Running on Empty

I stopped drinking a year ago. Those of you familiar with my tales of debauchery and hijinks from the piano lounge might find it hard to believe that I could soldier through a five-hour solo piano gig without a glass of Sancerre on the little marble table next to the Steinway. But here we are—Piano Girl 2.0, steady and secure in my newfound sobriety. Hold the sauvignon blanc. Pass the lemongrass-infused green tea, please. Shoot me now.

Every evening when six o’clock rolls around and I’m sipping ginger-ale, I wonder if I’ve made the right call. What fun is this? If I’m at work, I’m heading into my last set of music. If I’m home, I’m thinking about dinner prep. Both activities—transitions from one part of the day to another—have historically (or hysterically) been cocktail triggers for me. Wow, my brain says—time to soften my focus and loosen things up a bit. Nothing wrong with this plan, in principle. Soft focus is good. No focus, not so much. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized I need my wits about me to make sense of things that used to be second nature—playing the piano without sounding like an idiot, for instance. Or writing. Or dicing fresh ginger into impossibly small pieces. Or getting through the evening without bursting into tears at least twice. 

Why did I quit? Two years ago, my husband, John, was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. Nutrition became a big part of his recovery plan. No more alcohol. Alcohol turns to sugar and cancer loves sugar. John had stopped drinking a few months before he received his diagnosis, almost as if his body knew there was trouble down the pike. It took me a year of drinking/not drinking to get onboard, but the self-discipline sobriety ship has sailed and I’m content to be a passenger, even if I’m slightly bewildered about where the damn ship is heading. But at least, I’m  focused.

Following the onset of the cancer crisis, we, like all of you, experienced the paralyzing shock of Pandemic: Season One. I decided I would strive to come out of the lockdown healthier than I was before it started. This meant staying away from the potato-chip couch and finally bailing on the booze. I was never a mean drunk, a happy drunk, or a fall-down black-out drunk—I was more of a sleepy drinker. I could easily knock back half a bottle of good wine every evening before falling into a grape-induced fitful slumber. I was one of those women who, when asked by a doctor if I drank, routinely responded: “Oh, not really, just a glass of wine with dinner once or twice a week.” 

Doctors, listen up! The “one glass with dinner” lie has been propagated for so long by so many that it’s widely accepted as truth. I don’t know a single drinking person who only has one four-ounce glass of wine with her meal once or twice a week. And if you want the two-glass buzz, forget drinking with dinner. You need to drink before you eat. Six o’clock always worked for me.

I remember my two grandmothers showing up one New Year’s Eve to babysit for my sister, brother, and me so my mom could go to my dad’s gig at a Pittsburgh nightclub. Mom told both grandmothers they could each have one drink. After she left, Della and Laura slinked into the kitchen and found the biggest glass receptacles in the overhead cabinets—a flower vase and an ice bucket—and made their cocktails following my mother’s “just one” instructions. In their defense, my sister and I had prepared a two-hour Sammy Davis, Jr. lip-syncing extravaganza for them, so I’m sure they required sustenance.

Over the years, I’ve worked alongside award-winning sommeliers in Europe’s best houses, playing piano for people willing to pay a king’s ransom for a simple bottle of wine. In former times, some of that elixir—sent to the piano by a generous guest—would be my beverage of choice for the evening. Surrounded by shadowy elegance, flickering candlelight, and eccentric service staff who occasionally tossed rose petals on the piano, how could I resist a glass or two of overpriced swill? 

One of my favorite sommeliers, a lovely man named Silvio Nitzsche, once told me that the enjoyment of wine depended less on the wine’s quality and more on ambience and company—that the key to savoring a bottle of the good stuff is to drink it in a beautiful place with someone you love. I’m now hoping that same philosophy applies to sparkling water with lime.

Here’s a story: On one of my private party piano gigs in a German castle, a gold-toothed corpulent client—complete with a Versace-clad supermodel hanging from his arm—decided he liked my rendition of “Let It Be.” 

He boomed: “You play ‘Leet Eeet Bee.’”

This man was used to getting what he wanted. I’ve never responded well to rudeness and my trained-seal days are well behind me, but he also slapped a hundred euros on the piano. So I smiled and played the tune, the Piano Girl equivalent of balancing a ball on one’s nose. The “Leet Eet Bee” request happened five more times, each time accompanied by dwindling amounts of cash. Eventually, the guests left for dinner in a room attached to the main hall. My gig was over. The sommelier ran to the piano with a glass of viscous red wine and said, “This is from the guy with the gold teeth. He wants to hear “Let It Be.’”

“Again?”

“Again.”

“Forget it,” I say. I already played it six times and I’m finished for the evening. I like Paul McCartney as much as the next boomer, but enough is enough.”

“No, no, no,” said the sommelier. “This wine! It’s eighteen hundred euros for a bottle. He sent it as a gift. ‘Leet Eet Bee.’ You have to play eet and drink eet.”

I drank the wine, even though I had already inhaled two lesser glasses of white wine that someone else had sent to the piano. Being a wine idiot, I did not recognize the greatness of this blood-colored, slightly smoky wine. I could always distinguish the difference between bad and good wine, but the disparity between good and great escaped me. I was also terrible with remembering the names of wines I had enjoyed over the years, perhaps due to that soft focus issue I mentioned earlier. By the time I decided I liked a particular wine, I was too far in the bag to commit its name to memory. I don’t think this is mentioned in the average twelve-step program, but I suspect that an inability to recall what one is drinking might be an early warning sign that one should not be drinking so much.

At this point in my adventure with the stout McCartney fan, I had consumed more money in wine than my salary for the entire weekend, a financial slap in the face for any musician, especially one with college bound children.

How can I leave all these fond memories behind, you might ask? I’m not sure if alcohol is really such an integral part of our fun-loving adult lives or if we’ve all been brainwashed to believe that it’s impossible to have a good time (or a bad time) without it.

Here’s a typical scene from almost any current television program—a coatless, borderline-anorexic woman busts through her luxury high-rise apartment door, beelines to the fridge, grabs an open bottle of wine and pours it into a glass that might as well be a bucket (Della and Laura would approve). She kicks off her Jimmy Choos, then walks around her bookless home—decorated in shades of taupe—and cries, laughs, craughs. It almost doesn’t matter, because she has her wine.

The drinking culture is everywhere. At tacky weddings and big deal birthdays and lovely christenings and tearful funerals. At rowdy athletic events and classical concerts and high-school graduations. If we’re not being offered a cocktail, a glass of Prosecco, a beer, or an Aperol Spritz, we’re seeing ads for booze or sexy scenes in films that involve cut glass tumblers and bottomless bottles of Scotch. 

We meet each other for drinks, toast our friends, and reminisce about the time–forty years ago—when Susie (perhaps not her real name), had too many tequila shots, stripped to her knickers, did the alligator dance on the bar, and boffed the bartender after last call. How funny was that? Or how about the time she got so drunk she mistook the candleholder for a wine glass and burned her nose with scalding wax when she attempted to drink from it? 

That Susie, what a party girl.  

I used to think that alcohol defined my life. I’m writing about it, so I guess, in some ways, it still does. Even in an essay about giving up alcohol, here I am making my drinking life sound funny and glamorous. It was, sometimes. Is there anything more hopeful than a martini glass holding the promise of the evening ahead? The sensory accessories that accompany the consumption of alcohol are almost as seductive as the alcohol itself—the fluted shape of a crystal glass, the floral perfume of an artisanal gin, the fragile stem of the glass between your pulsing fingers, the rhythm of the cocktail shaker, the ice-cold slice of silver as the vodka slides down your throat. And don’t get me started on olives.

The truth? I didn’t feel good when I was drinking. That simple.

A life after sixty is one of sacrifice, but not without rewards. I’ve given up smoking and dairy and meat and wheat and I’m healthier as a result. I’ve given up inappropriate men and toxic relationships and gained a beautiful marriage and a circle of loyal friends for whom I would die. I’ve watched my kids amble away from home but have reaped the rewards of their steadfast devotion to their father and me. Sacrificing things I thought I couldn’t live without has paid off in unexpected ways.

I assumed the world would be boring without booze. But serenity, it turns out, is not my enemy. I try to meditate, I treasure the lack of drama in my life, I wander—still bewildered but clearheaded—through the chaos of midlife knowing I’m at peace with myself. I miss the idea of “Susie,” but not enough to revisit her memory in real time.

These days I pull myself together at six o’clock, pour some Pellegrino into a festive wine glass, add some lemons, or if I’m in an exotic mood, a berry or two, and toast my husband knowing that I’ll sleep well and awaken feeling even-tempered, rested, and possibly a little boring.

I’m almost sixty-four. Boring is so much better than it’s cracked up to be. 

A wellness preacher, I am not—I’m not suggesting that anyone else stop drinking. My career as a cocktail pianist depends on people’s willingness to show up, sip something delicious, and be transported to another plane by music and beverage. I realize that substituting Kombucha for vodka at cocktail hour requires mental gymnastics; I also realize that there are millions of mid-life women just like me, who don’t necessarily need a detox trip to Betty Ford, but might benefit from an attitude readjustment. Those of us in the addict-lite category only need to step away from the corkscrew long enough to realize that life can be pretty wonderful without wine, especially once the fog clears. 

Serendipitous timing! Just as I was giving up alcohol, I had a cocktail named after me—a pretty big achievement for someone who has been playing in cocktail lounges for forty-five years. The drink, called “The Goldsby,” involves Ruinart Champagne, peach brandy, bitters, and a sprinkling of edible gold dust. Bam! It’s served at Excelsior Hotel Ernst—the hotel where I play the piano—in a retro bowl-shaped crystal Champagne coupe. It’s the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen and even though I’m not tempted to drink one, I’m thinking about ordering the Goldsby just so I can sit on the chic leather banquette at the hotel and balance it in my hand. I do so love a good prop. 

“Maybe the barman can concoct a virgin Goldsby,” I say to my husband. 

“A virgin Goldsby?” says John. “Good luck with that.”

Perhaps an empty glass would do. But I’m not giving up the gold dust. 

***

Photo by Vecteezy

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: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl;  Rhythm: A Novel and Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. New from Backbeat Books: Piano Girl Playbook: Notes on a Musical Life

We Are the Musicians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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