snarky smiles. Due to turbulence the seatbelt sign remains on. I strip off C’s clothes on the aisle floor—it’s like wrestling with an oiled baby seal—but the flustered flight attendant sees what’s happening and escorts us to the restroom.

I scrub and rinse and scrub some more. I end up depositing his Baby Gap overalls, onesie, and pullover in the trashcan. Even his socks are filthy, so I ditch them, too. What else can I do? If I don’t get rid of the offending garments before reentering the cabin I’ll cause an international incident.

We land and I carry him, wearing only a diaper, to my sister.

What?” she says. “Don’t they have baby clothes in New York?”

“Don’t ask.” She looks at my splattered wool pants, the soiled cashmere blazer I had purchased for my European adventure.

“Oh,” she says. “Exploding Diaper Syndrome?”

“Is that what they call it?”

“Even the socks?”

“Even the socks.”

“Welcome to motherhood.” She wraps baby C in her wool shawl, covers him with a fleece blanket, tucks him into her double stroller next to his cousin, and rolls away.

8.Airplane.Head in Clouds

Photo by Menina E. Nuvens

Fly Me to the Moon

Off we go to Germany. We’re moving!  Little C and I will fly from Pittsburgh and meet John at JFK. Once there, we’ll board a flight to Cologne, where we’ll make a permanent home for our family. Movers have already packed and shipped my piano and most of our furniture and art.

It’s 1994 so airline officials allow my father to board the plane with C and me, just to help out with all of our stuff and make sure we’re settled into our seats.

It’s an emotional goodbye, and my heart hurts when he bends down to kiss his grandson goodbye. “Remember,” he says to C. “Remember, if you need anything, anything at all, whatever you do, don’t call me!” It’s an old joke that always makes C laugh. He might not understand the words, but he gets that his grandfather is funny, and that’s enough for him.

We arrive at JFK. John is not there waiting for us. I have forgotten that each airline at JFK has its own building. I wait for John for an hour. Where the hell is he? I’m a woman traveling alone with a toddler and a truckload of stuff. The least he could do is meet me at the gate. We don’t have cell phones so I can’t call him. Should I travel to him or will he meet me here? We are playing airport chicken, hoping the other party shows up first. Finally I take my chances and board the aptly named Terminal Bus. When we arrive at Lufthansa I spot John in the distance, pacing and looking at his watch. He has two large suitcases of his own, a couple of carry-ons, and a bass in a traveling case the size of a refrigerator. I might have the baby, but he has the bass. He wins.

The rep at the Lufthansa counter, who looks at us like we’re the Slovenian Traveling Circus, talks John out of buying an extra seat for C. She says the flight is empty and we shouldn’t waste the money. Under the age of two, C still qualifies to be a lap baby. Huge mistake. The flight is packed. Packed! Who knew Germany was so popular? We spend nine hours on board with a feisty toddler (lap baby, my ass) who has decided to channel Robert Deniro’s performance in Cape Fear. He doesn’t sleep, not one wink, and when we arrive in Germany he gets away from me and tries to crawl through the fringe on the baggage conveyor belt. I am so tired I almost let him do it.

 

3.Airplane

 

My Beautiful Balloon

We live in Germany but, determined to celebrate an American Christmas, we have flown back to the USA for the annual family gift bonanza, several visits to a food trough, and an amniocentesis because I am pregnant with our second child.

The results come back a few hours after John has started his trip back to Germany. I am staying in Pennsylvania for another few weeks with C, who has just turned three.

The doctor calls to tell me we’re expecting a girl. Thinking John will want to hear the news before boarding a plane in Boston, I have him paged at the airport. The gate officer calls him to the phone.

“It’s a girl!” I say

“It’s a girl!” John repeats.

“It’s a girl!” yells a Greek chorus of smartly uniformed American Airlines well wishers, anxious to congratulate my dashing husband on the birth of his daughter, unaware that she won’t be born for another six months.

Being a smart guy, and sensing an upgrade in the stars, John smiles, says a modest “thank you,” and never mentions he had been responding to a test result, not the actual birth.

“We’re upgrading you to Business Class,” says one of the workers. “Congratulations, Mr. Goldsby!” He boards, orders a scotch on the rocks, and flies the friendly skies.

Two weeks later I also fly through Boston—with little C—on our way back to Germany. Swollen with pregnancy and sad to be leaving friends and family, I look in my purse and realize I’m traveling with twelve Matchbox cars and one MAC Viva Glam lipstick. C and I sit in the back of the plane. I read Cars and Trucks and Things That Go to him until I’m hoarse—this is before in-seat entertainment systems become standard gear on all overseas flights—and wonder why proud dad gets to sit up front with his beverage of choice, but pregnant mom and hyper-toddler have to hang out in the bleacher seats with juice boxes.

Obviously word is out about Exploding Diaper Syndrome.

7.Airplane.Clouds

My Girl

Unlike her brother, baby J is a dream passenger—the poster child for international infant travel. The sound of an airplane engine works like Valium on her. Virgin Atlantic provides a baby cot that folds down from the bulkhead. She is thirteen months old and quite long for her age, but doesn’t mind being stuffed into the cot. She falls asleep before we leave Frankfurt, wakes up once to eat, and stays asleep for the rest of the flight. Angel baby. A mile-high Moses jammed in a basket that’s too small.

Her brother sits behind us with John. He has a toy Batmobile with him that shoots inch-long plastic flames. He behaves himself until the screen drops down and the in-flight movie—a disaster film called Volcano—begins. Volcano is not suited for four-year olds, but what can we do—we are inches away from the screen. Our son has refused to close his eyes for even one minute of the marathon flight, and short of blindfolding him there’s no reasonable way to keep him from watching the doomed actors running from the rumbling mountain. When the volcano erupts—boom!—C can’t contain himself and, in a John Waters-inspired moment, shoots his plastic flames into the lap of a fragile young man seated across the aisle. The man shrieks. I can hardly blame him—the poor guy has been sitting there engrossed in an adventure film about molten lava and something that looks like a sizzling ember flies right onto his crotch. We don’t confiscate the Batmobile, but we do pocket the flame attachments. Years later, I will find one of them tucked in the lining of my jacket.

2.Airplane

In the Hudson

Our two kids, C and J, are flying alone to the USA. The airline requires a chaperone. Fine, but C, age 15, towers over most adults, and J, an athletic young lady, is not exactly a shrimp. The Air France attendant assigned to accompany my two sweet American children looks aghast when she sees our studio-wrestler sized youngsters. C, in his original gangsta phase, refuses to wear the “Unaccompanied Minor” blaze-orange ID tag around his neck (who can blame him?) and stomps off with the attendant. Julia scurries behind them. I feel bad for the chaperone—she’ll have to drag them a gazillion miles through Aéroport de Paris-Charles-de-Gaulle to put them on the flight to Pittsburgh. Really, these people don’t make enough money.

All goes well, until the return journey.

As most mothers will testify, it’s impossible to sleep when your kids are in the air. At three in the morning, I drag myself out of bed to check their progress on my computer flight tracker. A note tells me their flight from Pittsburgh to Paris has been “diverted.” To New York City. This is one week after Captain Sully Sullenberger has made an heroic emergency landing in the Hudson River. I wake up my husband.

What’s wrong?” he asks.

“They’re in the Hudson,” I say. “Flight diverted. Diverted! Diverted!”

“Who is in the Hudson?

“Our kids. Maybe. There was an emergency landing. Their flight has been diverted. That’s a bad word, diverted. They’re somewhere in New York. Alone.”

“Well,” says John. “Nothing we can do about it until the morning.”

Then he goes back to sleep.

C and J arrive safely the next day, eighteen hours late. I expect to see two shaken and exhausted kids dragging themselves into our welcoming arms. Instead, they bound through the sliding doors, chocolate-pumped, Sprite-fueled, and larger than life. Have they grown? Probably.

“Broken rudder,” says C. “It was so cool—we flew around in circles for a long time so the captain could get the right angle for the landing. Then, after we landed, they left us on the airplane all by ourselves for a long time until they figured out what to do with us. Home alone in New York!”

“Yeah,” says J. “It was really cool.”

“Wait,” I say. “Where’s your chaperone?” We have paid almost three hundred dollars for a service that supposedly protects them against kidnapping by hooded gunmen and other hideous fates. The fee also guarantees supervision from one end of the journey to the other, yet here they are, all by themselves, decked out in baseball caps and sunglasses, and chirping about their über cool emergency landing.

“We ditched the chaperone in Paris. There was some lady in a suit waiting for us but we walked right past her. You know, Mom, we don’t exactly look like little kids. We look like real passengers.”

They have survived a broken rudder, an emergency landing, made it halfway around the world, and collected their bags without me hovering and shouting instructions.

I spend the next week feeling jet-lagged, and I didn’t even fly anywhere.

1.Fly

Photo of New York City by Curtis Goldsby

Sunflowers: Remembering MH17

I can’t stop thinking about the sunflowers—beautiful stalks of yellow and brown, their heads tilted toward the pasty Ukrainian sky, looking for light, any light at all. Instead they have been showered with the worst kind of darkness. Innocent bodies—babies and old people and scientists and nuns, dark skinned and light skinned, alone and in groups, intact and in pieces—blasted out of the summer day, flung from the clouds, and dumped randomly into a field of gold.

On July 17th, 2014, my 18 year-old daughter boards a flight from Frankfurt to Shanghai, starting a year of travel as a FAWCO Youth Ambassador, visiting various countries to do volunteer work and promote social awareness to other teenagers. I hold it together at the airport when she leaves, indulging in just a moment of sadness, which I swallow along with a few selfish tears. It’s a mother’s right to cry when her children leave home. Just a little.

I watch carefully as J, clutching her American passport and her Chinese visa, rounds the bend after passing through immigration. I hope for one more wave, a thrown kiss, a wistful smile, but she never looks back. That’s my girl. Seasoned traveler, frequent flyer, world citizen.

She is 18, I tell myself. She is ready for this. She’ll be fine, fine, fine. My husband and I make the 90-minute trip back to Cologne, driving on an endless stretch of Autobahn lined with rolling green hills, cookie-cutter castles, high-speed train tracks, and the occasional IKEA. Puffy clouds, sapphire sky—the world seems hopeful, a friendly planet ready to welcome a teenage girl jetting away on her journey of self-discovery. My nest might be empty, but my heart is full.

We hear the news about MH17, courtesy of a New York Times email alert, shortly after arriving home. After a few calculations, we realize that J’s airplane would have been traveling through the same corridor as MH17 at about the same time. I perch on the sofa, my eyes glued to CNN, listening to media disaster music, while talking heads and “aviation experts” take turns guessing why the plane had crashed. It quickly becomes clear it has been shot down. J’s East China Air flight, it turns out—thank goodness for computer flight-tracking sites—made a fast left turn and headed north at the time of the incident, cruising over Finland to get to China, flying far away from that particular geographical pocket of bloated and power hungry men with rocket launchers.

I know my daughter is safe. Still, thinking of mothers who put their children on MH17 that afternoon, I find it difficult to breathe for the rest of the day. It is summer holiday in Europe. Children leave home, they go on vacations, they take gap years, they volunteer, they explore. We encourage them to go because we want to believe it’s safe out there. And they trust us. They trust us.

Today I watch CNN again as Dutch soldiers, many of them teenagers themselves, carry caskets from airplane to hearse, one by one, in a carefully choreographed ballet of grief. Their military precision suggests a semblance of order in a chaotic world, their meticulousness seems almost exaggerated after the bedlam of the last few days. The King and Queen of Holland, sitting in stiff chairs on the tarmac, pay tribute to the dead, along with dignitaries from the home countries of other victims. The commentator is quick to point out that no one knows which body is in which casket—the remains have yet to be identified—and which passengers, days after the tragedy, might still be lying in a field of Ukrainian sunflowers.

We send our children out into the world. We fret and sweat and worry that they won’t come back. It’s not safe anywhere, we think. They could be shot in an American movie theater or gun-downed in a school massacre. They might be swept away by an Indonesian Tsunami or crushed by a weakened roof in a Baltic snowstorm. They might be maimed by attack dogs or fall in with a bad crowd. I tell myself to calm down—assorted bad guys lurk on every corner, from downtown Pittsburgh to downtown Torez. It’s just as dangerous to keep our kids at home, isn’t it?

“Be careful,” I say. “Be careful out there.” Every mother I know says the same thing to her children when they leave home—for an hour, for a year, forever.

The Dutch soldiers are still loading caskets into big black cars. I imagine the mothers of the children lost on MH17, out of camera range, numb with grief, wondering which of the hundreds of caskets belongs to them. Right now there is no way of knowing, no way to claim their precious and decomposed bodies, no way to turn back time, no way to say goodbye.

The children, I think. The children. They shot our children out of the sky.

6.Airplane.Sunflowers

Fly Away Home

I can’t remember the last time all four of us flew together. I blame busy school schedules, limited budgets, rising ticket prices. I fly for business six or seven times a year, my husband flies often for work—he was in the USA last week, Ireland right now, Poland in August. The kids fly without worry, just like I did at their age. Between the two of them they have circled the world a couple of times in the last year. Hop on, hop off. Avoid the nachos in Atlanta, order the vegan meal in advance, arrange for the airport pick-up service in Dubai, do anything you can to get the emergency exit row seat.

Wear layers. You never know when you’ll be cold or hot.

I worry. Who doesn’t? Seems like there’s an airplane tragedy every month. I try to look the other way, but I can’t. I recall the words of my first flight companion, the man with the sour cigarette breath and the pesky hands: “Makes you wonder what the hell we’re doing up here.”

Maybe we’re tempting fate. Maybe we’re addicted to new adventure. Ancient cities, sun-soaked beaches, spacious skies, or lands with other charms call out to us. We respond by stalking Expedia, finding the cheapest fare, and jumping on a plane.

Maybe we hate to fly, but we need to make a living, so off we go, collecting worthless frequent flyer miles and foreign coins.

Maybe we’re just trying to get back to the people we love.

Do I miss epic transcontinental flights with manic toddlers on my lap? Do I miss exploding diapers and Matchbox cars and bad in-flight movies about volcanoes? Maybe a little. Maybe not so much. But here’s what I do miss about flying with my kids: I miss the thrill of the plane lifting its heavy feet from the tarmac, the sensation that any destination is within our reach, the absolute certainty that we’ll get there together, a flock of Goldsbys defying gravity and heading home.

***

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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Across the Water

Here’s a song I wrote many years ago with Peter Fessler. I’ve spent a couple of decades flying back and forth from the USA to Europe. It’s never easy, but I wouldn’t change a thing.

5.Airplane.Bird

Across the Water

Lyric: Robin Meloy Goldsby

Music: Peter Fessler

Across the water you stare,

You’ve saved enough for the fare,

Waiting your turn, you dare yourself to leave,

Across the water you’ll sail,

You can always come home again.

Across the water you gaze,

Into a tunnel of haze,

Standing on shore, and trying not to cry,

Across the water you’ll sail,

You can always come home again.

Sailing away,

Sailing away . . .

Across the water you row,

Into the sunrise you go,

Picking up speed, the wake grows ever strong,

Across the water you sail,

But you’ll never come home again.

Sailing away,

Sailing away . . .

Beach Song

9.Morocco

Morocco: Photo by Julia Goldsby

I love the ocean. The most musical of earth’s components, its pulse—rhythmic yet unpredictable—floods my soul with hope, quenches my desire for a wider perspective, and washes away the grit and grime of a landlocked life. In my fifty-seven years, I’ve spent time on beaches all over the world, not because I’m a Birkin-toting, stiletto-heeled jet setter with beach side chateaux in Malibu and St. Tropez, but because I’m the daughter of a musician, I’m married to a musician, and I’m a musician myself. Music, for most of my life, has provided me with prepaid tickets to the destinations of my dreams. Coastal concerts, harbor happenings, beach bashes, seaside shindigs—we’ve played for them all. Short of being the world’s oldest Baywatch lifeguard, I can’t think of any better way to finance my addiction to salt water and sand. Here are a few of my waterlogged memories.

 1966: Miami Beach

My father plays drums in a Dixieland band for a Teamster convention in Florida. He takes us along for a two week vacation. I eat frogs’ legs at an outdoor luau at the Americana Hotel, with a picture of Jimmy Hoffa projected (eight stories high!) on a wall of the hotel. My dad’s band wears red and white striped shirts and straw hats. I like the tuba player.

“Who is this Jimmy Hoffa?” I ask my dad.

“He’s the boss,” says my dad. “He’s the reason we’re here.”

I become a big Jimmy Hoffa fan. After all, he got me to Miami. Frogs’ legs, it turns out, really do taste like chicken.

During the day I hang out on the beach with my brother and sister. Because we spend so much time underwater, my mother dresses us in matching neon tank suits so she can see our pert behinds on the surface of the bright blue sea. After two days of this, even my eyeballs are sunburned, and I have to go to dinner in the fancy hotel wearing eye patches. Fearful of looking like a pirate, I place my mother’s big black sunglasses over the patches—a Jackie Kennedy meets Bluebeard look that I’m sure will pass for Miami Beach-chic. I am temporarily blind and cannot enjoy the 4th of July fireworks that night. It doesn’t matter. All I care about is getting back into the water the next day. My sister and I play a game at water’s edge. We hold hands as the waves break over us, determined to cling to each other no matter what. We roll back and forth, as sand scrapes our private parts and salt stings our eyes. We laugh and hold on tight. A lifeguard yells at us for pretending we are drowning. We’re perfecting our synchronized swimming skills. Some might call it synchronized drowning. We’re having fun.

My father catches a fish while we’re flipping over each other in the water and throws it at us. It tangles in my hair. I develop Fear of Fish and will spend the next few decades terrified of underwater critters.

1.Beach

1969: Conneaut Lake

My father books a summer job in a resort area a few hours away from home. We spend three months in a lakeside cottage next to Conneaut Lake, a dark blue body of water in Western Pennsylvania. Not an ocean, but it might as well be. I live on a sand-covered pier, swimming back and forth to a raft anchored twenty meters away. Too many speedboats churn the water and rock the raft. My sister and I smear ourselves with baby-oil and iodine so we can tan faster. By August, I resemble a rotisserie chicken with strong triceps. My hair turns silver. I hope that Davy Gallagher, the bronze lifeguard who looks like Ivy League Tarzan, will notice me. He does not. But a boy named Timmy Catcher catches me. We dance around each other and play splash games in the lake. Despite rumors of snapping turtles I learn to water ski and get pretty good at it, except for one instance when my hair gets caught in a tow rope and I almost drown.

I worry about those snapping turtles.

In the evenings, I brush pier sand out of my hair and string tiny love beads into necklaces that no one will ever wear. Timmy Catcher kisses me. Just once.

 1976-1983: Nantucket Island

I arrive on Nantucket Island with a dozen suitcases, packed mostly with books and bikinis. I plan to be a waitress, but, two weeks before Memorial Day I land a job playing the piano in a bar. What a thing! I can spend the summer on a New England beach and get paid to play the piano. During the day, I bask in the sun on beaches called Madaket or Dionis or Nobadeer. As far as I’m concerned, any beach named by Indians is the real deal. At night I put on a glittery tube top and a long skirt and play Carole King songs. I’m wave-tossed, sun-kissed, and boy crazy. A swain named Joe steals my heart and teaches me how to surf fish. I am the only female member of the Kamikaze Water Ski Club, a Nantucket Yacht Club sub-group founded by the stoned teenage children of various Titans of Industry. I worry about sharks and other fish with large teeth. This motivates me to avoid falling when I’m water skiing. I perfect a one-ski beach landing after I spot a sand shark swimming too close to shore.

My favorite bikini is white.

I will return to Nantucket every summer for many years. The romance with Joe fades, but my love affair with the island hangs tight. The rhythm of the waves seems like an external heartbeat, nature’s metronome, an urgent throb that counterpoints human instinct.

By the end of my first summer, the subtle pulse of the waves syncs with my own rhythm. I am hooked. The sand shark never gets me.

Photo by Julia Goldsby

Sligo, Ireland: Photo by Julia Goldsby

1983: Haiti

I travel now and then to Haiti where I play the piano for upscale visitors to a fancy-pants hotel—I’m the featured entertainment in a Third World cocktail lounge. Baby Doc is still in office and the atmosphere feels tense, the resort air smug and sticky. When I’m lucky, I get a lift to Ibo Beach. The  road to Ibo is lined with potholes, rocks, scrambling chickens, and artists attempting to sell colorful paintings for a dollar or two. It makes me sad.

After an hour-long dusty ride in an old Cadillac, I take an African Queen boat to Ibo Island—a slice of sun-drenched wonder in a ravaged country, a place where I can stare at the sea and imagine I live in a fair world.

A jellyfish stings me and a Haitian woman treats the sting with vinegar and shaving cream. It burns, but not for long.

I eat too many mangoes.

Muscat, Oman Photo by Julia Goldsby

Muscat, Oman
Photo by Julia Goldsby

1984: Cat Cay, The Bahamas

I fly from my Third World gig to a private island populated by rich Republicans and wild turkeys. Between piano sessions at Bloody Mary brunches and Happy Happy Happy Hour whiskey tastings, I walk pristine beaches, stare at sparkling water and try to figure out who I am. I belong on a beach, but maybe not this one.

Photo by Julia Goldsby

Photo by Julia Goldsby

1991: Princeville, Kauai

After being fired from my seven-year piano engagement at the Marriott Marquis in Manhattan (and replaced by a tuxedo-clad mannequin at a player piano), I fly to Hawaii with my husband, John. Kauai seems a little distant, but my sister has offered us a place to stay. I cash in my American Airlines frequent flyer miles (all those trips to Haiti) so we can fly for free.

The Kauai beaches, manicured but still rough around the edges, remind me of everything I’ve been missing. My husband and I slide down a steep hillside to visit Secret Beach, where huge boulders interrupt long stretches of white sand. We do secret things on Secret Beach. Then we almost kill ourselves climbing back up the hill.

I attempt to overcome my fear of snorkeling when I watch small children and old people frolic in shallow water, chattering about the colorful varmints swimming among us. I hate knowing there are living things in the water with me, but it’s time to overcome Fear of Fish and get with the program. I don a mask and flippers and force myself to enjoy the lovely residents of the sea as they glide past me.

I hate this. I do. Oh look. Electric blue, bright yellow, there’s one with stripes. Isn’t this fun? What if I see a stingray? Or a shark? Or, God forbid, an eel?

Something that looks like Karl Lagerfeld with gills drifts under my right hand.

Very nice. God, I hate this. Look there—a group of tiny orange fish with spikes. Are they following me? Do they bite? Are there Piranha in Hawaii?

While my rigid body tries to enjoy the underwater fin fashion show, a huge dog—I will find out later it’s a Great Dane named Junior—jumps into the surf and begins swimming towards me. When Junior swims into my line of vision, I panic, lose all sense of reason, and imagine I am being attacked by a Kauai Monster Dog Fish. I take one look at his large choppers and churning paws, and I’m sure I’m about to die one of those long, slow, Jaws kind of deaths, where my body flies into the air, the ocean’s froth turns bright red from carnage, and everybody screams and vomits. I forget how to swim and try to run out of the water on my flippers. Junior continues to have fun.

My husband and sister laugh for hours. I swear I will never snorkel again.

My sister makes a bra out of coconut shells and does a dance we call the “Big Butt Hula.”

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Tel Aviv: Photo by Ruben Bauer

1993: Montauk

John plays for an upscale summer party in Montauk, Long Island. We use his salary to finance a few days in a seedy hotel on the beach and hang out with our nine-month old baby, Curtis. Perched on a blanket, we encourage him to play in the sand. He hates sand. He throws it and cries and stays on the blanket. The only thing that soothes him is his father’s baritone version of “Blue Skies,” accompanied by me doing a stupid dance. We have buckets and shovels, but he’s not interested in toys. None of this sandcastle stuff for him. In an effort to get away from the beach, he learns to walk. One step, then two. Not running towards the water, but away from it. Clearly he does not take after my side of the family. Or maybe he already has Fear of Fish.

Montauk, Long Island

Montauk, Long Island

*****

We move to Europe in 1994. Our kids each learn to swim at an early age and, in spite of our son’s dislike of sand, we take occasional seaside holidays whenever we can afford it, or whenever someone pays us to go. We scald our feet traversing the dunes of Grand Canaria, and teach the kids how to body surf in the freezing North Sea on the Belgian coast. We encourage them not to stare at topless sunbathers on the Cote D’Azur, and to wear sturdy swim shoes when navigating the rocky shores of Cornwall. Carrying on with the Goldsby-Rawsthorne-Meloy tradition of “singing for our supper,” the kids have visited some of the world’s most impressive beaches while taking part in educational trips, volunteer opportunities, or music exchange groups. They’ve walked on beaches I’ve never seen, beaches that belong in their memories, not mine.

Slathered in sunscreen and decades past my best bikini years, I remember sitting on the sand and watching my kids when they were little, holding hands and leaping through the surf into deeper and deeper water. I remember the game I once played with my sister. Never let go, no matter what.

Respect the water, dive under the waves, and when you’re older, wiser, and more tired than you want to be, remember there’s magic at the beach. Fall in love a few times. Get a suntan. Feel the salt in your eyes. Encounter a Dog Fish. You might avoid the frogs’ legs buffet, but by all means, do secret things on a stretch of sand where the roar of the water is louder than your own voice.

“Get to the beach,” I tell them. “As often as you can.”

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Mykonos: Photo by Stacey Papaioannou and 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.

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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.

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