The Bear

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In 1966 I play my first piano recital. Scheduled to perform the Bach Minuet in G, I begin the piece. I have practiced efficiently, memorized the music, and prepared for the recital by performing in front of other students.

I am nine years old.

The Minuet in G has two “A” sections and two “B” sections—the form is AABB. I plow through the first half of the piece perfectly, gaining more confidence with every note I toss behind me. Puffed up and full of pride, I finish the first half and launch into the second section. !The first note of the second section is a B natural.

Play Something You Know

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“Did you leave anything at home?” Dad says as he heaves the first of my five suitcases into the big green taxi. “Or did you bring it all with you?”

 The distance from Pittsburgh to Nantucket is 633 miles. It is the summer of 1976—the bicentennial summer. I’ve just arrived on Nantucket Island with an ancient Schwinn bicycle, two frazzled parents, a lot of music banging around in my head, and a vast amount of self confidence. Having just completed my freshman year of college, I’m looking forward to the beach, an army of Ivy League boys, and a waitressing job at a little Italian place called “Vincent’s Italian Family Restaurant.” I’m going to be a real woman and a superb waitress—sexy and sophisticated—conquering the world, one meatball at a time. On my days off I’ll frolic on the beaches of Nantucket wearing a white bikini and no sunscreen. I’ll gain my independence, make some money, have a string of boyfriends, and get a tan. This is my plan.

Yeah, Man

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“What key is this in?” Bob Rawsthorne (my dad), mallets hovering his vibes, asked Johnny Costa, musical director of Mister Rogers Neighborhood as they prepared to record improvised music with complicated changes, live on tape. Playing with Costa was harrowing, inspirational, and full of surprises. Bob called the band the Kamikaze Trio. He and bassist Carl McVicker never knew what Costa would do next—he had a habit of switching keys at the last minute, causing low-level panic for his experienced sidemen. In the shoe-string budget world of public television, the trio was usually not offered more than one chance to get it right. Sink or swim.

The Fast Lane

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Here I am, a blond American woman in a short skirt racing down a busy stretch of the German Autobahnat 150 kilometers an hour. I’m too busy driving to calculate the conversion, but I must be approaching 100 miles per hour. I negotiate a curve, my knuckles grip the steering wheel. I pick up speed and feel the G-force—or whatever it’s called—push me back into my seat.

Bottoms Up: Three Conversations about Aging

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I’ve been thinking a lot about aging and the music business, mainly because I’m aging and I’m in the music business. A few weeks ago, I had three age-related conversations on the same day.  Meet Bob, Fred, and Jörg Achim, three of my musical heroes.

My Celebrity Endorsements

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Halfway through the 2018 Christmas season, while running a Google search on my name (I only do this once a month, I swear), I stumbled upon my original composition, “First Snow,” included on a Spotify playlist put together by Kourtney Kardashian (or her people). For me, a sixty-one-year old solo pianist with no people and a decidedly non-cool repertoire of soothing music, this came as a bit of a yule shock. A Kardashian Kristmas. For a moment I considered changing my name to Kobin Koldsby.

Wake Up Santa: Three Variations on a Holiday Theme

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Nothing says “Christmas” quite like a snoring Santa refusing to wake up for the holidays.

The Piano Zone

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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 paints a dingy canvas with pastel streaks, 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 bleak, one-dimensional world.

Limelight

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The older I get, the more I respect the tenacity required to balance prominence with virtuosity. George Benson is clearly an artist dedicated to the craft of making music, but he’s also a stalwart celebrity, keen on maintaining his judiciously-groomed notoriety.  George has been walking the celebrity tightrope for decades and, aside from the current gorge irritée, has remained ready, steady, and in the game. I can’t wait to meet him. I truly admire musicians—famous or not—with careers that span decades. As my dad likes to point out: “It’s easy to have a hit; it’s much more difficult to have a career.” Not that there’s anything wrong with a hit.

The Bench

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I love Paris. But just once I would like to visit when it is not hot enough to fry an ouef on the sidewalk. After our 2017 fun-filled adventure with Robin Spielberg and Larry Kosson—also known as the sweat your ass offtour de prance—during which time we bravely climbed Montmartre and cheerfully joined drenched throngs of tourists dragging themselves through the scorched gardens of Versailles—I swore I would never again enter a land-locked European metropolis between the months of June and September. All the Aperol Spritz cocktails in the world could not convince me otherwise. Figures that music would lure me back into the bronzed arms of the city that doesn’t sweat, it glistens. And maybe smells a little. Camembert, you might guess, doesn’t hold up well in the heat. Neither do I.

A Thousand Words

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Scrapbook: A lifetime of photos and memorabilia pasted into an album that will one day jostle for position on a crowded bookshelf, attract some attention at tense family reunions, collect dust, and—a generation or two down the line—land in a dumpster. Scrapbook to scrapheap. Not very hopeful. Still, we persist with making paper shrines to memories of lost childhoods. Show me a woman who doesn’t collect the flotsam and jetsam of her children’s lives and I’ll show you a woman with ice cubes (and possibly gin) in her veins.

Astoria

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Step lively now. Back in the eighties, during my busiest years as a Manhattan Piano Girl, I had a subway routine. Late at night I took cabs, but when I played during the daytime I would finish my last set, grab my coat, fight for an elevator, join the throbbing crowd of Times Square movers, shakers, and sidewalk dwellers, scurry down into the Forty-ninth Street station, slide onto the RR train, scuffle for a seat, and heave a sigh of relief when I got one. Hoping for a wasabi rush, I would eat my takeout tekkamaki while cruising past subterranean stops for Carnegie Hall and Bloomingdales. I admit it: I had a tuna habit during the eighties.

Emma

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I’ve been thinking a lot about Emma González and the circumstances that plunged her into the bright, white spotlight reserved for America’s budding leaders, shooting stars, and civic heroes. I applaud her valor and admire her authenticity, but I mourn for the childhood she forfeited—the easy-breezy self-consumed teenage years that were snatched from her by shameful gun laws and a mentally-ill boy with access to a bullet-spraying machine.

When I was Emma’s age I stayed busy writing bad poetry and playing the piano. My most valued possessions included a mini-skirt, a maxi-coat, and a perfect black turtleneck (who can ever forget the ‘dickie?”). My hair was shiny and long. I obsessed over shoes. I poured baby oil and iodine on my lily-white skin and baked myself, summer after summer, in an attempt to look like the mahogany Coppertone girl, the one with the puppy pulling down her swimsuit. I wrote song lyrics about sunsets and boys with brown eyes.

The Accidental Insult

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My definition of an Accidental Insult: a comment that causes the recipient to say thank you and cringe at the same time. Most of the musicians I know have developed thick skins underneath their little black dresses and tuxedos. Like it’s not hard enough to smile and remember 3,000 tunes while playing for a chiropractor convention—we must also suffer the slings and arrows, the digs and dings, of well-meaning, slightly-idiotic customers.

The Girl Who Curtsied Twice

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London, November 23rd, 2017. The prince is giving a ball. My daughter, Julia, and I are headed to Buckingham Palace, where I’ll be playing dinner music tonight for HRH, the Prince of Wales, and 250 of his guests as they celebrate the 20th Anniversary of In Kind Direct, an organization that encourages corporate giving for social good. Julia and I, trying to look relaxed and casual, are wearing our very best sound check/meet-the-tech-team outfits, and have our voluminous ball gowns, golden snakeskin sandals, extra bling, and hair spray crammed in a small trolley bag. This particular suitcase has seen a lot of swag in its years on the Piano Girl circuit, but tonight takes the royal cake.

Home and Away

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

Song for My Daughter

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

Magic to Do

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

Holding On, Letting Go

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

The Hostess is on Fire

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