The Accidental Insult

“Every number you play is better than the next one.”

“Your music is so perfect; I can hardly hear it!”

“You’ve never sounded better.”

Thank you. Wait. What?

My definition of an Accidental Insult: a comment that causes the recipient to say thank you and cringe at the same time. Most of the musicians I know have developed thick skins underneath their little black dresses and tuxedos. Like it’s not hard enough to smile and remember 3,000 tunes while playing for a chiropractor convention—we must also suffer the slings and arrows, the digs and dings, of well-meaning, slightly-idiotic customers.

I once played a job at the Manhattan Marriott where members of my audience—attendees at a dental implant convention—had sets of dentures sitting on the cocktail tables next to their pina coladas. One of the good doctors said: “You’re so good at this piano thing. I can’t hear a single note.” Nothing like fending off insults when you’re surrounded by chattering teeth and wedges of pineapple.

I know, I know. Eleanor Roosevelt once said: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” In general, I agree with Eleanor. Sometimes, though, these accidental insults are so brain-twisting that by the time I figure out the slur, the flinger of the barbed words has already left the lounge.  Consider this slap in the face from a soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend who once left his MENSA card on my piano: “What a fabulous job you have. So early in life and you have already ascended to your level of incompetence.”

Others are less subtle. A stout woman with water balloon breasts, green eye shadow, and hair the size of Holland said this to me a month ago: “You have such a great sense of style. We have exactly the same taste. I love the way you dress.” Sadly, she wore no bra, a metallic-fringed sweater, leopard print pants, and a saucer hat with a stuffed pig strapped to the top of it. She leaned on the Steinway to tell me we could be twins. Miss Chantay sashayed away and left a trail of glitter in her wake.

Or the classic: “I love how you play. Have you ever thought of doing this professionally?” I hear this type of AI often—usually as I am sitting down to play the third set of my fifteenth job of the week.

To me this is like asking the technician administering your colonoscopy if he has ever considered charging for his services. Wow, Dr. Hosen. You’re really talented with that nozzle. In fact you’re good enough to turn your hobby into a real job.

Note: It takes much longer to master an instrument than it does to get a medical degree.

Just last week, an aging rocker with smeared tattoos and saggy-assed pleather pants said: “You’re really a good piano player. What do you do for a living?”

“This. I do this,” I said.

“Wait. You mean someone actually pays you?”

It’s not like I’m playing the piano in my own home. I am sitting in a five-star hotel wearing a black cocktail dress and bling at three in the afternoon, greeting each guest with a subtle smile and a sophisticated arpeggio. Maybe I look like a volunteer—a plush pianist version of the Walmart greeter.

The word professional crops up often in an Accidental Insult. Recently a lovely man told me this: “I heard Martha Argerich play last month at the Philharmonie, but I like your music better even though she was way more professional.” Perhaps he meant her performance was more structured than my relaxed tinka-tinka style of soothing background piano. She was probably playing some turbo-tempo shoot-me-now Prokofiev or something, and—as we all know—you have to be professional to handle that.

In the eighties, my husband was called to sub for another bassist at a midtown concert in Manhattan. The introduction went like this: “Please give a warm round of applause for the wonderful bassist, John Goldsby. Such a professional! He’s always the guy we call when the real bassist can’t make it.”

The accidental insult is not limited to performances. Consider this: A woman I know (who claimed to be a friend) once looked at a published photo of me and said: “You look great in this photo because you’re so far away from the camera.”

Or this: “Your album cover is so pretty. It doesn’t even look like you.”

And another: “You’re so lucky you’re not famous. No one in the whole world knows who you are.”

And this, courtesy of pianist Daryl Sherman: “Hey lady,” said a confused little boy, looking at Daryl’s touched-up photo on the album cover and then back at Daryl. “This is a nice photo of you. What did you do for the picture, wash your face?”

The late Dorothy Donnegan, a renowned jazz pianist who had chops of steel and flying fingers, used to come and listen to me in Manhattan. She said: “You play with an economy of notes. Of course, you have to.” Dorothy wore really big red satin underpants—bloomers actually. Don’t ask me how I know this, but I do. I could tell you the story but the jazz police might arrest me.


My dad, who has spent the last sixty years playing music for a living, is no stranger to the Accidental Insult. He doesn’t take the AI lightly. When I was a kid we spent a summer at Conneaut Lake where he had a gig playing in a nice restaurant and bar. He spent a lot of time fishing during the day and grew a beard while we were there. When we returned to Pittsburgh, a woman at our church, Mrs. Rudolph, cornered him in the vestibule after the service.

Mrs. Rudolph: “Welcome back Bob. You look nice and tan, but I hate that beard.”

Bob: “Thank you, Mrs. Rudolph. I like that red dress you have on, but I think you’re too fat. Since we’re sharing opinions, that is mine.”

Go Bob. I’m not that brave.

And speaking of Bob—we still haven’t recovered from the Great Accidental Insult of 2007. Miss Judy Murphy, a senior citizen who boasted a home full of fake Chippendale furniture and a manicured front garden, lived in my Chatham Village neighborhood in Pittsburgh. She was perfectly nice to my family, but, back in the seventies, spent a lot of time on “pet patrol,” prowling around our “pet-free” community looking for evidence of people hiding illegal cats in their homes. My mother swore to Miss Murphy that Stripey, the silver tabby who liked to snooze on the sill of our bay window, was a marble statue. Miss Murphy may have been a little dense.

I digress. Decades after all of us had moved out of Chatham Village, Miss Murphy called my musician father to congratulate him on the publication of my first book, Piano Girl. By this time Miss Murphy was probably 125 years old.

“Bob,” she warbled. “I just loved Robin’s book. She is so talented. You know, Bob, you used to have talent, too, but you gave it up for your family.

Bam! Even Dad was gobsmacked by that.

I honestly believe that most people have good hearts; they want to say something nice but it comes out lopsided and loopy. Maybe I’m too sensitive. Or maybe I’m not sensitive enough.

A few years back my husband played a high-profile benefit concert to raise money for a women’s group in Afghanistan. A noble cause, the event was hosted by German literary star Roger Willemsen. At the end of the concert, in front of thousands of enthusiastic audience members,  Roger graciously acknowledged my husband’s participation:  “Let’s hear it for John Goldsby. What a fucking bass player.”


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.  

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  1. Robin Meloy Goldsby says

    From alto saxophonist Karolina Strassmayer:

    Man comes up to me after a KLARO! concert (sounds like the beginning of a joke) and says, “Ziemlich erstaunlich was so ein kleines Persönchen (don’t you love that?) wie Sie mit dem großen Saxopon machen kann. Haben Sie schon mal von Charlie Parker gehört?”

    Translation: “Pretty amazing what a little person like you can do with such a big saxophone. Have you ever heard of Charlie Parker?”

  2. Dallas Smith says

    Said by my wife’s father as she was playing in a sparsely attended lounge, “Sweetheart, how much longer are you gonna do this?”

  3. Stacey Kimmig says

    Hilarious. It’s not you being overly sensitive, it’s people being completely insensitive. Open mouth, insert foot.
    Makes a good story though!

  4. Carol Ann Habich-Traut says

    Oh Robin, I KNOW AI! One of my favorite responses to the AI comes from a dear violinist colleague from Juilliard who when asked, do you get paid for this? Opened an imaginary book, made a checkmark, closed the book and walked away! Sometimes words aren’t necessary. 😉

  5. Ha ha ha ha! I have had my share alright. All time favorite, “Robin, I love your cassette. Side one is just so so so good!!!”

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby says

      Ha! Personally, I think your OH BOY story kind of fits this category. It’s nice and insulting all at once.

  6. Thomas Bailey says

    Love this. You may remember from my book, my two all time favorite insults or backhanded compliments were:” The music of Andrew Lloyd Weber is eminently forgettable but you play it very well.” “Oh, you’re live. I thought we were listening to recorded music.”

    • Robin Meloy Goldsby says

      I get that “recorded” comment all the time! I will work it into the essay when it goes to “official” publication. Very funny.

  7. Loved your essay Robin. It reminds me of the AI I often get “You sound good tonight”. Of course the inference prompts me to think (and sometimes say) “Why I didn’t sound good last night? (said like Jackie Mason).

  8. Here’s an accidental compliment….what a great essay, you really played me! Just kidding. I think your experiences prove that words just fly out of people’s mouth in a tumble of the moment without thinking. Amazing since English as a language has soooo many good words. But, duh, I can’t think of any right now!