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Cocktail Piano

So you wanna be a cocktail pianist?

I had played solo before going overseas for my further studies. However, it was mainly on the Yamaha Electone organ in those days (I thought the Electone was so cool compared to the piano, my opinion is reversed now!) I did play some small gigs in the US by myself, but mostly for my “supper.” And don’t get me started on the pianos—I have played on some extremely crappy ones, but once in a while a decent one comes along and makes up for the other junk. Furthermore, playing the piano in the US is so much fun because of the tips—a tip jar is always provided, and people drop money in occasionally. Not much, but a dollar here and a dollar there does a lot for my humble ego. Some places even threw in a sandwich or burger for me, so I wasn’t complaining!

My first solo piano gig here in Penang was at the Golden Sands Resort in 1982. Trust my dad to network and find out that they were looking for a pianist to play in the fine dining restaurant. Since I was out on a two-month Summer break, my thoughts were “Yay, some pocket money coming my way!” It was a very nice stint there, I got along very well with the friendly staff and guests; that prepped me up for my future solo piano gigs. I’ve learnt some lessons along the way and I will share them here in my blog.

So you wanna be a cocktail pianist? From my experience, you’ll need the following:

  • A decent repertoire of songs
  • A good knowledge of chords and playing styles
  • Good improvisational skills
  • An ability to sight-read well
  • An ability to interact well with people
  • A keen sense of intuition of your surroundings
  • Nerves of steel

I’ll expound on the above points in future posts, but for now you may have wondered why I chose this cocktail pianist line in tandem with my piano teaching. The simple answer is, I find it very relaxing…and since I’m playing solo I am my own boss. I choose which song I’d like to play next, what key I want to play it in, how many choruses I want to play, how long I want to improvise, what intro and ending to do, etc. It’s totally under my control! Besides, I have an extra source of income and that’s a good thing.

And what other job allows you a 15-20 minute break every hour? Allows you to choose your own repertoire? Allows you to practice while supposedly working, hee hee? And most importantly, allows you to relax while you’re at it?

There is a downside, admittedly. Since I don’t sing (I have never been a singer—period) I have to be able to make my instrument sing. This is easy on a good piano, less so when I’m playing on a piece of junk. Still, I can’t be like a bad workman blaming his tools, so it’s up to me to wring out whatever I can from the instrument itself. Another downside is when I’m playing to an almost empty restaurant or lounge (trust me, you’ll have days like that). Conversely you could be playing in a packed venue where it’s so darn noisy that you’re almost drowned out. You just have to grit your teeth and bear with it—yeah sometimes I go into auto-pilot mode, but the show must go on. And it definitely has in my case—for 25 years.

7 replies on “So you wanna be a cocktail pianist?”

Nice blog. Thanks for the sharing. I am going for a 5-star resort interview as lounge pianist this Saturday. I have always been dreaming to be a lounge pianist and now I have quite a mixed feeling with it, mainly because I don’t have very good improvisational skills. But I am a good sight reader. I play a lot of songs spontaneously. Do you think I will lose marks playing by sight as a lounge pianist??
Hope to see your reply as soon as possible…

Butterfly stomach,
Faith

Hi Faith,
Thank you for visiting my blog. I’ve subscribed to your YouTube channel. Being a cocktail pianist can be a little unnerving when you first do it; just remember that your job is to add ambience to the place. Go along with the flow and enjoy yourself…do you have a wide repertoire? Playing Korean and/or Chinese stuff is good, but you do need to mix it with standards like Moon River, Unforgettable, etc etc. Good luck with your audition and let me know how it goes.

Kind Regards,
Philip

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