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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Olives, Almonds, and Sauvignon Blanc: The Musician’s Guide to Losing (and Finding) Those Last Five Pounds

Considering I’ve spent most of my adult life playing the piano in a cocktail lounge, it’s amazing I’m not (yet) an obese alcoholic with salt stains on my fingers and a pickled liver. I have stared down more bowls of smoked almonds and wasabi nuts than most people do in a lifetime.  If I had the cash equivalent of every drink purchased for me by the lounge lizards and dapper dandies drifting through the world’s cocktail caves and five-star hotels, I’d be able to retire right now. A glass of the good champagne served at the hotel where I currently work costs forty-five dollars. Over the last twelve years I may have sipped the champagne equivalent of a brand new BMW.

Champagne

I’m not complaining.  I think too much about diet and nutrition. If you want to know anything at all about any diet ever invented in the history of food, just ask me. I could be practicing the piano, composing music, or working on another book, but no, I’m busy boning up on the virtues of yam chips, and wondering if pomegranate juice would be a nice mixer for vodka.

I’m addicted to diet stories. Makeover! Is any word in the style lexicon more full of promise? Give me a good makeover article and you’ve got me in the palm of your chubby little hand. At the doctor’s office I will pick up a glossy magazine, skirt over intelligent political commentaries about subjects I care about, and go right for the three-page spread telling me how Becky from Buffalo lost twenty pounds in twenty days by eating ham loaf and asparagus (Becky is now working in the shoe department at Target and loves her new “thinner” life).

I am not now, nor have I ever been fat. But, even at my skinniest—I looked like a zipper—I was still trying to lose those “stubborn last five pounds,” a phrase you’ll read a thousand times if you’ve got your nose in a diet book. They are indeed stubborn, those last five pounds, especially if they’re located in the fantasy part of your brain.

Over five decades I’ve lost and gained those same five pounds about four times a year. No matter where in the world I go, they hunt me down, stalkers on the prowl, never far away. I lose them; they find me again—rightfully so, since they belong to me. I try to give them away, but just like my old evening gowns and sparkling gig shoes from 1985—no one seems to want them.

Road trips, evil catering, unidentifiable bar food, vending machine Twix bars, buffalo wings, airplane pretzels, stale ham sandwiches, chocolate donuts, and, yes, those community bowls of goldfish crackers—as a musician I’ve survived most of these things. For better or worse, here are some of my favorite diet phases, many of them career-related.  Some diets were intentional; some were accidental. Most of them didn’t work. Proceed with caution. Or you can just skip to the end and save yourself some trouble.

1973: Eighteen Eggs in Thirty Minutes

I am sixteen years old and spend a lot of time playing the piano. My sister, Randy, is fifteen and likes to dance. Tonight we perch at the kitchen table, forks at the ready. Grandma Curtis, a youthful seventy-five, happily slings hash for the two of us. I promise to play “The Theme from Love Story” for her after dinner. Maybe Randy will do some interpretive dancing. Grandma hovers over a large skillet, scrambling eggs.

Randy and I have discovered a diet book on our mother’s bookcase called Martinis and Whipped Cream. We know nothing about martinis, but we do like whipped cream. We also think we need to be skinny, since we both spend a lot of time onstage. Tonight’s Martinis and Whipped Cream diet dinner features scrambled eggs cooked in butter, as many of them as we can eat. We’ve just arrived home from swim team practice and—after 120 laps of breaststroke—we’re famished. Between the two of us we consume eighteen eggs in thirty minutes.

Grandma keeps saying things like: “Girls these days sure can chow down. Do you think the chlorine in the pool is making you extra hungry?  Do you want a nice salad and a piece of bread with those eggs?”

“NO!” we scream in unison, a synchronized, carb-deprived, desperate diet-duo, lifting our utensils in unison.

At least the eggs are affordable. Tomorrow night’s dinner calls for unlimited pork chops.  Both of us are constipated for two weeks, but we each manage to lose ten pounds. We look svelte in our South Hills High School tank suits, even though we are weak and dazed. I watch my sister attempt to swim the 200 Meter Butterfly and by the end of the race only her thumbs are breaking the water’s surface.

“Never again,” we say. We go off the diet, eat a piece of toast, and regain all the weight we’ve lost.  We start winning our swim events again. And we swear off whipped cream forever. Martinis, well, that’s another story.

Shopping List:

Two dozen eggs, plus an extra dozen, just in case

One grandmother who doesn’t ask questions

1976: The Nantucket Diet

Ah, the Bicentennial Year. Two hundred years of American independence and what better way to celebrate? I leave my parents’ home (roast chicken dinners and chipped ham sandwiches for lunch) and head to the land of lobster, quahog chowder, and curly fries from The Brotherhood of Thieves. But this is not what I am eating on Nantucket. Lobster is too expensive and I’m trying to save money for college. I play the piano at a bar that caters to rich yachtsmen, salty first mates, and the occasional gay guy. While waiting for my tube top to slip down in the middle of my snappy Carole King medley, the sailors buy me drinks made with scotch and amaretto and Kahlua. For solid food, I rely on bluefish. I hate bluefish, but this is what my boyfriend reels in every day from the shores of Madaket and ‘Sconset and this is what we eat. I wrap it in aluminum foil and we cook it outside on the hibachi. I try not to choke on the bones.

Once in awhile, a sun-baked friend of mine named Peg—the manager of the Sweet Shop on Main Street—uses her key and flashlight for midnight raids on the ice cream counter. She takes me with her. A former Coppertone swimsuit model, Peg refuses to eat anything but vanilla ice cream with strawberry sauce. I can’t think of anything more glamorous than being a Coppertone model, so I do the same. It helps me forget about the bluefish bones and the sailors.

I do not lose weight or gain weight on this diet. The balance of alcohol, fish, and ice cream must be the key to good health and glowing skin. I forget that I am eighteen, sand-blasted, surf-struck, and love-stupid. I could eat (or not eat) anything and still look good. But I am too young to appreciate this.

 Shopping List:

Bluefish (see if you can find someone to gut them for you)

Cheap vanilla ice cream

Smucker’s Strawberry Preserves

Scotch

Coppertone SPF O

1979: The St. Louis Blues Diet

I live at the Chase Park Plaza for six weeks while performing in the hotel’s small theater on the ground floor. Our hotel rooms are luxurious, but we eat our meals in the  doom-and-gloom employee cafeteria, where several coughing, sneezing, mucous-spewing adults have been hired to serve our food. Hot dogs are the favored main course, served alongside unidentifiable vegetables.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” I say to the soup monger in the white hat, just as she wipes her nose on her sleeve. “What is the vegetable today?”

“That be squash,” she grunts. “It always be squash. Squash, squash, squash. Do you want some goddamn squash? If not, GET OUT OF THE GODDAMN SQUASH LINE!” Steam rises around her head and she looks at me, one yellowish eye askew, like she might stab me with her squash scooper.

Every vegetable is squash. Every hot dog is a vessel for typhoid, or worse.  Every meal is a trauma.

If one of us makes it to the table with an actual tray of food, the Head Hobbit—a man named Hank—sits down with us and purposefully coughs with his mouth uncovered, spraying us with God knows what. We duck under our napkins.

Hack, hack, hack.

Once Hank blows his nose on the table. We flee, convinced hotel management has hired Hank to prevent us from eating their free food. It’s hard to lose weight in a five star hotel, but our cast—grossed out and fearing for our lives—collectively drops about sixty pounds. Ken, our cross-dressing male lead (who stays in the hotel’s Joan Crawford Suite) begins ordering meat loaf dinners from room service. We follow suit, hoping that the  staff in the “real” kitchen practices better hygiene. We spend all our wages on fifteen dollar Ruben sandwiches and Welsh Rarebit. We lose our money and regain the weight. Plus some. Ah, the circle of life.

Shopping List:

Hot dogs (the older the better)

Squash (beaten to death)

Dirty person to cough on your food

 

 1980: The Stripper Diet

“The ships on her hips made my heart skip a beat . . .”

There’s nothing like taking your clothes off nightly in front of 1500 people to make those “last stubborn five pounds” seem like they’re super-glued to your hips. I am acting and dancing in a squeaky clean, but scantily costumed, show called Peaches and Bananas. Coached by both Tempest Storm and Ann Corio, I’m the featured stripper in the program. I play classical piano and stand up to disrobe while singing “Hard Hearted Hannah.” I also play a chorus on the flute. Note to the aspiring performer: If wearing a bikini, it can be challenging to suck in your stomach while playing a wind instrument. Better to stick with the guitar—full belly coverage, and no huffing and puffing.

For six months I strip at a dinner theater outside of Boston. Fast food not only pads my butt, but saves my butt late at night when I can’t find or afford anything decent to eat. Because I’m dancing in eight shows a week, I’m in good shape, in spite of these last five pounds. Along with the rest of the cast—assorted actors, dancers, and ancient Burlesque comedians from New York, I’m sleeping eight to a room in a sleazy motel located next to Radio Shack, sharing bath towels and leftover Chinese shrimp-fried rice with chorus girls and tap-dancing young men. It’s winter, and to keep the old rice “fresh,” we stash it in a box on the windowsill. We breakfast daily on Dunkin’ Donuts glazed crullers and coffee with four packs of sugar and non-dairy creamer. We drink cheap wine between shows. Sometimes we splurge on vodka and add sugar and non-dairy creamer (stolen from DD) to create a Bailey’s Irish Cream effect. It’s not very effective.

The show moves to Woonsocket, Rhode Island, and bruises begin to appear on my limbs. If I press on my skin, a blue fleck develops within an hour.  My arms look like road maps of places I never intended to visit. I can’t afford a doctor so I go to a Woonsocket pharmacist. He tells me I have a vitamin C deficiency. Unless the pickles on a Whopper count, I haven’t eaten a fresh vegetable or piece of fruit in months. In another few weeks I’ll  have Rhode Island’s first reported case of modern-day scurvy.

I swear off crullers and fried rice, which is easy because Peaches and Bananas closes—who wants to see a bruised piano-playing stripper, anyway? I move back to New York City where I can buy a mango for a pittance and a bag of spinach for even less. To pay the bills between show-biz gigs, I take a job as an exercise instructor at an Elaine Powers Figure Salon. But that’s another story.

 Shopping List:

A bag of Dunkin’ Donuts crullers (the kind with icing)

Cold shrimp-fried rice (as much MSG as possible)

Sugar packets and non-dairy creamer (as many as you can stuff in your pockets)

Coffee and really cheap vodka

1986: The Unhappy Piano Girl Diet

I am playing two or three gigs a day in Manhattan. A serial dater with no real hope of ever finding Mr. Right, Mr. Wrong, or even Mr. Single, I go on a lot of dinner dates but never really eat much dinner. When I’m working—pretty much all the time—I live on white wine, smoked almonds, and Valium. At my low point (in more ways than one) I weigh 105 pounds, about twenty pounds less than normal for my 5’8″ inch frame.

No. I am not anorexic. I just forget to eat.

I finally have enough money to buy decent food—no more crullers!—but I don’t care about eating. I’ve lost those stubborn five pounds but I’m too miserable to enjoy their departure. T-t-t-timing.

Sometimes after work I go to a fancy sushi place and force myself to order a nice meal. This works out well until the Japanese chef—a guy whose name sounds like Homo (even though I’m sure it’s not) starts sending out “special treats” along with my dinner. One treat features something that looks like crocodile testicles. He might be interested in me in a romantic way but I don’t think I can date a man named Homo who serves me eel brains and doesn’t speak English. I stop visiting his restaurant when he starts showing up at my piano with roses.

I find a sushi-to-go joint and cart the tuna rolls home with me, where I watch Oprah re-runs about losing weight.

This diet is very effective but not much fun.

 Shopping List:

Why bother?

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1990: Shaken, Stirred, Whatever

This is where the martinis come in, along with a good man. I have one, now. He plays the bass. We drink; we laugh; we love. Best diet. Ever.  Occasionally we eat dinner.

Shopping List:

Absolut Vodka

Olives

Nice lingerie

 

1992: The “Having My Baby” Diet

I’m pregnant and happy but not gaining much weight. I’ve been a vegetarian for a year and I’m determined to stick with it. I’m repulsed by red meat, I’m not allowed to eat sushi, and the chicken/salmonella thing freaks me out. That leaves pork (the other white meat), but I’m not interested—Wilbur and all that.

Between piano gigs I eat egg salad sandwiches on onion bagels and consume buckets of soba noodle soup. I can’t seem to get enough orange juice—I drink it by the gallon. I give up smoked almonds and white wine. Finally, in my seventh month, people notice I’m pregnant.  In fact, it looks as if a jazz quintet has taken up residence under my black chiffon Piano Girl tent dress.

One of my husband’s musician friends expresses concern that I’m not gaining enough weight. He becomes almost hostile when John tells him I’m a vegetarian. I don’t really understand it, but some people get weird when you tell them you don’t eat meat.

I gain twenty pounds. Our son is born, weighing over eleven pounds and setting a six-year record at NYU Medical Center, where one of the overworked nurses refers to him as King Kong.

“Well,” says John. “Good thing you didn’t eat the steak.”

 Shopping List:

Egg salad from Zabar’s

Onion bagels (also from Zabar’s—see if you can get a volume discount)

Soba noodles (with mystery broth that could possibly be vegetarian, but don’t ask questions)

Orange juice (buy stock in Tropicana)

1994: The Nothing but Cheese Diet

I move to Germany and find myself in the land of cheese. I’m still a vegetarian, so the cheese solution seems obvious. The cheese in Europe is nothing like what we have in America—the stuff here actually tastes good. I find myself buying huge chunks of Parmesan and eating shards of it for dinner, along with salad and crusty French baguette. There’s a place down the road from me that makes its own goat milk cheese with an herbed crust. I can’t stop.

I should mention that European chocolate also plays a supporting role in this nutritional phase of my life. Those last five pounds not only find me again, they bring along some of their friends and have a party. I score a job playing the piano at a German castle, home of a Michelin-starred restaurant. The bar snacks are heavenly. The wine is divine. I am doomed.

Shopping List:

Cheese (but only if you’re on this side of the Atlantic)

An occasional grape

2008: The Wagon # 36 Diet

After a decade and a half of my cheese, wine, and coffee diet, I develop stomach problems. One incident, involving two hours on a grimy floor next to a toilet bowl in a long distance train from Berlin to Cologne, my roiling stomach feeling every rumble, grumble, and swerve the train makes, almost kills me. For 120 minutes, I shiver in the tiny restroom, staring at a sign that tells me I am in Wagon #36.

Then there’s the Barfing Fairy Event, which occurs during the run of a children’s musical I wrote. I’m wearing wings, a tulle skirt, a Dolly Parton wig, and rubber boots. It’s not possible to look cute while tossing one’s cookies, but I come close.

Another harrowing heaving episode takes place while I’m playing Music for Lovers at a Valentine’s Day dinner at a German castle.  I start the evening in good shape, but ten minutes into my second set (right in the middle of “All the Things You Are,” which absolutely no one recognizes) I find myself racing through the restaurant—dodging goo-goo eyed couples sitting at tables strewn with rose petals—desperately trying to reach the ladies’ room. I make it, but barely. I quit early and stagger into the parking lot. Somehow I survive the drive home. My beautiful red chiffon dress does not fare as well.

What’s that line in The Devil Wears Prada? “I’m one stomach flu away from my perfect dress size.”  I am one stomach flu away from being dead. I honestly believe I’m suffering from multiple episodes of the Noro virus and there’s nothing I can do about it. At least the five pounds are gone. But I am constantly nauseated and fearful of the next siege.

Enough. I visit a doctor. She tells me an inconvenient truth: I haven’t had twenty-four cases of stomach flu in the last nine months.  It turns out the things I’ve been eating and drinking have trashed my tummy. If I want to feel better, if I want to get my head out of the toilet, I have to makeover my diet. Makeover!—my favorite word. But this makeover sounds more like serving a life sentence in Food Prison. No meat, no problem—but no cheese, no eggs, no coffee, no wine, no sugar? No fun.  Evidently  I have to do this if I want to stay out of Wagon #36.

I embark on a vegan diet and regain my health.  I feel so much better so quickly that it’s surprisingly simple to stick with the program. But I wouldn’t have gotten this far if I hadn’t gotten sick first.

Shopping List:

Costumes appropriate for dramatic dashes to the toilet (avoid long scarves and shawls)

Acid producing foods  (pretty much anything you enjoy)

A high-speed train on a bumpy track

As much coffee as you can consume, topped off with a wine chaser.

Rubber boots

2013: The Silver Lining Cookbook

I stick to my vegan plan. Maybe it’s because I feel great, maybe it’s my refusal to ever again bow down to the porcelain queen, maybe it’s my fear of ending up on a train to nowhere with an upset stomach. For whatever reason, I’m still on the program. Honestly, it doesn’t really feel like a diet anymore, which may be the whole point.

I learn how to cook the kind of food that keeps me healthy. I’m not weak or dazed; I don’t have bruises; I’m never nauseated. My weight remains stable, which I find slightly disconcerting, as if I’ve been robbed of one of modern life’s most amusing themes. My friends talk about their latest diet adventures and I want to jump into the conversation, but there’s nothing exciting to report about brown rice and broccoli.

I have friends who fast, friends who drink tree juice, and friends who think bread comes from the devil’s bakery. I have friends who go on the Paleo program, forgetting that cavemen not only ate meat, they also went out and walked for weeks trying to find an animal for dinner. I know people who have gone on raw food diets, people who swear by kale, and people who drink shakes that taste like raspberry Kaopectate. I have thin friends who think they’re fat, and fat friends who think they’re thin. It’s a crazy world.

Frankly, I feel a little left out. I’ve been living on vegetables, whole grains, and tofu for so long that I forget what it’s like to tackle a new diet program, the thrill (!) that comes with the promise of a complete body makeover in fourteen days. Food for thought: women who diet all the time are the ones most likely to be overweight. It took me decades to figure this out.

My accomplice in the Great Egg Diet, my sister, Randy, wouldn’t touch an egg these days if I held a squash scooper to her head. She owns and runs a restaurant called Randita’s Organic Vegan Cafe, a name that simultaneously intrigues people and scares the seitan out of them. She believes in tasty, organic, non-GMO food, humane treatment of animals, and a plant-based diet for a healthy lifestyle. Who can argue with that? Go, Randy. Her husband, Dale, plays the guitar at Randita’s on weekends. Live music, healthy food, not a processed smoked almond or martini in sight. Maybe I’ll get a gig there someday.

My husband follows a vegan diet. My daughter is a vegetarian. My son (King Kong) is a lanky young man who, given a choice, would go for the cruller and the shrimp-fried rice every time. Yes, I cook meat for him. I serve cheese and yogurt to my daughter. Sometimes my husband and I feel like short-order cooks, but we do our best to keep everyone happy.

I don’t believe in being militant about food. Basically, if I’m halfway sober and in my right mind, I’ve always eaten what I need, when I need it. Sometimes I need a martini, a cruller, or a block of cheese. Sometimes I don’t.

Right now, I need to be healthy.

As for those last five pounds—they’re not up for discussion anymore. I feel great; I’m a normal weight, and, at this point in my happy life, there’s nothing left to lose or gain.

Shopping List:

Vegetables

Fruits

Whole grains

Organic soy products

Wine, every once in awhile (just because)

***

Robin Meloy Goldsby is the author of Piano Girl, Rhythm, and Waltz of the Asparagus People.

Waltz of the Asparagus People – Book Trailer

The Piano Girl journey continues. Waltz of the Asparagus People follows Robin Meloy Goldsby and her family to Europe, recounting their adventures and frustrations as they learn a new language, adapt to a new culture, and find new friends.

Waltz of the Asparagus People has also been translated into German. It is called Walzer der Spargelmenschen and is available from Amazon.de.

Goldsby’s newest CD (same title) presents solo piano pieces that correspond with the stories in the book. It’s available from Amazon and iTunes.

This video features Goldsby’s performance of the title track, Waltz of the Asparagus People.

Let’s Talk Weddings . . .

I’ve been threatening to do a wedding video for years, and now, here it is!

I spend a lot of time playing the piano for brides and grooms. It’s a happy way to make a living. Most of the time I play for events at Schlosshotel Lerbach, but if you’re living somewhere other than Germany and you’re looking for pretty solo piano music for your Big Day, then send an email to me and we’ll talk.

Many thanks to the photographers who contributed photos to this video.
Here’s a little wedding excerpt from my book, Piano Girl:

I love weddings. I love going to them, I love being in them, I love playing for them. I adore the Gone with the Wind white dresses, the pomp and circumstance, the father giving away the bride, the drunken weepy speeches, the little girls in their patent-leather shoes, and the little boys throwing rice. There’s something about a wedding that gives me faith in humanity. The very idea that the love between two people can make the world a better place for each of them is, to me, a reason to celebrate.

At Schlosshotel Lerbach, it’s not unusual for the bride and groom to arrive in a gilded carriage pulled by white horses. I play for big weddings and small weddings, for ceremonies and receptions, for wedding lunches, wedding dinners, and wedding cocktail hours. I play in the rose garden in the blazing sun of July or in the golden entrance hall with tremendous gusts of winter wind sweeping through the iron gates of the castle as the ermine-clad bride makes her first appearance. I play on the balcony, in the bar, and out on the old stone terrace surrounded by huge pots of fragrant herbs. Whenever the client has requested quiet background music, I’m the girl who gets the call. I’ve made a niche for myself playing music that doesn’t interfere. Less is more. It’s hard to find musicians who understand this, and even harder to find good musicians who are willing to put up with being ignored. But I love it. An elegant man once came to the piano while I was playing, took my business card, and said, “Your music is so perfect. I can hardly hear it.” He called me a week later and booked me to play for his wedding.

Playing the piano for four or five hours straight is hard work. There’s a meditative state that I sink into when I’m doing one of these marathon jobs. I call it the Piano Zone, and when I’m there I’m happy. I play for myself, I compose on the job, I improvise, I let my fantasies take me far away. I’ve always figured that my job is to tame the chaos beast, so that the people around me can feel as peaceful as I do. Married life is chaotic enough. You might as well get off to a nice quiet start.

Marian McPartland: The Lady Plays

From Goldsby’s book, Waltz of the Asparagus People: The Further Adventures of Piano Girl

Excerpt courtesy of Bass Lion Publishing

Here’s your coffee!” says Nina. “Rise and shine!” It’s nine in the morning and Nina Lesowitz, my publisher’s indefatigable publicist, has run to a Madison Avenue coffee shop to pick up breakfast for the two of us. I’ve come to town to tape a Piano Girl segment for Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz on NPR. The invitation to appear on Ms. McPartland’s program came directly from the queen of jazz piano herself, and I’m honored, humbled, and very nervous. I flew from Germany to New York two days ago. Nina arrived yesterday from San Francisco. She has jet lag coming from one direction; I have it from the other. I figure between the two of us we have one complete brain.

During the long flight from Frankfurt to JFK, an elderly Indian woman wearing a bright pink sari sat next to me. Hardly more than fifty pounds, she had a face like a walnut and miniscule eyes with fluttering lashes. She sat in lotus position for eight hours without saying a word. Every so often she would hand me a little plastic container of coffee cream to open for her. She didn’t smile or speak or acknowledge me in any other way—she would pass the cream to me and wait with one shriveled hand gently extended until I peeled off the aluminum top and passed it back. We went through this ritual at least six times. She poured her cream into numerous cups of tea, which she didn’t drink. I suspected she was meditating, so I didn’t interrupt her, because maybe, just maybe, she was keeping the plane in the sky. After we landed she stayed in her seat, legs crossed, palms resting on knees. I nodded farewell, stepped over her, and proceeded to the baggage claim, where I saw her once again, this time in a wheelchair pushed by an airline attendant. She was still in lotus position.

Today’s taping will begin at noon. I have three hours to calm down and align my chakras, if I have them. I should have taken notes from my Indian friend.

My publisher is graciously funding this trip, but we’re on a shoestring budget, so Nina and I are sharing a room. We’re staying in the three-star Hotel Wolcott on Thirty-first Street. The hotel advertises itself as one of New York’s “best kept hotel bargain secrets.” The Wolcott’s lobby—decorated in a pseudo-Baroque style with furniture donated by someone’s Great Aunt Edna—teems with Eastern European tourists and American backpackers stuffing their bags with the free birthday-cake-sized muffins offered at the breakfast trough each morning. Nina and I have vowed to avoid the muffins and urban backpackers whenever possible.

Hotel Wolcott is a fine establishment, but the two of us, self-proclaimed travel princesses, are used to places with heated towels, L’Occitane de Provence toiletries, and working elevators. Low-budget or not, we’re determined to have fun, so we cheerfully climb the four flights of steps several times each day, swearing we can feel ourselves slimming down. We hang the towels on the radiator and buy our own overpriced toiletries. The hotel must be trying to attract visiting NBA teams with the height of its bathroom mirrors—at least two meters up the wall. I put a little stool in the bathroom so we can boost ourselves up over the sink to put on makeup. Every night we examine the mattresses for signs of bedbugs, a growing problem in New York City hotels. We’ve decided Hotel Wolcott is unusually clean for one of these budget places. Still, I’ve been spraying tea-tree oil on the bed linens, just in case.

“Hey, look at this,” says Nina. She’s sipping coffee and browsing through the hotel brochure. “We can book our next press event downstairs at the Buddy Holly Conference Center. He stayed here in 1958. Go figure. Let’s see, the room features, uh, a table and eight chairs. And lights. They have lights.”

I’m still in bed, wondering if I should drink the coffee or not drink the coffee. I need it to wake up, but my nerves are shot and the caffeine certainly won’t help.

Awake and nervous is better than calm and comatose. I drink the coffee.

“God, I hate this,” I say.

“What?”

“I’m nervous. I hate feeling this way. You should have let me sleep until twenty minutes before the taping. Then I wouldn’t have to spend the next three hours feeling sick.”

“Yeah, but then you wouldn’t have time to do your hair.”

“Nina, it’s radio. Hair doesn’t matter.”

“Hair always matters. We might want to take photos. I have to get a shot of you with Marian! Last time we were together we met, like, Bill Clinton. Hello? Who knows what will happen today? I’ve heard Beyoncé is in town. We want to look nice. And it will take a while to get ready in this place. The shower needs twenty minutes to warm up—I timed it yesterday. I turned the shower on, went out for coffee, and when I came back twenty minutes later it was finally warm. And I think the hairdryer is from 1959.”

“Maybe it was Buddy Holly’s hair dryer.”

“Eat a bagel, you’ll feel better.”

It’s true. New York City bagels always make me feel better.

“I don’t think they had hair dryers in 1959.”

“How do you think Buddy Holly got his hair to do that? It doesn’t matter—you’re going to be fine!” Nina says. “Once you’re dressed we’ll go shopping for accessories.”

“Accessories?”

“Junk jewelry. We’re in the junk-jewelry district—the world capital for junk jewelry. God, I love New York.”

“Nina, I’ve got to concentrate on the show, I’m freaked out, and you want me to go shopping for jewelry an hour before the session?”

“It’s a perfect solution,” she says. “You can’t shop and be nervous at the same time. Besides, you’ve been practicing for, what, thirty-five years? If you’re not ready now, you’ll never be ready.”

“Right,” I say. She has a point. I’m happy Nina is here. She distracts me; she makes me laugh. She’s keeping the plane in the sky.

I follow Nina into the nearest junk-jewelry store.

“They say you need a wholesale license to shop here, but just grab a basket and act like you know what you’re doing,” Nina says.

“I’m good at that,” I say.

“Look! Emeralds! These earrings would be perfect with that black sweater you wore last night. They’re so adorable.”

I need fake emerald earrings like I need a dogsled, but I throw them in my basket and wander around the store. Garlands of fake diamonds and other dangling bits of glitz hang from the velvet-covered walls. The fluorescent lights bounce off the plastic gems and mirrors and send reflections back and forth across the shop. I feel as if I’m trapped inside a disco ball. I double-check my backpack to make sure I’ve remembered the music charts I’ve written out for Marian—we’re scheduled to play three duets in addition to my four solo pieces. The show, which is recorded months in advance, will be edited to fit the one-hour NPR time slot.

“Look, Robin!” says Nina. “A tiara with feathers!”

I grab a rhinestone bracelet and a couple of rings for my daughter.

“What time is it, Nina? Time to go?”

“Nope. We still have thirty minutes. Look over there at those darling African beads. Very cool.”

My cell phone rings. It’s John calling from Germany to wish me luck. It’s five-thirty in the morning there.

“You’ll be fine,” he says. “Remember to breathe. Where are you now?”

“I’m in a junk-jewelry store called Nick’s Picks. Nina is trying to keep me distracted.”

“Good. Listen to her. She knows what she’s doing. Better that you’re in a junk-jewelry store than, say, Bergdorf Goodman.”

I’ve been a fan of Marian’s show for years. Piano Jazz is the longest-running cultural program on National Public Radio. The NPR affiliate in Berlin airs it every week, so for the past decade I’ve been listening on Saturday evenings when I’m driving home from my piano job. Marian plays with guts but never relinquishes her femininity. She connects the gap between sensitivity and strength, playing with conviction and vulnerability, wit and intelligence, innocence and maturity. Her relaxed interview style is not unlike her playing. She has been in the USA for most of her adult life, yet she maintains an air of English graciousness—treating each guest like a long-lost best friend, using her warm and smoky voice to invite the listener into her living room for a little music and a cocktail or two.

“She has played with, like, everyone,” says Nina as she scoops up a handful of fake ruby hair ornaments. “Oscar Peterson, George Shearing, Bill Evans, and well, the list goes on and on. She even had Clint Eastwood on the show. You know, he plays the piano.”

Nina has done her publicist homework.

“Oh, Nina, stop. This is making me more nervous.”

“Sorry.”

“That’s okay.”

Silence.

“Alicia Keys and Tony Bennett and, what’s his name? The blind guy—you know who I mean.”

“Stevie?”

“No, the other one.”

“Ray?”

“Oh yeah, Ray Charles. I love him! He was on the show, too.”

“Okay, that’s enough.”

“Sorry.”

“That’s okay.”

Silence.

“Dizzy Gillespie and Willie Nelson were on. Hank Jones and Norah Jones . . .”

“What, no Tom Jones?”

“I don’t think so, at least not yet. All the big stars have been on Marian’s show. Even, like, Eartha Kitt and Keith Jarrett.”

“Not at the same time, I hope.”

“No, I don’t think so. That opera singer, Renée Fleming. God, she’s gorgeous! She was on the show. And what’s his name . . . God, this jet lag is destroying my memory—the ‘Take Five’ guy?

“Dave Brubeck.”

“Yeah, that’s it. He was on. And now, you. So, you want to go in this next store? Wouldn’t it be great to meet Tom Jones? Look! They have lots of pins shaped like butterflies. I love butterflies.”

When Marian called me in Germany last month I was so excited I almost dropped the telephone. She had read Piano Girl and, having logged eight years playing with her trio at New York City’s Hickory House, related to my tales of unruly customers, obnoxious managers, stalkers, perverts, and piano gig mishaps. We talked for almost an hour about music and family and raising kids in Europe. She was hip and funny and genuinely interested in my double life as a musician and mom.

A week after our conversation I received a formal letter from her asking me to be a guest on Piano Jazz. I ran my hands over her elegant stationery—how odd it is to receive a real letter these days—and gave it a place of honor in my Piano Girl scrapbook. Then, feeling a little sad, I called Marian’s home number.

“Thank you so much for the invitation,” I said. “But I can’t be on your show. I’m not a jazz musician. Not even close.”

“Oh, that’s okay,” she said. “It’s all just music. Time for something different. We’ll play a few tunes and talk about your book. It will be fun! I can’t wait!”

Nina and I arrive at Manhattan Beach studio five minutes before noon. My parents, who have come in from Pittsburgh for the taping, are in the control room. I haven’t seen them for almost a year, and it feels odd to have our reunion in front of the technicians. Nina takes charge and introduces me to Shari Hutchinson, the Piano Jazz producer. Good producers are efficient and keep things moving along. Great producers have vision. Shari’s handshake is firm, her manner respectful and friendly, her voice warm and confident. I can tell she knows her craft.

“Marian will be here in a moment,” says Shari. “She’s freshening up a bit.”

For some reason everyone is eating soup. Mom hugs me and continues chatting with the young man at the mixing board. I think they might be exchanging recipes.

Dad says, “How are you doing? You okay?” He knows I get nervous before important piano events. “Do you need something to eat?”

“No thanks, Dad.”

“How about some tea?”

“Okay.” He pours the tea for me and hands me a little plastic container of cream. I hand it back to him. He opens it for me. I think this may be a sign. Of what, I don’t know. Maybe my chakras are aligning.

I check out the two Baldwin grand pianos sitting side by side behind the glass partition.

“Why don’t you check out the piano?” says Shari. “You’ll be playing the one on the right. We’ll get our levels while you’re doing that.”

“Sure,” I say.

“By the way,” Shari says. “Marion is sensitive about pictures, so no photos, please.”

“Of course,” I say. “I understand. But, uh, you might want to mention this to Nina. She has the camera, and she tends to be shutter happy.”

“Will do,” says Shari.

I head into the studio. It’s so peaceful in here. This might be the first real stillness I’ve experienced since leaving home—even at their most quiet there’s a constant drone on the city’s streets. I can see the others behind the glass—they look like silent-movie actors, laughing and pointing at who knows what. I pull the charts out of my backpack and a rope of pink pearls spills onto the floor and makes a big racket. The engineer lifts his head. I can’t hear him, but he can obviously hear me. I arrange the charts on the piano and stuff the jewelry back inside the backpack.

I’m a recording rookie compared to my husband and my father, both of whom make a living in the recording studio. For me it’s still an adventure. John says a recording is exactly that—a record of what a musician sounds like during a particular phase of her life. This soothes me. I don’t have to sound better than I am. I would, however, like to avoid sounding worse.

I look into the control room. Busy, busy, busy. I wonder if anyone would notice if I left and returned to Nick’s Picks. I put my hands on the keys. The first moments at an unfamiliar piano are always awkward.

The piano is in tune. The action is good. Fine.

The studio door clicks behind me, and there she is.

“Robin!” she says. “It’s great to have you here! What were you playing just now? Very nice!” She is wearing a spiffy dark-blue pantsuit and a silky blouse with a bow at the neck. She hugs me.

“It’s an honor to meet you,” I say. Any woman who has managed to make a living as a musician, especially a jazz musician, blows me away. Marian grew up during a time when female jazz musicians were a rarity. In a way they still are.

Shari stands with her hand on Marian’s elbow. She leads her to the piano, helps her get situated, then politely excuses herself. I’m surprised by Marian’s physical frailness. Her radio voice has always been so strong, her laughter so robust, that I’ve been tricked into thinking she’s decades younger than her ninety years.

“It takes me a few minutes to get comfortable,” she says. “I need to have a hip replacement, but who has time for that? I want to go on tour in the fall. My agent has a nice string of gigs lined up.”

“Wow,” I say. “It’s wonderful you’re still touring so much.”

“Yes!” she says. “Things are good.”

We sit on our individual piano benches, our bodies turned to face each other while we’re taping the interview sections of the program.

I hand Marian the charts I’ve brought with me.

“Oh!” she says, tossing the music onto the table between us. “These mean nothing to me. Never did care much for reading notes! I play by ear. Let’s figure out what songs we should do as a duet and what key, and off we’ll go.”

I’m a little thrown by this, since I’ve spent weeks preparing these arrangements. But it’s her show, so I put the charts away and grab a pencil. Together we decide who takes which chorus for each of the songs. I’m scribbling notes, but she doesn’t write down a thing.

“Trust me,” she says. “This will work out. I hate planning too much.”

“Maybe that’s the secret to a happy life,” I say.

“Might be,” she says. “It works for me.”

I vow that my next fifty years will more spontaneous.

“Let’s try a chorus of ‘Night and Day,’” she says. “I’ll play the melody on the head.” She turns and faces the piano. And then, before my eyes, this sweet English rose of a grandmother turns into a jazz cat. Get down, Marian. “One, two, one, two three, four . . .”

We play a couple of choruses. I’m having fun.

“Good!” she says. “But let’s not rehearse too much.”

“You know, Marian,” I say. “This is tricky for me. I’m used to playing solo. It’s pretty much all I’ve ever done.”

“Well then, these duets will be a premiere!”

“Yeah. Hell of a way to try something for the first time.” We both laugh.

“Excuse me, ladies,” says Shari from the control room. “Please save the chitchat for the actual taping. Right now we’re just testing levels, and I don’t want to lose spontaneity.”

Rehearsal seems to be a bad word in this place.

Marian waves her hand dismissively toward the control room and says, “Alright, alright,” but keeps talking to me, asking about John, my kids, my music. By the time we start taping I’m having so much fun I’ve completely forgotten why I’m here.

Marian conducts the entire show—several hours of taping—without consulting a single note of music or any kind of written prompt about my book. We play three standard tunes together: “Charade,” “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most,” and “Night and Day.” I’ve practiced my two-piano arrangements for months, but Marian, with her ears leading the way, jumps right in and nails each piece on the first take. I play an original solo piece that I’ve dedicated to her—one that I’ve been working on for at least six weeks—and she returns the favor by playing a piece for me that she composes on the spot. She plays, I play, we talk and talk, we play together, then repeat the whole cycle with different topics and different tunes. Her joy rubs off on me. Look at her go—here’s a ninety-year-old woman playing piano the way she wants to. She has grown into her music and stayed young because of it. She listens, she responds, she encourages the rest of us to keep going. Marian doesn’t need magic, luck, or soothing words to keep her plane in the sky, because she’s the pilot. If there’s a better role model for a musician, I don’t know who it is.

We play the last chord of the last song, and Marian says, “Well, that was fun!”

Everyone in the control room applauds, and Marian hugs me.

“I think we should take some pictures,” she says.

“Oh, that would be great!” I try to get Nina’s attention in the control room, but she is flitting about and exchanging business cards with everyone. Marian pulls out a compact and touches up her lipstick. Then she grabs a can of Final Net hair spray and a small brush and cranks her hair. I realize I’ve forgotten to bring my makeup—it’s back at Hotel Wolcott, on the shelf underneath the NBA makeup mirror. I’ve got a rope of plastic pearls, three rhinestone bangle bracelets, fake emerald earrings and a belt covered in sequins, but no lipstick.

Nina flies through the studio door with her camera and chokes on the hair-spray fumes. Marian keeps spraying.

“Well,” says Marian, taking one last look in her compact. “I’m ready for the photos.”

“But Marion,” says Shari from the control room. “Don’t you want to fix your hair?”

“I just did,” says Marian, rolling her eyes.

“And it looks fabulous,” says Nina, sneezing in the cloud of Final Net.

“Oh, yes, I see now, your hair does look fabulous,” says Shari.

“See?” Nina whispers to me. “Hair always counts. You want to borrow my hairbrush?”

Shari escorts my parents into the studio and introduces them to Marian. I feel like I’m at a wedding reception. Marian embraces them and has her photo taken with the three of us.

“Well, Bob,” she says to my dad. “You should be proud of your daughter. She played her ass off.”

“Yes, Marian, she did.”

“You played your ass off, too,” I say to Marian. Her hand is on my waist, and she gives me a conspiratorial squeeze.

Marian’s driver whisks her away, and I stay at the studio to record several solo holiday pieces for an NPR Piano Jazz Christmas CD. My piano has slipped out of tune, so I slide over to Marian’s. I imagine, just for a moment, what it’s like to be her.

Several weeks later I perform a reading and concert in the rotunda at Steinway Hall. Marian, who has her own concert on the same night, sends flowers. From one Piano Girl to another, the card reads. Wish I could be there.

 

Listen to Marian McPartland’s interview with Robin on NPR Piano Jazz.