To say that Robin Meloy Goldsby has had a multi-faceted career in music would be a huge understatement! She has spent much of her career playing background music in just about any situation you can think of. She and her family moved to Germany in 1994, and Robin has had regular gigs playing in castles that have become exclusive restaurants and hotels. She has released eight albums of original compositions and arrangements (I've reviewed all but one), and is the author of five books. Three of those are about her life as a "piano girl," the third of which will be released on June 18, 2021 - Piano Girl Playbook
. Backbeat Books, Robin's publisher, is offering a very generous 35% discount on the book for visitors to MainlyPiano.com. The link and details on how to order are here
. A sample chapter of the book is at the end of this interview. Many thanks to Robin, John Cerullo (her editor) and Backbeat Books for making the sample and discount available to visitors to MainlyPiano.com!
Robin Goldsby and I did an interview back in 2009 where were talked about her earlier life and background. You can find that interview here
. This newer interview will focus on more recent developments as well as her new book.
Publication date is June 18, 2021.
KP: Piano Girl Playbook is your fifth book, three of which are autobiographical: Piano Girl: A Memoir was published in 2005, Waltz of the Asparagus People in 2011, and Piano Girl Playbook will be released on June 18, 2021. Your other two books, Rhythm (2008) and Manhattan Road Trip (2016) are fiction, but just barely, relaying so many truths about being a musician as well as being human. Did you keep diaries or journals as you grew up so you could recall so many early experiences so vividly?
RG: You would fall into a dead faint if you saw my journal and note-keeping system. I wish I could tell you I’m one of those über-organized writers with Moleskine journals in shades of taupe, but I’m not. Many of my notes are written on paper cocktail napkins from various lounges; some of them are in proper notebooks; in recent years I’ve been dictating notes into my phone and keeping track digitally. Very disorganized! I still find notes from twenty years ago that I’ve not yet used. Just last week I found an entire story—written on hotel stationery—about an inebriated man in a green velvet tuxedo using the ladies’ room sink as a urinal. This was in a castle with an extremely upscale clientele. There’s no end to the skullduggery one encounters in the music business. Anyway, I do make notes.
KP: Some time ago, I read a quote that stated that writing about music is as useless as dancing about architecture. And yet we both write about music and musicians on a regular basis. I thoroughly enjoy the experience, and you must enjoy it, too. Other than for English classes, when did you start writing?
RG: First, a hearty congratulations to you for supporting pianists with your reviews and interviews. You are a hero to the piano community, and I hope you never stop what you’re doing.
KP: Thank you!
Basically, I agree with the “dancing about architecture” statement. Words do not exist to capture the true nature of music. A listener’s experience is both personal and profound. You and I both attempt to tap into the universality of the listening/playing experience without passing judgement on the art form or the artist. Commendable, I think.
I began writing song lyrics when I was twelve years old. Carole King was my hero at that point. As my feminist friends say—“you can’t be what you can’t see.” There weren’t many women instrumentalists around back in the seventies. I saw Carole very clearly as a role model. I can still listen to Tapestry
all day and never grow tired of it.
KP: There are so many classic songs on that album! And you're right - women musicians who weren't "just" singers were often viewed rather suspiciously.
RG: "So Far Away" could be my theme song. I branched off into poetry and short stories in college, but a creative writing professor told me I wasn’t good at it and should probably stick to music. She was someone I admired, and her opinion caused me to drop my creative writing aspirations. I hadn’t yet learned at that point that when someone said “no” to my dreams that I didn’t have to listen. But now, when I think back, I realize she did me a favor. My entire writing career is based on my wacky, wonderful experiences as a pianist. So maybe it’s good that I stuck with music at first—playing the piano professionally gave me some grit, some gravitas, something about which I could write.
KP: That's really interesting! I wonder how many budding artists in various genres and art forms have changed their plans because a well-meaning(???) teacher told them they weren't good enough. I ran into several in art school, too.
Do you you have enough material for a fourth book about being a "piano girl"?
RG: Yes! If the live music business recovers from the pandemic and I get back to work as planned, I’ll always have material. I maintain a backlog of stories that need time to ferment before I can write them. Crazy things happen and I need a decade to figure out what they mean.
I have reviewed seven of your eight recordings as well as all of your books. We've known each other for years (probably a couple of decades!), but have never met. Robin Spielberg is a mutual friend and put us in touch with each other not long after you moved to Germany (1994) and suggested that I review your first album, Somewhere in Time
Click on album covers to go
to Kathy's reviews.
RG: One of these days, I will get to Oregon and do my Piano Girl program for your house concert series. Imagine the laughs, the wine, the walks on the beach. I can’t wait! Let’s get Ms Spielberg to come along!
KP: Sounds great to me!!!
RG: Robin Spielberg has been a great friend and an inspiration to me on so many levels. Like you, she is incredibly supportive of fellow travelers in the music world. We can all learn a lot from her generosity, her creative spirit, and her stellar business sense. Seriously, she is a music industry queen. There aren’t many creative artists who excel at business, and she is one who does. Plus, she has a goofy sense of humor, likes cats, and has great garden tips. A perfect best friend for me.
KP: Do you have plans to do any more recordings?
RG: I’ve recorded eight albums—the last one, Piano del Sol (2020), was a digital release of sixteen original compositions originally commissioned and licensed for release by one of the best wellness spas in Europe. There’s a story in Piano Girl Playbook about that process—I had to do a release concert for hundreds of naked people. Just imagine. Or maybe not.
KP: That's a great story!
RG: Thanks. I’m planning my next recording for August 2021. It’s a goal of mine to record once a year. For those of us with a strong presence on streaming platforms, it’s important to stay relevant by producing new music regularly. That said, I don’t agree with churning out music that doesn’t come from a place of authenticity and love. I know a gazillion tunes, but most of them do not merit a recording. Once a year is an ambitious, but doable schedule for me—I still have enough to say musically and I’m continuing to evolve as a player and composer. I love that about music—we always have so much more to learn. Right now I’m in love with the music of Japanese composer Joe Hisaishi. And I’ve taken a deep dive into the compositions of Ennio Morricone—the harmonic layers are gorgeous. Plus I’m always working on my own compositions, greatly inspired by the music swirling around me.
KP: I love that your daughter, Julia, did the illustrations for the book, keeping it "all in the family." Does she plan to do more illustrating?
RG: Proud mom moment. Julia is an award-winning documentary filmmaker and visual artist. But her roots are in the illustration world. I asked (maybe I begged) for her help when I sent the proposal for Piano Girl Playbook to Backbeat Books. She did a snazzy cover for the proposal and the publisher, who wasn’t aware that my daughter had done the illustration, asked if they could hire “the artist” to illustrate the book. She had a ball working on the drawings, and made some nice money while doing it. Julia has been studying New Yorker cartoons since she was ten years old.
At this point Julia has a kids’ book in the publishing pipeline (pandemic postponement) and is busy working in film production for various feature film companies here in Europe. I jokingly call her the Executive Director of Piano Girl Productions, which isn’t far from the truth. She’s also a good pianist and has scored several of her own documentary films, including one she directed in Amman, Jordan. Yeah, I’m proud of her for using her art to create social awareness for important issues. When I was twenty-four, I was mostly concerned with chord changes, metallic high-heels, and glitzy hair ornaments.
Your chapter in the book about the bear that lurks around waiting for wrong notes when people perform really hit me between the eyes. That grizzly creature was what caused me to become an art major rather than a music major, and he still lurks anytime I play for anyone but myself or my students. The analogy of the bear is spot-on, as the feelings of terror are very real. That and the horrendous little voice that breaks into a really good performance and says into your ear - "this is going really well. Don't blow it!" THUD! In talking to a lot of artists over the years, it seems that very few DON'T have performance anxiety in one form or another, and yet they keep putting themselves out there and we love them dearly for it. How did you finally outrun your own "bear"? This chapter is featured with permission at the end of the interview.
Click on book covers to
go to Kathy's reviews.
RG: “The Bear” is one more chapter for the performance anxiety handbook, a big theme for so many of us. Look, as far as I’m concerned there is nothing more difficult than playing a complicated piece of music in front of a big crowd, or a small crowd for that matter. Let’s face it—it’s really hard. Learning to fail well and fail forward has been an unwelcome but necessary part of my concert artist journey. But more importantly, figuring out that “it’s not about me” has made a huge difference in my ability to play in pressure situations.
After decades of happily playing background piano gigs, I got forced into a concert situation when a close friend of mine, Conny Traupe, died shortly before her fiftieth birthday. She had requested in writing that I perform a short concert at her memorial service. Conny knew that I had performance anxiety and had spent years trying to push me out of the cocktail lounge and onto a concert stage. I refused, claiming I was perfectly happy as an atmosphere music player. We argued quite often about this topic—she used to get really angry with me!
Conny’s death was not unexpected—she had suffered for several years with a rare form of blood cancer—but when her devastated husband called to read her deathbed request to me, I realized she had planned this to “win” our argument, because she had known I would honor her wishes. I was terrified, of course—there were 300 grieving people at her service (Conny was a teacher and loved by students and parents alike). I called Robin Spielberg, advisor to terrified pianists, took a betablocker, a lot of deep breaths, and did my best. About halfway into my set, I realized that honoring my lost friend with music was the ultimate privilege. It wasn’t about me; it was about celebrating Conny’s contribution to the community. Once I let go of the me me me thing, I was home free.
After that sad, magical day—one that gave me a sense of purpose at the same time I was grieving the loss of a beautiful friend—I felt tremendous gratitude to Conny for forcing the issue and insisting that I play. I say silent words of thanks to her every time I step on a concert stage. My story about Conny and her daughter Lisa (who died a year after Conny) is in my book Waltz of the Asparagus People. It's called “Little Big Soul.” I do love that story—it’s tragic, uplifting, and filled with music.
KP: I know you have a regular "gig" playing in castles that have been turned into upscale restaurants and hotels in Germany. Do you ever get nervous playing there?
Ha! No, I’m never nervous in background music situations, even when I play in places with moats. Here’s a little secret: Basically, all cocktail lounges are the same. The clientele might be better dressed at a European castle, but that doesn’t mean they’ll behave any differently. Alcohol (whether it’s a bottle of beer or a flute of fine champagne) is a great equalizer. In addition to the castles and embassies of recent years, I have also played—early in my career—in my share of roadside dives. The Newark Airport Holiday Inn comes to mind, as does the Redwood Motor Inn in Pittsburgh. Playing in those places prepared me for the upscale European scene in so many ways. Someone will listen, someone will think I’m too loud, someone will try to sing in a key that’s way too high, someone will request some god-awful song that should never be played on the piano (Metallica!), someone will cry, someone will throw his coat inside the piano because he thinks it’s a coat check. These things happen in both Paris and Newark, I can assure you.
Robin playing the piano in Buckingham Palace.
Robin with Prince Charles
One difference: Gourmet fringe-benefits abound when playing at a castle with a Michelin three-star restaurant. When a guest sends you a glass of wine, it’s not swill; it’s the good stuff. And the bar snacks are much nicer. The homemade balsamic potato chips at my current place of employment might be the death of me.
KP: You played dinner music at Buckingham Palace just a few years ago. THAT must have been nerve-wracking! Or are you now able to overcome the fear and enjoy the moments that would paralyze a lot of people?
RG: What a thing! Yes, I performed music from my Home and Away album for Prince Charles and 250 of his guests in the Buckingham ballroom. Getting through the security gauntlet was indeed nerve jangling. I’ve been known to suffer from occasional bouts of imposter syndrome and this gig pushed all the right buttons for those issues. Pittsburgh to the Palace! Julia was with me (I got her in by claiming I needed an assistant) and she sat in the tech booth during the entire event and soaked it all in. Basically, it was a high-profile dinner-music gig. I had a stage manager, three sound technicians, a couple of lighting guys, a piano technician, and my very own porter (a buff security guard in a fancy suit, assigned to me to make sure I didn’t pilfer the palace). Once everyone left me alone at the piano and the lights dimmed, I was calm. It was an amazing evening in so many ways. Prince Charles (or HRH as they call him at the palace) asked to meet me after my performance and we had a wonderful five-minute chat. The story, called “The Girl Who Curtsied Twice” is in my new book.
KP: I loved some of your recollections about working in one of our former President's hotels in New York. Didn't he tell you early on that you needed to wear shorter skirts when you played in his clubs?
RG: I played at Trumpet’s at the Grand Hyatt, next to Grand Central Station, owned by our former president. That “shorter skirt/higher heels” comment was delivered to Robin Spielberg when she was working at the Plaza—another Trump hotel—at the same time I was at the Hyatt. Back then we didn’t see anything odd about weird apparel requests. Eighties New York City was full of rich, entitled, professional progeny who thought nothing of placing sexist wardrobe demands on female pianists. This was part of the gig, and we played along. Thank goodness we’ve evolved, even if many of those guys have not.
KP: I still shudder to think of a lot of the stuff we endured as young(er) women back then.
Yes, I’m a feminist. I’m not sure that the chapter in the book called “Pretty, Pretty: Piano Girl versus Trump” is very tactful, but in that story, I’m just as hard on my own actions during that decade as I am on his. My biggest problem with men like Trump—regardless
of political affiliation—is their inability to accept change, respect others, admit mistakes, and move forward. Stuck in the eighties? No, thank you.
Click on book covers to
go to Kathy's reviews.
KP: I agree!
The chapter about "Accidental Insults" struck me as really funny. As a long-time piano teacher, I have heard quite a few of those comments, too. I should start jotting them down as I remember them. What are some of your favorites?
RG: I’m so happy you like that story, Kathy. I’m also thrilled to know it’s not just me!
I once played a job at the Manhattan Marriott where members of my audience—attendees at a dental implant conference—had sets of dentures sitting on the cocktail tables next to their pina coladas. One of the dentists said: “You’re so good at this piano thing. I couldn’t hear a single note.” I took a look around the room and decided to let it go.
A stout woman with water balloon breasts, green eye shadow, and hair the size of Holland said this to me a few years 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.
KP [laughing]: OMG!!!
RG: Or the classic: “I love how you play. Have you ever thought of doing this professionally?” I hear this type of accidental insult 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.
KP [laughing again!]: One of my own favorites is when a parent of a couple of my piano students very seriously told me I had a "really cushy job driving around listening to music all day." If only more of what I was listening to was actually music!!!
RG: Ha! I’m picturing you cruising in a leather-padded Lexus sedan with Martha Argerich streaming Rachmaninoff through your Bose sound system.
KP: Yeah, right! In one of the chapters, you talk about returning to New York City recently and finding that many of the lounges where you and your husband (bassist John Goldsby) had regular gigs for many years had been turned into conference rooms, and that finding live music in town was becoming difficult. Is that happening in Europe, too? Do you think live music is on its way out altogether?
That’s a tough question in the middle of a pandemic when everything, and I mean everything
, is closed in Germany. During normal times, music can be heard every night of the week all over the city of Cologne, where my husband and I have lived since 1994 (he’s the solo bassist with the Grammy-winning WDR Big Band). The government has been generous with supporting artists and venues during the lockdown—so most of us are still active, working on virtual projects, and waiting for the green light so we can return to our precious live-performance opportunities. I like to think there will be a “roaring twenties” reaction when the lockdown finally lifts—that people will crave music more than ever, and that clubs, concert halls, cultural centers, hotels, and restaurants will present even more music than before. Note: My default setting is hopeful, so this optimism may be slightly skewed.
Click on album covers to go
to Kathy's reviews.
KP: I really hope you're right!
With the COVID pandemic still going strong all over the world, are you still playing the piano in German castles these days? If not, do you plan to go back to it when the pandemic eases?
RG: We had a brief window of time in Germany—September and October of 2020—when indoor venues were open. I played during those two months. Other than that, over the last fifteen months my performances have been limited to livestreams and pre-recorded video performances. My current position as the featured pianist at Excelsior Hotel Ernst, a Grand European Hotel in the heart of Cologne, normally offers me 150-200 gigs and concerts a year. I play a beautiful 1939 Steinway Model A that I selected for the hotel back in 2014, when I started playing there. She is a beauty! I miss my guests and colleagues, but I really miss that piano!
If the Corona gods are on our side, I’ll be performing the entire month of July in Baden Baden in the Black Forest, at a resort called the Brenner’s Park Hotel. It’s a daytime gig in a large garden, so I’m hoping it will happen as scheduled.
KP: In addition to the stories in the book about music and musicians, there are several about other life lessons and experiences: neighborhood beauty pageants as kids, rodents in the walls and on the roof, taking walking lessons from Tempest Storm, shopping at Ikea, performing as a talking Christmas tree in a shopping mall, and on. Your sense of humor makes every chapter relatable whether readers are professional musicians, have any musical talent or just listen with moderate interest. I think just about any reader will find much to enjoy and treasure between the covers of Piano Girl Playbook. It's a fantastic book!
Thanks so much, Kathy! Music is life; life is music. We don’t have to be the illegitimate offspring of Liberace and Liszt to appreciate the subtle glory of a life filled with music. If we open our ears and hearts, the piano can take us anywhere we want to go. Here’s a tip from my walking teacher—stripper-extraordinaire Tempest Storm: “Keep moving, no matter what. And always follow the music.”
The two Robins (Spielberg and Goldsby) in South Carolina.
Here is the entire chapter called "The Bear" from Robin's new book, Piano Girl Playbook
. Used with permission from Robin and Backbeat Books. Enjoy this wonderful sample and don't forget that you can get a 35% discount on the book so be watching for the link!
In 1966 I played the Bach Minuet in G
at my first piano recital, at the Joseph Horne Company in downtown Pittsburgh. I practiced efficiently, memorized the music, and prepared for the recital by performing in front of other students.
I was nine years old.
The Minuet in G
has two “A” sections and two “B” sections—the form is AABB. I plowed through the first half of the piece perfectly, gaining more confidence with every note I tossed behind me. Puffed up and full of pride, I finished the first half and launched into the second section. The first note of the second section is a B natural.
Clam! With great conviction I played an A sharp, the quintessential wrong note, because it’s a half step away from the right note. In jazz that wouldn’t matter so much — people might even think I was a nine-year-old genius, stealing riffs from Thelonious Monk — but with Bach it sounded like nails on a chalkboard. And I didn’t skim the key lightly, I hammered it. Bang!
The hundred delicate, perfect notes I had played until this point fizzled and died. All that counted now was the wrong
Trembling knees, sweating palms, burning face. The piano recital fight or flight response kicked in—I felt like a hungry bear was chasing me through deep, crusty snow. I sensed the audience cringing. I saw my father in the front row raise one eyebrow. My teacher clapped his hand to his forehead.
In survival mode, I relied on muscle memory to propel me through the rest of the piece. In my mind I fled the scene, climbed a tree, and dangled upside-down from a low-hanging limb. I hung on for dear life. The bear licked his chops, growled, and snapped at my hands.
Overly dramatic? I think not. Any music student who has experienced a cortisol-induced hysterical brain-freeze while attempting to play a complicated passage will tell you the bear analogy is spot-on.
Back to my nine-year-old self: I had to finish the piece and that involved repeating the B section. With a kid’s logic I thought if I played the B section correctly the second time, the audience would know I had played it incorrectly the first time. So I intentionally played the wrong note again, figuring my listeners would never know I had screwed up the first time.
I repeated the B section and hit that same really wrong
note on purpose
. Ha, I thought; I’ve fooled everyone.
The bear, obviously bored with my refusal to slip from the tree into his slobbering maw, ambled away, checking occasionally to make sure I hadn’t dropped to the ground. I didn’t know this yet, but he would be back. Next time I wouldn’t be so lucky.
At a certain point in a teenage musician’s life, the bear wins more often than not. No one tells you this in music school but learning to ignore mistakes and move on to the next moment can mean the difference between having a career or not.
Failure—just as much as success—determines who we become as artists. We start out as idealistic musical messengers carrying copious notes of sadness and wonder and love. At some point—to get where we want to go— we must blow a lot of clams. We must learn, as C.S Lewis wrote, to “fail forward.”
At age fifteen, I became paralyzed by the fear of making a mistake while playing a piano concert. Paralyzed!
Once the bear showed up, the party was over. Playing a musical instrument well in a solo concert performance has got to be one of the most difficult tasks in the world. Staying focused through a Molotov cocktail of eye-hand coordination, memory, insane detail, nuance—it’s almost too much for a kid to think about. As a teenager, when we believe we’re being judged for every skin blemish, fashion choice, or wrong note, it’s damn near impossible.
Benyamin Nuss, a brilliant young classical pianist living in Germany — and currently touring the world with his Final Fantasy
program of computer-game music arranged for solo piano — has been gracing concert stages for twenty of his thirty years, playing an extremely difficult classical repertoire with the emotional poise and technical wizardry of a seasoned musician twice his age. Benny is the kind of performer who never seems to have a bad day, never makes a mistake, never ever lets the bear chase him. I ask Benny if he can remember ever screwing up while performing. He laughs.
“There have been so many times,” he says. “But the one that comes to mind happened when I was sixteen. I had my first girlfriend and we had only been together for a couple of weeks. For the first time there was something in my life other than music. I was playing Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 7 in D Major
. The fourth movement is a Rondo with a figure that always repeats three notes. I was coming to the end, after the last repeat of this motive. I got stuck and stopped. Jumped some bars back because nothing better came to mind. Played the motive again. The same thing happened. Then I jumped back again. And again. And failed again. And again. Finally, I just stopped. Didn’t know what else to do.”
The bear was nipping at Benny’s heels. Or the heels of his hands.
“Beethoven ditched you at the finish line?” I say.
“Yeah. Or I ditched myself.”
“What did you do?”
“I gave up. I stood, took a pathetic bow, and said, sorry.”
“Here’s the thing: I could have improvised my way out of that Rondo, but it never occurred to me that I could mess with Beethoven just to save myself. Really—I could have made something up and no one, other than my teacher, my parents, and maybe a couple of classical music experts would have known.”
“I bet if that happened to you now, you’d own it. Beethoven meets Nuss. Improvise through a memory lapse? Is that what you learned from that mistake?”
“Yeah. That. And to never think about my girlfriend when I should be focusing on the music.”
The night of the Rondo breakdown, shortly after suffering what he considered a monumental defeat, Benny took some deep breaths in the wings, returned to the stage, took another bow, sat down, and whipped through his encore — Prokofiev’s Toccata
— twice as fast and furious as the piece he had just flubbed.
Boy versus bear. Boy wins. Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you.
Back to me and a chance meeting with the bear, in 1978.
I had been working as a cocktail pianist to make money while attending college. I liked the work—I sat in the corner, played the piano, and no one paid much attention to me. During the day I attended classes, took piano lessons, and practiced for classical music recitals.
I was scheduled to play Maurice Ravel’s Piano Sonatine
for the spring music department recital at the Chatham College chapel. I knew the material. I loved the material. I had practiced it until the piece was playing me
. I was confident and secure with my interpretation of the composer’s intention and looking forward to the night’s performance.
I was nineteen years old and wearing a frilly black frock and strappy heels. I walked onstage, sat at the Steinway concert grand, and adjusted the bench height. There were about seventy-five people in attendance, a small crowd for such a big space.
Something felt wrong. My body seemed, I don’t know, hollow. My hands tingled. I took a deep breath and began playing the first movement of the Sonatine
That’s when it hit me. About sixteen bars into Mr. Ravel’s elegantly written composition, my heart started pounding. Boom. Boom. Boom.
It was the fucking bear.
My hands began to sweat and tremble, and I moved in slow motion, except for my right knee, which developed a high-speed twitch.
You can do this, you can do this,
I said to myself five or six times.
Another voice, a new, strange one coming from inside my head, poked at my self-confidence. A talking bear? Seriously?
You’re a fake, and it’s about time you realized it. Fake, fake, fake! You’re gonna massacre this piece big time and all these people will hear you do it. You’re nothing but a big faking faker. Fake, fake, fake, fake, fake.
He yelled at me from inside my brain, somewhere between my ears and the top of my skull, and he kept getting louder and louder.
I tried to argue back but couldn’t get a word in edgewise. I couldn’t locate the notes. Or if I found them, I played them so slowly that I had no idea where I was in the piece. Everything I had memorized was gone—out the window like bubbles blown through a ring on a windy day.
I stole a glance at the audience. Grandma Curtis and Grandma Rawsthorne sat in the second row with Aunt Jean and Uncle Bill. They were all smiles and didn’t seem to notice anything wrong. Good. My parents sat in the row behind them, but I looked away before I caught their reaction to my train wreck. Oh no. Bill Chrystal, my teacher, with a pained expression on his normally placid face, hovered on the side of the chapel, looking like he might dash out the fire exit if things got any worse.
I could hardly breathe. I was having a full-blown anxiety attack.
Several painful moments passed before I realized the problem. I had gotten so used to the chatter and the laughter of the cocktail lounge that the forced stillness of people actually listening had caused a meltdown. I wanted clinking glasses, whirring blenders, and waiters barking orders at bartenders; instead I got seventy-five pairs of eyes watching me duke it out with the bear in a silent, one-sided fight against my own demons.
No, no, no, no, no! Don’t just sit there and listen! Talk! Smoke a cigarette! Have an argument with your neighbor. Dispute the check with your overworked waitress, because you did, after all, only have two gin and tonics and you’re being charged for three. Order another round of Strawberry Margaritas or some of those tasty chicken fingers. Do something, anything, but please please please don’t listen to me. It is enough for me to listen to myself. Really, it’s enough.
I played a C# minor chord in a misguided attempt to resolve the cadence—I couldn’t even remember what key I was in—and sneaked offstage. Difficult in stiletto heels.
Well, there you have it. Another concert career comes to a screeching halt.
The next day I decided to audition to be a showgirl in the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. Maybe I would be good enough for the circus. Much easier than playing the piano.
Girl versus bear. Bear eats girl.
I never did join the circus, but I abandoned my concert pianist plans and returned to my cocktail lounge gig, which, in a way, shared certain elements with the Big Top. Clowns, for instance. Scantily clad women. Salty snacks.
In my late twenties, long after I should have settled into my own sense of self, I still felt the brutally judgmental eyes of the world upon me. At home, practicing, I connected with my artistic side, but in public I worried about being loved, or at the very least, liked. My neediness fueled the bear’s desire to eat me alive. His hunger grew in direct proportion to my thirst for acceptance in a competitive world. So... anxiety.... dread... and the worst, the fear of fear.
I put up with myself for a very long time.
Finally, somewhere around my forty-fifth birthday, the bear skulked away hungry and never came back. I could tell you I donned my I AM FIERCE t-shirt and scared the bejesus out of the bear, but that’s not what happened. It was more like this: Real life—kids, aging parents, death of friends, love, illness, making a living, paying the bills—reminded me that I have nothing to prove, to anyone, least of all some imaginary bear. I am not a competitor with a finish line; I am pianist. I play the way I play because I love music that reflects life. My mistakes are part of that process. Making them in public is part of the gig. Why be afraid?
Most musicians don’t like to talk about their failures—who does?—but I think it’s a good idea to let young musicians know that learning to outrun the bear is an essential part of their development. Perhaps not as important as good technique and discipline, but if you can’t outrun the bear, you could play like the bastard child of Liberace and Liszt and it wouldn’t make a difference, you’d still be bear food.
A readiness to fail often — and fail well — is a good indicator of future accomplishment. If at first you don’t succeed, fail, fail again. If I had given up the piano after that first ill-fated Bach Minuet in G
, I might have avoided future scraps with the bear, but I would have surely missed out on the joy of sharing my musical stories with you, with anyone willing to listen.
There is a video clip I adore, of composer Maria Schneider talking about working with David Bowie. She expresses her many legitimate concerns about screwing up an expensive, risky assignment. This is what Bowie says: “The great thing about music is if the plane goes down, everyone walks away.”
Everyone walks away
—how I wish I could have heard this as a young adult. It’s not life or death; it’s music. It means everything in the moment, but nothing in the long run. All jokes aside, no one has ever gotten hurt by a wrong note. Why not take a chance on turning a couple of those wrong notes into something beautiful?
These days, I play a few formal concerts a year, but most of the time I stick to background music engagements in fancy rooms. On my current gig, at an old, gold-dusted hotel in Cologne, Germany, I play a 1939 Steinway Model A. The keys of the instrument, contoured by the accumulated blunders of decades of players before me, feel smooth to my fingers when I sit down to play. My musical flaws add another layer of humanity to a piano that has witnessed eighty years of gaffes, all of them, thankfully, forgotten and forgiven by the fleet and reckless tempo of life. Toccata
, double time.
Big band arranger Jörg Achim Keller, one of Germany’s most respected leaders of jazz ensembles, says this about the art and craft of playing in a hotel lounge or bar: “There’s a lot of value to playing a background music job. For one thing, the bottom comes up.
When you’re playing so often in front of people, your worst moments get less noticeable. The bottom comes up, so to speak. In my opinion, that’s the best way to assess someone’s playing—not by their flashes of genius, but by their worst moments. Even a complete amateur can have sparks of brilliance. But how low is their bottom? Pretty low, usually. But decades of playing for an audience in a no-pressure situation, the bottom keeps getting higher and higher.”
I like that. Bottoms up. One of the benefits of aging.
I consider my career a fortuitous success built on a shaky foundation of multiple screw-ups and some sort of warped, magical thinking that has propelled me—clinging to the security blanket of my mistakes—into the brawny arms of opportunity. Opportunity, it turns out, sometimes wears a bear costume. I’ve outsmarted the bear by hugging him, feeding him marshmallows, and teaching him how to dance. Off we go—we’re a clumsy twosome, but I’ve trained him to follow my lead.
Many thanks to Robin Meloy Goldsby for taking the time to chat! For more information about Robin and her music, but sure to visit her website
and her Artist Page
here on MainlyPiano.com.