The Piano Zone

“People will forget what you said; people will forget what you did; but people will never forget the way you make them feel.” Maya Angelou.

Today, during my steady tea-time job playing the piano at Excelsior Hotel Ernst, I lean into my first set of background music just as our guests are settling in. I play the opening cadence to a quiet piece called “The Village” and absorb the mood of the room.

To my left—a table of six German women of a certain age: blown-out hair, manicured hands, cashmere frocks in soft shades of navy, burgundy, beige. Tasteful jewelry.

On my right—six Emirati gentlemen from London: perfect Oxford English accents, manicured reverse-fade haircuts and trim beards, bespoke suits with embroidered vests. Velvet slippers. Brit-chic, Dubai dash.

In the middle–a recently-engaged middle-aged gay couple: suave and happy and in love. Not glamorous, but perfect. Fluffy sweater vests.

In the back—a clump of four American businessmen: casual Friday jeans and blazers. They hover around one laptop. Holy Grail.

Far-left corner—two PhD candidates from Ghana: gleaming ebony skin, white and pink button-down shirts. Bio-chemists.

Far-right corner—one Korean woman: translucent complexion, skinny black pants, hoop earrings. Tap-tap-taps her phone. Sips a latte, ignores the cookies.

My music means different things to different people, but on this particular day it spills into the room as intended. I quickly enter my piano zone—the intersection of music and humanity—where all seems right with the world, even when it’s not.

***

Maybe you listen to my music at home. Perhaps you’re old school and still buy and play CDs in the car, or you’re a streamer, grabbing music from Pandora, Spotify, Apple Music, or Amazon.

Alexa! Siri! Play Robin Goldsby! 

Here’s something you should know: Two hundred times a year, I play live for global travelers, business people, and ladies (and gentlemen) who lunch. My cache of experience has resulted in recorded music intended to soothe the edges of your tumultuous, noisy life with a lilting waltz, an original ballad, or a mellow arrangement of one of your favorite melodies.

My piano style seems simple. Fragile, even. But effortlessness comes at a price. Unlike many of today’s “internet musicians,” I’ve spent decades playing music for a real audience with real feelings and real-time responses. Because I am constantly connecting to listeners, face to face and heart to heart, I know a thing or two about how to create atmosphere. My recordings are a result of this expertise.

I write this not as a self-rewarding pat on the back, but as a public service announcement for career musicians who continue to perform live in the world’s hotels, lounges, and piano rooms—those of us producing gentle music in a noisy world. We are a rare, but noble breed.

Now, more than ever, we’re needed. Recorded music plays an important role in all of our lives, but live music offers something more. Because it relies on the synergy of audience and musician, it results in compassion on both sides.

I love my job. My unexpected trajectory as a recording artist started out as a side hustle and has transitioned into a semi-lucrative extension of my happy career. Icing on a layered cake.

Contemporary musicians dream of internet fame, YouTube clicks, and Instagram followers—a wobbly kind of success determined by algorithms and social media feedback. In theory, musicians can attract  large audiences without ever meeting a single real person. More power to them. I do not underestimate the considerable appeal of working at home in pajamas.

My generation of musicians has had its own set of goals and challenges. When we were starting out, our efforts usually led to tenuous, pressure-cooker live performance situations—for judgmental juries, squirming recital audiences, apathetic crowds. We worked overtime to conquer our instruments, master technical challenges, and chase away Voice of Doom tirades. Then we hustled onstage and played for the people. They loved us, they hated us, they challenged us.

Some of us learned to burn through “Cherokee” in all twelve keys, while others focused on grandstanding the end of every concert with a flawless, flaming interpretation of “Rhapsody in Blue.” We competed and compared our budding selves to standards set by Ghosts of Musicians Past. Some of us strived for stardom and achieved it. A handful of my musical colleagues—those with big “voices” and the energy and drive to compete—prospered. Most of us ended up chasing stardust, clutching at effervescing, vanishing trails left by legends and heroes.

Regardless of the musical paths we followed, we experienced success and failure in real time in front of live audiences. A privilege. Also—for those of us prone to pre-concert anxiety attacks—a pain in the ass.

I’ve never thrived on bigger, faster, louder, better. Early in my career, my choice of smallness felt like giving up. Until one day, it felt more like giving. My voice might be tiny, but—it turns out—it’s as joyful as the powerful voices of my razzle-dazzle larger-than-life colleagues. Joy comes in many shapes and sizes. There’s enough of it for all of us. Especially when it comes to live music. I am proof positive that a life as the maker of quiet music—in places where people least expect it—can be a source of unexpected pleasure, not just for the musician herself, but for those who choose to listen.

Pianist Robin Spielberg tells workshop students that musicians preparing for concerts should stop worrying about “performing” and focus more on sharing. Really, that’s what live music is all about. Sharing, connecting. This might sound like spiritual mumbo-jumbo. I assure you, it’s not. Connecting with an audience means everything.

I’ve played ambient music in roadside dives, glitzy five-star Manhattan hotels, third world countries, coastal resorts, and on the European castle circuit. A musician who plays live must read the room, assess the mood, and create an atmospheric cushion of sound with her musical choices. Live music catches the day’s chaos and distills it to a warm elixir for the weary; it streaks a dingy canvas with pastel tones, and weaves a shimmering, aural thread of artistic finery through an otherwise bleak tapestry. The right music adds color and light and depth to a cheerless, one-dimensional world.

Any accomplished musician will tell you—the gig gods do not always look favorably in our direction. Sometimes the braless Pig Lady shows up, the happy-go-lucky shit-faced Dutch bowling team crashes (or trashes) the room, or the perfectly-coiffed parents of screaming twins park the parade-float stroller next to the Steinway and go off to a far corner to sip martinis and eat salted cashews (who can blame them?). The melodies we toss into the room are occasionally drowned out by drunken, doltish behavior, or the maddening din of the blender, the yapper, the dropped tray of champagne glasses. That’s okay—if we’re in the zone, the music bounces back to us.

As Mister Rogers pointed out to me at the beginning of my career: There’s always someone listening.

And as the very wise Ms. Spielberg said: Sometimes the only one listening might be you. But that counts.

So we keep playing. We listen to ourselves. As documented in my first book, Piano Girl, I’ve dealt with my fair share of unruly guests: the choking priest; the gentleman who mistook the inside of the grand piano for a coat-check; the marauding gang of bagpipers droning their way through the middle of my sensitive Michel LeGrand medley; a matched set of interpretive dancers in silver catsuits who gyrated to my music for three hours; a periodontist—complete with a set of chattering teeth—determined to bray “Love Me Tender” through my entire set.

You might laugh. I do.

But today is different; today is all I have. I look at my multi-culti, upscale, sophisticated guests from all corners of the planet. They sip tea and champagne and listen. Uniquely beautiful as individuals, they are more so as a group. I wonder who is the oldest, the youngest, who will die first or live the longest. I wonder who among them might be hiding secrets or illness or shame. I wonder who had to fight the hardest to make it into this room. Oh wait—that might be me.

The music connects us in some small, but decent, way.

***

The German women, the Africans, and the Emeratis—all of them are celebrating birthdays. I play Happy Birthday, anticipating a train wreck when we get to the name part of the song.

Happy Birthday, dear Gisela,

Happy Birthday, dear Xavier,

Happy Birthday, dear Mohammed . . .

The result sounds a little like Happy Birthday, dear  Exgiselamohamahdala.

They applaud, laugh, lean back, close their eyes, and listen some more. The lone Korean woman smiles and puts down her phone. The Americans close the laptop. Score one for the humans.

I stay in the moment, reach into my quiver of songs, and pull back gently on the bow. Time is on my side; tranquility always returns to the space my music occupies. That’s the best, most miraculous part of playing live—witnessing the effect music has on my audience, and in turn, what they give back to me. When I’m in the piano zone, each melody, like a vote for kindness or a prayer for peace, carries a fleeting missive of calm to the neighborhood.  Any song can be a simple act of grace in a violent, broken world. Call it revenge; call it love. It’s the least, and the most, I can do.

***

Urban Piano Photography by James Kezman. Location: Excelsior Hotel Ernst, Cologne, Germany. Check out Kezman’s Tree of Life photo and blog post about Squirrel Hill here.

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl;  Rhythm: A Novel.  New: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip.

New piano album: Home and AwayGoldsby’s latest solo piano album, directly from the artist, at Amazon, or from your favorite streaming channel.

Robin’s music is available on all streaming platforms. Or you can always show up and listen in person! Check out the SCHEDULE page to find out where and when.

Personal note from RMG: I spent much of my summer holiday sorting through recordings and I’ve come up with a gorgeous playlist featuring my favorite “gentle music” players, including Ludovico Einaudi, Robin Spielberg, Christine Brown, Yiruma, Liz Story, et moi. I’m really proud of this playlist and hope it will bring you peace and joy. Right now would be a good time to listen. Click here to listen on Spotify or Apple Music.

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

  • Carol Ann Habich-Traut

    I love your positivity, goes down like a delicious cake… without any of the calories! Keep it up!

  • Augie LaSpiza

    Very excited about your “5-Star Hotel: Solo Piano Music…” collection. I already have the best of those on my private RMG Spotify playlist (and all of the CDs, natch), but your list is introducing me to some artists I had not previously known. Thanks!