Sea to Shining Sea

photo by rvandermaar

1972. As a teenager, I was keen on seeing the world outside the confines of Pittsburgh, PA—a fine city in the seventies for football (go Steelers), hockey (go Penguins) and Baseball (go Pirates). We had a symphony orchestra (go Mahler), a handful of respected universities, and a rich cultural heritage that rode on the flashy black and gold coattails of steel and oil barons, the savory scent of pierogi, and a peculiar Pittsburgh-ese dialect that caused most of us to sound like second-rate hillbillies crossed with Scottish nobility. 

My family took vacations whenever my parents could scrape together enough money to haul us from the Golden Triangle to the distant shores of Lake Erie, Lake Chautauqua, Conneaut Lake, Lake Geneva. Lake people, we were. Usually my musician father had some sort of gig that financed these trips—a “sing for your supper” strategy that I admired early on and would one day adopt for my own travel purposes.

During the seventies, Mom worked as an executive secretary for a major steel company. Dad, who had a respectable career as drummer, worked around the clock. Money was tight but we managed to live stylishly on a budget. One of my friends—also from a working-class background—thought we were rich because we had matching towels in our bathroom. At our Chatham Village home on Pittsburgh’s Mount Washington (pronounced Mahnt Worshingtahn) we had cocktail hour every evening and sat down to a home-cooked dinner together before Dad dashed out the door to one of his many gigs (sometimes two a night). We argued and laughed and knew we were protected by some dumb luck version of light skin, decent parenting, humor, and adequate public-school education. Back then we didn’t call it middle-class white privilege—but that’s exactly what it was.

One summer our parents announced we would take five weeks off and drive cross country in our beige Plymouth station wagon (which may have had wood paneling) to learn more about our beautiful country and to experience first-hand its abundance of glory. Purple mountains majesty, amber waves of grain, all that. Sea to shining sea. The trip, paid for by my mom’s small inheritance from my grandfather, was presented to the three kids in my family as the adventure of a lifetime. My parents could have used the money for a new car (without panels) or a cruise to nowhere for themselves, but, sensing, as most parents do, the silent ticking of the empty nest clock, they opted for one last family experience, a trip we might all remember.

No GPS, no seatbelts, no internet. We had an AAA Trip-Tick, a roof rack with suitcases strapped to it, and, thanks to dad (AKA Mr. Maps) a detailed plan of where we wanted to be and when.

I was fourteen at the time—head over heels in love with Mark Anthony Lazzaro, the sweet-talking handsome star of the South Hills High School football team. I had yard-long dirty blond hair, braces that gave me a headache, and a gilded, gauzy idea of the future that didn’t extend much beyond winning the next swim meet, showing up at cheerleading camp, or practicing my latest piano assignment—activities that would be impossible to accomplish during a five-week road trip.

Costume opportunity! I packed multiple sets of hot-pants with matching halter tops. I owned a few dresses called “sizzlers” with skirts so short they were sold with matching underpants. Along with a collection of swimsuits and one inappropriate slinky evening gown that I planned to wear in Las Vegas, that was the extent of my wardrobe. 

I have dozens of skewed recollections from that cross country trip. Almost half a century has slipped by since we piled into the car and— bouncing around like pubescent bean babies on the bench seat—set off to see the sights. Memories blur—but here are a few of them.

Heartbroken and missing Mark Anthony Lazzaro, I called him from a payphone somewhere in South Dakota. I had two dollars in change and intended to spend all of it on the call, but a giant bat flew into the phone booth. As much as I worshiped Mark Anthony Lazzaro, I wasn’t going to risk getting a bat tangled in in my hair, so I hung up on him while my sister, Badass Randy, sat in the car and laughed at me. Badass Randy has always adored bats.  

The Badlands (which might as well be called the Batlands) of South Dakota looked like the landscape of Mars. I whistled the theme song from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and roamed through the pitted landscape like an outlaw in a sizzler dress.

We stopped in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and took a cable car into the Grand Tetons. From high in the sky we saw a moose running free. We went on a riding trip and Dad got a horse named Thunder who refused to move.  I wrote to Mark Anthony Lazzaro every single day.

The wild buffalo of Wyoming—hundreds of them!—approached our car and snorted in the windows. We went to a state park for a picnic and a little baseball activity. Dad, forgetting my unique inability to throw or catch anything, threw a fastball at me that grazed the top of my mitt, smashed into my fashionable aviator prescription glasses, and sliced my eyebrow wide open. Blood, so much blood. Dad almost fainted but Mom stayed remarkably calm (she has always been good in medical emergencies). My brother took one look at me and screamed: “She’s blind!”  We staggered into a Jackson Hole ER and they stitched me up. 

Dad dragged us to see the location commemorating Custer’s Last Stand (more precisely known as The Battle of Little Bighorn) on the Crow Indian reservation in Montana.  If you ask any teenage girl what’s on her list of fabulous places to visit, the General Custer Memorial might take last place. I was sporting a large bandage on my forehead and, aside from the hot pants, looked like one of the wounded soldiers depicted in the museum mural. Mortifying. It was 1972, so we were insensitive but didn’t know it, walking the battle ground with Dad making inappropriate jokes about Chief Giant Eagle and his second in command, Walking Bass. To support the Crow community, we stayed in a chain hotel on the Crow reservation. It was a huge inn, with no guests, except for us. Bugs were everywhere and I remember being sad. We stopped making jokes.

We visited Yellowstone and had a snowball fight in our summer clothes. Dad, his fishing rod ever present, managed to catch a few trout, which some of us ate for dinner. 

We cruised into Utah so we could drive really fast on the Bonneville Salt Flats. Without seatbelts we hurtled across the flats at what seemed like 500 MPH. The white family on the white ground speeding into the white sky toward a white horizon. We felt like we were fleeing the earth. I was scared and my eyes hurt from the glare. 

We went to Great Salt Lake where we swam in stinking, viscous water with swarms of tiny insects circling our bobbing heads. Dad said “Float like a cork!” about one thousand times. We stopped to see the Mormon Tabernacle but visitors were not welcome.

One part of the trip involved a five-day rafting trip on the Green River that may have started in Idaho or Utah or Wyoming. Several buff, sun-polished young men with large biceps navigated the rubber rafts through red-stoned canyons, telling us when to hold on tight. During the course of the trip, I developed a crush on Davey the skipper and temporarily forgot about Mark Anthony Lazzaro. 

Sleeping “under the stars” was part of the river trip—an idea that has never appealed to me, mainly because of, well, bats. An unexpected August monsoon also meant that sleeping under the stars meant sleeping in the mud. I got my first period and spent most of it concerned that Davey would see the wedge of pads and paper towels I had jammed in my hot-pants. Davey, I’m guessing, never looked in my direction. 

Wounded eyebrow, first period, mud-sleeping. How much outdoor trauma could one fourteen-year-old girl take? On the day we were to travel through the white-water corridor appropriately called Hell’s Half Mile, Davey warned us the passage would be extremely dangerous due to the rainstorm and speed of the water. He advised us to strap ourselves down. Davey was in the middle of the raft with the oars. My brother and dad were up front with two other passengers. Badass Randy and I were in the back with our mother. Mom traversed the length of the raft making sure each of us was secure—tied to the boat with multiple ropes and secure knots. I rolled my one functioning eye and tried to flirt with Davey. 

Mom—in a classic move from the motherhood playbook—was so concerned about her kids, that she didn’t bother to secure her own position, choosing to hold onto a thin piece of twine that was attached a heavy metal box of frozen chicken. Hell’s Half Mile lived up to its name—scary rapids, huge bolders, and actual valleys in the water’s surface. Mom, clinging to her twine, catapulted into the water. At first, we laughed. But then we couldn’t find her. She was under the raft, her claw-like hand still clutching the twine, which was connected to the chicken anvil, which was jammed against my left foot. Just what I needed—more blood and a missing mother. Davey, who never seemed to panic, panicked. Somehow, he convinced Mom to let go. Eventually, on the other side of Hell’s Half Mile, he fished her out.

Hell’s Half Mile was a very long way from Pittsburgh’s Golden Triangle.

I slept in the mud under the stars that night, a roll of Bounty paper towels wedged in my pants, my foot throbbing, and thought: People pay to do this? Fifty years later, my periods have stopped, but I still have a scar on my ankle from the chicken box. 

To my relief, we moved on to the West Coast. We visited the family of an FBI agent in San Francisco and he took us to lunch in Chinatown and spoke Mandarin to the waiters. In 1972 we didn’t have Chinese food in Pittsburgh,  and this seemed beyond exotic. We swam in the Pacific and visited Disneyland. I remember the Small World ride and that God-awful song. I also recall my devastation when I realized I was way too tall to ever play the part of Tinkerbell, Snow White, or any other Disney princess. If I wanted to work at Disney—which seemed a reasonable career choice to me at the time—my only hope was a gig in a Goofy Costume, or maybe playing the piccolo in one of the bands.

Next stop, Las Vegas. Badass Randy and I wore hooker dresses (electric blue and lime-green Spandex) to see performances of Sammy Davis, Jr., Gladys Knight and the Pips, Steve and Edye. We stayed for three days—probably two days too long—and I spent most of the time feeling fake-glamorous on a lounge chair next to the huge pool at the Stardust Hotel. Dad gave each of us a few dollars in quarters and we played the slot machines. I won ten bucks on my first try and quit. I spent the money calling Mark Anthony Lazzaro from a payphone in the Stardust lobby.

Obstinate, sunburned, and fed up with my family, I refused to get out of the car to see the Grand Canyon. I actually slept through the Painted Desert, or pretended to, because I didn’t want to look at rainbow colored sand or another cactus. I pitched a teen-queen fit when Dad checked us into a seedy motel—the last one with a vacancy in Seven Flags, Arizona—and there were hundreds of crickets in the beds. Crickets! “Harmless,” he said. He moved us to another town, into a cricket-free truck stop with a pool that featured its own family of frogs. Wildlife. It was everywhere.  

Other memories rise to the surface now and then: Hoover Dam, Lake Mead, Old Faithful, Lake Tahoe, Route 66, the Pacific Coast Highway, Yosemite, Wall Drug. Aside from the Chinese food and the damn frozen chicken on the rafting trip, I don’t really remember what we ate. I assume we stopped often at McDonalds. Plain hamburger, pickle and mustard, no fries, vanilla milkshake.

My parents were brave. Dad, determined to record our adventure, had purchased a Super-8 film camera before we left Pittsburgh. The first image in the film is one of my grandmother, her hand raised in a paralyzed, farewell salute—she didn’t understand the concept of a film camera, and posed like she would for a still photo.

I look back at the film now and marvel at our youthful selves, our ridiculous diving board shenanigans, my bandaged head, the buffalo. I keep returning to the start of the trip, the way my grandmother stood in the driveway, bidding farewell, attempting to stop time as the car rolls slowly away.

This land is our land. We saw potential and courage through the prism of privilege. We saw fruited plains, too many statues of white men, and manmade wonders built on the bent backs of immigrants. We crossed bridges and swam under the surface of emerald lakes. We hiked until our knees ached and rode weary horses over glittering, sunlit trails our ancestors had stolen from their rightful owners. We looked down from wind-whipped mountaintops and up from verdant fields into a sky that stretched to the stars and back. We watched waves crash against burning shores. Racism, intolerance, and ugliness were far from our minds.

I was an innocent teenage girl with a boyfriend, a good family, and a future.

I floated, like a cork.

****

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.

Robin’s music is available on all streaming platforms. If you’re a Spotify fan, go here to listen. NEW! Listen to the Piano Girl Podcast. Stories, music, fun. Do you play the piano? Check out Robin’s solo piano sheet music here, including her popular arrangement of the Pachelbel Canon in D.

Air



this hopeful breath may be our last,
aghast, inhale the asphalt sky,
we breathe the ashes of our past.
 
we seek for now an outstretched fist,
persist, resist, we reason why,
this hopeful breath may be our last.
 
as concrete burns through thickened skin,
the din of silence will not lie,
we breathe the ashes of our past.
 
to suffer now and curse the pain,
the stain that spreads from dread, we cry
this hopeful breath may be our last.
 
revenge the muted dead and rage,
assuage our hate before we die,
we breathe the ashes of our past.
 
behold the blades of shredded light,
as night drops in to say goodbye,
this hopeful breath may be our last,
we breathe the ashes of our past.

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 musicians.

We Are the Musicians

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a pianist and the author of Piano Girl (Backbeat Books). She has appeared on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and Piano Jazz with Marian McPartland. 

Photo by Chocolate Dazzles

We are the crooners, the head-bangers, concert stage artists, beer hall grinders, swinging jazz trios, choir accompanists, big band soldiers, guitar-strumming folksingers, hotel ambient players, Broadway pit veterans. We are the buskers, boppers, and bewildered career performers currently pivoting on the precipice of a new era. 

Professional freelance musicians face an uncertain future. Even if society returns to its fast-paced tempo, we will likely encounter closed venues, germophobic fans, and a beaten down audience with no disposable income to afford the luxury of an evening out.

Like it wasn’t already difficult enough to make a living as a musician.     

The overabundance of free content online gives the general impression that we happily share our art form because we love what we do. That’s partially correct, but it’s not the whole story. We might play to challenge ourselves, unbreak our broken hearts, or carve out a corner of harmony in a dissonant world. But we also play to pay the bills.  

Check out the richness of the artist livestream menu and you’ll see everything from desperation to generosity, often served up as a combination of both. Some of us dabble in monetizing the livestream market because we have families to feed, mortgages to pay, children to clothe and educate. Others showcase their talents in exchange for applause and recognition, or to stay on the radar of a general public that has the attention span of a fruit fly. Some of us don’t need the money (yet) or the praise but crave the human connection we make when performing for a live audience. 

It turns out that most of us have been living on the edge for a very long time, even those who seem successful. A busy touring musician, one who relies on live performances to make her living, can suffer the sting of a season’s cancellations and hang in there financially for a few months. Maybe the A-listers can hold out for a few years. Maybe. The lucky among us have tenured teaching positions or full-time orchestra contracts to cushion the blow, at least for the time being. But those of us without a regular paycheck are now scrambling for every dollar—relying on the virtual tip jar, a GoFundMe campaign, a Patreon house of cards, or the benevolence of strangers who have the resources, good taste, and compassion to understand that live music delivers a vital link to our own humanity. 

We create art, we compose soaring melodies and intricate bass lines that paint acoustic portraits of empathy, beauty, ugliness, and grace. This ability separates us from a every other form of life on the planet. Last time I checked, a troop of macaques, gregarious as they might be, were unable to perform or appreciate a Mozart string quartet, a burning version of “Cherokee,” or a choral version of the seemingly never-ending verses of a Dylan tune. 

Is music essential? Yes, no, maybe. Depends who you ask. Music has never been essential for keeping people alive, but it has always been essential for helping us feel alive.  Live music connects us in an impeccably human way. We use our 10,000 hours of practice (20,000 for the over-achievers among us) to tap into universal emotions, shout out the inequities of society, bask in our loneliness, celebrate freedom or recovery or victory, knock down walls or poke holes in plexiglass ceilings, to remember, to dream, to keep moving forward. That’s what live music does—sometimes, but not always. When it’s magical, it’s magical

We get it. Musicians are not essential like frontline medical workers, sanitation employees, or people who bravely go to work every day so that the rest of us can purchase toilet paper, cake ingredients, or a jug of vodka. The truly essential workers are the brave folks who ensure that musicians can stay home, practice, and dream of a time when we might return to the handful of venues that have weathered the Corona storm. 

So what do we do while all this weathering is going on? Any level of musician can click “Go Live” and open themselves up to a worldwide audience. We can livestream to our heart’s desire. But truth be told, our hearts aren’t much in it. At least, not yet. Now what? Pivot, some might say. Come on, we’re good at this. Musicians are experts at pivoting, sidestepping, and leaping through flaming hoops. Most of us have been fired and hired more times in year than most people are in a lifetime.

Quarantine? No problem. We’re accustomed to solitude; we actually enjoy lonely hours in a practice studio immersed in musical challenges large and small. We know about the dark hole of unemployment, the downward spiral of uncertainty, the futility of shining an aural sliver of light into a boomy, gloomy world. We’re well-equipped to fight the creeping sense of worthlessness that raises its dissonant voice every now and then.  Will we really be defeated by a virus that may have been caused by a horseshoe bat, or a butt-ugly pangolin, or a biological warfare lab? Not likely.

Right now, we’re scuffling to support our families, just like you and everyone else. We are angry, unsettled, scared, sleeping poorly, and making do with ramen noodles and day-old banana bread. But in the middle of all this, some musicians are rising—tossing online bouquets of song to the outstretched hands of you, our sequestered sisters and brothers, our treasured audience that lives on in our wildest, happiest dreams. 

I think about the Titanic band, the most famous group of anonymous musicians in the history of anonymous musicians, and how they played through their repertoire of popular songs as the ship slowly sank into icy water. Those eight courageous players, all of whom set sail on the Titanic as second-class passengers, played until the very end, providing a real-life real-death sound track that has been romanticized for decades.

Let’s name the musicians, shall we? Theodore Ronald Brailey, Roger Marie Bricoux, John Frederick Clarke, Wallace Hartley, John Law Hume, Georges Alexandre Krins, Percy Cornelius Taylor, John Wesley Woodward. They ranged in age from twenty to thirty-three years old. Why did they keep playing as the ship went down? Was it a sense of duty, the genuine desire to calm passengers being lowered into lifeboats and bring peace to those—like themselves—left stranded on deck? Or did they keep playing because they hoped the denizens of society (the ones in the lifeboats) would recognize artistry in the face of calamity? Maybe they thought that rescue—even for those in steerage class—was a possibility, that the next gig on the next ship was right on the other side of that pesky iceberg. 

Musicians have always been ridiculous optimists. We have to be.

The family of one of the Titanic musicians, months after the tragedy, received a bill from the shipping company, asking them to pay for the rental of his uniform. 

Even in the most turbulent times, even when faced with an iceberg of daunting proportions, musicians continue to believe that if we do what we do well, eventually someone will pay us. There’s not yet a clear business model as to how we’ll make a living during this mess—or even on the other side of it—but we are resourceful. The vast Internet is full of unchartered opportunity to monetize what we do and still find a connection to our audience.

Maybe we’re part of an unwelcome digital Darwinian experiment. Some of us—those too old-school, tired, or jaded to learn new technologies—will drop out, find another way to make a living, or spend the rest of our lives reminiscing about the good old days. But some of us will conquer the livestream, the interactive concert, the sponsorship scheme. Most of us will hope for redemption and muster the courage to keep playing while the ship sinks, because it’s what we do best.

Is our collective virtual tip jar half full or half empty? Do we even own a fucking tip jar? 

My last gig was March 15th, at Excelsior Hotel Ernst in Cologne, Germany where I’ve been performing for the last five years. As usual, I played solo piano music for a grateful audience of guests of all ages, most of them enjoying one last outing a few hours before the enforcement of Angela Merkel’s lockdown orders. I played music from my Magnolia album along with a few standards and closed the set with Billy Joel’s “And So It Goes.” We already seemed nostalgic for something we knew was slipping away—the chance to gather, listen to music, remember, forget, drift. My guests were strangers to me, but for the three hours we spent together that afternoon, we bonded. Maybe it was even a little magical.

I could have played the Titanic theme, but I didn’t.

When I covered the Steinway and left the hotel, part of me knew that I was likely walking away from a joyful forty-five-year career in live music, one that has grounded me, given me wings, and provided a livelihood for my family. But the survivor part of me, the Pollyanna Piano Girl who has never lost faith in the ability of music to unite hearts and minds, resorted to talking out loud to the piano. 

“Don’t worry,” I said, “I’ll be back.”  

**
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.

Robin’s music is available on all streaming platforms. If you’re a Spotify fan, go here to listen. NEW! Listen to the Piano Girl Podcast. Stories, music, fun. Do you play the piano? Check out Robin’s solo piano sheet music here, including her popular arrangement of the Pachelbel Canon in D.

Now Boarding

photo by Riik@mctr

Earlier today, I attended my mother-in-law’s funeral. Right now, I’m sitting in a Louisville airport lounge waiting to board my Delta flight to Atlanta, connecting to Charleston. Bloody Mary or ginger-ale? I’ve got a concert to play in Charleston in a few days, and jet lag has slapped me silly. I feel slightly stoned (jet lag is one of the only chemical-free highs), a little lonely, and relieved that I’ve made it this far on three hours of sleep. I get foot cramps when I fly, and often wake out of a deep slumber and dance the midnight tango to make them go away. Last night was such a night.

Yesterday’s fifteen-hour flight odyssey from Germany to Kentucky culminated in an overnight stay at a Louisville hotel overlooking the viscous water flooding the banks of the Ohio River, a surprisingly nutritious (quinoa and veggies) breakfast in a restaurant called the Whiskey Corner, and a perilous Uber ride with Chuck the driver to the Southern Baptist church where my mother-in-law’s service took place. Visitation, open casket, a spray of pink flowers to match her suit jacket, an enthusiastic choir, and a compassionate crowd of well-wishers and family friends—a classic Baptist funeral befitting a preacher’s wife, with all the bells and whistles.

Due to my husband’s recent illness and subsequent inability to handle a transatlantic flight at this point in his recovery, I volunteered to show up at the church as the Designated Mourner on his behalf. It was an easy call, since I knew I would be stateside for my concerts. I’ve read about Chinese funeral rituals where strangers are hired to sit in the second pew and sob loudly, but that wasn’t my gig today. No sobbing. Instead, I played the Pachelbel Canon in D, which is evidently the only piece in my repertoire that anyone wants to hear. Vineyard weddings, formal funerals, baptism lunches, cocktail lounge birthday shindigs, formal concert halls, Buckingham Palace—I’ve performed the piece in just about every venue imaginable. I even played it outdoors on a stage in a park while my audience watched silent fireworks. My mother-in-law once referred to the Pachelbel Canon as the Taco Bell Canon. I like that. Music for the people. Soothing, reliable, familiar. Maybe that’s what Johann Pachelbel intended. I was honored to play it one more time, for her.

It was a good-sized house for the funeral of a ninety-seven-year old woman, who had, by the time she died, lost her husband and most of her church friends. She lived a charmed life, protected by her God and well taken care of by her brave husband and loyal daughters. She slipped away the way most of us would prefer to exit this world—in her sleep. At the funeral, we sang her favorite hymns, listened to glossy stories about her century of exemplary life choices, and recited some prayers, the faded words of which seemed both appropriate and sad.

Note: All songs in the Baptist hymnal are written in keys for male singers. 

The preacher invited each of us to stand and say a few words, so I did, because, as Designated Mourner, I thought my husband would want me to do so. I thanked her for raising a son who had become a loving husband, engaged father, a man who knows how to respect women. His mother might have happily played the part of the southern belle, but her accidental feminist edge occasionally revealed itself.

She first met Julia, our daughter, when Julia was thirteen months old. We had taken the long flight from Germany to Kentucky to present our precious child to her grandmother. I was distracted when we got out of the car because our four-year old son, cranky and hungry after the long trip, had just called his baby sister an asshole. He couldn’t pronounce it properly and said “sasshole,” but it was clear enough what he meant. Not exactly a good way to make a positive impression on one’s prim and proper Baptist grandmother.  

“Why,” my mom-in-law said, in her charming Louisville accent, ignoring the sasshole comment and its perpetrator. “Julia looks just like me.”

“Oh, yes, I guess she does,” I replied. “Bless your heart.”

“But look, Robin, she does have your feet.” 

She turned out to be half right. Julia, now twenty-three, looks very much like her beautiful grandmother, but she does not have my feet. 

At the funeral service I played a decent improvisation of the Canon in D on a freshly tuned Steinway with a squeaky pedal and exited stage left. I picked up my suitcase and drove in a procession with our niece and nephew to Cave Hill Cemetery. 

Our nephew helped carry the casket to the grave and I wept, not as the Designated Mourner, but as myself. I wept for her grandchildren, for my husband’s loss of his mother, for the trajectory of age and the oblivious way we march into the chasm of finality. One day you’re making French toast for your family, your kid is calling everyone a sasshole, and the future—with its endless opportunities to make good trouble—stretches out before you like an interminable game of hide and seek. The next day, it’s a spray of pink roses, a couple of hymns that no woman with a normal voice can sing, and a hundred resonating farewells. 

She was buried next to her husband, and within spitting distance of Colonel Sanders. Muhammed Ali’s grave is also close by; she’s in good Louisville company. She believed in a heaven that features angels, a healed body, and a God who will always look out for her. May she be right. May the Canon in D be heaven’s soundtrack. 

She was loved. 

The air felt cold enough to break me in two, but the defiant sun shone fiercely on the end of an era. 

**

People hover in the lounge, waiting for a chance to board the commuter jet—I’m sure it will be one of those planes with a dripping ceiling and seats with two and a half inches of legroom. Boarding begins for the privileged few. We, the great unwashed, stand patiently and listen to the over-worked gate attendant recite his endless list of elite pre-boarders—first class, business class, active military (thank you for your service), families with small children, disabled, economy premium, non-active military (thank you for your service) platinum card, gold card, silver card, bronze card, and more military (thank you for your service).

No one, and I mean no one, boards the plane in any of these categories.

“We’re pleased to announce a complimentary gate check of your cabin baggage today. Free of charge, we will gladly check your carry-on suitcase right here at the gate, and you can pick it up when you disembark in Atlanta.”

Does anyone fall for this? No. 

“All other passengers may now board the plane.” 

Finally. Like a pack of defeated, economy-class sassholes, we, the other passengers—also the only passengers—drag our weary selves onto the plane. No one thanks us for our service.

Drip, drip, drop.

I ask a flight attendant about the dripping ceiling. I’ve encountered this on other domestic flights in the USA.  I’m reassured that the drip is normal—a flaw in the air conditioning system. It’s February. In a few weeks all flights will be cancelled due to CoVid 19. We settle in, naively assuming that the perks and privileges of our peripatetic lives will go on forever, uninterrupted by disease, death, and the destruction of our planet.   

The canned music on the plane, the calming pre-flight playlist that’s usually accompanied by static and security announcements, drones on for a few moments before I realize I’m hearing the Canon in D. Not my recording, but a soulless midi-synth-string interpretation intended to soothe our nerves as we prepare for flight. They’re making an effort. I hear the sound of a fake cello and drift off to sleep, right before the plane lifts into the air.

Married to the Bass

Excerpt from Piano Girl: A Memoir
Courtesy of Backbeat Books
©2006 Robin Meloy Goldsby

photo by Julia Goldsby

Okay, Ladies, listen up. Bass players make great husbands. There is no scientific data to support my claim. But having worked my way through the rhythm section, the technicians, and a handful of brass, reed, and string players, I’m a qualified judge.

First, consider this. A man who plays an upright bass is strong. He lugs the instrument around, carries it up steps, slides it in and out of cars, and maneuvers it through large crowds of people. If you marry a bass player you’ll be getting a physically fit husband. Okay, there is the occasional back problem. This crops up two or three times a year—usually when you want him to move your grandmother’s walnut armoire or need him to stand on a ladder and drill a hole in the ceiling. But you can cope with such minor inconveniences by calling a muscular clarinet player who is handy with a power drill. Good luck finding one. Here’s the thing: When your bass player is pain-free, he’s as strong as a bull. He has to be in order to make the gig. And he might even throw you over his shoulder and carry you over the threshold every so often, just because he can.

Next, ponder the shape of the upright bass. It’s shaped like a woman. A bass player knows about bumps and curves—he even likes them. He has dedicated his life to coaxing beautiful music out of voluptuous contours. He’ll do the same for you. Just don’t marry a stick-bass player, unless you look like Kate Moss or intend to spend the rest of your life eating lettuce.

Examine the bass player’s hands, especially when he’s playing a particularly fast passage. Now imagine what those fingers can do to you. Enough said.

A great bassist is an ensemble player, a team member who executes, with confidence, a vital role in any band with the strength of his groove, the steadiness of his rhythm, and the imaginative logic of his harmonic lines. This doesn’t just apply to the bassist’s music. It also applies to his outlook on life. A bass-player husband will be loyal, true, and interesting, and will help you emerge from life’s challenges looking and sounding better than you ever imagined. If you’re in a bad mood, don’t worry. He’ll change keys. On the other hand, if you marry a pianist, he’ll try and arrange everything and then tell you what your disposition should be. If you marry a guitarist, he’ll try to get ahead of you by analyzing your temperament in double-time. If you marry a drummer, it won’t matter what kind of mood you’re in because he’ll just forge ahead with his own thing. A bass player follows along, supports you, and makes you think that everything is okay, even when the world is crashing down around you.

There are some minor drawbacks. You need to have a house with empty corners, especially if your husband owns more than one upright bass. I know, you have that newly reupholstered Louis XV chair that would look fabulous in the corner by the window. Forget it—that’s where the bass has to go. You can come to terms with these trivial decorating disappointments by reflecting on the sculpture-like quality of the instrument. Even when it’s silent, it’s a work of art.

If you have children—and you will because bass players make great fathers—your most frequently uttered phrase will be “WATCH THE BASS!” You will learn how to interject this phrase into every conversation you have with your children. For instance: “Hello, sweetie, watch the bass, did you have a nice day at kindergarten? We’re having rice and broccoli for lunch, watch the bass, do you want milk or water to drink?”

You will be doomed to a life of station wagons, minivans, and SUVs. You might harbor a secret fantasy of zooming around town in a Mazda MX5 convertible, but this will never happen unless you go through a big messy divorce, give your bass-player husband custody of the children, and marry a violinist, which would be no fun at all. Better to accept the hatchback as an integral part of your existence and get on with it.

Any trip you make with your family and the bass will be a pageant that requires detailed organization and nerves of steel. In addition to your two children (one of whom probably wants to be a drummer—heaven help you), you will commence your journey with suitcases, bass, bass trunk, backpacks, amp, car seats, strollers, and diaper bag. Your husband, weighted down with an enormous backpack and a bass trunk the size of a Sub-Zero refrigerator, will leave you to deal with everything else. As you try to walk inconspicuously through the airport terminal, people will point and stare.

First Spectator: “They look the Slovenian Traveling Circus!”

Second Spectator: “Hey buddy, you should have played the flute!”

Things like that.

You will learn how to say ha, ha, ha, stick your nose in the air, and pretend that you are traveling with a big star, which of course he is, to you.

Your bass-player husband will know the hip chord changes to just about every song ever written in the history of music. This is a good thing. Just don’t ask him to sing the melody. He might be able to play the melody, but he won’t sing it—he’ll sing the bass line. And, if you happen to play the piano, as I do, don’t expect him to just sit there silently and appreciate what you are playing without making a few suggestions for better changes and voicings. He’ll never give up on trying to improve your playing. But that’s why you married him in the first place. He accepts what you do, but he pushes you to do it better.

If you marry the bass player, you marry the bass. Buy one, get one free. Your husband will be passionate about his music, which will grant you the freedom to be passionate about the things you do. You might not worship the bass as much as he does, but you’ll love the bass player more every day.

***

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.

 Robin’s music is available on all streaming platforms. If you’re a Spotify fan, go here to listen. NEW! Listen to the Piano Girl Podcast. Stories, music, fun. Play the piano? Check out Robin’s solo piano sheet music here.

Personal note from RMG: Here’s 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. Twenty-three hours of solo piano! Click here to listen on Spotify or Apple Music.

Sliding Into Home

Mother-son road trip. It’s mid-summer and I’m on a jam-packed Condor Airlines flight, headed to Pittsburgh (my hometown) with my twenty-six-year old son. Just when I thought my days of traveling with kids had come to a grinding halt, here I am, in Economy Premium—the poor woman’s business class—sipping champagne from a paper cup (sneaked to us by a lovely flight attendant who’s a fan of my music) and toasting the promise of a perfect holiday. 

Summer fun! Once again, we have convinced ourselves that it’s a wise idea to stuff our long bodies into a gravity-defying metal tube, breathe the spit-back air of three hundred tired passengers, and fly into the flailing arms of a country that seems more akin to the dream of home, less like the real deal. 

“Isn’t a condor a type of vulture?” says Curtis. 

“Don’t ask me,” I say. “My knowledge of vultures is limited to Tarzan movies and one ill-fated trip on a golf cart in the Bahamas; the cart got stuck on a rock and we were surrounded by vultures that turned out to be wild turkeys. But they looked like vultures. Not pretty. Thought I was gonna get my eyes pecked out.”

“Condor, the Vulture of Airlines. Imagine the marketing guy who decided to name an airline after a bird of prey.” says Curtis. “He had one job.”

“Cheers,” I say. “Look at this. Enough legroom!” Curtis is six feet, six inches tall. He needs a lot of legroom.

“It’s a miracle,” he says. “Score one for the vultures.”

Our friendly music fan/flight attendant slips some Belgian chocolate to us from Business Class. We receive extra blankets, extra pillows, extra champagne and a Condor swag bag. I’m a little concerned we might cause an uprising in Economy Premium (who’s the bitch in row six with the free truffles?), but as my dad says, “if you’ve got the cards, play ‘em.” 

*****

1994, baby Curtis, age18 months

Twenty-five years ago, I flew across the Atlantic with my son for the first time. We were moving to Germany to begin a new life. Full of nervous energy, apprehension, and an all-American spirit of adventure, I boarded the plane in Pittsburgh with an eighteen-month-old toddler, a diaper bag, and a purse that contained exactly one Chanel lipstick, a copy of Peter Rabbit, nine matchbox cars, and Scruffy the stuffed bear. In 1994 non-passengers could still walk to the gate of the airplane to wave goodbye to their loved ones. My dad—known as “Pap” to his grandchildren—sweet-talked a flight attendant into letting him accompany us onto the plane so he could spend more time with Curtis, the world’s tallest toddler, and help us get settled onboard. I always made it a point to buy a ticket for the baby—he might have been young enough to share my seat for free, but he was way too lanky and active for the lap option. 

Dad hugged us both, then said to Curtis:

“If you need anything, anything at all, remember—don’t call me!”

Curtis laughed, opened a package of crackers, and yelled, “Pap!”

“That’s right,” my dad said. “I’m your Pap.”

Curtis and I had stayed with my parents for a month while John­­—my hard-working bass-player husband—recorded a couple of albums in New York City and supervised the movers packing up our apartment. Curtis and I were scheduled to fly from Pittsburgh to JFK airport, meet John, and board the plane for Germany. 

I had flown out of JFK a hundred times but forgot that each airline had its own terminal. I assumed John would enthusiastically meet us at the gate and help me get the stroller, the baby, and the luggage to the next flight. Curtis and I disembarked, but John wasn’t there.  We didn’t have cell phones back then, so I had no way to reach him. Our bags were not checked through to Germany, so I needed to collect them and find my way to the Lufthansa terminal. 

We stood curbside for twenty minutes, waiting, waiting, waiting for John. I had been jilted before, but didn’t expect to be stood up by my husband on the very day we were moving to a foreign country.

“What should we do?” I asked Curtis, who, at the age of one was already exhibiting managerial skills. “Where’s your daddy?”

“Call Pap!” he said.

“Gotta take the bus, lady,” said the man at the info counter. “The Terminal Express—it’s the fastest way to get from here to there.”

Terminal Express. Is there any two-word combination in the English language that I dread more? With the help of a kind, muscle-bound stranger, I piled our luggage and stroller on the Terminal Express, a jalopy with peeling paint, no seats, and a snarly, stout man at the wheel. We drove around in potholed circles for fifteen minutes until we arrived at Lufthansa. 

“Hurry up, lady,” the driver shouted as I struggled to drag my belongings and the baby down the steps of the bus. “We ain’t got all day.”

“Call Pap!” Curtis shouted. Aside from throwing a cracker at the Terminal Express driver, my son was surprisingly good-natured about the way our day was proceeding. He had missed his afternoon nap and it was now early evening—the time when toddlers are most likely to exhibit honey badger traits. I was feeling a little testy, myself.

I spotted John pacing in the Lufthansa terminal, looking at his watch.

“Daddy!” yelled Curtis.

“Where have you been?” John said to me. “I’ve been waiting here for an hour.”

“We were waiting at the US Air terminal for you. We had to take the Terminal Express. With all this stuff. I thought you would meet us when we got off the first flight.”

“Yeah, but we’re flying out from this terminal Why would I meet you there?”

“I have the baby!”

“I have the bass!” 

“Call Pap!” said Curtis. 

I spied the bass—in its refrigerator-sized fiberglass case—hulking in the corner, waiting to be carted off to the plane. John had a point; the case was huge; it would not have fared well on the Terminal Express. 

Baby, bass, ready, steady, go.

“We’re checked in,” he said. “But the woman at the counter said we don’t need a seat for the baby. He’s under two and the flight is not full. We’ll have plenty of room.”

“What? You didn’t buy the seat for the baby? We always buy a seat for the baby. Plus, we’re not even paying for this flight; it’s not like it’s costing us anything.”

“Relax. Why should the employer spend more money than necessary? It’s business class—lots of room. We’ll be fine. The check-in clerk said there was an empty seat next to us.”

I did not trust this. Not one bit. The waiting area looked like we were about to fight for the last chopper out of Saigon. 

“Book!” yelled Curtis. I read the Tale of Peter Rabbit to him for the 15thtime that day. He was very suspicious of Mr. McGregor. 

We boarded, and the plane was completely full. Obviously, the Lufthansa clerk had been anxious to sell our seat to a disgruntled business-class passenger. 

Curtis, for the first time in his life, would be a lap baby, another dreaded two-word combination, right up there with terminal bus

*****

If you’re a career musician, chances are you’ve flown around the world a few times. You’ve logged miles you’ll never be allowed to use; you’ve pigged out on excessively salted food, sipped canned tomato juice, and guzzled wine even though you swore you would avoid alcohol while in the air. You’ve probably experienced lost suitcases, damaged instruments, and the stomach-drop thud of realizing you’ve left your Kindle in the seat pocket. You may well have become adept at dealing with jet lag, flooded toilet facilities, dry-air induced nosebleeds, digestive disorders, missed flights, and overly-chatty borderline-perv neighbors who fall asleep and drool on your shoulder. It’s part of the devil’s deal a musician makes when she signs up to travel the world.

These things do not, however, prepare you for flying with a toddler. 

Back to our story.

*****

In 1994, a nine-hour flight with a non-sleeping lap baby meant 540 minutes of close-quartered Romper Room. In-seat entertainment systems and noise cancelling headphones were five years in the future. Unless I wanted to crane my child’s neck so he could watch an airplane-censored version of Natural Born Killers on the Business Class shared movie screen, there was little to do than read him repeated versions of Peter Rabbit and hope that he didn’t take out the eyeball of a business class passenger by flinging Matchbox cars across the aisle. We walked a lot, possibly fifty laps of the plane.  Up, down. Up, down.

Note: The active toddler deemed adorable by other passengers at the beginning of a nine-hour journey loses his appeal about two hours in, even if he is wearing a very cute sailor hat and carrying Scruffy the bear. 

“When’s our little friend going to sleep?” asked a stressed flight attendant.

“Call Pap!” shouted Curtis.

Maybe there was hidden sugar in his crackers. Maybe there was speed in the airplane food. The kid was cranked and ready for action. 

By the time we flew over Greenland we were all starting to crack. The business class passengers had paid for a seat that promised a tranquil flying experience. Instead, they were ducking flung toys and brushing cracker crumbs off their shoulders.

“GET OFF MY PROPERTY!” shouted Mr. McGregor.

I was booted from business class and perp-walked, with my son and Scruffy the bear, to sit in a flight attendant’s jump-seat, back by the toilet. 

“I’m so sorry,” John said when he came back to check on us. “Guess we should have kept that extra seat.”

I glared at him, strapped myself in, vowed to stay calm, ordered another Bloody Mary, and cracked open the Peter Rabbit book. I was really starting to hate that frigging rabbit.

One more time, with feeling.

My dear, squirmimg child never slept that night—not one wink. The nine-hour flight lasted approximately three weeks. By the time we retrieved our bags, he was a whack-a-toddler version of Robert DeNiro in Cape Fear, running in loops and popping up everywhere I looked. At one point he jumped on the luggage belt, intent on discovering what was hidden behind the rubber fringe. Maybe he thought Mr. McGregor was back there.

We collected our bags, the bass, the baby, and Scruffy the bear—we were now in full Slovenian traveling circus mode—and wheeled ourselves into the reception area where two drivers were waiting for us.  

One of the drivers pointed at the fiberglass bass trunk and said: “What’s that supposed to be?”

We climbed into a Mercedes van and sped into Germany’s dawn. 

“Please,” I said to our driver. “Please slow down.”

“Fast!” yelled Curtis. “Go fast!”

**

Bing, bang, boom. The night that lasted three weeks transitioned seamlessly into two and a half decades that flew by in double time, triple time, tempo tantrum. And here I am with my son again, on the long-haul trip from Frankfurt to Pittsburgh—sipping champagne in a paper cup and waxing nostalgic about that first flight, the one that delivered us to a new life in a new land.

John and I have raised two children in Europe, benefitted from excellent health care, and reaped the rewards of the education system available to Germany’s residents. Curtis is now twenty-six, and his fabulous sister, Julia (who has always been very good at sleeping on planes) is twenty-three. John and I have been privileged to create rewarding careers for ourselves in a country that respects the arts. We didn’t know any of this in 1994 when we packed up our lives and leapt across the pond. We were young, ready for a change, and 100 percent sure that love would see us through. It has, and it will.

And now there’s this on the airplane: After dinner, our favorite flight attendant halts the inflight entertainment. In German she says: “Condor Airlines is pleased to welcome renowned pianist Robin Meloy Goldsby onboard today’s flight to Pittsburgh . . .” She speaks about my albums, my streaming platforms, and highlights of my career. It’s extremely flattering—this has never happened to me before—but I’m a little concerned about a passenger revolt. It’s one thing for her to give us free truffles, another to interrupt their enjoyment of Mary Poppins Returns or the entire fourth season of Friends.

What a difference a couple of decades can make. The first time I flew this route with my son we almost ended up in airport jail for disturbing the peace. This time, they’re glad we’re onboard. 

“Seriously?” Curtis says. “They’re announcing you on the plane?”

Just when we think her speech is over, the flight attendant begins again, this time in English. We slink down in our seats to avoid the judgmental stares of our fellow passengers, even though a small part of me wants to jump up and shout, “Hey! I’m the piano player!  She’s talking about me!”

Then, at the end, she says this: “Robin lives in Germany, but today, she’s headed home. To Pittsburgh.”

My heart swells. Happiness, pride, relief, confusion—I don’t know what.

We land, thank the flight attendant for her kindness, and go through immigration. I look at my strong adult son and recall the hot-mess mama drama of the day we left Pittsburgh—exactly twenty-five years ago this month—and get a little choked up.

Truth be told, I kind of miss Scruffy the bear.

“We should call Pap,” Curtis says as he pulls my heavy suitcase off the belt. “I want to let him know I’m in town.”

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.

 Robin’s music is available on all streaming platforms. If you’re a Spotify fan, go here to listen. NEW! Listen to the Piano Girl Podcast. Stories, music, fun. Play the piano? Check out Robin’s solo piano sheet music here.

Personal note from RMG: Here’s 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. Twenty-three hours of solo piano! Click here to listen on Spotify or Apple Music.

Baubles, Bangles, and Queens

Instagram @ageofaquaria

My daughter, Julia, and I climb the staircase to the Cologne Musical Tent, a temporary structure on the Rhine that has become a semi-permanent part of the skyline.

We’re headed to Werq the World, a live show featuring top performers from Ru Paul’s Drag Race. Julia has convinced me to buy tickets for tonight’s shindig. 

I’m in my seventh decade of life, so this is hardly my first drag queen rodeo. Some of my earliest gypsy-in-my-soul performances on the professional stage—back in the late seventies—included playing the piano, singing, and dancing in an old-fashioned Burlesque show that featured a couple of queens. First lesson learned: Never ever stand next to anyone, male or female, who is blonder or thinner. Second lesson learned: Always make friends with the drag queen—she’ll keep you laughing, teach you how to touch up your roots, and let you cry your broken heart out on the padded shoulder of her Joan Crawford suit jacket. 

We didn’t say “you go, girl” back then. We said, “work your show.” 

In 1982 I worked on a horror film outside of Baltimore (House on Sorority Row). We were in production at the same time as Barry Levinson’s Diner and John Water’s Polyester—a trifecta of cult films in three different genres. We visited each other’s sets and a couple of times, I had lunch with Divine. I found myself wishing she had been cast in our chop up the college girls classic—she would have made a great sorority house mother. Divine was divine.

During my years in Manhattan, while playing piano at the Grand Hyatt, I once marveled at “Night of a Thousand Queens,” an event that attracted hundreds of chiseled men in drop-dead gorgeous evening gowns. Upswept hair, spackled faces, butts and fake boobs cranked to stunning heights! Baubles, bangles, and queens! On my break from the piano lounge, I sat in the granite lobby pit on a brown pleather sofa and gaped at the razzle-dazzle parade. In my drag-wannabe Piano Girl high heels and black-tulle gold-spangled Betsey Johnson skirt, I envied their heat-seeking confidence and queenly defiance. Like a pack of fierce, stiletto-footed wolverines, they stalked the lobby and left a trail of undulating optimism in their collective path. Somehow, these guys had survived the eighties. Everyone I knew during that dark decade in Manhattan had lost friends to AIDS. The Hyatt horde of queens turned the lights back on, at least for a few hours. Rage turned inside out—dressed to the nines and ready to fight back. 

So here I am tonight, three decades later, prepared for another shimmer-shine extravaganza. Julia and I have opted to wear simple black dresses with tasteful accessories. No bling for us. I learned my lesson years ago—no matter how many leopard-print accessories or junk jewelry bracelets you own, you can’t upstage a queen on a mission. Her false eyelashes will always be longer, fluffier, and tinted to the perfect shade of midnight; her iridescent eyeshadow will have more glitter than yours. The drag queen colors the world with a different, more vibrant box of crayons. 

The press page blurb for Werq the World says this: “Over-the-top production numbers that will leave fans gagging.” Tonight we’re scheduled to see Aquaria, Asia O’Hara, Detox, Kameron Michaels, Kim Chi, Monét X Change, Naomi Smalls, and (my favorite name) Violet Chachki. The queens, led by Drag Race den mother and jury member Michelle Visage, will attempt to rescue the galaxy from who knows what. The galaxy needs a lot of help these days.

As we head inside, I wonder if we’re in the right place. The squeaky-faced youngsters around me look like they’re headed to a church picnic or next week’s performance of Bodyguard: The Musical. But we turn a corner and bam! An Amazon queen—in a blond wig and head to toe silver sequins—poses for photos with awe-struck teenagers.

“Yep,” says Julia. “This is the right place. Just wait until you see Asia O’Hara and Kim Chi.”

“Kim Chi?” I say. “Like the Korean pickled cabbage?”

“Exactly. She is spicy.”

We hand our tickets to a man in a blue coat and enter the theater. The music thumps and bumps so loudly I can feel it jack-jack-jackhammer my heart. Is this necessary? Too much bass in the place. Scary. I put my hands over my ears.

“Mom,” yells Julia. “This is way too loud for you. Wait here and I will go the lobby and get you earplugs.”

“What?” I say. “Did you say earplugs?” I wish I had brought my noise cancelling headphones, but then I would have looked like an oversized, menopausal toddler dragged to a rock concert by her parents.

The German word for earplugs is Ohrstöpsel, right up there with Dudelsack (bagpipe) and Kaiserschnitt(c-section) on my personal list of great translations. I wonder where Julia will find Ohrstöpsel in the lobby, but she returns with a small sealed package. 

“They have to have them at music events. I think it’s a law,” she says.

The foam plugs help. Now that I’m no longer worried about drag-show-induced deafness, I’m free to look around at the other audience members. Along with the churchy-looking youth groups in pressed, pastel oxford-cloth shirts, there are stout boys with artsy tattoos and rainbow hair, men with beards wearing suit jackets with skirts (the Billy Porter influence has hit Germany), straight couples in nuances of navy, and young women (I think) with bouffant hairdos and killer waistlines.  As far as I can tell, we’re the only mother-daughter team in attendance. I am easily thirty years older than everyone else around me. Once again, I have clearly entered Great Aunt Edna territory. Old Edna goes to the drag show. Aside from the VOLUME, it’s nothing Edna hasn’t seen (or heard) before.

But maybe it is. 

The curtain goes up. The audience gasps. The queens enter, one at a time, wearing space capes (remember the galaxy theme), that, when stripped off, reveal a rainbow of spectacular costumes. Even though I know these ensembles are the work of a crazed costume designer toting an oversized glue gun on each hip, from a distance they look lavish.

The queens lip-sync, prance, look fabulous, prance some more (there’s a lot of prancing in this show) and are occasionally joined onstage by real dancers. Kim Chi does one number with four acrobats underneath her skirt. Aquaria, with turquoise hair, hangs upside-down from a rope. Asia—a Donna Summer clone—works hard for her money. The audience goes nuts. I see people weeping with joy. Or maybe it’s relief. These queens—silly, slutty, and over-the-top—give us permission to feel good about how we present ourselves to the world. Black pantsuit or lavender sequined ball gown—it’s all good.

In the midst of all this fake-ness, the air hangs thick with authenticity. 

“See Mom? I told you. These queens have the power to change the world. They inspire tolerance. We need more of that, right?”

I wonder what would have happened if I had seen this show in the seventh grade, when I was bullied by a gang of nasty girls for playing Bach on the piano and wearing the wrong outfit (plaid skirt with fabulous matching green shoes). Tonight’s message might have made it easier for me to sashay away from those tyrants with my dignity intact. Instead, I got dragged down the steps by my hair and kicked in the ribs. And then I stopped wearing plaid skirts.

In the midst of all the galaxy saving, trapeze work, and satin cape waving, Michelle Visage, perhaps the only person in the theater close to my age, walks center stage, screams, “Hello, bitches!” and proceeds to talk about having her breast implants removed—she had had the “enhancement” in her early twenties because she felt she needed big boobs to play the Hollywood game. Years later, after dealing with serious illness caused by the implants, she had them yanked out. Breast in Peace. Michelle speaks pointedly about never allowing society to dictate the way we look. She talks about body image, eating disorders, and the difficulty of raising teenagers in a culture obsessed with standardized perfection. It’s a missive we don’t hear often enough and certainly not one I anticipated at a drag show.

I am blown away by the love in the hall. By the time the show is over, I’m transformed, not by the blow-your-balls-off bass-lines, the Cher-on-steroids costumes, or the razor-sharp highlighted cheekbones—but by the subtle way the queens have taken an edgy, brash, in-your-face drag show and turned it into a gentle lesson in how we can live better, more authentic lives. 

Werq your show. Save the galaxy with compassion. Love is love. Be yourself. As Ru Paul would say: “Don’t fuck it up.”

***

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. Robin’s music is available on all streaming platforms. If you’re a Spotify fan, go here to listen.

Personal note from RMG: Here’s 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. Twenty-three hours of solo piano! Click here to listen on Spotify or Apple Music.

Play the piano? Check out Robin’s solo piano sheet music here.

Love You Forever

In the classic children’s book Love You Forever, Robert Munsch and illustrator Sheila McGraw manage—with a few powerful stanzas and heart-wrenching drawings—to get to the obvious, essential core of parenthood. Circle of life, cradle to grave—all that. I used to read this story to my kids at bed time. Not once did I finish the last page without bursting into tears. 

It’s September 20th, 2014. I have two big events today, neither of which I anticipate with glee. This morning, I’m driving our twenty-year-old son, who has been educated in Germany, to the Düsseldorf airport. He’s headed to California for a senior-year university exchange semester at UC Riverside. Later, after I drop him off and drive back home, I must shift gears, spackle my face, and drive two hours to play a concert in a chapel at a funeral home. Not a memorial service, but an actual concert. Who plays a concert at a funeral home? 

My husband, John the Bassist, is out of town on a tour, so, as often happens, I’m flying solo on the airport drop-off. 

It’s an hour to Düsseldorf airport, my least favorite of the sleek German transportation hubs, mainly because the shiny granite floor—so gleaming it seems to undulate under my feet—makes me dizzy and slightly nauseated. I’m at this airport often. This past summer, I made sixteen trips to drop off and fetch family members. 

With the German university system—free, quality education, no hoopla—we’ve missed out on the American “move your kid into a college dorm” rite of passage. I feel a little bad that I’m not going with our boy to help him settle into his first “student residence,” but it’s too expensive for me to fly with him, plus he has travelled alone to other education programs in Europe, South Africa, and Israel, so it’s not like he needs me to go along and organize his sock drawer.  Even though he’ll be gone for four months, he’s traveling with one suitcase and a carry-on. My son, the world’s tallest minimalist.

I feel the blues coming on. Every time he leaves, I know he is one step closer to gone for good. We park the car, get his bag checked in, and grab a chalky imitation-coffee beverage at Starbucks. 

I’m not good at goodbyes, but I hover stoically at a distance and hold it together as he ambles to the security gate. I wonder if this ever gets easier. Right before he passes through the glass door, he turns around and yells in his booming baritone man-boy voice, “Love you forever, Mom!” 

***

Whenever our son leaves home for an extended period of time, I think back to the day he was born, in December 1992. After a very long pregnancy—forty-two weeks, plus—I finally went into labor. I had stopped playing gigs at thirty-nine weeks, mainly because I had fallen on a slippery street (on my way to a piano job) and broken my arm at the elbow. I was a mess. My shoes didn’t fit, my one dress looked pretty shabby, and my husband had to give me baths to avoid getting my cast wet. So much for dignity; I had morphed into a barefoot, pregnant, one-armed Piano Girl.

On the day of the Big Event, my water broke at nine in the morning. Shortly thereafter, labor pains started. My hospital bag had been packed for weeks.

“Are you sure?” said John. “This could be another pishap.” A few weeks prior, I had sneezed while waiting in line at a liquor store (not a good look for a pregnant gal), wet my pants, and assumed the baby was on the way. Wrong. 

“Real deal,” I said. “Let’s go.” 

“Wait,” said John. “I need my snacks.” We had taken pre-natal classes and the teacher told us to make sure we packed snacks for the coach.

“Really?” I said. “I’m in labor and you’re making peanut butter sandwiches?”

“Could be a long day. Gotta keep up my strength.” 

The labor pains were kind of weak, so I sat on the couch and checked my watch while the coach packed his damn snack bag. Off to the doctor. By the time we arrived at her office, the pains had stopped. 

“This baby is never coming,” I told her.

“Oh yes, he is,” she said. “One way or another. I’ll meet you at the hospital later today.” 

We checked into NYU Medical Center and a technician hooked up an IV to administer a labor-inducing drug. Opposite world at its finest; most of the time we take drugs to avoid pain—this time we were hoping to bring it on. The orders were clear: No food, no water, no walking, no fun. The labor pains were twenty minutes apart. 

“Now, look,” said the nurse to John. “We need to measure your wife’s urine output. This is your job. You get the bedpan under her whenever she needs it and place it on the table when she is finished. Then we can measure the fluid.”

“Excuse me?” I said. “I never, ever do toilet things in front of my husband. We have a closed-door policy in the bathroom.”

“Well, get over it,” the nurse said. “He’s gonna see a lot worse than urine by the time this day is over.”

“It’s fine, Robin,” said John. He was using his calm voice, the one that indicated he wasn’t feeling very calm at all. 

“Okay, okay.” I said. The nurses must have a long list of silly tasks to keep husbands occupied. Maybe this was one of them. Urine collector. Perhaps an appropriate way to start one’s fathering career.

An hour passed. No action on the labor front in spite of the drugs. I had to tinkle. “Sorry about this,” I said to John, “but get that bedpan.”

“Bedpan. Bedpan. Where’s the bedpan?” He searched. I squirmed on the edge of the bed.

“Hurry up,” I said.

“It must be here somewhere.”

“We’re gonna have another pishap.”

“Where is it?”

“You had one job.”

“Here it is!” he said, shoving a very small kidney shaped dish under my bottom. I’d seen intermezzo sorbet bowls that were bigger.

“Really?” I said. “That’s like a tea cup. I really have to go. A lot.”

“Not to worry. I found a whole stack of these things.” 

Well. I filled up six of those little dishes, with John, like an expert plate spinner, transferring one after the other to the table. 

Nobody had mentioned the balancing of pee-pee receptacles in prenatal class. 

John counted his caddies of urine. “Look at that,” he said with pride. “Didn’t spill a drop.”

The nurse entered the room, stopped and stared at the urine buffet, and said, “What the hell is that?”

“I collected the urine,” said John, with a broad sweep of his arm. “Here are the bedpans.”

It takes a lot to make an overworked nurse in a labor and delivery-ward laugh, but laugh she did. “Those things aren’t bedpans. They are emesis basins. You know, in case someone has to spit.” 

“But where are the bed pans?” asked John. 

“Under the bed,” she said. 

It’s a good thing the coach brought snacks because we spent a solid twenty-eight hours in that room, waiting for something, anything to happen. The doctor showed up and cranked the meds—enough to cause labor pains every five minutes, but evidently not enough coax the baby out of his perfectly nice hiding place.

Every so often a nurse/opera singer (only in New York) would come into our room and sing a few bars of a Madame Butterfly aria for me. Once, she brought in a swaddled baby and said: “Look, darlin.’ At the end of all this, you’re going to get one of these beautiful creatures.”

“Can I take that one?” I said. “And bail on the rest of this delivery thing?” 

The anesthesiologist—my hero—looked like the neighborhood drug dealer, complete with tinted glasses, hipster hair, and a goatee.  I asked for an epidural about twenty hours into the siege. A few hours later, the baby’s heart rate showed signs of stress and the doctor said an emergency C-section was necessary. 

Because my pregnancy had been so easy—I had only gained twenty pounds, kept swimming and working, and, aside from the broken arm, didn’t have any health issues—I assumed I would breeze through the birth.  I hadn’t researched C-sections—I skipped over that part in the What to Expectbook—and felt completely unprepared. And a little panicked.

Once I was on the operating table and prepped, the hospital staff allowed John into the room. He had eaten all of his snacks. A curtain hung below my neck so I could remain awake for the operation and not be traumatized by witnessing the procedure. NYU Medical Center is a teaching hospital, so dozens of uniformed people milled about the room. Team A—on the rhythm section side of the curtain—featured John in ill-fitting surgical scrubs, my friend the drug dealer, and me. Team B—on the business side—included doctors, students, nurses, and probably the entire woodwind section of the New York Philharmonic. I hadn’t had an audience this big in years. 

The C-section started. Other than a little pressure, I didn’t feel much. 

“Looks like a big baby,” the first voice said.

Tug, tug, tug.

“Looks like a really big baby,” the second voice said.

Yank, yank, yank.

“My god, that’s the biggest babyI’ve ever seen!” said the third voice. 

They rushed him to the scale and cheered. Our son, at eleven pounds, two ounces, and sixty centimeters long, had set a seven-year record at the hospital. 

I love a good round of applause, but the drugs were wearing off and feeling was returning to my lower body. Not to upstage my baby’s moment in the spotlight, but I needed help. The drug dealer, one step ahead of me, put morphine in my IV and, just as John handed me our son, I threw up. 

Ah, that’s the purpose of the emesis basin.

A big baby requires medical tests to check for insulin problems, so off he went with the pediatric team. Honestly, our “infant” was so big he probably could have walked himself. John went to check on the baby unaware that the testing center was in the neo-natal area. So our son, screaming and squirming next to the delicate preemies in the ward, looked a little, uh, large.

“My god,” he said when he returned to the recovery room. “What have we done? He looks like King Kong.”

We could hear Kong yelping from the corridor. Finally, a nurse brought him to us—and that was that. He was larger than life and ornery as hell. 

Our son. 

“Love you, forever,” I said to him.

***

I drive home from Düsseldorf airport and pack my gown and merchandise for this evening’s concert at the funeral home. I’m whiny and sad and the house feels way too quiet. Who plays a concert at a funeral home? This is ridiculous. I’m upset about my son’s departure, exhausted, and would rather spend the day in bed worrying about his flight, eating crackers, and feeling sorry for myself. But no. I have to play a stupid concert at a funeral home. What was I thinking when I took this gig? 

I arrive at the venue—a handsome building in a far-away German Dorf, and, still reeling from the emotional morning at the airport, enter the place with a bad attitude. The interior sparkles with candlelight, crystal, and polished silver. Not a casket or urn in sight. The concert will take place in the chapel. A gorgeous Steinway B sits center stage on a large Persian rug.

“Thank you so much for being here,” says Priscilla, the promoter for tonight’s event. 

“Who is coming this evening?” I ask.

“About 150 people. Our families.”

“Your families?”

“Our clients. The families of people who have passed away in the last year. They’re still grieving, and this concert is a way to thank them for selecting our company to help them through this sad time in their lives.” 

Oh brother. This will be the gloomiest event in music historyI mean, my music is already on the melancholy side. Maybe they should have booked a Dixieland band or something. Or a reggae group.

“Have a snack or some wine or tea,” she says as we enter the dressing room. “There are a few press people here to take photos of you during the sound check.” 

Press people? For a funeral home concert? Seriously?

Seriously. 

The concert starts promptly at seven. The place is packed. It’s also pin-drop quiet and emotionally charged. I start the program feeling sort of numb, but within sixteen bars a palpable energy emanates from the crowd. This sounds über new-agey, but I swear something spiritual is happening. I coast through a carefully curated set of compositions requested by the funeral home—“Flying, Falling;” “When Stars Dance;” “Peaceful Harbor.”

I don’t play particularly well—it’s far from a brilliant performance—but what I play is meaningful in a way I have never experienced. I send out my music. The audience absorbs the notes and sends them back to me—rounder, fuller, grounded—with their own truths attached. I don’t know how much suffering the people in this chapel have endured. I don’t know who is grieving for whom; I just know there are 150 strangers who crave comfort, and I’m one of them. All I can do is try to connect my music with their individual needs and hope for the best.

Following the concert, I stand in the lobby and sign CDs. Who sells CDs at a funeral home? It feels like shameless marketing, but Priscilla has insisted that I do this. I talk to many of the guests—mostly people my age who have buried a parent in the last year, a few elderly folks who have lost a lifelong partner. As the crowd begins to thin and my young assistant starts to pack up the merchandise, a middle-aged couple with two teenage daughters approaches. The woman extends her hand.

“Thanks so much for playing ‘A River Flows in You,’ ” she says. “That was Henry’s favorite song.  I felt like he was right here with us.”

“Tell me about Henry,” I say.

The mother sighs.

“He was my brother,” says one of the girls, jumping to her mom’s rescue. “He was twenty-one and just finishing university. He played basketball and he wasn’t very good at it. But he liked music.”

Henry’s father, handsome and pale, stands to one side—the telltale scars of forced courage lining his once-youthful face. I’ve spent the day fighting back tears, but now I lose it. These brave parents, who surely have their own goofy childbirth story, their own tattered scrapbook of family photos, recollections of tearful goodbyes, and favorite songs, have lost their oldest son. They have chosen to remember him tonight by listening to piano music. 

Henry’s mom asks me about my own children. I tell her about putting my son on a plane to the USA that very morning.

“Oh,” she says. “It’s hard to say goodbye.”

Who plays a concert in a funeral home? I do.

“We still miss Henry every day,” says the mother, always the mother, forever the mother, as she thumbs through a stack of CDs. She stops and looks up at me. “I’ll never forget the day he was born. I will love him forever.”

***

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. Robin’s music is available on all streaming platforms. If you’re a Spotify fan, go here to listen.

Personal note from RMG: Here’s 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. Twenty-three hours of solo piano! Click here to listen on Spotify or Apple Music.

Play the piano? Check out Robin’s solo piano sheet music here.

Waltz of the Asparagus People

Good grief, I say to myself. Are those things real vegetables?

New York City, 1986: One evening, on a break from my cocktail-piano job at the Grand Hyatt in Manhattan—a hotel that hosts Major League baseball teams, B-list celebrities, and an annual transvestite event called Night of a Thousand Queens—I notice an odd display in a glass showcase in the lobby. Inside the large window, built into a marble wall, is a handmade village of Asparagus People. Over 200 of them inhabit the village, each skinny green stalk hand-painted, shellacked, and dressed in a little outfit. 

“Yep,” says José, a muscular housekeeping guy who overhears me while sweeping the granite floor. “I helped paint the little fuckers. I never wanna see another asparagus as long as I live.”

“Insane,” I say to the bass player from the lobby trio. “Truly the work of a madman.” 

“Check it out,” he replies. “That one has a briefcase.”

“Back to work, pleeez,” says Mr. Prang, the German Food and Beverage manager who patrols the lobby. “Do not stare at zee veg-e-tables.”

“What’s hisproblem?” I ask, as Mr. Prang spins on his heels and clip-clops away from us. His cleated shoes make a lot of noise on the sparkling granite floor. No one likes Mr. Prang very much. When he’s not storming through the lobby, he stands behind a potted palm next to the crystal fountain and glares at anyone who crosses his path, almost like he’s looking for someone to fire.

On the next break the saxophone player joins us at Asparagus Village. “Whoa. What a trip. It’s like—uh—an international village. See that cat sitting on the motorcycle? He’s wearing a sombrero. Dig the brother asparagus hangin’ out the window—they painted his face black. And he’s wearin’ one of those little African hats. And that Asian asparagus chick on the lounge chair? She looks hot in that bikini. Yeow!”

Asparagus children play in the Asparagus Village sandbox, each with an expression of delight on its tiny face. In the back, asparagus policemen loom, wearing uniforms made of tiny scraps of brown fabric, with matching hats. The hats have badges.

“I told you,” says Mr. Prang. “Do not stare at zee veg-e-tables.”

I ignore Mr. Prang and spend every break peering into the village, thinking about the manual labor that must have gone into a display that’s pretty much ignored by most of the tourists lumbering through the lobby.

“Look, Steve, an Asparagus Village.”

“That’s nice, hon.” Night of a Thousand Queens might have captured the fancy of the overstuffed and bleary-eyed visitors parked in the Hyatt lounge, but Asparagus Village? Not so interesting. If you’ve come all the way to New York from Wisconsin, why spend your time checking out a hand-painted vegetable display when you can watch 1,000 guys dressed in prom gowns? 

Every spring the village—with all-new costumes and themes—graces the Hyatt hallway. One year we enjoy Cowboys and Indians; the following season we’re treated to an amusement park (including a Ferris wheel full of stoned-looking asparagus girls wearing shorts and halter tops); the next time around we marvel at an asparagus Broadway show, complete with cast, pit orchestra, crew, and a chorus line of asparagus babes in skirts with red fringe. I fall in love with the whimsy and insanity of the display. But I never bother to ask why it’s there.

Then, as is often the case in the hotel business, tragedy strikes. April arrives and Asparagus Village fails to appear in the showcase window. Several weeks later most of the hotel musicians are fired, causing me to wonder if all along there has been a strange correlation between asparagus and lounge music. I move on to the next gig and forget all about my skinny green friends. 

Bergisch Gladbach, Germany, 2009:Every April asparagus season begins in Germany, where I now work as a pianist at Schlosshotel Lerbach, a castle-hotel. The start of the season—trumpeted by the whoops of joy normally reserved for firework displays on the Rhine—marks the arrival of a two-month national frenzy. The Germans, anxious to tuck into that first bite of the stalky white “king of vegetables,” hover in the produce aisles of local markets, discussing recipes for cream of asparagus soup. Until recently it has been hard to find homegrown green asparagus here; the Germans prefer the version rendered white by denying it sunlight.

I’m caught in the madness. As guests order platters of asparagus accompanied by baby potatoes, thinly sliced ham, and an obscene amount of hollandaise sauce, I check my watch and wonder how much notice the chef needs to time my dinner with my break. This is what happens when you leave New York City and move to the German countryside. You stop smoking and drinking and start analyzing cooking times for vegetables. And if you’re smart, you make friends with the chef.

Asparagus Village at the New York Hyatt flops back into my mind. Suddenly, it all makes sense. Here I am at the piano, playing “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most” for my hollandaise-guzzling guests, and I remember Mr. Prang, a guy I haven’t thought of for decades. I can hear the cleats on his shiny black shoes, accompanied by the staccato rhythm of his accented English as he barked orders at all of us. He must have been the one who supervised the painting of the Asparagus People faces, coercing the baffled New York staff to draw miniscule eyebrow hairs onto asparagus stalks the size of a pinky finger. Maybe Mr. Prang helped with the task, muttering obscenities while painstakingly dressing each asparagus person. Maybe he was frustrated by the American lack of respect for his prized vegetable and dreamed of the day when he could escape to Europe in time for the start of asparagus season. Maybe he wasn’t such a bad guy after all. 

Maybe he was lonely. 

I can see him now, beckoning his army of hopeful Asparagus People, persuading them to break out of their glass cage and march, run, and finally waltz through the hotel lobby, dodging the sharp ankles and clodhopper feet of dazed tourists and drag queens, rushing for the exit, lunging toward the fresh air, determined not to get caught and squashed in the revolving doors of a different culture. 

***

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. Robin’s music is available on all streaming platforms. If you’re a Spotify fan, go here to listen.

Personal note from RMG: Here’s 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. Twenty-three hours of solo piano! Click here to listen on Spotify or Apple Music.

Play the piano? Check out Robin’s solo piano sheet music here.


The Bear

Minuet

In 1966 I play the Bach Minuet in G at my first piano recital at the Joseph Horne Company in downtown Pittsburgh. 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.

Clam! With great conviction I play an A sharp, the quintessential wrong note. And I don’t skim the key lightly, I hammer it. Bang! The hundred delicate, perfect notes I have played until this point fizzle and die. All that counts now is the wrong note.  Knees tremble, palms sweat, face burns. The piano recital fight or flight response kicks in—there’s a hungry bear chasing me through deep, crusty snow. I sense the audience cringing. I see my father in the front row raise one eyebrow. My teacher claps his hand to his forehead.

I’m in survival mode now, relying on muscle memory to propel me through the rest of the piece. In my mind I flee, climb a tree, and dangle upside-down from a low-hanging limb. I hang on for dear life. The bear licks his chops, growls, and snaps at my hands.

Overly dramatic? I think not. Any music student who has experienced a cortisol-induced hysterical brain-freeze while attempting to play a complicated passage will tell you the bear analogy is spot-on. 

Back to my nine-year old self: I know I must finish the piece. The B section repeats. With a kid’s logic I think that if I play it correctly the second time, the audience will know that I played it incorrectly the first time. I have an idea. I will intentionally play the wrong note again and listeners will never know I screwed up the first time.

I repeat the B section and hit that same really wrong note on purpose. Ha, I think. I’ve fooled everyone.

The bear, obviously bored with my refusal to slip from the tree into his slobbering maw, ambles away, checking occasionally to make sure I haven’t dropped to the ground. I don’t know this yet, but he’ll be back. Next time I won’t be so lucky.

***

Rondo

At a certain point in a teenage musician’s life, the bear wins more often than not. No one tells you this in music school, but learning to make a mistake, ignore it, and move on to the next moment can eventually mean the difference between having a career or not.

Failure—just as much as success—determines who we become as artists. We start out as idealistic musical messengers carrying copious notes of sadness and wonder and love. At some point—to get where we want to go— we must make mistakes. We must learn, as C.S Lewis wrote, to “fail forward.”

At age fifteen, I became paralyzed by the fear of making a mistake while playing a piano concert. Paralyzed! Acting, singing, writing—those things seemed effortless, but playing the piano? Despite my best intentions, once the bear showed up, the party was over. I have a theory that playing a musical instrument well in a solo concert performance situation is the most difficult task in the world. Head in the game, eye-hand coordination, memory, detail, nuance—it’s almost too much for one kid to think about. As a teenager, when we believe we’re being judged for every skin blemish, fashion choice, or wrong note, it’s damn near impossible.

Benyamin Nuss, a brilliant young classical pianist living in Germany and currently touring the world with his Final Fantasy program of computer-game music arranged for solo piano, has been gracing concert stages for twenty of his thirty years, playing extremely difficult classical repertoire with the emotional poise and technical wizardry of a seasoned musician twice his age. Benny is the kind of performer who never seems to have a bad day, never makes a mistake, never ever lets the bear chase him. I ask Benny if he can remember ever making a big mistake while performing. He laughs.

“There have been so many,” he says. “But the first one that comes to mind happened when I was sixteen. I had my first girlfriend and we had only been together for a couple of weeks. For the first time there was something in my life other than music. I was playing Beethoven’s Seventh Piano Sonata in D Major. The fourth movement is a Rondo with a figure that always repeats three notes. I was coming to the end, after the last repeat of this motive. I got stuck and stopped. Jumped some bars back because nothing better came to mind. Played the motive again. The same thing happened. Then I jumped back again. And again. And failed again. And again. Finally I just stopped. Didn’t know what else to do.”

The bear was nipping at Benny’s heels. Or the heels of his hands.

“Beethoven ditched you at the finish line?” I say.

“Yeah. Or I ditched myself.”

“What did you do?”

“I gave up. I stood, took a pathetic bow, and said, sorry.”

“Oh no.”

“Here’s the thing: I could have improvised my way out of that Rondo, but it never occurred to me that I could mess with Beethoven just to save myself. Really—I could have made something up and no one, other than my teacher, my parents, and maybe a couple of classical music experts would have known.” 

“I bet if that happened to you now, you’d own it. Beethoven meets Nuss. Improvise through a memory lapse? Is that what you learned from that mistake?”

“Yeah. That. And to never think about my girlfriend when I should be focusing on the music.” 

Here’s my favorite part of Benny’s story: On that same night, after suffering what he considered a monumental defeat, Benny took some deep breaths in the wings, returned to the stage, took another bow, sat down, and whipped through his encore—Prokofiev’s Toccata, twice as fast and furious as the piece he had just flubbed.

Boy versus bear. Boy wins.

***

Sonatine

Back to me and a chance meeting with the bear in 1978.

I’ve been working as a cocktail pianist to make money while attending college. I like the work—I sit in the corner, play the piano, and no one pays much attention to me. During the day I go to classes, take piano lessons, and practice for classical music recitals.

I’m scheduled to play Maurice Ravel’s Piano Sonatine for the spring music department recital at the Chatham College chapel. I know the material. I love the material. I’ve practiced it until the piece is playing me, instead of the other way around. I’m confident and secure with my interpretation of the composer’s intention, and I’m looking forward to the night’s performance.

I’m nineteen years old and wearing a frilly black dress and strappy heels. I walk onstage, sit at the Steinway concert grand, and adjust the height of the bench. There are about seventy-five people in attendance, a small crowd for such a big space.

Something is wrong with me. I feel, I don’t know, hollow. My hands are tingling. I take a deep breath, and begin playing the first movement of the Sonatine.

That’s when it hits me. About sixteen bars into Mr. Ravel’s elegantly written composition, my heart starts pounding. Boom. Boom. Boom. It’s the fucking bear. My hands sweat and shake, and I’m moving in slow motion, except for my right knee, which has developed a high-speed twitch.

“You can do this, you can do this,” I say to myself five or six times.

Another voice, a new, strange one coming from inside my head, starts poking at my self-confidence. Don’t tell me the bear has a voice. A talking bear? Just what I need.

“Who are you?” I think.

The Voice of Doom, he replies in a loud, whiny voice. I look around. No one else can hear the Voice of Doom. Just me.

Get . . . Out . . . Of . . . Here, I think, trying hard to concentrate on the notes.

Nope, he says. I’m not goin’. You’re a fake, and it’s about time you realized it. Fake, fake, fake! You’re gonna massacre this piece big time and all these people will hear you do it. You’re nothing but a big faking faker. Fake, fake, fake, fake, fake. 

He’s yelling at me from inside my brain, somewhere between my ears and the top of my skull, and he keeps getting louder and louder.

I try to argue back but I can’t get a word in edgewise.

This is awful.

I can’t locate the notes. Or if I find them I play them so slowly that I have no idea where I am in the piece. Everything I’ve learned is gone—out the window like bubbles blown through a ring on a windy day.

I steal a glance at the audience. Grandma Curtis and Grandma Rawsthorne are in the second row with Aunt Jean and Uncle Bill. They’re all smiles and don’t seem to notice anything wrong. That’s good. My parents are in the row behind them, but I look away before I can catch their reaction to my train wreck. Oh no. There’s Bill Chrystal, my teacher, with a pained expression on his normally placid face, hovering on the side of the chapel, looking like he’s ready to dash out the fire exit if things get any worse.

I’m freezing and my hands shake. I’m having a full-blown anxiety attack.

Oh. Wait. Now I get it. I’m onstage alone and the audience is paying attention. I’ve gotten used to the chatter and the laughter of the cocktail lounge. Where are the clinking glasses and the waiters barking orders at the bartender? Where is the whir of the blender, where are the cheerful hellos and goodbyes and how are yous? Where is all the noise? And how come these people are listening? What do they expect to hear?

No, no, no, no, no! Don’t just sit there! Talk! Smoke a cigarette! Have an argument with your neighbor. Dispute the check with your overworked waitress, because you did, after all, only have two gin and tonics and you’re being charged for three. Order another round of Strawberry Margaritas or some of those tasty chicken fingers. Do something, anything, but please please please don’t listen to me. It is enough for me to listen to myself. Really, it’s enough.

Well, there you have it, says Voice of Doom. Another concert career comes to a screeching halt.

The next day I decide to audition to be a showgirl in the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. Maybe I’ll be good enough for the circus. Much easier than playing the piano.

Girl versus bear. Bear wins.

 ***

Coda

I never did join the circus, but I abandoned my concert pianist plans and returned to my cocktail lounge gig, which, in a way, shared certain circus elements with the Big Top. Clowns, for instance. Scantily-clad women. Salty snacks.

In my late twenties, long after my raging, adolescent hormones should have settled, I still felt the judgmental eyes of the world upon me. At home, practicing, I connected with my artistic side. In public I worried about being loved, or at the very least, liked. My neediness fueled the bear’s desire to eat me alive. His hunger grew in direct proportion to my thirst for acceptance in a competitive world. So, anxiety. So, dread. So, fear of fear.

I put up with myself for a very long time.

Finally, somewhere around my forty-fifth birthday, the bear skulked away and never came back. I could tell you I donned my I AM FIERCE t-shirt and scared the bejesus out of the bear, but that’s not what happened. It was more like this: Real life—kids, aging parents, death of friends, love, illness, making a living, paying the bills—reminded me that I have nothing to prove to anyone. I am not a competitor with a finish line; I am pianist. I play the way I play because I love music that reflects life. My mistakes are part of that process. Making them in public is part of the gig. Why be afraid?

Most musicians don’t like to talk about their failures—who does?—but I think it’s a good idea to let young musicians know that learning to outrun the bear is an essential part of their development. Perhaps not as important as good technique and discipline, but right up there with self-esteem and a disposition for risk-taking.

A readiness to fail often and fail well is a good indicator of future accomplishment. If at first you don’t succeed, fail, fail again. If I had given up the piano after that first ill-fated Bach Minuet in G, I might have avoided future scraps with the bear, but I would have surely missed out on the joy of sharing my musical stories with anyone willing to listen.

Social media magic: Right when I was writing this last paragraph, a YouTube clip of composer Maria Schneider popped up on my screen. Maria talks about writing for David Bowie and her many concerns about screwing up an expensive, risky assignment. Bowie says this: “The great thing about music is if the plane goes down, everyone walks away.”

Everyone walks away—how I wish I could have heard this as a young adult. It’s not life or death; it’s music. It means everything in the moment, but nothing in the long run. All jokes aside, no one has ever gotten hurt by a wrong note, a lapsed memory, or awkward phrasing. Why not take a chance on making something beautiful?

On my current gig at an old, gold-dusted hotel in Cologne, Germany, I play a 1939 Steinway Model A. The keys of the instrument, contoured by the accumulated blunders of decades of players before me, feel smooth to my fingers when I sit down to play. My musical flaws add another layer of humanity to a piano that has witnessed eighty years of gaffes, all of them, thankfully, forgotten and forgiven by the fleet and reckless tempo of life. Toccata, double time.

I consider my career a fortuitous success built on a shaky foundation of multiple screw-ups and some sort of warped, magical thinking that has propelled me—clinging to the security blanket of my mistakes—into the brawny arms of opportunity. Opportunity, it turns out, sometimes wears a bear costume. I’ve outsmarted the bear by hugging him, feeding him marshmallows, and teaching him how to dance. Off we go—we’re a clumsy twosome, but I’ve trained him to follow my lead. 

*****

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.

Many thanks to Benyamin Nuss for sharing his story. Check out his newest album, Fantasy Worlds, here. I was at the launch concert—an astonishing performance by a brilliant artist. This piece, “Those Who Fight,” seems an appropriate video to accompany this essay.

Watch the Maria Schneider interview here, courtesy of NEA Jazz Masters and NPR.

New piano album: Home and AwayGoldsby’s latest solo piano album, directly from the artist. Robin’s music is available on all streaming platforms. If you’re a Spotify fan, go here to listen.

Personal note from RMG: Here’s 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. Twenty-three hours of solo piano! Click here to listen on Spotify or Apple Music.

Play the piano? Check out Robin’s solo piano sheet music here.