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

Sea to Shining Sea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I floated, like a cork.

****

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

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

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.

Sliding Into Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

1994, baby Curtis, age18 months

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

Dad hugged us both, then said to Curtis:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Call Pap!” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

“Daddy!” yelled Curtis.

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

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

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

“I have the baby!”

“I have the bass!” 

“Call Pap!” said Curtis. 

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

Baby, bass, ready, steady, go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

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

Back to our story.

*****

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

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

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

“Call Pap!” shouted Curtis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

One more time, with feeling.

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

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

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

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

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

“Fast!” yelled Curtis. “Go fast!”

**

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Personal note from RMG: Here’s a gorgeous playlist featuring my favorite “gentle music” players, including Ludovico Einaudi, Robin Spielberg, Christine Brown, Yiruma, Liz Story, et moi. I’m really proud of this playlist and hope it will bring you peace and joy. Right now would be a good time to listen. Twenty-three hours of solo piano! Click here to listen on Spotify or Apple Music.

Love You Forever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

“Real deal,” I said. “Let’s go.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hurry up,” I said.

“It must be here somewhere.”

“We’re gonna have another pishap.”

“Where is it?”

“You had one job.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Under the bed,” she said. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tug, tug, tug.

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

Yank, yank, yank.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our son. 

“Love you, forever,” I said to him.

***

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

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

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

“Who is coming this evening?” I ask.

“About 150 people. Our families.”

“Your families?”

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

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

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

Press people? For a funeral home concert? Seriously?

Seriously. 

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

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

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

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

“Tell me about Henry,” I say.

The mother sighs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Personal note from RMG: Here’s a gorgeous playlist featuring my favorite “gentle music” players, including Ludovico Einaudi, Robin Spielberg, Christine Brown, Yiruma, Liz Story, et moi. I’m really proud of this playlist and hope it will bring you peace and joy. Right now would be a good time to listen. Twenty-three hours of solo piano! Click here to listen on Spotify or Apple Music.

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

Play Something You Know

“Did you leave anything at home?” Dad says as he heaves the first of my five suitcases into the big green taxi. “Or did you bring it all with you?”

 The distance from Pittsburgh to Nantucket is 633 miles. It is the summer of 1976—the bicentennial summer. I’ve just arrived on Nantucket Island with an ancient Schwinn bicycle, two frazzled parents, a lot of music banging around in my head, and a vast amount of self confidence. Having just completed my freshman year of college, I’m looking forward to the beach, an army of Ivy League boys, and a waitressing job at a little Italian place called “Vincent’s Italian Family Restaurant.” I’m going to be a real woman and a superb waitress—sexy and sophisticated—conquering the world, one meatball at a time. On my days off I’ll frolic on the beaches of Nantucket wearing a white bikini and no sunscreen. I’ll gain my independence, make some money, have a string of boyfriends, and get a tan. This is my plan.

I own fourteen bathing suits, some blue jeans, a couple of black turtlenecks, and a dozen pairs of shoes. Not much else. But when you’re eighteen and going away from home for the first time what else do you need? Most of the suitcases contain books. I’ve never been able to go anywhere without them. When I ran away from home at the age of eight, I packed eleven Nancy Drew books in my pink-and-orange paisley vinyl suitcase and stomped out the front door, making sure to let it slam behind me. I didn’t have any food or clothing. Just the books. I didn’t get very far. My valise was too full. 

 This time around the suitcases are much heavier.

It has taken us thirteen hours to drive from Pittsburgh to Cape Cod, then another few hours on the ferry over to Nantucket. It’s the fifteenth of May. The sky is gray and the wind blows little circles of fallen magnolia blossoms around my feet. The taxi driver watches as my father loads each suitcase into the back of the wood-paneled station wagon. My dad moves in slow motion. The bike won’t fit.

 “Bob,” says my mother. “You just go ahead with the bike and meet us there. Robin and I will accompany the bags to the rooming house. I’m sure the nice driver will give you the directions.”

“Yep, up the road a piece, then make a left at the rotary, first fork, second right, till you hit the cobblestones,” says the driver. “That’ll be Main. Yep. You want Union, third turn on the right after you make that second left.”

My father, who through the years has earned the nickname “Mr. Maps” for his inability to give simple directions, whips out his brand-new carefully folded street map of downtown Nantucket and squints at it, hard. 

“Got it, Dad?,” I say. I am so full of impatience I feel like I am going to just blow up, right there on Straight Wharf.

“Got it,” he says. “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Just wait a minute. Look here. What if I go left here at the corner and then cut over to Main, taking the left fork before I get to the right on Union?”

“Well,” says the driver. “You could do that. Yep. You could do that. Cobblestones might be a little rough on that bike though. Yep.”

“Maybe I‘ll do that,” says Dad. “Or what about taking this route, here? Over Orange, down Main, hit the rotary go right.” He jabs at the map. “That’s it, that’s the ticket. Or . . . ”

“Could we please please pleasego?” I say. I am anxious to see where I will be living. But my Dad is holding on to the last few moments of my childhood. He is stalling.

“Bob, step on it,” says my mother, coming to the rescue. “Let’s get this show on the road.” My mother has been saying “let’s get this show on the road” to my Dad at least twice a day for as long as I’ve been alive.

What show? What road?The rooming house is a fine establishment run by the ever-vigilant Mrs. Dunham, who likes to think she is New England’s number-one deterrent to teenage sex. There are six girls living in several bedrooms on the second floor. Most of the girls, myself included, will spend the summer inventing clever ways to sneak boyfriends upstairs so we can screw our brains out while Mrs. Dunham is off chasing after her own teenage sons who are sneaking into other boardinghouses elsewhere on the island. Posted in bold letters by the front door is a sign that reads NO BOYS PERMITTED ABOVE THE THIRD STEP. My father thinks this is an excellent thing. He arrives thirty minutes after us, a bit rattled after riding my old Schwinn over two hundred yards of Nantucket cobblestone. Years later, If I close my eyes, I’ll still be able to see him bouncing along, all six feet of him on a skipper-blue bike built for a twelve-year old girl, with those ridiculous fringy things attached to the handlebars flying out behind him, delivering his little girl’s bike to the place where she won’t be needing it anymore.

“Those cobblestones are brutal,” he says. “My head is still vibrating.”

My parents depart on the early boat the next morning. They get the show on the road, and sneak out of town before I’ve crawled out of bed. This is a good thing, because my mom and I can avoid the Crying Ritual. Here’s how the Crying Ritual goes. She cries, then I cry, then we cry together. Then we talk about how silly we are for crying, and cry some more. Big babies, that’s what we are. It’s exhausting.

***

I’ve got enough money to pay my rent for a week, plus enough extra to buy my waitress uniform. The uniform, which I purchase at a store on Main Street, appropriately called Butt-ner’s, is a white polyester shift with a zipper up the front, possibly the only garment ever designed with the specific intent of making an attractive teenage girl look like Eleanor Roosevelt. 

I start working at Vincent’s Italian Family Restaurant that week. They give me a red-and-white-checked apron to wear over my frumpy frock. Someone tells me I have to wear a hair net, which is humiliating since I have about a yard of hair. The hair net is horrid—it’s like having my head caught in a giant spider web. And it slips down over my eyes at the most inopportune times, causing me to swat at my head like a crazy person. But here I am: uniformed, accessorized, hair net in place, and ready to go. I even have a HI MY NAME IS ROBIN badge.

***

I am a disaster. We aren’t just talking about spilled red wine and dropped plates of lasagna. There are, I’m ashamed to say, several incidents involving blood. I’m a far cry from the sexy and sophisticated waitress I want to be. I’m a gawky and uncoordinated teenager wearing a hair net and sensible shoes, fumbling plates and making a mess. And the worse part is, I know it. I finally understand why my mother has refused to allow me in her kitchen all these years.

This is my first excursion away from home. I’ve got enough money, a place to live, and a job. But I’m all twisted up inside. I’m the opposite of lonely, meeting too many people and making too many new friends. There are too many choices, too many options, too many boys. My life is chaotic. I’m tasting the murky waters of independence without a filter system in place.

I miss my piano. I don’t expect to miss it, but I do. I miss the routine of practicing. I need something to hold onto. Structure. I hate my job. I hate my uniform. And I really hate the friggin’ hair net. It might give structure to my hair, but not my life. I need a hair net for the soul. So I decide to try to find a piano to practice during the day, when I’m not maiming innocent diners and children in highchairs with flying carafes of Chianti. 

Right on Main Street in downtown Nantucket is a famous old restaurant and bar called the Club Car. Jens, a hulking blond Swedish waiter I’ve met in the alley behind Vincent’s Italian Family Restaurant, a man who is obsessed with putting his hand up my frumpy frock and breaking Mrs. Dunham’s third-step rule, suggests the Club Car would be a good place to practice. I show up there one morning at nine and ask to speak to the manager, and I’m introduced to a very kind but lecherous older gentleman named Lino Tambellino. He agrees to let me practice at the Club Car every morning from nine to eleven. 

“So, let me get this straight. You wanna play here in the mornin’ for nobody?”

“Well, yes, Mr. Tambellino.

“Call me Lino, sweetheart.”What a name, Lino Tambellino. He could join the My Name Is a Poem Club. I’m always on the lookout for new members.

“Okay, Lino. I just need someplace to practice. I’m studying music in college, well music and theater both, actually, and I need to practice the piano over the summer.”

“You wanna eat here, too?”

 “No, Mr., uh, Lino, I just want to practice in the morning.”

 “You gotta eat sweetheart.”

 “Thank you, but that’s not necessary.”

“What are you crazy? RICARDO! Get the babe somethin’ to eat! What do you want, a steak?” Lino obviously has a warped sense of time. I guess when you live in a cocktail lounge it’s easy to become a nocturnal creature, confusing breakfast with supper, and dawn with dusk.

“Lino, it’s pretty early for me. Maybe a bagel or something, if you insist. But then I’d like to practice, if that’s okay.”

 “Ricardo, we need bagels! And coffee. And juice. You want bacon? We got bacon. Go practice. Ricardo! We need some fuckin’ bacon over here! Sweetheart, Ricardo will let you know when the food is ready.” 

Ricardo, I can tell, is going to be duking it out with the Swede on the third step of Mrs. Dunham’s Home for New England Virgins. He is short and swarthy with a full head of dark brown curls and big brown eyes. I’ll bet he’s at least thirty. A professional waiter. Wow! I haven’t been on the island for a week and I’m becoming an American clearinghouse for serious waiters from European countries. Where are all those Ivy League boys I’ve heard about? I want Harvard, Yale, and Brown, but I’m getting Stockholm, Fuerteventura, and Sarajevo. It’s early in the summer. Maybe the Ivy League guys are still in school. Ricardo winks at me.

I go to the piano. It’s an old upright grand, ornately carved ebony with lots of water stains and cigarette burns. But it’s almost in tune and it has character. Oh, it feels so good to play. So, so good. I make up a song and play for about five minutes when Ricardo comes to announce the arrival of the breakfast. Drat. Reluctantly, I follow him to Lino’s table. Ricardo winks again. 

Stop that. Don’t wink. Just don’t. Wiggle your eyebrows if you must, but don’t wink at me—it gives me the heebie-jeebies.

“Tell you what, sweetheart,” Lino says in a low voice. I feel like I’m in a scene from The Godfather and Lino is about to whisper his plan to put a horse head in Ricardo’s bed or something. I lean closer. “How’s about you play here five nights a week?”

 I am shocked. “For people, you mean?”

 “Yeah, sweetheart, for people. I never heard of no piano player playin’ for nobody. You sound nice. The people, my people, they’ll like it. Eat your bacon. You want some shrimp salad? How about a lobster?”

“Oh, no thank you. I mean, no thank you to the food, I’m fine really.” I’m flustered. “But thank you for the job offer. Wow. I’m very flattered. But there’s a problem. I’ve got my waitressing job at Vincent’s Italian Family Restaurant. And I work at night.”

“So quit, sweetheart. I’ll give you fifty bucks a night to play here. That’s 250 clams a week. You ain’t gonna make that schleppin’ no minestrone at Vincent’s. Can you start next week?”

***

I manage to get around the corner from the restaurant before I start jumping up and down and making whooping noises. This is like winning the lottery! I have a job, a real job, in show business! 

No more hair net.

I run to Vincent’s, resign, give my uniform to another trainee, toss the hair net in the dumpster in the alley, and race to the pay phone to call my parents with the news that their eighteen-year-old daughter is now a professional bar pianist.

My dad, Bob Rawsthorne, is a professional drummer and vibes player in the greater Pittsburgh area. He knows the score, and I think he’ll be excited for me.

“Robin, get hold of yourself,” my Dad shouts into the phone. “You only know twelve songs and eleven of them are Bach. What are you going to play!?

Dad ships a crate of fake books—volumes of popular songs in easy-to-read arrangements—to me. My mother scrounges around and finds some passable evening gowns for me to wear and throws them in with the music. The crate is like the cocktail-piano version of the Popeil Pocket Fisherman. Dad has tucked in a note:

Bob’s Excellent Rules for Success on a GIG:

1. Don’t drink on the job.

2. Don’t let the management push you around.

3. Always carry a roll of duct tape and an extension cord with you because with those two items you can solve virtually any problem.[

Sure enough, there’s a roll of duct tape and an extension cord in the crate. Dad has also shipped a small sound system, since, heaven help us, I’ll be singing. In spite of my father’s doubts and warnings, I’m completely confident that I’ll be successful. I’ve got a couple of old prom gowns and lots of undiscovered music in me, just waiting to be played. Nothing can go wrong.

***

After calling my parents, I race back to the Club Car to start practicing.

 “Thank you again, Lino. I promise you I’ll try my best.”

 “You’re welcome sweetheart. I got a nice stuffed pork chop on the lunch menu. You like pork chops?”

***

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

New piano album: Home and AwayGoldsby’s latest solo piano album, directly from the artist. Robin’s music is available on all streaming platforms.

Personal note from RMG: Here’s a gorgeous playlist featuring my favorite “gentle music” players, including Ludovico Einaudi, Robin Spielberg, Christine Brown, Yiruma, Liz Story, et moi. I’m really proud of this playlist and hope it will bring you peace and joy. Right now would be a good time to listen. Twenty-three hours of solo piano! Click here to listen on Spotify or Apple Music.

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

Emma

I’ve been thinking a lot about Emma González and the circumstances that plunged her into the bright, white spotlight reserved for America’s budding leaders, shooting stars, and civic heroes. I applaud her valor and admire her authenticity, but I mourn for the childhood she forfeited—the self-consumed teenage years snatched from her by shameful gun laws and a mentally-ill boy with access to a bullet-spraying machine.

When I was Emma’s age I stayed busy writing bad poetry and playing the piano. My most valued possessions included a mini-skirt, a maxi-coat, and a perfect black turtleneck (remember the dickie?). My hair was shiny and long. I obsessed over shoes. I poured baby oil and iodine on my alabaster skin and baked myself, summer after summer, in an attempt to look like the mahogany Coppertone girl, the one with the puppy yanking down her swimsuit. I wrote ooh baby, baby song lyrics about sunsets and a boy named Mark. I was deadly serious about my hobbies and passions and truly believed—like most teenagers—that the world’s eyes were judging me.

Emma González no longer has time to fret about tan lines, wardrobe issues, or the way the sun bounces on the horizon. Maybe she never did. On the day of the Margory Stoneman Douglas shooting, Emma was in the auditorium with dozens of other students when the fire alarm sounded. For two hours, she hid in the auditorium with classmates and friends—until police told students to vacate the building. Emma—faster than you can shout “we call BS—became an American activist and advocate for gun control, co-founding the advocacy group #NeverAgainMSD.

What happened to her childhood? Poof. Gone with the rhythmic, deadly clatter of a weapon designed for a killing field.

*****

It’s a myth that all kids love high school and enjoy an easy-breezy few years cheering for football teams, trying to get high, and attending proms.  In my early years of high school, I got bullied by the kind of mean girls who populate every generation: hard-edged, resting-bitch-faced, hormone-imbalanced strutters who stomp around the high school cafeteria like a Clearasil mafia. A gang of angry girls once dragged me down the steps by my hair because I lived in the wrong neighborhood. At least they weren’t packing heat. I’m sure, with access to a semi-automatic weapon, one of them might have considered shooting me—they hated me that much. Teenagers torture themselves in different ways. Part of me thought I deserved their disdain.

Whenever the shrill, adolescent voice of insecurity yelled my name, I took refuge at the piano. Composing a new piece of music and figuring out how to play it made me feel in control, confident, and capable. Not capable enough to stare down the NRA, like Emma, but skilled enough to brush off the strutters and regain a sense of purpose.

Emma is a creative writer. She also finds joy in astronomy. Before the shooting, her head might have been in the stars, but—because of her education—she knew how to confront a blank page, take the teen tornado blustering through her brain, and create an orderly, emotionally relevant statement. Catapulted to grief counselor and motivational speaker for a nation of despairing and determined young people, Emma used her writing skills to pull through the tragedy.

Emma is a hero. So are her teachers and parents for giving her the lessons, tools, and artistic freedom to cope.

The shooter had an AR-15, but, in the aftermath of killing, Emma showed up armed with her own artistic arsenal, one that has allowed her to challenge the previous generation’s apathy, the NRA, and the politicians bought and sold by the gun lobby. The MSD High School teenagers astound me. Facing a future smeared by horrific images blistered onto their developing brains, they refuse to give up, give in, or tolerate the sickening chaos that has become the new norm in our government. They have chosen their issue—reasonable limitations on the availability of semi-automatic death weapons to children. They’re facing the need for change by running toward the issue, head on. Run, kids, run.

It’s a different kind of race when unexpected hurdles include bleeding bodies of friends.

I guess the prom will have to wait.

*****

Teenagers like Emma—or your kids or mine—are generally known for rumpled bedrooms, disheveled backpacks, and illogical thinking. In a classic Opposite World scenario, our kids now make more sense than many adults. Our youth are not just marching and taking selfies; they’re collecting names and voting records of politicians controlled by the NRA, mobilizing young people to make a difference at the polls in November, and presenting calm, clearheaded arguments for gun control in high-pressure public forums and at nationally-televised press conferences. Virtuosic grace under pressure. Grief meets bravery meets action.

According to another activist—Congressman John Lewis—the MSD kids are making “good trouble.”

Chaos rules the capitol, whereas ordered, logical thinking guides the actions of MSD High School students—the ones who are still alive. Never underestimate the fortitude of a passionate, teenage survivor carrying the weight of her brothers and sisters on her narrow shoulders.

*****

Some thoughts about chaos and order: A pianist almost always begins with chaos. Before tackling a sonata, fugue, or showstopper from the Great American Songbook, before playing a bebop melody or creating a new-age cushion of sonic comfort, a pianist faces a mess of notes either on the page or in her head—some call them fly shit. The notes swim before her eyes and tease her ears, daring her to embrace mayhem and create beauty.

In an artist’s world, it’s critical to balance the mind’s creative bedlam with logical, systematic, strategic thinking. When starting a project, a composer, painter, poet, or journalist must tango with the disarray of her own imagination. Her over-taxed brain hosts flights of fancy and darkest desolation, joy and hysteria and anguish and confusion. Before she spills her emotional guts onto the blank screen, canvas, or music manuscript paper, she must calm her tormentors, restore order to her subconscious desires, and beat back the distractions and necessary interruptions of real life.

Emma González, at the age of eighteen, has the artist’s required skill set.

Is it too much to ask the same of our government?

The paucity of stability and civility in the United States—brought on by the muddled rants and hateful bombasts of our current president—distresses me. Regardless of political affiliation, most people agree that kindness and respect make progress possible. To move forward, encourage positive change, and save the planet for our children and grandchildren—we must value the kind of creative chaos that is followed by ordered, rational thinking.

Emma has that together. She might be our Malala, rising above ruins and illuminating the path.

I encourage the men and women running our country to take the chaos and necessary distractions cluttering their minds, study a page from the Emma playbook, organize their thoughts, and listen to themselves and each other.

Fact: Kids, in record numbers, are being shot on streets and in schools.  Responsible gun laws could stop many of these tragedies. Instead, our congress turns away. Our commander in chief stays occupied hurling big bags of flaming vitriol at anyone who doesn’t tow the fraying line. Forget—if you can—the firings, porn stars and playmates, or destructive policies; the president’s inability to act in an orderly and civilized manner has perpetuated an avalanche of rudeness, a hurricane of racism,  a wildfire of vulgarity, and a storm(y) front of discontent that seeps, like creeping damp, under our hip, upturned collars.

The shooting continues.

Right now, the government has a chance to heed the words and actions of the #NeverAgainMSD movement founded by Emma and her team of fellow students. Our congress has the opportunity to get one thing right: Stop selling weapons of mass destruction to teens.

I am behind you, Emma González. I wish my generation had been out in front of the gun issue so you could have savored a few more years of poetry, love beads, and hours spent gazing at the darkening sky. But now that you’ve been shoved centerstage, I encourage you to follow the artist’s way. Keep your head in the stars, but make sure you find your way back home to deliver your message. Six minutes of silence? We hear you. We need you. You are who we want to be when we grow up.

#Enough.

*****

Portrait of Emma by Steve Musgrove, graphic artist

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; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

Newest book: Manhattan Road Trip, a collection of short stories about musicians. Go here to buy Manhattan Road Trip!

New piano album: Home and AwayGoldsby’s latest solo piano album, directly from the artist, at Amazon, or from your favorite streaming channels.

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

The Girl Who Curtsied Twice

Photo by Julia Goldsby

London, November 23rd, 2017. The prince is giving a ball. My daughter Julia and I are headed to Buckingham Palace, where I’ll be playing dinner music tonight for HRH, the Prince of Wales, and 250 of his guests as they celebrate the 20th Anniversary of In Kind Direct, an organization that encourages corporate giving for social good.

Julia and I are wearing our very best sound-check/meet-the-tech-team outfits, and have our voluminous ball gowns, golden snakeskin sandals, extra bling, and hair-cranking products crammed in a small trolley bag. This suitcase has seen a lot of swag in its years on the Piano Girl circuit, but tonight takes the royal cake.

Members of my family share a long and celebrated history of playing for royalty and heads of state. We are not exactly court jesters, but we come close. My Buckingham event is one more gig on a long list of fancy-pants musical soirees. My dad calls us “grinders”—career musicians grinding out one gig at a time, most of them in humble places, some of them in decidedly uptown venues. Over the decades my father, husband, and I have played for Lyndon Johnson, Nancy Reagan, George H.W. Bush (come back, all is forgiven), Haitian Dictator Baby Doc Duvalier, the Queen of Sweden, the President of Brazil, Chancellor Angela Merkel, Vice President Al Gore,  Donald Trump (before he became a very stable genius), the President of Finland, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, the King and Princess of Oman, members of the Thai Royal Family, various US Ambassadors, and (my favorite) Crown Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia.

Note: Sniffer dogs do not like bass cases.

This evening the plummy Baglioni Hotel has provided us with a Maserati limousine driven by a Brit-suave guy named Abdul. Traffic slows us down for a minute, but Abdul seems wise to every short cut in London. We swerve around pedestrians and zoom toward the palace over narrow, Harry Potter-ish lanes. The “backwards” traffic direction in the UK makes me woozy—every time Abdul turns right I’m sure we’re going to have a head-on smash-up with a double decker bus.

I’m playing at the palace tonight because Robin Boles, Director of In Kind Direct, heard my performance at an event in Germany for sister organization, Innatura (Juliane Kronen, director). Robin Boles, also born and raised in Pittsburgh (never underestimate a woman who knows the exact location of Kaufmann’s clock), liked my music and invited me to perform at the palace.

Both In Kind Direct and Innatura focus on reducing waste by encouraging corporations to donate surplus goods to charities who can use them. A noble cause, on many levels. Tonight’s guest list includes generous sponsors of In Kind Direct. Me? I play the piano for a living and, when I have time, volunteer my musical services to non-profit organizations creating positive change. I don’t have piles of cash to contribute to worthy causes, but I have music.

When Robin Boles booked me at Buckingham—it took eighteen months of careful planning—I asked if I could bring Julia as my “assistant.” Julia is an aspiring photographer and filmmaker. Sadly, she had to leave her camera back at the hotel tonight—only the “royal photographer” has permission to document palace events.

“Mom, exactly what am I supposed to do without a camera?” asks Julia. “How should I assist?”

“Pretend to help me. Carry the suitcase and look official. Fix my hair. Make sure I drink enough water and that my bra strap isn’t hanging out. Check that I don’t have toilet paper stuck to my shoe, lipstick on my teeth, or the back of my skirt tucked in my knickers. You know, the basics.”

Mother’s assistant: every daughter’s worst nightmare. But at least she’ll get to see the palace.

“Do you think Prince Harry will be there?” she asks.

Abdul has instructions to deliver us to the palace service entrance. Figures. Even though I’m in a car fit for a king and have a 3000-dollar silk-taffeta Ralph Lauren ball skirt in my suitcase (purchased on sale for 29.99, I kid you not)—I have to use the back door.

What?” says Julia. “We have to go in the peasant door?”

“Yeah,” I say. “I’m a musician. Peasant.”

“You know what that makes me? Peasant assistant.”

We bid farewell to Abdul and greet a heavily armed guard who checks our names on a list.

“Good evening to you, ladies! Lovely, lovely night, isn’t it? I suppose you’re here for the gala!” It can’t be easy to conduct civilized chitchat while holding a machine gun, but this guy has it down. Very polite, these Londoners.

“Indeed, we are,” says Julia, using her official Madonna in London voice. “This is Ms. Robin Goldsby, peasa . . . I mean, pianist. And I am her ASSISTANT.”

“Very well, then. I’ll need to see your passports, ladies, if you please. “

We fork over our documents. Background checks had been run several weeks ago, so the guards only have to cross check our IDs with the info on their computers. We also have our photos taken for palace ID badges. My picture is, of course, awful. Really, you’d think they’d have better lighting. A portrait of the queen hangs over the guard’s desk—a nice touch. Several police officers are suiting up in bullet-proof vests as other guards search our bags.

“Thank you for your service!” I shout, because I can’t think of anything better to say and I feel a need to babble. A security guard plunders my suitcase and I’m anxious about him yanking my taffeta ball skirt (also known as the circus tent) out of its carefully coiled position. That skirt has a life of its own.

I’m nervous. Not about playing the palace piano, but about getting through security. A big part of me—the Western Pennsylvania girl that suffers from occasional bouts of imposter syndrome—thinks I don’t belong here. I’ve lead a stylish life, but I am, after all, a woman of modest origins. With the assistance of a piano, a great music teacher, and a lot of grit, I’ve made my way from Pittsburgh to the Palace. Banksville to Buckingham. Kennywood to Kensington. Mount Washington to Mountbatten. Right now I am about as far as I can get from the Golden Triangle.

“Mom, shall I carry your purse?” says my assistant. “I believe the event manager is ready to escort us to the sound check.”

“Really?” I say. “We’re going in?”

“We’re going in.”

Before the Gala, Outside the Gate . . . .Photos by Julia Goldsby

*****

We follow a handsome event planner up a long set of stairs. This guy has star power—he’s wearing a James Bond tuxedo, patent evening slippers, and a royal blue silk pocket-square with matching socks. We pass a sparkling, state of the art, enormous kitchen—with scores of workers preparing for the festivities. I keep expecting to see Mrs. Patmore and Daisy, but the palace appears to be staffed by upscale, posh-looking, multi-culti Oxford grads.

Behind the scenes at Buckingham! The palace is huge. No wonder Her Majesty takes her pocketbook with her everywhere she goes—a woman wouldn’t want to get lost in this place without taxi fare. We walk forever, up and down, around and around.  Eventually, our escort opens a discreet door and—bam—we’ve arrived.

Julia grabs my hand. “Holy cow, Mom,” she says. “Look at this.”

We coast into the gallery, a panoramic, portrait-filled corridor with mile-high ceilings, plush brocade sofas, and enormous, polished chandeliers. I assumed Buckingham would have that shabby chic, trampled-by-tourists, slightly musty vibe I know from most European castles, but this place, ancient and modern all at once, is spit-shined to the max. I feel like we’re walking into the muscular arms of someone else’s history. I guess we are.

*****

You and the Knight and the Music . . .

The ballroom, the venue for this evening’s gala dinner, is the location used for vestures. Knighthood! I’ve been dropped into a real-deal fairytale. Thick red and amber light softens the kaleidoscopic effect of the crystal chandeliers. History meets opulence meets Disney.

“Well,” says Julia. “I guess I was wrong. Maybe you should have brought that tiara.”

We meet the stage manager and the sound technician and head to the stage and the grand piano. Julia walks around the ballroom and listens as I play a couple of pieces. The freshly-tuned piano sounds warm and bright; the three microphones inside the instrument will ensure proper amplification, even when people are talking during dinner. Or chatting, as one does in the palace.

Julia joins me onstage.

“Mom, look!”  Behind the stage is a throne.

“Is that a real throne?” I ask.

“Mom, it’s Buckingham Palace. You think they have fake thrones?”

“Yes, it’s real! Pretty cool, right?” the stage manager says. She breaks down the schedule for me: “A porter will take you to a palace bedroom so you can change into your fancy dress. He’ll return to fetch you and Julia at 8:30. We want you seated at the piano at 8:40. The guests will come through at 8:50. That’s when you start playing. At 9:10, after the guests are seated, HRH will make a short speech from his table. Stay at the piano and resume playing when he finishes. Three courses will be served and the meal will be finished at 10:15.”

“Wow,” I say. “That’s really efficient.”

“Yes,” she says. “We’re very good at this.”

I want to take this woman home with me and have her run my life.

“Let me continue,” she says, glancing at her watch. “After dessert, we will give you a cue to stop playing. There will be an announcement acknowledging you. Stand, take a bow, walk down the center stage steps—facing the audience—and exit to the left.  You will be escorted back to your dressing room. Sound good?”

“Wait!” says Julia. “Those steps are steep and Mom will be wearing a rather, uh, puffy long skirt and heels. I don’t want her to have a Jennifer Lawrence moment and take a tumble right in front of HRH.”

Julia Goldsby, professional assistant.

“Good thinking!” says the stage manager.  “I will escort your mum down the stairs.”

“Is there a place for Julia to sit during my performance?” I ask.

Julia points to the throne. “Over there would be good.”

The stage manager laughs. “You can sit in the tech booth. Other end of the ball room.”

“Great!” says Julia. “The tech booth! I’ll be with my people.”

Our porter escorts us down another long corridor and up an endless spiral staircase. We arrive at our suite and collapse on a couple of overstuffed chairs.

“Look at this!” Julia says. Royal catering has provided a large assortment of pre-event snacks and beverages. Julia turns on the television and Her Majesty pops up on the screen, next to a little text that says: “Welcome to our royal home.”

Julia, who now has her stockinged feet up on the coffee table, grabs the remote, flips the channels, and lands on a UK Strongman competition.

“Well,” she says. “It doesn’t get any better than this. I’m in Buckingham Palace, I’ve got a bottle of wine, a block of cheese, a greeting from Queen Elizabeth, and a TV show featuring a muscle man who can pull a car with his teeth.”

“Jul,” I say. “Maybe we should unpack and hang up the dresses. They might be wrinkled.”

“Go ahead,” she says, waving me away. “Just toss my dress on the bed. Man, this cheese is delicious. So cool they have real television in the palace. And wifi!”

“We only have thirty minutes. Maybe we should think about make-up?”

“You look fine. Don’t worry so much. Hey mom, they even sent gluten-free sandwiches for you. With hummus! I think I’ll have one.”

“Julia! Check this out!” I am looking out the window down into the courtyard as the guests arrive in their shiny cars. “Wow, these people are really decked out. Look!”

“Just a minute. Some guy from Reykjavik is picking up a truck with one arm.”

“Julia!”

“Okay, sorry. Not sorry. These guys are amazing.”

“Focus, Julia, focus. We’ve got to get ready.”

She flips off the TV, brushes the crumbs from her lap and puts on her gown. “Do you think Her Majesty watches the Strongman show?”

“I hope so.”


Photo by Julia Goldsby
*****

Our porter picks us up at exactly 8:30. I’m not about to walk the three miles back to the ball room in heels so I hand them to Julia and go barefoot. I think “Barefoot in the Palace” would be a great song title. The word “palace” has some interesting rhymes: chalice, malice, Dallas . . .

“Pay attention, Mom! Hold up that skirt!” Jul shouts as we start down the spiral staircase. “No accidents, please.”

We reach the ballroom. I put on my shoes, head to the stage, sit on the piano bench and, with Julia’s help, drape my skirt—big enough to qualify for its own zip code—to the side so that the fabric pools on the floor.

“See you later, Mom! Have fun. You need anything?”

“No, thanks.”

“Good!” Julia heads back to the tech booth. The last minute flurry of crew activity is enough to make me nervous, but basically, I’m pretty chilled.  I love this. My personal assistant might be somewhat inexperienced, but, even though I’m playing what amounts to a dinner-music gig, I have a porter, a stage manager, a lighting technician, a piano technician, and a sound-design team.

The stage manager approaches. “Five minutes before we start,” she says. “I suggest you take this time for yourself and absorb the beauty and history of this room. You don’t work in a place like this every day.”

The house lights dim and the stage lights come on. It’s completely quiet. I look over my shoulder at the throne and down at my age-speckled hands. I will turn sixty in three days. When I was a kid, my sister used to drive me around Chatham Village on her tricycle. I balanced on the back while she pedaled. I pretended I was the queen and waved at my subjects, the oak trees. A striped lounge chair on our front porch was my throne. Like a lot of little girls of my generation, I thought I could get to Buckingham Palace by wearing the right fairy dress or marrying a prince. But the secret entry to the palace was right on the other side of our porch screen door—an old green piano that I played whenever I wanted to feel less like a princess, and more like myself.

Music, it turns out, can be a golden ticket to just about anywhere. You just have to keep showing up and doing what you love. It took me fifty years of coaxing reluctant sounds out of unforgiving keys, but for one shining hour, I am here. The candlelight in the ballroom reminds me of a star-splattered sky on a cloudless night.

The guests arrive. I start to play. I hope I don’t make the royal mistake.

Photo by Paul Burns

*****

Musicians know that a gig is a gig is a gig. We play the way we play. The only thing that changes, really, is context. Like always,  I fall into my piano zone. Even though I’m playing solo, I’m not alone—the Orchestra Invisible has shown up and everyone I love is here. They’re squeezed in next to me on the narrow, royal piano bench, jostling for position as I play through my set list.

Before I know it, the hour is up and the stage manager signals me to stop. I stand, soak up the applause, take my diva bow, and extend my hand to the stage manager so I can wobble down the steps without taking a header.

Whoa.

I walk through the door as the next performer, Australian baritone Daniel Koek, prepares to go on. I recognize the laser-focus in his eyes—he’s pumped up and so tense he’s ready to snap. Not me. I feel like I’ve just stepped out of a warm bath.

Julia meets me in the corridor and hugs me. “You sounded great!”

“Excuse me, Mrs. Goldsby,” says an official looking man in one of those Downton Abbey butler-valet suits. “Lovely music.”

“Thank you,” I say.

“His Royal Highness would like to meet you.”

I am tempted to say get out of town and slap him on the shoulder, but instead I say: “Really?”

“Indeed. Please wait here for further instructions.”

“Uh-oh,” says Julia. “What do you do when you meet the Prince? Are there rules?”

The stage manager tracks down a protocol expert for us. He says: “Curtsy. Call him ‘Your Royal Highness’ the first time, then switch to ‘Sir.’ Wait for him to extend his hand before you extend yours. That’s it. Wait here. Someone will come for you.”

We hear Daniel singing “Bring Him Home” from Les Miserables. Wow. What a voice! The song seems an appropriate backstage soundtrack as we watch waiters and sommeliers and technicians and dozens of other groomed palace workers buzz from one station to another. I love this.

“Did you hear the Prince’s speech about waste reduction?” Julia says. “He’s really doing something positive for the planet. It’s such a simple concept. Take what you have and use it. If you can’t use it, donate it to someone who can. No waste.”

It’s time for the House of Windsor meet and greet. The royal photographer hovers. My legs are stiff from all the sitting and I’m slightly worried about executing a proper curtsy, but my circus tent skirt will disguise my lack of technique. When HRH shows up, I forgo the “sweep and dip” and opt for a simple hillbilly squat. My Pittsburgh roots have revealed themselves.

HRH and I have a three-minute private conversation about music and sustainability—two subjects that, oddly enough, go hand in hand. I present Julia to him. My cheese-eating, wine-swilling, strongman-watching gal from two hours ago morphs into a picture of elegance as she gracefully nods and curtsies to our host. This child of mine, I think. A strongwoman, a princess. Both.

“Mom,” Julia says, after HRH has departed. “I was so nervous I curtsied twice.”

“You curtsied twice?”

“Yes. I don’t think he saw the first curtsy, so I did it again. I must have looked like a crazy person.”

“Did he notice the second curtsy?”

“Oh yeah, he noticed. That time I got it right.”

Photo by Paul Burns

We change clothes, freshen up, wrestle the skirt back into the trolley bag, take a few swigs of wine, and slip some royal crackers into our peasant pockets. Our porter takes us back through the labyrinth of rooms and corridors, past the security gate, and just like that, we’re on the street—two exhausted women in black stretch pants—looking for a taxi. I can’t help noticing that the way out of the palace is much quicker than the way in.

The hulky silhouette of Buckingham looms behind us.

“The golden coach has officially turned back into a pumpkin,” says Julia.

“Fine with me,” I say. “I like pumpkins.”

“Me, too,” she says. “Let’s go home.”

*****

Note from Robin: Please visit In Kind Direct  to learn more about how they assist our underserved sisters and brothers in the UK and around the world. Do you work for a company with surplus goods? You can help.

Juliane Kronen and Robin Boles are two of my personal heroes. Thanks to both of them for the gig of a lifetime!

*****

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; and Rhythm: A Novel.  

New: Home and AwayGoldsby’s latest solo piano album, directly from the artist, at Amazon, or from your favorite streaming channels.

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Low Country Boil

Chickens and Antiques

I arrive in Charleston, South Carolina, on a balmy February evening after a fifteen-hour travel extravaganza that has led me from Frankfurt, Germany, through Detroit, and into the cushioned arms of Low Country hospitality. I’m here to play a couple of solo piano concerts. My host, a southern gentleman who works as a church organist, concert promoter, and hotel pianist, greets me at the airport. His name is Tom Bailey. I know from emails and phone calls he is neither an ax murderer nor a Trump supporter, but still, I worry. I’m tired enough that most of my trust issues evaporate into the salty night without a second thought as Tom, a dapper guy in a gorgeous suit, grabs my suitcase. We hop in his Nissan, and away we go.

Tom and his partner Steve live in Summerville in a rambling home they share with two dogs (Loopy and Buster) and twenty chickens. The chattering chickens reside outside and pretty much never shut up, but  I could sleep through anything at this point. I have a glass of wine, tour the labyrinth of chicken-themed, antique-filled rooms, and head up to the guest suite where I fall into a four-poster bed and dream of Pat Conroy and roosters.

To avoid performing with jet lag, I’ve arrived in Charleston six days before my first concert. Other, more seasoned artists don’t fret about travel fatigue, but I’m approaching my sixtieth birthday and I function best when my head is not plopping onto the keyboard.

Tom Bailey fills my pre-concert days with cocktail parties, dinners, and “meet and greet” sessions with fans and friends. He has created a minor buzz about me, so I get star treatment. This is something new and different, but I go along with the program and soak up the love. Being a sponge is fun. I eat too much and drink too much. I have cramps in my cheeks from smiling.

Note to my liberal friends: At no time during my stay does Lindsey Graham jump out from behind a potted palmetto. South Carolina might be a red state, but the citizens of the greater Charleston area, at least the ones I meet, are a civilized mish-mash of black-white-old-young-straight-gay-jewish-christian-muslim-happy.

It seems I have once again found myself in an American Bubbleland. I’ll take it.

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Loopy and Buster

My Funny Valentine

On Valentine’s Day, Tom—who knows a million songs and plays them all with bouncy bravado—works  the Swamp Fox Room at the Francis Marion Hotel, a five-star joint in downtown Charleston. Steve and Tom have invited three pianists—Nancy, Hermeine, and Patricia— to have dinner with me. They are stunning, aging, and funny; they are also kick-ass pianists. After dinner, Tom invites them to play. I listen in amazement as Hermeine romps through a version of “Embraceable You” with a Brahms-y rolling left hand that sounds like the tide. Wow. Hermeine plays more notes in four bars than I play in an entire set. As I take my turn at the piano I feel an inkling of impostor syndrome creeping under the collar of my stretchy black travel dress.

I play tinka tinka and hope my minimalistic approach will carry me through. Hermeine, Patricia, and Nancy are Charleston’s Golden Piano Girls. I feel like I’ve known them forever. That’s the nice thing about the Musician’s Club—we’re family, even if we’re meeting for the first time. I’m in a party of seven, and five of us play the piano. Among us, we have three hundred years of stories.

How many pianists does it take to play “My Funny Valentine?” Evidently, all of us.

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Tom @ the piano.

Miss Emily

Emily Remington, as far as I know, is the world’s most senior Piano Girl. One hundred years old and still snappy! After turning down the volume on her Vladimir Ashkenazy recording (more Brahms), she greets Tom and me in her apartment. We happily sip afternoon cocktails, eat crackers and brie, and trade tales about the music business. Miss Emily, appalled by the current political situation in the USA, reminisces about the choirs she conducted in 1962, one black, one white. After Kennedy’s assassination, she fought to integrate the choirs and have them sing together for his memorial. A teenage Jessye Norman was a soloist for the performance. Tom says that Miss Emily, fearing the hatred of white supremacists, stood in front of Jessye during her solo to protect her from crowd violence.

“To think we’ve returned to such awful thinking,” she says. “It depresses me.”

I remind Miss Emily of Carrie Fisher’s brilliant comment: Take your broken heart and make it into art. “That’s what you did, Miss Emily, back in 1962,” I say. “And other artists will follow in your footsteps.”

“At least we still have that,” she says. “Music.”

We discuss musician wardrobe malfunctions—she once had a strapless dress fall down while conducting a symphony orchestra—and I lament about my failure to find a strapless bra that hoists the twins to a respectable height without cutting off my oxygen.

“Well, I have a gift for you!” she says. She stands up, and with the aid of a walker, cruises into her bedroom, where she reaches into the top drawer of her lingerie chest and pulls out a black strapless bra. “Here,” she says. “Take it. My strapless bra days are behind me.”

I like that she had that bra at the ready, as if she was willing to slip on a slinky sequined dress, grab her gig bag, and hit the boards running. One hundred years old, and still thinking like a Piano Girl.

Note to opera buffs: Jessye Norman sang to Miss Emily on her 100th birthday.

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Me, age 59. Miss Emily, age 100. She wins.

The Cape

Tom and Steve take me to a vintage clothing shop and buy me a full-length velvet cape with a red satin lining and beaded shoulders. Perhaps my nun-ish wardrobe has disappointed them, or maybe they are hoping I’ll make a Liberace entrance at my concert on Saturday.

“Tom,” I say. “I don’t think I can wear this while I play.” I yank the jeweled clasp that pinches the fat on my neck and threatens to strangle me. Death by beading.

“No, no,” he says. “You walk onstage and then drop the cape dramatically next to the piano before you sit down. Fabulous!”

Tom and Steve are fabulous. I now own the cape. I wonder if it has super powers. Sure, Liberace liked his capes, but so did James Brown and Batman. I am in good company.

Note to soul fans: James Brown, born in South Carolina, employed a “Cape Man.” Cape Man’s soul function was to run onstage when Brown was collapsing from excessive emotional exertion and too many hip thrusts. Cape Man would dramatically place the cape on Brown’s slumped and twitching shoulders, thus bestowing Brown with enough energy to go on with the show.

I am currently taking applications for my own personal Cape Man.

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With Steve & Tom. My Cape Men.

The Surprise

I am sitting with Tom in a Summerville restaurant called Oscar’s. He tells me we are meeting “some agent” for lunch. I go along with the program because at this point I’m on remote control and know that anyone Tom introduces to me will be funny, smart, and entertaining. Even an agent.

Tom tells me about his funeral gigs. Sometimes he plays three or four funerals a week, in addition to his hotel and church jobs. When I ask him if the funerals get depressing he says: “No. The organ is in a closet and I have a video feed of whoever is conducting the service. No casket viewing, no grieving people—I just go in my closet and play the gig. Sometimes I take a sandwich with me.”

This morning, while Tom was playing in his funeral closet, I called Robin Spielberg, my piano BFF, just to check in and tell her what’s going on. She would love it here! Robin lives in rural Pennsylvania and I could tell she was in a vehicle so I asked where she was going. “It’s a trip to nowhere,” she said. It’s been almost ten years since we’ve seen each other, even though we communicate daily. Busy, busy, Piano Girl lives. I miss her.

The server asks about our drink orders. Wine or no wine? With all the socializing and bar-hopping the week has turned a bit hazy around the edges, but that’s a good thing. I’m often accused of exaggeration (I like to think of it as a gift for fiction) and I’m sure no one from my real life will believe the things I’ve been experiencing in Charleston—the chickens, Miss Emily, the cape, the way Charleston teems with musicians and gigs . . . I order the wine and chat with Tom about the piano business and funerals, waiting for “some agent” to show up.

Surprise! In walks Robin Spielberg and her handsome husband, Larry, who actually is a talent agent (one of the good guys). Knock me over with a feather. How Tom and Robin managed to keep this a secret baffles me. I usually sniff out covert activity weeks before it happens. Ask my children. In the spy versus spy game, I am queen. Not this time. I have been out-played by two piano players.

We squeal, we cry, we are a surprise-party cliché. We order more wine. Spielberg is beautiful and full of life and understands so much about what I do for a living. She is here and I am over the moon happy. The first thing I do when we get back to Tom’s house is show her the cape. She agrees: It’s fabulous.

The next day we drink dill-pickle flavored Bloody Marys, eat a little lunch, then go to a dress store and buy matching southern belle evening gowns. On sale. Now I have something to wear with the cape. And the bra. And if anyone ever calls us to do a two-piano show, we’re all set.

IMG_7006

Spielberg & Goldsby, 4 hands sounding like 2.

The Concert

The first concert takes place at St. Theresa the Little Flower Catholic Church in Summerville. Tom runs a series there, called Third Sunday at Three.

Steinway has provided a gorgeous Model B. It sits front and center under a glorious (but gruesome) mosaic of Jesus on the cross. I’m not sure this is the appropriate place to tell stories about my life as a cocktail lounge pianist, but I’m here, hundreds of people have shown up and I figure I’ve got enough  spirituality in my music to make up for my atheist tendencies. Live and let live and all that.

My dressing room is the priest’s vestry. Forget about the cape! Robes and scarves in glorious colors hang in the priest’s closet. And look at those rosary beads. This is bling city. I’m suspicious of most organized religion, but I’ve always been a fan of Pope-wear. I’m temped to borrow the lime green cassock for my entrance but Spielberg talks me out of it. Look at us: a Jewish gal from New Jersey and a Pittsburgh atheist with German residency hanging out in the priest’s vestry of a South Carolina catholic church.

Ah, music. The great unifier.

We gaze at the special sink for holy water but we do not drink.

IMG_7031

The concert goes well. My hands are cold for the first chunk of music (the vestry was chilly) but I recover and warm up for the rest of the program. The audience rolls along with me, laughing when they’re supposed to. I read my story about playing an endless version of the Titanic theme at a private party in a German castle, and Tom sits in at the piano for me and provides the perfect soundtrack. People here love him, and because they love him, they accept me.

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New fans!

I sign a lot of books and CDs and head to the post-concert shindig at Tom and Steve’s home. Eighty people show up for the party. Tom has hired service staff and a pianist. The food is plentiful; the bar is well stocked. They serve a Low Country boil called Frogmore Stew, which I am happy to report does not contain frogs—just giant shrimp, potatoes, corn on the cob, and sausage. Maybe it should be called Frogless Stew. I drink a goblet of wine and pose for photos. I’m starving, but I can’t very well eat corn on the cob while I’m having my photo taken. That’s a little too Ellie Mae Clampet, even for me.

Note: Posing for a cell phone photo takes three times longer than posing for a real camera, especially when senior citizens are involved. Commonly heard phrases include:

It’s all black.

It didn’t click.

Where do I push?

It’s all fuzzy.

The Medical Emergency

I go on the veranda to have my photo taken with a guy named Chris, just as Miss Sarah, a retired volunteer librarian using a walker, struggles to get down the steps. Miss Sarah is elderly and has just had a knee replacement. Miss Sarah’s husband takes her walker and his own cane and tries to follow her down the steps. He is also carrying multiple copies of my books—way too much stuff for a nonagenarian on a staircase with an opiate-impaired wife.

I grab Chris and we get hold of Miss Sarah just before she takes a dive. I’m in front of her; Chris is behind her. We get her down the steps, but she is dizzy and nauseated and ready to toss her Frogmore cookies. I know this feeling all too well. It will pass, but her advanced age calls for something more proactive than a reassuring pat on the back. I don’t want anyone, especially sweet Miss Sarah, going down for the count on the night of my big event. Piano Girl Program Kills Popular Librarian is not a headline I care to see.

“Tom!” I yell, after running back into the house. It’s hard to find him in this French-farce maze of rooms. “Miss Sarah needs medical attention. Call an ambulance!”

“Who?”

“Miss Sarah! Miss Sarah! The librarian! On the veranda!”

I feel like I’ve been dropped into the second act of a Tennessee Williams play. I’m even developing a slight twang.

The paramedics come, a little too slowly for my taste, but hey, it’s the south. Miss Sarah is fine—she has experienced an opiate-induced blood pressure drop—and will be delivered back to her rehab facility. One of her fellow librarians asks me to sign Miss Sarah’s books before they drive away. This should be the last thing anyone is worrying about, but who am I to argue?  I love this woman. Get well soon, Miss Sarah!

I glance at the waiting paramedics and scrawl my signature as quickly as possible. I never get that photo with Chris. But I do snag some corn when the crowd thins out.

Book signing

The Ultimate Music Machine

Steinway & Sons Charleston and BMW sponsor the second event, held at a sleek and shiny BMW showroom on the outskirts of the city. David Vail, Steinway Director, delivers a Model “D” for the concert. I’m more comfortable here than I was yesterday at the church. For one thing, I don’t have Jesus hanging over my head for the comedy portion of my show. And I prefer my audience in chairs rather than pews. Tonight’s audience is close-up and a little punchy from the cocktail reception. The cars on the periphery of the stage area, in gleaming shades of powder and pewter, look pretty and powerful.

Perfect.

Miss Emily, our resident centenarian, wearing a festive zebra-print frock, perches in the second row with a glass of wine. She missed my church gig yesterday because she produces her own concert series at the senior residence where she lives. When I’m introduced, I bow at her feet in tribute. Then I wonder what kind of bra she is wearing. This woman knows her undergarments.

I glide through the show, marveling at the instrument in front of me. I can’t play a wrong note on this piano—Steinway technician John Krucke has groomed it till it sings. I could stay here forever. But I don’t because the show is over and we have dinner reservations and I’m hungry.

Before we leave I talk to audience member Charles Miller, the organist who jumped in to accompany President Obama during his unanticipated “Amazing Grace” moment at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church memorial service. I watched that ceremony live from Germany, and although I was weeping, I remember noting the amazing grace of that amazingly graceful organist. He overcame his grief, did his job, and lifted all of us to a better place—a beautiful moment in a tragic setting, buoyed by the bravery of one musician.

“You are my hero,” I say to Charles after my concert. “I’m curious. What key did Obama sing in?”

“He was between E and Eb,” says Charles. “But I pushed him down to Eb.”

Wow. No cape necessary. While I’m talking to Charles and signing books, a hugely talented fourteen-year old named Caleb sits down at the “D” and starts playing Bach. My God—this room is swollen with music. Caleb balances at the beginning of his career; Miss Emily has leaned comfortably into the end of hers. The rest of us stand somewhere in the middle, grateful benefactors of our musical pasts, protectors of what’s to come.

Is everyone in this town a musician? Seems like.

It’s time to move on. Thank you, Charleston. You have plenty of music in your fine city, but you’ve welcomed me as if you can never get enough. Your southern charm took me by surprise.

Next stop: Pittsburgh. But first, let’s eat.

Note to music fans: The former mayor of Charleston, Joseph Riley, set out to make Charleston a world-class city by focusing on the city’s vibrant cultural life. It worked. Music is everywhere and venues—both large and small—are full. The current mayor of Charleston, John Tecklenburg, is a jazz pianist.

 *****

Special thanks to Tom Bailey, Steve Jackson. Robin Spielberg, Larry Kosson, David Vail, John Krucke, David Archer, Pat Huffman, and Emily Remington. And much gratitude to Tom Bailey’s circle of friends for making me feel so welcome. Can’t wait to see you all again! 

Coming next month: The Pittsburgh Party

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; 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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Blue

Blue

You’re in Boston, Chicago, on the Jersey Shore,

I’m in Hamburg, or Paris; last week was Singapore,

And I am missing you,

The world feels blue,

Tonight—

You’re in Austin, New Orleans, Waukegan, or LA,

I’m in Mumbai, or Shanghai, Dubai, or Calais,

And I am missing you,

The world feels blue,

Tonight—

My life is full of wonder,

Magical and strange,

Crossing so many borders,

I wouldn’t change a thing . . .

Except that

You’re in Pittsburgh, Toledo, Toronto, Montreal,

I’m in Dublin, or London; I’m waiting for your call,

Cause I am missing you,

The world feels blue,

Tonight—

Travelling a golden highway,

Searching for something real,

Look at my family circle,

I almost feel,

At home . . .

Not quite.

‘Cause you’re back in

Indianapolis, Annapolis, Colorado Springs,

I’m in Auckland, Seoul or Sydney, if wishes could grow wings,

Then I would fly to you,

And share this gorgeous view,

Am I breaking away, or am I breaking through?

The world feels blue,

I’m missing home,

Tonight—

I’ll be all right,

The world is blue; I’m missing home, tonight.

(words and music by Robin Meloy Goldsby, ©2016 Bass Lion)