Playing with Words

My father plays the drums. He also tells stories. When I was a child, he entertained our family at dinnertime with colorful observations about playing in symphony orchestras, jazz clubs, and burlesque theaters, mesmerizing us with pitch-perfect tales about fall-down drunks, stuck-up divas, and exotic dancers with names like Irma the Body. Fantasizing about my future as a performer, I listened to the rhythm of my father’s words and dreamed that someday I’d be seasoned enough to tell a few stories of my own. But first, I had to learn a bit of piano playing, memorize hundreds of songs, and spend years negotiating the touchy social situations familiar to most musicians. 

The Musician’s Guide to Creative Writing

Outline and Notes from the JazzVoice Workshop, March 11, 2023

Playing with Words: Creative Writing for Musicians

(excerpt from The Writer magazine, Breakthrough Column, July Issue, 2008, used with permission)

My father plays the drums. He also tells stories. When I was a child, he entertained our family at dinnertime with colorful observations about playing in symphony orchestras, jazz clubs, and burlesque theaters, mesmerizing us with pitch-perfect tales about fall-down drunks, stuck-up divas, and exotic dancers with names like Irma the Body. Fantasizing about my future as a performer, I listened to the rhythm of my father’s words and dreamed that someday I’d be seasoned enough to tell a few stories of my own. But first, I had to learn a bit of piano playing, memorize hundreds of songs, and spend years negotiating the touchy social situations familiar to most musicians. 

Breakthrough: The idea for Piano Girl: A Memoir came to me after decades of working as a solo pianist in roadside dives, plush Manhattan hotels, and European castles. Playing pleasant background music for listeners and non-listeners alike, I kept my sanity by monitoring the human comedies, tragedies, and mundane miracles drifting past the Steinway. After thirty years of scribbling notes on cocktail napkins and in journals, I began writing my book.

With a dose of cautious optimism, I sent a Piano Girl proposal to Richard Johnston, then the senior editor at Backbeat Books. Richard, who shared my musician’s sense of humor, surprised me with a contract, an advance, and a six-month deadline.

Piano Girl received a Publishers Weekly starred review, an endorsement from BookSense, and landed feature interviews for me on  All Things ConsideredThe Leonard Lopate Show, and NPR’s Piano Jazz with Marian McPartland. 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 working on Piano Girl. His hopeful smile in the audience that night cast a magic spell over the evening and soothed my jangled nerves.

Backbeat Books coordinated a book-launch cocktail party at the Waldorf Astoria. NPR taped the event, which attracted 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, and signed books. Sipping champagne, I checked out the stylish crowd swirling around the piano, stunned that my childhood fantasy had evolved into a book that people seemed to like.  I never thought I would be published, much less with my first submission. But sometimes in the writing business, as in the music business, just showing up for the gig—ready and willing to give 100% —reaps huge rewards. The rosy glow of the Waldorf spotlight faded quickly, but I can still feel its warmth.

What I Learned: Memoirists suffer from the curse of too much material. The more I left out, the more I highlighted what I left in. Constructing a solid outline eased the selection process for me. Before I started writing, I knew exactly which stories I wanted to tell.

As a lyricist, I’ve studied the craft of setting words to music. As a memoirist, I’ve learned to work from the opposite direction, by stringing words together and finding a musical flow. Good music features well-placed moments of silence. The same can be said for writing. By revising constantly, I learned to hear the subtle rhythm of my sentences as I arranged the peculiar themes of my life into beautiful or ugly melodies that made sense. Whenever I got a phrase just right, I experienced a whoosh of elation.

The media hoopla surrounding Piano Girl stoked my ego, but it couldn’t compete with the contentment I had experienced while writing—the bliss of finding the lore of a story or discovering the musical threads connecting the chapters of my life. 

 Advice: Writing presents the same challenges as learning a musical instrument. If you’re a musician you already know about discipline. There aren’t any shortcuts. You need passion, patience, and long hours of practice—every single day— until you get it right. Savor the tiny victories as they’re happening, and you win the artist’s race one step at a time. Don’t wait for the book-launch party to break out the champagne. Instead, revel in the honest victory of each well-crafted sentence. Celebrate! Remember that the joy of writing reveals itself when you make your story sing. Practice as much as you can, and you’ll find the music in your words. It’s there.


Why Write?

  • You have a need to write.
  • You hear music in words and words in music.
  • You want your children and grandchildren to know about your life.
  • You want to know about your life
  • You’re funny, you’re serious, you’re sad, you’re lonely, you’re angry, but most of all you’re musical, you have something to say and a desire to say it.
  • Your life as a musician is interesting and you want to share your experiences.
  • You want to write about Then
  • You want to write about Now.
  • Your friends have been encouraging you to write a blog
  • Your friends have been bugging you to write a book, the equivalent of saying, why don’t you lock yourself up for a year and see if you come up with anything? People mean well when they say “you should write a book” but really, they have no clue.
  • No one else is writing about you — so why not write about yourself?
  • You have a fantastic story or idea for a novel or a way to frame your memoir and you can’t stop thinking about it.
  • You might make some money (but you probably won’t).
  • You feel powerful when you express yourself with your writing.
  • You can’t NOT write.

Reasons Not to Write (these also apply to the music biz!)

  • You want to be famous.
  • You want to be rich.
  • You can imagine the book launch and the champagne and the long lines of adoring fans lining up to get your autograph. 
  • You want to get revenge.
  • You want an excuse to stay in your pajamas all day and drink vodka.

We’re here today to talk about writing a memoir, and we will get to that, but I want to mention other meaningful forms of writing that you might explore on your way to writing an actual book. 

Various Outlets for Writing as a Musician

  • Your personal journal—writing for yourself is perhaps the most artistic form of writing. Think of it as practicing scales, trying out keys that aren’t comfortable, stretching your range. 
  • Social Media—you don’t need to stick to food posts or vacation photos. Why not post a gorgeously written story or personal essay? This is what I do with my blog, and I occasionally weave my essays into a very long FB post. This technique seems to garner readers for me. WARNING: make sure you have a well-written piece before you do this. If you want to be considered a writer, you must constantly patrol the quality of anything you publish, regardless of the platform. 
  • Instructional articles for music education companies
  • Reviews of music books 
  • Interviews & musician profiles
  • Poetry, song lyrics
  • Biography, history, memoir, fiction 

A few words about blogging (my trial ground of choice)

  • Think before you make the commitment—a good blogger posts frequently. Do you have the time? Is this the best use of your writing time? 
  • Check out other musician blogs—there are many of them. Which ones work for you and why?
  • Find a niche audience—don’t make your blog too general.
  • Check out blog hosting sites and choose one that suits you: Substack, WordPress, Tumblr, Blogger, Twitter, Facebook. I like WordPress.

Personal Note: My latest book, Piano Girl Playbook: Notes on a Musical Life, was the result of four years of monthly blog posts. My goal was to develop an audience and get noticed by a publisher. It worked. Read my blog here.

How to Get Started: Instant Writing Motivation

  • Make up your mind. Commit to writing—not to writing a book, but to writing.
  • Put your ass in the chair and get started.
  • Write in a journal—every single day—and write about anything at all.
  • Get a little exercise—it will help you think. I go to the gym on writing days, but a brisk walk can be just as good.
  • Repair your ideas (change negative reasons for procrastination into positive reasons for getting started).
  • Overcome choice paralysis. There are too many topics. Pick one and don’t look back.
  • Pretend you’re finished, but keep going.
  • Track your word count.
  • Converse—find a supportive friend who understands your subject.
  • Bypass the mental debate.
  • Revisit your reasons—why did you decide to write this piece in the first place?
  • Create an outline.
  • Ignore an outline if it helps.
  • Write about writing and why you can’t write—it gets you writing and maybe you’ll find a solution to your block.
  • Go somewhere else (café, library, a quiet office).
  • Introduce a change (plot twist, new character, new source of research).
  • Warm up: Describe an object in the room, reconstruct a conversation, anything that feels easy.
  • Choose a first step and give yourself an obvious and immediate goal.
  • Skip ahead if you’re having trouble with what you’re currently writing.
  • Don’t agonize over that first sentence. After several drafts, it won’t be your first sentence any longer. I almost always end up losing the entire first paragraph. But it serves a purpose—it gets you in the flow. First sentences are extremely important, but trying to get the first sentence write on your first day of writing a new piece is like trying to hit the high note without warming up.
  • The me, me, me thing gets annoying while writing memoir. Focus on other people in your narrative. Get inside their heads. Write dialog that accurately represents the situation. Focus on anything other than yourself. 
  • Once you have a decent draft (for me this usually around my fourth draft) find a reader (but just one!). Resist the temptation to send your work to everyone you know. You’ll regret this (I’ve made this mistake). Direction by committee is nevr good. Find your one trusted reader.
  • Some writers like Scrivener—software to help writers get organized.
  • Write every day. Even a 100-word minimum can lead to high productivity.
  • Keep a diary of what happens on every single music gig. Even if nothing happens. See how you can creatively spin boredom. Take the attention off yourself and place it on someone in the audience, or the cute bass player, or the server who is clearly angry and slightly inebriated. Maybe you overheard a conversation? Write it down. Make it sing. 
  • Get good at writing dialog—this skill elevates your prose.


  • There is nothing more inspirational than reading good writing.
  • Go back to your favorite books and analyze the writing.
  • Talk to friends about what they’re reading.
  • Get a Kindle and carry your library with you—you can always read in your down time or on your breaks between music sets. Aside from actual writing, reading is the best way to improve your own work.

Recommended Memoirs (books I love that feature musical writing, even though they aren’t about the music business!): 

David Sedaris has clearly mastered the art of entertaining, musical, descriptive narrative. His newest book, Happy-Go-Lucky is a winner. Sedaris is neither overly happy nor lucky, but he always gets it right.

Anne Patchett’s These Precious Days shines with examples of perfect sentences. This book—about aging—hit me in the heart when I least expected it. 

Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential is a classic behind the scenes memoir that changed the restaurant business forever. 

Michael Cecchi-Azzolina’s Your Table is Ready (2023) explores the front of house scene in New York City’s most famous restaurants from the perspective of a well-known maître’d.

Music memoirs:

Jeremy Denk’s Every Good Boy Does Fine documents his years as a student of classical piano. 

Andre Previn’s No Minor Chords is a beautifully written romp depicting Previn’s time as a composer in Hollywood.

Duke Ellington’s Music is My Mistress

Dave Liebman’s Self Portrait of a Jazz Artist

Robin Meloy Goldsby:  Piano Girl: A Memoir; Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl; Piano Girl Playbook: Notes on a Musical Life


  • Chose a specific part of your life you want to explore—don’t try to write about your entire life experience. 
  • Remember, when you write memoir you have way too much material—a good memoirist knows what to leave out. 
  • Be careful with using real names and identifying circumstances unless you have the blessing of the person to whom you’re referring. 
  • Remember, good memoir tells a story and should be captivating and thought- provoking, just like an excellent novel. Don’t use the form as a public diary.
  • Don’t quote song lyrics without permission from the publisher. I know, everyone thinks you can just randomly throw in a song lyric to make your point, but you are asking for a lawsuit if you do this. You can refer to a song or even paraphrase the lyric in a clever way, but never ever quote the lyric!
  • Outline your story.
  • Think about your story while you work out, or cook, or before you drift off to sleep. If your story is a good one, you’ll become obsessed with it. This is the state you want to be in when you start writing your short story, essay, memoir, or novel.
  • Think of the outline as a bare bones map. You know where you’re starting, you know where you’re ending, and maybe you know some of the stop-off points. But there are multiple routes you can take from Point A to Point B. Explore.
  • Use music to add dimension and spice to your story (just don’t quote the lyric).
  • Keep it real. Keep it truthful, but always remember to find the spark in the situation you’re describing.
  • Onomatopoeia: Words that sound like what they are! These words are particularly musical. Use them to make a reader feel the action, whether they’re hearing the word sounds or reading them. If your book has scenes set in a foreign country, use (sparingly) the language. 
  • Strong verbs. Always, strong verbs.
  • Avoid passive sentences. 

In the active voice, the subject is performing an action: The musician plays the trombone. Passive: The trombone is being played by the musician. Always use the active voice.  

  • Think of the novels and memoirs and autobiographies you love that use music as part of the story. There are so many of them!
  • Don’t give up.
  • Don’t try to “sell” your story or novel until it is really finished. “Finishing” will involve many drafts. New writers tend to think they’re finished way too soon in the process.

Ready, Set, Go: Steps to take before your start writing

  1.  Identify your subject and timeframe.
  2.  Identify your schedule for writing and stick to it. 
  3.  Write an outline. You may deviate from this later, but it’s important to have one to get started.
  4.  Give yourself a daily wordcount goal (I like 500, but often go to 1000 if I’m doing well)
  5.  Use part of each day’s time allotment to review and edit the work from the previous day.
  6.  Commit to keeping your writing private until you’ve done three of four (or ten) drafts)
  7.  Remember that good writing is re-writing.
  8.  After a few months of hard work find one trusted person to read what you’ve written.
  9. Get your word count right. Pros make the count!
  10. But what about blogging? There’s no limit on-line. Yes, but this doesn’t mean you should ramble.
  11. Simplify. Good writing is clean and clear. Cut the fat. Lose the adverbs.
  12. Make sure you’re clear with your tenses. Present or past tense writing? Pick one and stick with it, making sure to check for tense agreement in flashbacks, flash-forwards, etc. 
  13. Same thing goes for perspective. First person singular? Third person singular? The very tricky second person? Where are you most comfortable?
  14. Find your voice. This will take time. Experiment by copping the styles of skilled writers. This isn’t plagiarism, it’s smart borrowing, and it will help you discover your voice. 
  15. Look for the flow. You’re a musician! Listen to the rhythm. Read out loud and hear the music in your words.
  16. Kill your darlings (Stephen King). 
  17. Revisit the piece after a day.
  18. Sleep on it.
  19. Use a spellchecker, but don’t rely on it.
  20. Read chapters backwards (in reverse order).
  21. Let someone else (one trusted person) read it.
  22. Let an editor friend read it. Be open to suggestions.


Some of my favorite writing books:

William Zinsser: On Writing Well

Anne Lamott; Bird by Bird

Stephen King: On Writing

William Strunk & E. B. White: The Elements of Style

Julia Cameron: The Artist’s Way

So Now You Have a Finished manuscript. What Next?

  1. When you feel you’ve done your best work, find an editor who understands the music world to professionally edit your work. I have worked with brilliant editor Richard Johnston on several of my books, including the first Piano Girl: A Memoir. Mike Edison edited Piano Girl Playbook—he is a fabulous writer himself and a musician. Jesse Kornbluth (Vanity Fair and ever so much more) offered a fine-tuning edit on my book Manhattan Road Trip. Kristin McCloy is an excellent writer with a music sensibility. Write to me if you want their contact details. Richard is now retired, but Kristin, Mike, and Jesse offer solid editing services.
  2.  Remember that an editor is different from a proofreader. Your editor will help your work sing, a proofreader will get rid of annoying spelling, spacing, grammar mistakes. Your editor will catch some of these things, but a proofreader has a unique eagle-eye skill set that’s critical to presenting your work professionally. 
  3.  Start submitting your final manuscript to agents and publishers.

What does all this cost?

  1.  Most of all, your time. 
  2.  Editing costs are substantial. Depending on the length of your book, be prepared to pay several thousand dollars. If you get picked up by a publisher based your unedited manuscript, the publisher will hire an editor and proofreader for your book. But this is risky—submitting an edited manuscript to a publisher can be the difference between rejection and acceptance. Invest in your work by hiring a good editor.
  3.  A cost-free alternative might be to call in a favor to review and edit your work. My husband and I use each other for preliminary edits—but then we still work with pro editors before final publication.

Traditional Publishing

Independent Publishing

Hybrid (an author swings both ways—that’s me!)


Some of my favorite writing books:

William Zinsser: On Writing Well

Anne Lamott; Bird by Bird

Stephen King: On Writing

William Strunk & E. B. White: The Elements of Style

Julia Cameron: The Artist’s Way


PART 2: So You Want to Publish a Book?

“A writer has two obligations: Write the best book possible and then find a way to get it out there!” William Zinsser, author of On Writing Well.

Traditional Publishing: The Hard Road

  • Use an organizational system like Word, Pages, or Scrivener for your manuscript., then convert to PDF before sending. Your work should look professional. Make sure you’ve got a clean manuscript before you start approaching publishing professionals.
  • Prepare a detailed outline of your book. Do this before you even think of submitting. A detailed outline can take a lot of time—and you’ll want to have one ready to go if it’s requested. Outlines are always requested for non-fiction books.
  • Target an appropriate literary agent or publisher. Do your homework. Submission guidelines are always posted on websites of agents and publishers.
  • Follow the submission guidelines of the literary agent or publisher.
  • Send a query letter to the agent or publisher. Make it short and to the point. Introduce yourself and your book and tell the recipient why you are qualified to write your particular book. Remember, your writing will be judged by this query letter, so don’t screw it up. This is not the time for typos.
  • If the agent/publisher approves of your query letter, you will likely be asked to submit a proposal, an outline, and several chapters of your book. Note: Nonfiction can sometimes be sold with a catchy title, a proposal, and an outline, but fiction always requires a complete manuscript.
  • Keep working on your draft while you wait to hear if you’ll accepted or rejected.
  • Get used to rejection.
  • Food for thought: the publishing industry mirrors the record industry in about 1997—chaos prevails at the present time.
  • What kind of publishing deal can you get? Advance? How does an advance work? Should you give your work away just to be “published?”

An Editor’s Advice:  Richard Johnston, former Senior Editor, Backbeat Books (Hal Leonard) and former Senior Editor of Bass Player Magazine:

“I always preferred a short synopsis that summarized the subject, its newsworthiness, and how readers would benefit from the information. I also needed to know about the writer’s experience and qualifications if he or she wasn’t familiar to me. That would include examples of published work. For a book proposal I usually required a detailed outline.”

RJ’s Tips:

  • Write every day. Keeping a journal is a good way to start.
  • Read.
  • When you write, use a dictionary instead of a spellchecker. Consult a grammar/style source such as “Words Into Type” or Schertzer’s “Elements of Grammar.” Read Zinsser’s “On Writing Well” and Strunk & White’s “Elements of Style.”
  • Find someone who can offer informed criticism about your work. Don’t be defensive about your writing.
  • Research a publisher’s submission and editorial guidelines before you pitch a story. 
  • Read.
  • Write every day.

“To ingratiate yourself to an editor, when you get an assignment, ask about the publication’s house style. Do they use serial commas? What word-processing formats do they prefer? When all else is equal, writers that meet their deadlines are most likely to go to the top of the assignment list.”

RJ’s list of pet peeves:

  • Spelling mistakes, typos, bad grammar.
  • Not knowing enough about the magazine’s goals, audience, and content. It’s shocking how often I would get a pitch about a topic or an artist that the magazine had just covered. It’s like, Dude, don’t you even read this rag?
  • Being pestered for a follow-up to a submission.

Independent Publishing (Self Publishing)

Print Publishing

Self-publishing is often called independent publishing. The publishing business today seems to be where the recording business was in the mid-90s. Vanity publishing has a bad rap from the days when major publishers controlled the book market, and unknown authors sometimes resorted to paying exorbitant amounts to have a company (a vanity press) print their book. It’s not like that now. Even traditional publishers are using print-on-demand or just-in-time logistics to print and distribute physical copies of books. You can, too! For most writers, independent publishing is an excellent option.

Steps to Independently Publishing Your Book

  1. Clear rights (photos, song lyrics, anything you might be using in your book that does not belong to you)
  2. Copyright your work, apply for an ISBN / “International Standard Book Number” (if your POD company does not provide an ISBN for you).
  6. Hire an editor. A professional editor will clean up your manuscript, pimp the prose, and make your work shine. Find an editor who specializes in your genre. You can get suggestions and ideas by talking to authors you know, or by checking on-line writing forums for tips. Be prepared to spend a chunk of change on this. It’s worth it. Work with a designer to do the interior layout and cover design for your book.
  7. Hire a proofreader after the edit is complete. 
  8. Upload your manuscript and cover art to your digital platform. Or have your design team do it for you.
  9. Create a sales channel
  10. Amazon 
  11. Direct sales from your website over PayPal
  12. Distribution or licensing through a traditional publisher 
  13. Readings and other “live” appearances as a guest lecturer where you might sell your books
  14. Come up with a marketing plan.
  15. Get out there and sell your book.

What about selling the PDF version of my book?

  • You can sell or give away a PDF version of your book, the same way I am giving away the notes for this workshop. You can format the PDF yourself, or have a professional format the book for you. A PDF version should have hotlinks in the table of contents and the index of the book. will also format a PDF. 


PART 3: Marketing

  • Find a niche for yourself—examine the themes of your book and go after your audience. Look beyond the obvious.
  • Use your website or blog to let your fans know about your book.
  • Yes, put social networking to good use.
  • Tap into the musician network for peer support.
  • Business cards, postcards, etc.
  • Solicit reviews from friends, family, club members. Don’t be shy!
  • Get out there and do readings or lectures for groups interested in your topic. 
  • Offer discounts for volume sales.
  • Create a newsletter
  • Hire a publicist if you have the money.

Here’s the introduction from my book Piano Girl Playbook: Notes on a Musical Life. My overall goal was to spotlight the live-music profession with meaningful and humorous essays. This piece sets up the tone for the rest of the book.

The Piano Zone

I play the piano. 

I’m over sixty and lead a pretty respectable life, which is saying something, considering my spotty history as a Chopin-playing stripper. For decades, I’ve shaped my career by experiencing success and failure in real time in front of a live audience.

Chances are you’ve never heard of me, although you might stream my music in your home without even knowing my name. Perhaps you’re old-school and still purchase and play CDs in your undigitized car, but most of my fans these days are streamers, grabbing music from the Internet and consuming playlists like salted bar pretzels in a bottomless bowl.  

These days I play hundreds of solo piano jobs a year—probably an average of four times a week, all year long. Compare that to my hyper-gig years in New York (on the bench for fifteen or more sessions per week) and you might say I’m on Easy Street now. I’ve played more gigs than the Rolling Stones have ever played, more than Madonna has worked, even during her busiest Material Girl years.  For over four decades, I’ve been playing for lounge lizards, mobsters, and moguls; lovely ladies who love to lunch, jet-lagged bedraggled global travelers, the up-and-coming and down-and-out, princes and paupers, smooth talkers and potty mouths. My music, when I’m in the zone, sands the edges of tumultuous, noisy lives with the salve of a Mozart-ish adagio for the forlorn, a pretty pop-tune for the Gen-X Aperol-Spritz-sippers, or something new age-y in E minor for the wistful non-drinkers dressed in boring hues of blue. Ah, look at all the lonely people. I’m constantly connecting to my listeners, face to face and heart to heart. 

I represent career musicians who continue to perform live in the world’s best hotels, seediest airport lounges, and piano rooms of every stripe. We are a rare, but noble breed—the endangered species of the music industry, dedicated souls producing gentle music in a noisy world. Now, more than ever, we are needed. Live music offers something more than recorded music: it demands a human connection, nudges us forward, encourages our shared humanity, and forges new collective memories. Because live music relies on the synergy of audience and musician, it creates compassion on both sides. 

Regardless of the venue, my connection to the audience is everything.  I’ve played ambient music in roadside dives from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Waterbury, Connecticut and entertained aristocrats and monarchy in glitzy five-star Manhattan hotels and third world countries. I’ve been a hit on the Michelin Three-Star European castle circuit—tasting deviled quail eggs, lobster-infused ice cream, and pigeon mousse, while sipping glasses of luscious, viscous burgundy that cost as much as my mortgage payment. I’ve played concerts for naked people in saunas, misbehaving children in elf hats, drunken tourists in coastal resorts, and for the future king of England at Buckingham Palace—where seventy white-gloved servers floated through the ballroom carrying silver domed plates of royal free-range chicken. 

The gig gods do not always look favorably in my direction. Sometimes the braying, braless Pig Lady shows up, the happy-go-lucky shit-faced Dutch bowling team crashes and trashes the room, or the perfectly-coiffed parents of screaming twin babies park the parade-float stroller next to the Steinway and go off to a far corner to sip martinis and eat salted cashews, leaving me in locus parentis. I loathe those people, but I can hardly blame them. The melodies I spin across the room are occasionally drowned out by drunken, doltish behavior, or the maddening din of the blender, the yapper, the dropped tray of champagne glasses. 

It’s all good. My dad was in the jazz trio on the Mister Rogers Neighborhood program for over thirty years. At one of my first gigs on Nantucket Island, Fred Rogers himself, the nicest man of all time, pointed out to me: There’s always someone listening. .

In my first book, Piano Girl, I tell tales of how to handle unruly piano lounge guests, of which there are never a shortage: the choking priest; the gentleman who mistook the inside of the grand piano for a coat-check; a marauding gang of bagpipers (on their way to a private party at the back of the hotel) droning their way through the middle of my sensitive Michel LeGrand medley; a matched set of interpretive dancers in silver catsuits who gyrated to my music for three hours; a periodontist—complete with a set of chattering teeth—determined to bellow “Love Me Tender” through my entire performance.

You might laugh. I do. I used to be offended; but by now I’ve learned to be amused.

Today I’m in Cologne, Germany, where I’ve found my home, doing my steady tea-time job playing the piano at Excelsior Hotel Ernst. I lean into my first set of background music just as our guests are settling in. I play the opening cadence to a quiet piece called “The Village,” and eye the lobby lounge like a CIA spook. I let the harmonies hang in the air, slowly drifting through the room like the subtle scent of expensive perfume.

 I connect with my upscale, sophisticated guests, who hail from all corners of the planet. They sip tea and champagne, and sometimes, they listen. They are unique and private individuals, yet when they are thrown together as a group for this unplanned public gathering, a beautiful social accident unfolds—framed and orchestrated by the music wafting through the room. I wonder who is the oldest, the youngest, who will die first, or live the longest. I wonder who among them might be hiding secrets or illness or shame. I wonder who had to fight the hardest to make it into this room. That very well might be me. 

The music bonds us in some small, impeccably human way. I stay in the moment, reach into my quiver of songs, and let the next piece flow through my fingers. Time is on my side; balance always returns to the space that music occupies. That’s the best, most miraculous part of playing live: witnessing the effect music has on my audience, and, what they give back to me. The connection

When I’m in the piano zone, each melody carries a fleeting message of calm into the world—like a vote for kindness, or a raised hand for peace. Playing a song can be a simple act of grace offered to an aggressive, broken world. Call it love, or revenge, or passion. It’s the least—and the most—I can do.


Robin Meloy Goldsby is a Steinway Artist and popular solo piano streaming artist. She is the author of Piano Girl; Waltz of the Asparagus People;  Rhythm: A Novel and Manhattan Road Trip.

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Goldsby’s thirty-year career as a musician has taken her from roadside dives to posh New York City venues and exclusive resorts, and on to the European castles and concert stages where she now performs. Robin has eleven solo piano recordings to her name—Twilight; Somewhere in TimeSongs from the Castle; Waltz of Asparagus People; Magnolia; December; Home and Away, Piano del Sol; and Living Room (vol. 1-3)—and has logged well over 200 million streams of her music on the Pandora streaming platform, averaging about 600 thousand monthly listeners

Goldsby has appeared on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered and Piano Jazz with Marian McPartland. She is also the author and composer of Hobo and the Forest Fairies, a musical for children recorded by WDR (Westdeutscher Rundfunk) in Germany. As a lyricist Goldsby has penned songs for Till Brönner, Curtis Stigers, Jessica Gall, Robert Matt, Mario Biondi, Jeff Cascaro, and Peter Fessler. In 2010 her collaboration with singer/composer Joyce Moreno, Slow Music, received a Latin Grammy nomination for Best Brazilian Album. She performed her Home and Away program at Buckingham Palace for King Charles, in Berlin for former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, at the United Nations in Geneva, and most recently, for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

Robin currently lives outside of Cologne, Germany, with her husband—jazz bassist John Goldsby. She performs regularly at Excelsior Hotel Ernst in Cologne, and maintains a summer artist residency at Brenners Park Hotel & Spa in Baden Baden.

Listen to Robin’s interviews on All Things Considered and Piano Jazz with Marian McPartland.