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.”
“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?”
“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.
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.