Rouge Noir

“Rouge Noir” is a short story from Goldsby’s new collection: Manhattan Road Trip

Courtesy of Bass Lion Publishing

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Rouge Noir

Alarm rings. B-flat. Fingers tingle; they always tingle on concert days. Wish I could start my morning with meditation. Been awake for an hour, worrying, fretting, betting something horrible will happen in the next twelve hours. Twelve hours. Got to get through half a day before I walk onstage this evening. So much easier if I could hop out of bed, into the shower, and onto the piano bench. Performance isn’t hard—waiting kills me. Playing the Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 3 in D minor this evening with the Pittsburgh Symphony. Performed the Rach 3 at least thirty times over the last decade. Still kicks my butt. Like running a marathon in thirty-five minutes.

Sheets tangle between my legs, my hair tangles between my fingers, my stomach tangles in knots. Slightly nauseated. Hope I’m not pregnant again. Hope I don’t have stomach cancer. Hope I didn’t eat bad shrimp last night at Fred’s Fish Factory. Why did I let that chirpy concert promoter talk me into eating crustaceans in a landlocked town? What’s her name? Right. Madison. I’m an idiot when I’m hungry. I’ll eat anything. Hope the zipper closes on my gown tonight. Should fast today—no, last time I tried that I fainted two hours before my New York Phil concert. Ended up drinking a vanilla milkshake to revive. Stomach bloated from the lactose. Rachmaninoff and bloat. Bad combo.

I hope the hair guy shows up. I hate big concert halls with balconies. People sitting above see my roots; high-rent folks in orchestra seats see my double chin. I’m screwed in two ticket-price tiers.

Wish they would just close their eyes and listen.

I really need to play the damn piano; always makes me feel better to play, at least in real life. Crawled into bed last night out of sorts and full of doom. Finally conked out, had a nightmare someone splattered the Steinway keyboard with olive oil. I’ve had this nightmare on the eve of every concert performance for fifteen years. Always the same—fingers slip and slide, and my performance, no matter what I do, veers from controlled elegance to sadistic slapstick. The audience laughs. I stand to leave the stage, humiliated and broken. I notice oil stains on my red evening gown. Guy in the front row of my dream looks exactly like Mr. Dominick, my childhood piano teacher. He wears a houndstooth jacket with mustard-colored suede elbow patches. “See?” he snarls. “I told you. You’re no good. And not only that, you’re fat.” Then I wake up.


I am Samantha Lockney. Used to be the toast of the classical piano world, girl with the platinum fingers, sweetheart of music critics everywhere, except in parts of Ohio, where, for some odd reason, they’ve always hated my emotional interpretations of Baroque music. They also hated me in Duluth and Phoenix. Fine with that. I am. Don’t know anyone in Ohio, or Duluth, or Phoenix, except for my agent’s mother. Met her once, when I played the A minor Brahms with the Cleveland Orchestra. My hands aren’t really big enough for Brahms, so I had to stretch like crazy. That was back when I had big banging balls and I still tried to play pieces that didn’t suit me. Before the agency and Classical International Records started promoting me as a glamour girl. Back when I didn’t have to worry about sucking in my stomach and wearing false eyelashes. Now, when I should be exhaling and leaning into the best years of my career, I face dwindling audiences, dismal record sales, and a substantial slab of flab around my middle. Not so noticeable when I’m upright, but I can’t perform the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor if I’m not sitting down.

I hate sounding like a whining, weight-obsessed, middle-aged woman, but . . . If I’m not at the piano, I’m standing in front of a mirror freaking about how I look at the piano. Twenty years ago, on my agent’s advice, I poured myself into a silver slip dress and jiggled onstage at Carnegie Hall. I actually believed, silver dress and all, the audience understood and admired my music. Wasn’t the music they dug, it was the package. That’s what the record company called me—a package. Yeah, I was talented. Yeah, I mastered Rach 3 when very few women even considered playing it. Yeah, I was the new kid on the scene. But I really got noticed for being classical piano’s “It Girl.” Or was it “Tit Girl”? Now the “It” part is gone; tits are sagging; career is tanking. I’m scared. I need to keep working. I need guidance. My own stupid fault. Other concert pianists have survived middle age without losing momentum—but they built careers on solid music, not on how they looked in a silver dress.

Classical International didn’t pick up the option for my next recording, so now I’m a free agent.Therapist says anger gets me nowhere. Agent says anger gets me nowhere. Accountant says anger gets me nowhere. I pay a staff of professionals thousands of dollars a month to piss me off and tell me I’m getting nowhere. This morning, nowhere features a junior suite with two red velveteen chairs, king-sized bed, pink marble bathroom, and too many mirrors. The suite is a little smaller than my usual offerings—okay, a lot smaller—but the birdish Madison, a zipper-thin twenty-something, told me the pop singer Baby checked in yesterday and her handlers insisted on the Governor’s Suite, the one originally reserved for me. I’m at the William Penn Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh. Didn’t make a scene about the suite. I was tempted. It feels, I don’t know, a little insulting to be jostled out of position by a chlorine-blond named Baby. We’re both from Pittsburgh. Read somewhere she went to my elementary school, twenty years after I was there.

Saw pictures of Baby in Vanity Fair last month. She was wearing a latex mermaid costume. Even with flippers and fishtail, she’s a looker. I remember how that used to feel. Seas parted, doors opened, men with coffee breath and thinning hair stared at my breasts and told me I was extremely talented. Got the best tables and widest smiles, and potbellied photographers told me I wasn’t just extremely talented, I was lovely. Funny thing, I believed every word. Every single word. Fans surrounded me like fruit flies on a ripe peach.

Why bother with nail polish on my toes? It chips. Chanel Rouge Noir. Love this color. Scrape a few blackish-red flakes onto the flocked carpet. They disappear into the weave. Wonder what else is buried in there.

Ashamed to admit this, but I expected a warm reception since I’m a hometown girl. Thought the concert would sell out, that today would be filled with press appointments. But Madison, whose diplomacy skills lack finesse, told me critics and journalists had no interest. “It’s, like, so hard these days to find anyone willing to write about classical music, unless it’s, like, some hot new artist. You know, like, the younger ones. I thought, like, since you’re older, I might call Walter Wipton.”

“Walter Wipton? Is he still on staff at the Pittsburgh paper? My God, that guy has been writing the same shitty review of every young female concert pianist for the last forty years. Is he coming tonight?”

“No,” said Madison, checking her phone. “Let’s see. He says he already reviewed your performance of the Rachmaninoff.”

“That was ten years, ago,” I said. “That guy is a sexist idiot. I quote: ‘Samantha Lockney might play like a man but she definitely looks like a woman. Sensual and sexy, her body moved with the music and brought to mind moments of passion and release.’ Basically, Madison, he compared me to an orgasm. Doesn’t get more sexist than that, does it?”

“Wow, you still remember that?” she said. “You’re, like, a feminist?” I didn’t know how to answer without shaking her. So I said nothing.

“Well, you know, Baby’s in town,” said Madison, her voice excited and growing squeakier by the second. “It’s supposed to be a secret, but every reporter in Pittsburgh knows she’s here. They’re all, like, camped out in the lobby. Evidently she’s here to attend a funeral.”

Fucking Baby. She shows up for a funeral and it’s a major press event. I arrive to play the most difficult piano concerto ever written and no one cares.

I pull the covers over my head and try to push away the morning.

Phone rings just as the waiter arrives with my breakfast. Phone tone is an A-natural. Doorbell to the suite is a G-sharp. I’m caught in the crossfire of a half-tone war. God, that’s awful. Grab the phone and my robe at the same time.

“Mommy?” It’s my daughter, Caroline. Her voice sounds raspy. Make a note to ask Gary if her asthma has been bothering her again. Latrobe isn’t far away—should try and get out there to see her. Maybe Gary will bring her to the concert tonight—I already sent tickets. Have to remember to pick up a present—hate to meet her empty-handed. Caroline chatters on about getting ready for school. I look in the mirror and try to iron the lines out of my face with the palm of my hand. Doorbell rings again, followed by loud knocking.

“Yes, sweetie. Yes, sweetie. I miss you, too. Just a minute, okay? Breakfast is here.” Fluff my hair and open the door.

Snarky kid with a pierced nose smirks and says, “Room service.” These hotel workers get younger every week. His nametag says “Jefferson.” Of course. Jefferson. Is every person under the age of twenty-five named after a damn president? Jefferson—wearing a white military jacket with golden buttons and scarlet epaulets and a pair of gravity-defying black pants— slouches into the room without even trying to sneak a peek under my robe. Pull up your pants, I want to shout. Little Lord Fauntleroy from the waist up, original gangster from the waist down. Way too skinny for me, anyway. Not tempted.

I don’t look bad for my age. I don’t. I remind myself of this at least three times an hour. Been playing really well the last few years—playing better than ever, actually—but all the newspapers and magazines want to write about—if they write about me at all—is my puffy face or how much weight I’ve gained. They say I’ve “matured in stature.” They write about whether I should have a face-lift. Or speculate whether I’m losing my hair. If I’m a good mother or a bad mother. If my third marriage will work out. If I’m a lesbian. Downward spiral. Falling face.

To the Jeffersons of the world I am invisible. Rach 3 is too long, too demanding, just too much of everything for a YouTuber like Jefferson. He’ll watch a cell phone video of Baby hailing a cab, but an aging formerly-hot classical pianist? Forget it. To music critics—the know-it-alls who fell in love with me when I was waif-like and perky-boobed—I’m one sonata away from menopause. I glance in the mirror as Jefferson rolls the tray table into my suite. Ragged. Chunky. I look my age. And you know what? Just don’t care. Really. I don’t care.


“Where do you want it?” Jefferson says.

“Funny you should ask.” I use my flirty voice. Jefferson ignores me.

Shit. I remember my ten-year-old daughter is still on the phone, hanging on every word. “Well now, Jefferson, over there. Next to the window.” I grab the phone from the nightstand. “Caroline, honey, I’ll call you right back, okay?” Already hung up. Guess she has gone to school.

Jefferson, disgusted, places breakfast—a pot of Earl Grey, a bowl of bran flakes, a glass of vivid green juice that will taste like liquid tree—on a window-side table overlooking a broad Pittsburgh avenue. Grant Street? So long since I’ve been in town. Hardly remember the names of the streets. Jefferson unfurls a single linen napkin, places it next to the tree juice and says, “Will there be anything else?”

“Here.” I hand him ten dollars.

“Wow. Thanks,” he says.

“You’re welcome. Would you perhaps like tickets to my concert this evening? It’s not sold out and I have some—”

“What? You a singer or something?”

“No. I’m a concert pianist. I’m performing with the Pittsburgh Symphony this evening.”

“Oh. Yeah. I heard of them. But I got plans. I’m not supposed to tell anyone—this is top secret—but I guess you’re cool. Baby is in town. I hear she might stop by the Rooster Shack tonight and sit in for a set. At least, that’s what my bartender buddy at the Rooster Shack told me.”

“Right. Well, then. The Rooster Shack. Imagine that.”

“Enjoy your breakfast.” Jefferson walks backwards, dragging the empty food cart. He doesn’t even glance at me as he backs out of the room.


I eat all of my breakfast. Stroll downstairs, pick up a newspaper. Baby buzz circulates around the reception desk, though she’s nowhere to be seen. A grand piano sits right in the middle of the lobby—maybe later I’ll challenge Baby to a duel.

Head back to my room. Think about tonight’s performance. This damn concerto. Rach 3. I play it really well, but it’s never easy. Only a handful of pianists can do it justice. I’m one of them. Pretty much the only thing anyone wants to hear me play these days. It’s exhausting keeping up with it. Kicks my ass every time, even after all these years.

Took me eleven months to master Rach 3. A “normal” concerto—I can cover that in a month. I remember first looking at the score; it was written for an octopus. No break for the pianist, not even in the second movement. Fell in love with it at eighteen and decided if I never accomplished anything else in my life, I would tame this beast. I did. Now when I play it I become my own orchestra. Two orchestras onstage; the one with eighty-three musicians, and the one behind the Steinway—me. I’m an army, an unbeatable force, a solo musician with the weight of the world balanced on ten fingers. I’ve sacrificed a lot for Rachmaninoff over the years—childhood, a normal education, several marriages, my daughter, friends—but it’s worth it. When I’m playing this concerto, the muscle of the music strong-arms real life. I win. I’m free. I’m home. I’m an unconquerable goddess. I am alive.

Wish I had ordered pancakes or a cheese omelet or something substantial for breakfast. Need real food—potatoes and bread and bacon. If I had a piano in my fucking junior suite I could distract myself with practicing, but the days of the promoter providing a Steinway in my hotel room are over. I look in one of the dozens of mirrors lining the walls. There is a hair growing out of my forehead. My forehead! Jesus Christ, how long has that been there? Oh my God, it’s white and it’s an inch long. I take a moment and Google cosmetic surgeons in Manhattan. Hair removal, liposuction, Botox, face-lift, fillers—maybe I need a complete rehaul. Might even need an ass lift. No I don’t. Yes I do. Not like an ass lift will make me more of an artist. How long would I have to take off from sitting on a piano bench to recover from butt-lift surgery? Forget it. I’m not kowtowing to contemporary beauty standards. Harness my physical well-being to an industry norm? I am what I am, and all that. I pluck the hair.

But maybe if I looked better, if I recaptured my youthful fizz, I would book more gigs. I need to work. I paid off my Manhattan apartment years ago, but I’m so far in debt I’ll need to play 150 concerts a year until I’m ninety just to make a dent in what I owe. This is my first gig in a month. I’m not destitute, but I need to pay my staff of anger experts, two ex-husbands, and child support. Maybe there’s a direct correlation between weight gain and concert loss. Maybe I’m just too old for this. Not old. Not young. Maybe I’m too fat.

Stop it right now. Just stop it.

I know. Go for a walk. Outside. Fresh air. Breathe. Still have three hours before hair guy shows up. I’ll go practice for an hour at the hall. Buy a new dress. Shop for Caroline. What size is she these days? Put on sunglasses and head for Macy’s.


Nobody recognizes me in the store, even with sunglasses. Relieved and pissed all at once. I try three separate times to give comp tickets to sales people, but no one seems interested—they act like I’m trying to give them discount coupons for fabric softener. Try on an Oscar de la Renta bright-pink beaded evening gown that costs $2,000. I look like a spangled hippo in a mother-of-the-bride dress, plus the beads chafe my upper arms. Thirty-five minutes of Rach 3 in that thing and my triceps would look like raw meat. Try on a subtle Calvin Klein black sheath dress and I resemble a stout nun settling in for an evening of biblical Scrabble. Try on strappy high-heeled sandals with bits of feathers at the toe. Am I getting cankles? No. Ankles still slim. No ankle lift for me.

How cute! Who ever thought to add feathers to shoes? Could be my new signature style. If Katia Labèque can make a concert pianist fashion statement with red-soled Louboutins, then why not me? Feathers at my feet. Wings on my heels. Fly like an eagle. Buy the shoes. Hope these aren’t eagle feathers. Four hundred dollars. Shouldn’t, but I do.

I look at a crystal bracelet. Forget that. Pick up a topaz ring for Caroline. Adorable. Topaz is her birthstone, I think. Got to do something about my nails. Looks like I’ve been digging up potatoes bare-handed.

Scoot down to the cosmetic department and pick up three new lipsticks, a $20 bottle of a nail polish called Cream Cake for my fingers, another bottle of Rouge Noir for my toes, and firming cream guaranteed to restructure a sagging jaw line. Has horse cartilage in it. Or shark fin. Or some awful thing, but Vogue says it works.

Hungry. What I eat now is critical. Too much and my stomach will blow up and I’ll look five months pregnant onstage and even the feather sandals won’t distract from that. If I don’t eat enough I’ll be shaky, top-heavy, and likely to tip over. Do men think about this shit? No. I’ll bet Martha Argerich doesn’t either. Should have built my career the way she did.

I find a little Japanese place and order a tempura California roll. Hold the cream cheese. Avocado is good, right? Right. Would kill for some wine, but that’s a no-go. I order another California roll. No soy sauce—last thing I need is water retention. There. Full, but not. Perfect.

Over to the hall to see if I can play in these feather sandals. I have my doubts. Piano pedals swallow shoes and long skirts. Test run required. A policeman waves at me. Nice—hey there, big guy. I wave back, but he’s not waving at me—he’s directing traffic. Pittsburgh pigeon poops on my pink pashmina. I do the best I can to remove the goop with an old Starbucks napkin stuffed in my pocket.

Hands feel cold.

Should have had the wine.


What was I thinking? I’m onstage, running through warm-ups before the technician arrives to tweak the Steinway. Feather sandals are a disaster, heels skid on the wooden floor, I lose control of the pedal. Fuck the feathers. I’m a pianist, not a stripper. I kick them off and keep playing. Stupid idea to buy these stupid shoes. Focus. I should return them, but I’m out of time. Shit. Focus. Was I supposed to call Caroline at lunchtime? I’ll try later. Help. Stop and clear my head. Play through the cadenza in the first movement again.

And again. Again. There. My hands move so fast I can’t see or feel them anymore—a blur of sinew and flesh. Part of me, but not. I float above myself, in a trance, listening. Got it now. Stand, stretch, collect my Macy’s loot and grab a cab back to the hotel. Time to have hair teased and tussled, face spackled. Salon promised to send someone at four. Could use a piece of cake. Pace back and forth in the suite and wait for hair guy. Think about the Rach. Pace. Stop thinking. Therapist tells me to think of nothing before a performance. Thinking about not thinking. Nothing helps. Keep hearing repetitive patterns in the third movement. Doorbell rings. Scares me. I’m always jittery a few hours before. It’s the stylist, a short guy named Doug. He smells like grapefruit.

“Come in, Doug. May I offer you a soothing cup of tea?” ***

Five minutes before eight. Orchestra waits onstage. I wait in the wings. Stretch. Good. Shoulders nice and loose. Hands warm. Neck slightly stiff. Normal. I can see the audience from a gap in the backstage wall. I try not to look. Lots of empty seats. Caroline sits in the third row, with her grandparents and Gary. I’ll play the Rach for her tonight. Play it so she’ll remember me. The music. Me. The music. Me. The music. Don’t think. Don’t even think about thinking. The music. Me. Breathe. Believe.

The stage manager taps my shoulder. Walk onstage. Walk. Sit. Maestro raises his baton. The music. Me. Believe. Breathe.



Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is also the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

Coming on April 6th, 2016: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip!

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

The Finish Line


During my NYC years I used to watch, each autumn, as marathon runners of every sort dashed, shuffled, and sauntered across the Queensboro Bridge. Blind runners, wheelchair runners, amputees, world champions with chiselled faces and gangly arms, cancer survivors, friends of cancer victims, men and women hauling children in wagons. The participants in the New York City Marathon seemed like visitors from a distant planet— homo-nautilus super-humans with muscled thighs, dressed in neon tights and puffy shoes. The very idea that anyone could muster enough discipline to run twenty-six miles in a few hours inspired me. Someday, I would think, someday I will do that, too.

I’m a lousy runner. I’m also a bit top heavy. The last time I tried to jog I tripped over one rock and landed—chest-first—on more rocks. I broke a rib and sprained my thumb. Had it not been for the mercy of a kind woman—a real runner with the ability to avoid rocks—I might still be lying there with squashed breasts, eating gravel and wondering why I couldn’t breathe. Good thing I was wearing two bras.

For much of my adult life, the marathon dream nagged me. I longed for a long-term project, a race I could run without tripping, a finish line I might cross with my dignity (and rib cage) intact. About twelve years ago I discovered writing. Not journals or song lyrics or blog posts—I had already done all that—but books. I thought I had it in me to write one. The idea seemed exciting, challenging, and the kind of goal-oriented project I craved. I might not be able to run a marathon, but maybe I could write one. And that’s how my writing career started—with a scalding desire to accomplish a long-term goal. If nothing else, I wanted to prove I could cross a finish line. Then I would collapse in a heap on the other side, feel a sense of accomplishment, and get back to my life.

Most musicians cross little finish lines every time they play a set, a song, a phrase. I was used to that—writing a new tune, practicing it, performing it,  getting bored, and moving on to the next thing. Writing a book seemed more like the musical equivalent of composing and performing a concerto—a complete work that would force me to make sense of the fragmented ideas banging around in my brain and organize them into a literary score. I wanted to orchestrate my thoughts with words.

But where to start? It’s hard to cross a finish line if you don’t know where the race begins.


Want to hear a couple of funny stories? Grab a beer, a bowl of stale almonds, and hang out with the local band on a break between sets. My dad, a versatile Pittsburgh drummer who played in symphony orchestras, jazz clubs, and burlesque theaters, kept our family entertained with stories about drunks, divas, and exotic dancers with names like Irma the Body. As a child, I listened to his pitch-perfect tales of life as a musician, and dreamed that someday I’d have my own stories to tell. To earn that privilege, I had to master the piano, go on the road, memorize thousands of songs, and navigate an obstacle course full of artistic booby-traps.

The idea for Piano Girl: A Memoir, came to me after thirty years of solo piano gigs in smoky cocktail lounges, roadside dives, plush Manhattan hotels, and European castles. This was a book I could write, a race I could run. From the other side of a grand (or not-so-grand) piano, I had played three decades worth of background music, entertaining myself by observing the human comedies, tragedies, and mundane miracles drifting past the Steinway. I was ready to start writing my stories. The characters and plots had waltzed into my cocktail lounge life and dared me to whisk them into a readable froth.

With a dose of cautious optimism, I sent my Piano Girl proposal to Richard Johnston, then the senior editor at Backbeat Books, a small house specializing in music books. Richard, who shared my love of the absurd, convinced his team that my stories deserved publication. When Backbeat surprised me with a contract, an advance, and a six-month deadline to complete my manuscript, I committed to a full-time work schedule. During that time, I learned to love writing as much as I love music. I also learned that writing a book really is a marathon—a long, daunting, and glorious haul to an illusive finish line that often feels like a brick wall instead of a flimsy piece of plastic tape.

Upon publication, Piano Girl received a Publishers Weekly starred review, an endorsement from BookSense, and landed feature interviews for me on All Things Considered, The Leonard Lopate Show, and NPR’s Piano Jazz with Marian McPartland. My publisher assured me I had won the National Public Radio sweepstakes. Henry Steinway sponsored a Piano Girl reading and concert at Steinway Hall, attended by the esteemed William Zinsser, whose wonderful book On Writing Well had been my desktop bible while writing Piano Girl. His hopeful smile in the audience that night cast a magic spell over the entire evening.

Backbeat organized a book launch cocktail party at the Waldorf Astoria. NPR taped the event, which was attended by friends, industry professionals, and booksellers from all over the country. I wore an over-the-top red evening gown, played “Night and Day” on Cole Porter’s piano (I still have the tendonitis to prove it), and read from my book. Sipping champagne, I checked out the stylish crowd flitting around the Art Deco Waldorf lobby, stunned that my childhood fantasy of having people listen to my musical stories had evolved into a book that people seemed to like. The glow of the Waldorf limelight faded quickly, but I can still feel its warmth.

In a way, sitting at the piano that night, I felt like I had crossed my finish line. The excitement and jet lag had kept me awake for three days, and I truly wanted to collapse into my well-deserved heap, but I couldn’t—I had to play the gig. My weary fingers found the opening chords to Misty just as I noticed a man in a banana costume strutting across the Waldorf lobby. Wow, I thought—I can use that in a new story.

That’s when the truth hit me like a ton of books: for a writer the finish line is a mirage. A thought becomes a word becomes a sentence becomes a phrase and a graph and a story and a book. You believe you’ve crossed to the other side, and you’re ready to accept your trophy, your medal, your gift certificate for a free massage. Then you see a man dressed as a banana, forget the race you’ve just won, and start the next project. You even look forward to it.

The wonderful author, Jane Smiley, said: “I believe that you either love the work or the rewards. Life is a lot easier if you love the work.”

The Piano Girl media hoopla stoked my ego, but I soon realized those temporary highlights couldn’t compete with the thrill of writing—the bliss that comes with finding the lore of a story or discovering the musical threads connecting the chapters of my life.

As a lyricist, I have been trained in the craft of setting words to music. As an author, I’ve learned to work from the opposite direction, by stringing words together and finding their musical flow. Whenever I get it just right (not as often as I might hope), I experience a whoosh of elation. My personal triumphs come from stumbling upon a perfect word, tapping out the rhythm of my sentences, and, on a good day, arranging the weird themes of my life into beautiful or ugly melodies that make sense.

Since that fateful Piano Girl launch, I have written four books. Waltz of the Asparagus People is a sequel to Piano Girl; Rhythm: A Novel tells the story of a young female drummer. My new book, Manhattan Road Trip, is a compact collection of short stories about musicians. The official publishing date is April 6th, 2016.

I hope you’ll read Manhattan Road Trip. You know those people who stand on the sidelines and hand out energy bars and water to runners as they approach the end of the marathon? That’s you—pushing me over the finish line and giving me the confidence to start another race.

“Watch out for the rocks!” you might shout.

I’m beyond grateful.


Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is also the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

Coming on April 6th, 2016: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip!

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

Bad-Ass Randy and the Beauty Queens

Chatham Village, 1966. I am eight years old and have recently watched the Miss America pageant—live from Atlantic City!—on television with Grandma Curtis. Grandma, a real shark when it comes to picking winners, says: “Miss California has the best figure, but she blew it in the talent competition. You can’t win with baton twirling if you don’t have flames. I’m voting for Miss Michigan—look at her in that white spangled evening gown. Elegant! Brains, beauty, and poise! Never underestimate the importance of poise. And her vocal interpretation of ‘June is Bustin Out All Over’ is divine.”

Grandma Curtis is almost right. Miss Michigan doesn’t win the title, but she gets as far as first runner-up. I am intrigued by the concept of first runner-up. Almost good enough to win, but not quite. All of the work, none of the glory.

Some months later, my sister, Randy, and I decide to stage our own spectacle—the first annual Miss Chatham Village beauty pageant. Chatham Village, an idyllic wooded enclave right smack in the middle of Pittsburgh, features colonial brick town-homes surrounding lush green courtyards. Randy and I live in the upper court of the oldest part of Chatham Village, a perfect place for a long runway and a makeshift stage.

We gather a gaggle of our Village girlfriends, including the Marys—Mary Beth Wilson and Mary Helen Joyce; Alyce Amery, Kitty Engstrom, Lisa Hetrick, and the Loughney sisters, Casey and Lisa; the Clifford girls, Sharon and Sandra. Together we plot and plan the program and send crayola invitations to our parents, who usually spend their summer evenings sitting on front porches sipping drinks and grilling steaks. The Village could be the Pittsburgh setting for a John Cheever story: Wonderbread-ish, WASP-y, and two gin and tonics away from tennis-white perfect.

Problem: We need a judge for our pageant. We decide the last thing we want is a parental jury, or, worse yet, a panel of boys. What to do? Randy, seven years old and already a take-charge kind of gal, volunteers for the gig.

“I hate beauty,” she says. “And I hate swimsuits and evening gowns. And my only talent is chasing my brother with a baseball bat. I might as well be the judge.”

We agree. Randy will be the moderator and the jury—Bert Parks and the panel of experts rolled into one cocky little girl.

I think I’m a shoe-in because Randy and I share a bedroom and, on holidays, wear matching outfits with patriotic themes.


What’s this? All of the sudden, all of the pageant contestants are really nice to Randy. She gets extra cookies from our friends, extra rides on the backs of bicycles, extra turns on the Tarzan swing. I am too naive to understand the concept of a bribe, and the special treatment seems fair to me—after all, Randy has sacrificed her own chances of being Miss Chatham Village by volunteering to run the contest. I’m proud of my generous sister for stepping out of the spotlight so that the rest of us might shine.

It is worth noting that my sister was born with coal black eyes and orange fuzz on her head. It is also worth noting that I have seen her bite a worm in half and that her favorite game is called “Let’s Go Die.”


The day of the pageant arrives. Our parents collect in the courtyard and sit in assorted lawn chairs. Cocktails in hand, they chatter as Randy, barefoot, but wearing one of my dad’s bow ties, takes the stage to welcome the audience. She uses a stick wrapped in aluminum foil as a microphone.

“Please join us for the Pledge of Allegiance,” my sister says. This is not typical feature of beauty pageants, but I think it adds a nice touch. The adults rise, cocktails in one hand, heart in the other.

Randy begins introducing the contestants.

“Hailing from the lower court, Alyce Amery excels at math and reading. Her hobbies include coloring and going to the library.” Alice takes a long walk down the runway, wearing a frilly pink dress and flip-flops.

“From 610 Pennridge Road, Mary Beth Wilson attends St. Mary of the Mount school. She is a member of Stunt Club and—lucky for us!—enjoys singing. Unlike my father, Mary Beth’s father works during the day.” Mary Beth beams.

It goes on and on like this, with Randy introducing each of the girls competing for the title.

Then she gets to me, last on the list: “Here is Robin, better known as my sister.” That’s it? That’s all she says? I march down the runway, remembering what Grandma Curtis said about poise.

Because the pageant takes place fifty feet from our house, we use our living room for quick changes into swimsuit and talent costumes. The screen door squeaks and slams as we run back and forth. Meanwhile, Randy, hardly breaking a sweat, babbles on and on about each of us.

“And now, here is Mary Beth Wilson again, performing her version of Down in the Valley.” From the sidelines, I see three-quarters of the audience blanch—Mary Beth has an impossibly high voice, one that can make your head explode if you’re not prepared. I watch, as the assembled parents simultaneously lift their cocktail glasses and take a solid swig. But—surprise—Mary Beth has planned a special arrangement of “Down in the Valley”—one that includes cartwheels—twenty-four cartwheels—we count them. When she reaches the end, she modulates to an even higher key—down in the valley, the valley so low—raises her grass-stained hands, and sings the final verse. Wow.

“Thank you, Mary Beth!” says my sister. “A true highlight.”

“Next up, my sister, Robin, performing a medley of the two songs she knows.” I smile and stand in the middle of the courtyard with my flute. Poise. I play “When Sunny Gets Blue”—a tune I found in my dad’s fake-book—then segue into a vocal performance of “This Land is Your Land” which I can sing while twirling the flute. My range isn’t as impressive as Mary Beth’s, and there are no flames shooting out of my flute tailpiece, but I get by.

Some of the other girls perform splits and back-bends. One of them plays the violin. Alyce Amery recites poetry. Mary Helen does an interpretive dance with scarves.

We are fearless. We believe in our beauty, our talent, our intelligence, our poise.

We change into Sunday school dresses—our version of evening gowns—for the final round of the pageant. For music to accompany our final walk down the runway, we hum “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

The tension builds. Randy has decided in advance to eliminate the runners-up. No finalists. She will select the winner and that will be that.

We hold hands and glance nervously at each other, just like the real Miss America contestants. Who will win? I will win. I know I will win, but when I look at the other girls, I see the same spark of determination in their eyes and begin to doubt myself. Maybe the flute twirling wasn’t such a great idea. We can’t all win. This isn’t as much fun as I thought it would be.

Randy asks for a drum roll. The parents in the audience put down their drinks and pound their thighs.

“And the winner is . . . ”

Drum roll . . .

Randy glances at the paper crown, bouquet of dandelions, and the crepe paper Miss Chatham Village sash she has stashed on a table next to her.

“And the winner is . . . ”

Drum roll . . .


Randy crowns herself. I stand with the other girls onstage, our mouths hanging open in disbelief, as Randy adjusts the crown, pulls the sash over her head, grabs the bouquet, and sashays—with tremendous poise—down the runway, pausing to wave at our parents and the imaginary press corps lining both sides of the aisle.

Halfway between rage and devastation, we begin to howl. Our parents sit there laughing, which does not make things better, not one bit.

“No fair!” we shout. “No fair!”

“Fair!” says Randy. “You made me the judge and I picked me.”

“You didn’t wear a swimsuit or an evening gown. You didn’t even have a talent presentation.”

“Yep,” says Randy. “I was just myself. And I won.”

“You can’t do that!” Mary Beth says.

“Yes I can. You know why? Because I’m the judge. I decide. You want to win, you have to be the judge! Any nitwit knows that.” Randy, my worm-eating devil sister, spins around and takes another turn on the catwalk. Our parents stand and cheer. The other girls and I—feeling very much like the Chatham Village idiots—stomp out of the courtyard and go to my house to change clothes. Losers! We are worse than Miss Michigan—we’re not even runners-up. One by one, we slam the screen door in protest. I look out and see Randy, still wearing her crown, signing autographs for the adults. I suppose this time next week she’ll be riding on a float in a parade on Grant Street.


You want to win, you have to be the judge.

Randy had a point. It will take me decades to figure out that my little sister, age seven, was wise beyond her years—smart enough to be the judge instead of the contestant; rebellious enough to make the rules instead of following them; quick enough to crown herself instead of waiting for someone else to do it for her; cunning enough to win the top prize without stuffing herself into a swimsuit or Sunday school dress. You want the tiara? Make it yourself.

And what about Grandma’s favorite quality— poise?  Randy comes by that naturally, I’d say. No one can strut a runway like my sister.



Randy Rawsthorne Cinski is now the owner of Randita’s, an organic vegan café located in Pittsburgh. She makes great food and tells good stories. And if you’re lucky, she might even be wearing her crown.

Thanks to Aunt Pinky Rawsthorne for the photos!

Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is also the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

Coming on April 6th, 2016: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians.

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

Playing Nice

Another Sunday, another year. It’s New Year’s Day and I’m headed to my steady gig at a fancy hotel in Cologne. Royal Afternoon Tea, with solo piano music. As usual, I pull into the parking lot of the Honrath train station a few minutes before my scheduled train connection at two o’clock. I roll down my window. The day, unseasonably warm, sparkles with the promise of spring, even though winter has yet to arrive. The air smells toasty—a peculiar mix of burning branches and freshly baked bread.

I close my eyes and think about the refugees who have arrived in Germany in the last month—what it must be like for them to start a new year so far from home. Frightening, exciting, frustrating. Maybe feeling safe overrides any other sensation. I’ve never been a refugee, but I understand what it’s like to move to a foreign country. I had every possible economic advantage when I moved here, but it was still complicated, challenging, and at times, a little scary. The language, the culture, the change. I can’t imagine what our new neighbors—torn from their homes by war and fear—are experiencing.

From the warmth of my car, I check out the action on the platform. Look there—it’s Jamaican Guy! Jamaican Guy, with waist length dreads, stands next to the ticket machine, trying to make sense out of a complicated set of German instructions. Over the years I have seen Jamaican Guy several times in Wahlscheid, the quaint village where I live. Although Wahlscheid has become more colorful due to the recent influx of refugees—it’s still pretty much a white bread Sound of Music community. Whenever I spot Jamaican Guy strolling through our little town I feel an urge to say hello. Surely he’s a musician. Or maybe not—just because a Jamaican man has dreadlocks and looks like the coolest person this side of Paris, does not mean he once played sessions with Bob Marley. Maybe he’s not even Jamaican. I scold myself for making generalizations and keep my comments to myself. Still, I can’t help imagining the strains of “Edelweiß” arranged for reggae band and alphorn. Fusion at its finest.


As I sit here watching, an elderly woman—wearing a pink coat and a baseball cap—hobbles over to Jamaican Guy and begins waving a ticket at him. I sense a potential language breakdown and hop out my car to see if I can help.


“Please,” says the woman, who looks to be at least eighty. She speaks German in a booming voice, the way people do when they want to be understood, as if shouting might somehow make the person on the receiving end suddenly grasp the many nuances of a foreign language. “PLEASE, DO NOT SPEND YOUR MONEY ON A TICKET. SAVE YOUR MONEY FOR FOOD AND SHELTER. TODAY IS A HOLIDAY AND I AM PERMITTED TO TAKE A GUEST WITH ME. LET ME HELP YOU.”

I translate this into English for Jamaican Guy, leaving out the part about food and shelter. He looks at me, smiles, and says: “She thinks I’m a refugee, doesn’t she?”

“Uh, yes.” He’s obviously not a refugee, but in the eyes of this well-meaning woman, his dark skin and ripped jeans mean he has just gotten off a boat and walked halfway across Europe with his belongings in a plastic sack. Perhaps she hasn’t noticed his distressed leather man-purse, his Nikes, or his Rimowa suitcase.

She really wants to help him.

“Well fine with me! I can be a refugee if it makes her feel better.” He turns to the woman. “Happy New Year, Madam! Danke!”

Madam beams, her cheeks blushing as pink as her coat. “MY PLEASURE,” she says.

I have wondered about Jamaican Guy for years. His occasional presence in my neighborhood offers a welcome distraction from a neighborhood that seems, at times, way too predictable. Now’s my chance to talk to him. We introduce ourselves. His name is Andru; the German woman calls herself Frau Baumgartner. Together, we climb onto the train. Frau Baumgartner sits across the aisle from us and stares at the beautiful countryside as it sweeps past her window. “SO MANY SHADES OF GREEN,” she shouts in German. “STRANGE FOR THIS TIME OF YEAR.”

“Where do you live?” I ask Andru. “I’ve seen you in Wahlscheid and have always been curious about you. We don’t have many Jamaican-looking guys in town.”

“I have children in Wahlscheid—I come often to visit them. But my other homes are in Manhattan, Tokyo, and Kingston. I travel a lot for work. I’m headed back to Japan today. Every place is home for me—but no place is home, if you know what I mean.”

“Yeah. I really know what you mean. So, I have to ask—are you a musician?”

“Yes,” he says. “And a songwriter.”

“Me, too. How’s it going for you?”

Well. Turns out my new friend Andru is a pretty big star in the reggae world, with several gold and platinum records to his name. And he did work with the Wailers. I wasn’t far off with my first guess.

“I’m sorry Frau Baumgartner thought you were a refugee,” I say as he collects his belongings and prepares to get off the train—he’s connecting to another train to Frankfurt International Airport.

“She’s a sweet lady,” he says. “It’s the dark skin. Sometimes we all get lumped together. But, you know, she’s playing nice. It’s all good.” He doesn’t come right out and say don’t worry, be happy, but it would be a fitting sentiment at this particular moment.

We exchange cards, he says goodbye and danke to Frau Baumgartner, and disembarks.


I immediately pull out my phone and do a Goggle search. Impressive. I find a YouTube video and slide over to Frau Baumgartner’s side of the aisle to show her.

“Look,” I say. “The man you helped today is a big star. He is flying to Japan today.” I show her a video of Andru performing in Moscow. She smiles, then her eyes widen.

“What a pity,” she says, speaking at normal volume.

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“What a pity that he is now a refugee. No one is safe in this world.”

I think about this for a minute. “I suppose you’re right,” I say. “What brings you into Cologne on New Year’s Day? Are you meeting friends?”

“Oh no, dear. I am alone. But I like to get on the train and see what happens. I bring a bag lunch. I like getting out of the house and collecting adventures. Today has gotten off to a good start. A refugee who was once a star! Imagine! I hope that young man will be safe in Japan. I hope the Japanese are good to refugees.”

I don’t have the heart to set her straight. She has done her part, and I should do mine. We have been an unlikely trio—a blond American pianist, a Jamaican international reggae star, and a German senior citizen in a pink coat.

I get off the the train with Frau Baumgartner and we say cheerful goodbyes. She totters into the balmy winter afternoon, an old woman with a youthful willingness to help, a need to be needed, and a day of adventure—and shifting colors—ahead of her.


Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is also the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

Coming on April 6th, 2016: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians.

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

Blond Ambition 4.0


Coming through, coming through! Musician! Musician!

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

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

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

Coming through, coming through! Musician! Musician!

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

“And can you make a living doing that?”

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

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

“What you do is kind of old fashioned.”

“I prefer to think of it as timeless.”

He laughs. “You know what I mean.”

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

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

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

“Classy hotel, here,” Spinal Tap says.

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

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

“My colleague?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have a fun gig,” she might say.

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

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

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

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

Coming through, coming through! Musician! Musician!

More power to you, Louise Ciccone.


Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is also the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

Coming soon: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians.

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

Nakey: The Concert

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

Back Story

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

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

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

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

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

1.Med_Concert copy

The Concert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is also the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

Coming soon: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians.

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Piano del Sol

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


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

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

Robin Meloy Goldsby

Köln, Deutschland, 2015



Piano del Sol

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

Piano del Sol

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

Flight of the Cranes

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

Flug der Kraniche

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

Apricot Tree

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


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

April Tango

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

Tango im April

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



Turning Point

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


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


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

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


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

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

Sanibel Island

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

Sanibel Island

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

Summer Lullaby

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


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



Atlantic Terrace

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

Terrasse am Atlantik

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


Soft—a velvet cloak draped over naked shoulders,

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

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

Sees winter approaching, and turns the other way.


Weich—ein Samtumhang um nackte Schultern gelegt,

Kühn—das Lied des Troubadours in einer Herbstnacht,

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

Maybe It’s You

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

Kann sein, es bist Du

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


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


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



The Blue Season

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

Die blaue Jahreszeit

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


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


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


Stones and feathers,

Dipped in gold,

Growing wiser,

Growing old,

We’ll wait in the meadow,

Where ravens play,

Let go of the dark,

Hold on to the day.



Steine, Federn,

In Gold getaucht,

Werden weiser,

Werden alt,

Wir werden auf der Wiese warten,

Dort, wo Raben spielen,

Die Dunkelheit lassen wir gehen,

Und fassen den Tag beim Schopfe.



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


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


Picture Perfect: Photo Tips for Real Women

Camera1 copy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Uh, yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Put on a Happy Face: A Few Tips


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

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


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


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

Robin Spielberg says:

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



Holli Ross, jazz vocalist


Holli on the beach.

Holli Ross says:

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



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

Carol Windfuhr says:

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


Daryl at piano green web

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

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



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

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



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

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


Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is also the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

Coming soon: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians.

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September Song

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe he was terrified, too.

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

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

And if anyone looks like they might barf, run.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is also the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

Coming soon: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians.

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What to Wear

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



Photo by Andreas Biesenbach

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

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

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

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

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

“A burqa with bling,” I say.

“Perfect,” she says.

My Wardrobe: A Brief History


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

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

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

Everything is forever when you’re eighteen.

New York City: The Early Years

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

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

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

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

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

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

New York City: The Final Years

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

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

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

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

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

Forever made a comeback.


Photo by Andrew W. Renner

Bergisch Gladbach, Germany

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist. She is also the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

Coming soon: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians.

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