Pretty Pretty: Piano Girl vs. Trump

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This is Robin Goldsby’s essay from 2016. Watch for her new book, Piano Girl Playbook: Notes on a Musical Life, scheduled for publication on May 1, 2012 (Backbeat/Rowman Littlefield)

***

My hair is big. My dress is too tight. It’s 1986. I’m sitting at a Steinway on a Saturday night in Manhattan. The name of the cocktail lounge where I play is “Trumpet’s.” Donald J. Trump, with the sponsorship of his father, has partnered with the Hyatt Corporation to build the glass and granite behemoth currently hovering over Grand Central Station. I can’t imagine receiving a midtown Manhattan hotel as a college graduation present. I got a Peavey amp, a Shure SM57 microphone, and a gentle reminder to treat people with respect.

I straighten my spine, curve my fingers, and remember it doesn’t take talent or hard work to inherit money.

I play “Misty” or “All the Things You Are” or some random Elton John song. Who’s listening? No one. Tourists from one of the Dakotas sit in a dark velveteen corner sipping Diet Coke. I can hear them talking about the matinee performance of Arsenic and Old Lace. Tonight they’re headed to see Shirley Bassey on Broadway! I play “Goldfinger,” but they don’t notice. I see reflector stripes on their puffy white shoes.

Two other couples, most likely Connecticut commuters conducting illicit affairs, grope at each other with the desperation of teenagers trying to cop a last feel before their parents show up. They are probably headed home to monotonous marriages, mortgages, and back yards that need mowing.

Waitresses, shiny and skinny and sporting slinky black stain-repellent costumes designed to entice titans of industry, balance glasses of Chardonnay and bowls of smoked almonds on glittering silver trays. Smoked almonds make me a little queasy these days. I must have consumed about two million of them over the past year—the starving Piano Girl’s version of dinner.

I haven’t eaten at all today but I’m worried I look bloated. Maybe I have an almond allergy. No one has yet figured out how to incorporate stretch into velvet and my dress, unforgiving and stiff, pulls at my waist and puckers at my hips. My bra strap threatens to slip over my shoulder.

“Don’t take a break,” says the F&B manager, a short man with gelled hair who once told the lobby jazz trio they were not allowed to walk on any carpeted areas of the hotel. I am used to going along with his ridiculous directives, but I have been playing for an hour and I need a potty run.

“Why?” I say. “Not much happening here tonight, unless you’re waiting for the live sex show that’s about to start over at table thirteen. Those two need to get a room.”

“Mr. Trump is coming in,” says the F&B guy. “Stay at the piano and look pretty.”

I do not blink or take offense. Look pretty. Sure. I tuck in my bra strap, fluff my hair, and play. This is the eighties and this is what female employees do when Mr. Trump shows up. We primp and prepare and pray we pass the pretty-pretty test.

Mr. Trump arrives. He hovers for a minute by the bar and scopes out the room, his shifty eyes taking in all of us to make sure we are looking at him. I smile. Yes, Mr. Trump, we notice you. He ignores me. He is my employer. I need the money. I need the job. I play the piano and play the game and play along with his need to be the most important person in the room. This is part of the gig.

It occurs to me that the name of the lounge—TRUMPets—makes us seem like Donald’s version of Playboy Bunnies or Penthouse Pets. Some marketing genius came up with this. Nice.

Because it’s the eighties, I know a lot of guys who behave like Trump. He doesn’t strike me as anything special. He doesn’t really stand out at all. He’s just another obnoxious rich guy, a Professional Son with a huge ego, a Big Baby Diaper Pants who demands that I notice him and smile.

Deep down I know two things, not just about Donald, but about many of the men I work for during the eighties: If I look good they’ll hit on me; if I look plain or chubby or flat-chested or fat-assed, they’ll fire me. Screwed, either way. I grew up with feminist parents, attended a very fine women’s college, studied hard, worked my tail off, and I still have to put up with guys who judge me by the way I fill out my cocktail dress? I have become an expert in the art of flirty, diplomatic turndowns.

A few years later, long after I have left the Hyatt (I was replaced by a piano-playing waitress who was having an affair with the GM) and moved to another Manhattan hotel, I run into Trump again. I have just flown into Atlantic City on Trump’s private helicopter with Allan, my wealthy compulsive-gambler boyfriend. We dine in an upscale gourmet restaurant in one of the Trump casino-hotels. Allan, who has turned the peculiar shade of gray common to gamblers itching to get back to the blackjack table, seems uncomfortable when Donald comes to our table to greet us. Trump loves guys like Allan—they show up in his casino, and lose more money in a night than I earn in a year.

I am twenty-three years younger than Allan. Donald looks me over and gives Allan the “thumbs up” sign. We all laugh. It’s the eighties. I play the trophy bimbo-girlfriend role with style even though I know it’s not who I am. It’s shameful.

“You know, Mr. Trump, I used to work for you,” I say. “I played the piano at the Grand Hyatt.”

“And just look at you now,” he says, “Unbelievable. Really. Unbelievable. Tremendous. Wow, wow, wow.” He stares me up and down, as if working for him has catapulted me into the sparkling, sleazy world of inappropriate relationships and casino fine-dining. I have landed in the lopsided lap of luxury.

I eat my Caesar salad and hope I don’t look fat.

Really. Just look at me now. Wrong, wrong. It’s all just wrong. I know it, and yet here I am. It’s the eighties.

*****

Fast-forward a few decades. I recovered from the eighties by the skin of my laminated teeth. Some of my friends weren’t so lucky. AIDS, eating disorders, drug addiction—for many of us, it was a decade of catastrophes, even if we were smart enough to avoid shoulder pads and Spandex. Everyone claims they had fun in the eighties, but for many of us it was a nightmare cloaked in gold spangles and hype. We dealt with a lot of unethical stuff. Sometimes we even participated.

Things are different now. We have options. We have chosen natural fibers, approved of political correctness, and elected a President who has restored dignity to the office. We have the Marriage Equality Act and a First Lady fighting for the emotional and physical welfare of girls all over the world. We have honest conversations about body image and sexual harassment and holding men and women to the same standards.

We make progress in a way that is too slow for most of us but fast enough to give us hope.

And yet. Some of those eighties attitudes continue to stalk us. As we witnessed this past week with the release of the 2005 Trump trash-talk tape, guys like Donald, stuck in an imaginary locker-room, still blurt out horrible, sexist, predatory comments that degrade women and girls. I watch the young woman in the video meeting Trump. She’s wearing an eighties throw-back mini-dress and gold belt. There’s something in her eyes—a defeatist glint of “I know better” that I recognize from my past. It makes me sad.

Trump might be a model-dating billionaire, but his core is as common as fast food and bad television. He’s not special—he’s just another run of the mill guttersnipe. A creep. Freshly combed-over, Trump wants to throw us back into the clutches of the misogynist, homophobic eighties. Big Baby Diaper Pants, a newer, fake & bake spray-tanned version, stomps into the room and collects media attention the way he used to collect apprehensive stares from intimidated waitresses and piano players. Part of me thinks he doesn’t care one bit about winning the presidency—he just wants all of us to pay attention, even if he has to act like a baboon on coke to get us to notice.

Yes, Mr. Trump, we notice you.

We are not stuck in the eighties, a decade of mean-spirited, pseudo-glam nonsense. Electing Mr. Trump would set our tolerance clocks back thirty years. As much as I might enjoy inhabiting my wrinkle free, skinny-mini body, I never again want to feel controlled by men who do not treat me with respect. I didn’t like myself during the eighties, but I changed. I evolved, like so many of my friends. We trashed our tight dresses and low self-esteem. Despair might have propelled us into the nineties, but we entered the new millennium with a newfound sense of cautious optimism. It’s 2016. And we’re not going back.

Our daughters and granddaughters will profit from the progress we’ve made. They will refuse to be judged by the size of their breasts or the length of their legs.

They will know better, because we have known worse.

Pretty, pretty, no more. Shout it out. Want amplification? I’ve got a 1980 Peavey amp and a Shure microphone you can borrow. But I suspect the volume of our united voices will be loud enough.

Vote.

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.  

New: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about (what else?) musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip!

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Sing! Finding the Backbeat and Holding On Tight


Robin Meloy Goldsby has a few things to say about singers, and, this time around, they’re all good.

John and I enter the Burgerhaus Forum in Overath, Germany. Tonight Julia is singing with the Paul Klee High School Choir, a feisty group of kids between the ages of fifteen and nineteen, who meet once a week in the evenings to learn new songs, study new harmonies, and tackle new challenges. That’s what they tell themselves, anyway. Mainly, for the last two years, they’ve been having a hell of a lot of fun with music. They call themselves The Singin’ Pauls.

The concert is scheduled to begin at 7:00 PM. We’re fifteen minutes early and the hall is already full—around 500 enthusiastic fans have shown up to listen to the choir. I look around and see a smattering of parents and grandparents, but I’m most impressed by the huge number of schoolmates crowding into the venue. Kids cheering for their musical friends! In Germany we don’t have school-sponsored athletic competitions. But we have this, and I’m grateful. We root for musicians instead of the athletes. It’s a little like having the halftime show without the football game. No linebackers, no pom-poms, no referees. Just music.

No seats!  It’s fifteen minutes until show time and the joint is packed. What to do. We may have lived in the German countryside for almost nineteen years, but we’ve maintained a few of our hard-won Manhattan skills. John and I can find a cab, a parking place, or an empty seat in just about any situation. We have good “available space” karma—a talent that comes from squeezing into crowded Times Square subway trains during rush hour.

“Look! There. Front row, left side. Two seats. Go.” We advance towards the seats and snag them just in time.

“I don’t know,” says John as he sets up his video equipment. “Julia might not be so thrilled to see us in the first row. Especially since I have the camera.”

What?” I say. “The only other choice is the very last row. We’re American parents. We’re supposed to be pushy, remember?  We’re staying in the front.”

At this point I spot Curtis, Julia’s brother, right behind us, with a couple of his friends. He’s proud of his sister.

Anticipation bounces around the hall. John finishes setting up his Zoom camera and we’re ready to go. The house lights dim. Forty kids march onstage and take their places. All shapes and sizes: Goths and good girls, hippies and Emos, German, Turkish, French, Iranian, Palestinian, and, yes, American. They face the audience. I can’t decide if they look old or young.  Julia stays out front—she has a solo in the first song. She messes with the microphone cable, then turns around. That’s when she sees us in the front row—John with his camera, and me, bursting into tears.  Where these tears come from I have no idea. I could blame it on my mother (she’s a champion weeper and I seem to have inherited this trait from her), or menopause, or the whole circle of life thing, which sets me off pretty often these days, but really there’s no excuse. It’s a high school choir concert for heaven’s sake—a medium sized group of big kids trying to stay cool. That’s it. Their sweet, expectant faces are killing me. This is not casual crying with ladylike tears; these are big shoulder-shaking sobs.

Julia laughs when she sees us. Then she rolls her eyes, just a little. There are 500 people here, she’s preparing to sing a solo, her dad, with his goofy grin, is aiming a camera at her, her mother is having a change-of-life breakdown, and she’s completely calm. She looks like she’s hanging out in a playground with friends. Which, in a way, is exactly what she’s doing.

The audience cheers for the choir before they’re even sung a note. Frau Hövel, the Maestra, raises her baton. Herr Müller, the co-director of the choir and the accompanist, strikes the first notes on the piano. Forty voices join together and the room fills with music. Imperfect, but somehow just right.

**

Della Henderson Rawsthorne, my paternal grandmother, was an accomplished singer—a contralto—and the musical director at the Haven Heights Methodist Church in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The church paid her a decent salary to show up once a week for rehearsals, to select the music for the Sunday services, and to conduct the church choir. For much of my childhood, I spent Sundays and religious holidays watching her in the choir loft, holding together an aging but enthusiastic throng of warblers, brayers, and chirps, all of them heaven and hell bent on making it through the week’s hymns without a misfire, a croak, or one Hallelujah too many. Grandma, her deep and powerful voice booming through the sanctuary, covered up a multitude of musical sins with her own musical valor. Daring and inventive, she led her singers through an inspired repertoire of Methodist music—”Up from the Grave He Arose!” was my favorite—assigning solos to both the strong and the weak, pumping her arm in time to the organ music, plucking notes like daffodils out of her weedy garden of singers.

I admired Grandma’s skill and her bravery, but the choir itself? High comedy. I might have been nine years old, but I knew funny when I saw it. Whenever Orville Rudolph—a robust tenor who always sang about a quarter-step sharp—stood up for a solo, my brother, sister, and I would bite our cheeks and turn purple in our attempts to avoid laughing out loud. The “fall on your knees” part of “Oh, Holy Night” rivaled anything we had ever seen or heard on The Ed Sullivan Show.  We learned to double over in the wooden pew and pretend to tie our shoelaces during the solo sections, our mother clutching her hymnal and glaring at us, our shoulders shaking with silent guffaws. Mom also thought Orville was pretty funny, but at the advanced age of thirty-two, she knew a thing or two about gracious restraint. My Dad just raised his eyebrows when Orville hit the high notes, which made us laugh even harder.

I feel kind of bad about it now—really, who were we to giggle at anyone’s honest attempt to praise the Lord, or anything else, through music?  I hope Orville made it to his own version of choir heaven. I hope he has gotten to sing lots of solos.  I also hope, for my grandmother’s sake, that they’ve installed auto-tune in God’s control room.

**

RMG, back in 2007, with the kids in the Paul Klee Gymnasium International Choir.

RMG, back in 2007, with the kids in the Paul Klee Gymnasium International Choir.

For five years, I was the volunteer choir director of the Paul Klee High School International Choir in Overath, Germany. I slid into the job when my kids were in Junior High and I realized there weren’t enough music teachers to cover the fifth, sixth, and seventh grade choir. What, no choir? I had little choral experience myself, but I played the piano, I had written a bunch of kids’ songs, and I honestly thought, how hard could it be?

Well.

Every Wednesday for five years I met with thirty kids, most of them eleven, twelve, or thirteen years old. My own kids were in the mix. We spoke and sang in English, mainly because I didn’t want anyone, especially a twelve year German, laughing at my Colonel Klink accent.

Not that I’m complaining, but thirty twelve-year-old kids can make a lot of noise. There was a set of drums next to the entrance to the choir room. Here is a fact: It is impossible for a sixth-grade boy to walk past a set of drums without bashing the ride cymbal. Twice. Nothing, not even bribes with chocolate, will stop a boy from doing this.

Each Wednesday, before leaving the house for our five o’clock rehearsal, I took two Tylenol and a hot bath. Preventive medicine. I developed a thick skin, thicker eardrums, and newfound respect for teachers. I worked two hours a week with these kids; I couldn’t imagine the constitutions of the brave men and women who showed up Monday through Friday, eight hours at a shot.

“Whatever they’re paying these teachers,” I said to John, “It’s not nearly enough.”

“You have a job,” John said. “Why are you doing this?”

I really didn’t have an acceptable answer.

“I have two simple goals,” I told John, dodging the question. “First, I want to teach them to clap on two and four.” German kids are programmed to clap on one and three, which has the undesired effect of turning everything, even the funkiest piece of music ever written, into a Wagnerian march. “Second,” I said, “I want them to sing and say the “th” sound properly. If I can do that, I’ll feel like I’ve accomplished something.”

Getting “two and four” wasn’t so easy—it took months of backbeat practice—but eventually they nailed it. They started to swing, just a little. The “th” fell into place a bit faster. The “th” sound doesn’t exist in the German language, and, most of the time, it ends up sounding like a “z.” I wrote a tongue twister for them to practice: Thelma the thick-headed thief had three hundred and thirty-three thousand, three hundred and thirty-three threatening thoughts.

Zelma transformed into Thelma, we found the backbeat, and we were groovin’.

They sang at many concerts, and I watched in complete amazement as these kids—shy, insecure, and standing on the slippery slope of puberty—learned to take pride in their teamwork. What they lacked in musical ability they made up for in eagerness.  One of the “real” music teachers at the school tried to convince me to hold auditions each year—for the sake of quality control—but I refused. Anyone who wanted to sing was welcome.

“This isn’t about music,” I told him. “It’s about fun. Singing makes for happy kids. It’s almost impossible to sing with a group and be grumpy at the same time. These kids need to have fun. School is serious enough.” I’m sure I sounded a little too American for the system, but, as a volunteer, I got to set the rules.

My choir kids never got much beyond two-part harmony, but they were loud, smiling, and full of joy. We had choreography, a healthy amount of “two” and “four” clapping, and a series of soloists with back-up singers. During the final year we started to look like a sixth-grade Las Vegas act. Instead of sequins and feathers we wore red t-shirts. Curtis would play congas or drums, John, when he was available, would show up and play the bass. Eventually, Julia took over at the piano. Aside from the chocolate, the kids hardly needed me for anything at all. They had found each other. Music was their navigation system.

We practiced, we performed, we had a ball. As a teacher, I was pretty relaxed. I had one firm rule. No one was allowed to laugh at anyone else. Our choir room was a safe place, the sacred ground of artistic expression, a space where the kids could be bigger versions of themselves. No laughing, unless we were all doing it together. Orville Rudolph, after all those years, had come back to haunt me.

Five years, a hundred headaches, and twenty concerts later, I reluctantly stepped down. The music faculty had added several new teachers to the staff, my own kids had moved on to the middle and upper classes at the school, and, well, it was time. There’s not a high school kid alive who wants her mother hanging out in the school music room. We made a big splash at our last school concert, then kept meeting for the rest of the semester, just to sing and finish the term with style. For the final session, I invited parents and friends for a farewell musical soirée. I thought it would be a good excuse to eat brownies and a nice way to say auf Wiedersehen. We prepared some tunes from High School Musical, a few of my originals, “The Girl from Ipanema” in Portuguese (with the help of a Brazilian choir mom), “Kansas City,” “Seasons of Love,” and, because the kids requested it, “My Heart Will Go On,” also known as the dreaded Titanic theme.

Five minutes before we were scheduled to start our presentation, Janina, a very pretty and extremely bashful girl who had been with me for two years, came to my side.

“Robin,” she whispered. “I am ready.”

“Ready for what?” I said. I had discovered over the years that a kid this age assumes the entire world knows what she’s thinking.

“My solo. I am ready to sing a solo.”

If Janina had told me she had booked a round trip ticket to Reno I would not have been more surprised.

“Really? That’s great! Just great! Which song do you want to sing?”

“Titanic,” she said. “The second verse. I practiced it.”

“You’ve got it Janina,” I said. “Kids, stay out of Janina’s way on the second verse. She’s going to sing it solo. Solo!”

They cheered for her.

The concert was a huge success. We sang and danced and stomped. We got to the last tune of the set, the Titanic theme, and I announced that Janina would be the soloist. I saw her mother’s jaw drop. We started the song. When it came time for the second verse, Janina stepped forward, with three girls holding her up on each side. Her voice was Helium-high and tiny, but I swear it was the loudest and proudest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.

**

Four years later, here I am, not at the piano, but in the front row, happy to be a normal parent enjoying the show. Tonight’s concert will offer us a little Cold Play, a Beatles tune—”Penny Lane,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” an instrumental version of “My Funny Valentine,” “Stand By Me,” “Circle of Life,” “Skyfall,” and a few hip songs I’ve never heard and will probably never hear again.

Julia and the choir start the evening with a tune called “Happy Ending.” The Mama Rose in me wants to shout, “Sing out, Louise!” but the close proximity of the male members of my family keeps me in check. I get control of my sobbing about halfway through the song. I look around.  Many of my sixth grade choir kids are now singing with this senior group. They’re young adults now, most of them capable of walking past a drum set without hitting the ride cymbal, all of them stretched out and dressed up and ready for anything.  A year or two short of graduation, these kids face a complicated world, but for now, while they’re singing, there’s reason to celebrate.

The audience claps along—finding the backbeat!—and I sit back and watch time roll by like too many sixteenth-notes, my husband beside me, my grown son in the row behind me, my daughter center stage, Grandma Rawsthorne somewhere in the room. Now I know why I’m crying. When this evening is over, where will the flawed and glorious music go? Poof. I hate when good things disappear. I want right now to last forever.

I hope these kids will hold onto their songs. I hope they’ll keep singing for themselves and each other.

Look. There, in the second row onstage. It’s Janina, just as pretty, but no longer shy. She’s singing her heart out.

**

To see John’s front row video of the choir:

Robin Meloy Goldsby is the author of Piano Girl, Rhythm: A Novel, and Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl.