Cocktail Piano

The Scourge of Musicians

aka “Old pianists never die, they simply tinkle away”

I recently read Mary Schneider’s thought-provoking and witty article about trying to enjoy a nice dinner at a local Italian restaurant whilst being bombarded aurally by the howling of a band of minstrels.  Being a pianist myself, I totally sympathize and agree with her and so here begins my rant about musicians. Before I proceed please bear in mind that the following criteria applies to this post:

  • I’m talking about live music in a nice restaurant (not coffee shops or pubs).
  • If this post strikes a nerve in you, please forgive me. I’m not targeting anyone in particular. Honest.

I feel like I’ve been playing solo piano all my life. I actually started out my first gig at the Golden Sands Resort here in Penang, way back in 1982. I was out from the States for a Summer vacation and my father said he had secured a piano-playing job for me at the named resort. Seeing that he had paid for my air tickets, who was I to argue? So I did the gig, I loved it, and I learnt some useful stuff along the way. I’ve loved piano playing so much that since then until now (imitates a Clint Eastwood accent) “I work alone.” No singers, no violinists, no kazoo players, zilch.

I’ve stuck with these rules of etiquette when playing the piano in nice, posh restaurants.

  • You are only the pianist, you are not the main attraction. The food and company is.
  • Don’t stick out like a sore thumb. Blend in with the ambience of the establishment. Look at the customers. Are they talking softly? Then play softly. Don’t be an ignoramus and drown out their conversations.
  • If you aren’t sure whether you’re playing at an ideal level, get your ass off the seat and ask. Customers are usually direct and they will tell you. Also observe their body language (an outlandish example is if you see someone covering his/her ears. That is a strong signal for you to clam up!) If you’re too shy, ask one of the staff (I am assuming that you get on well with the staff. They’re always downright honest about music levels).
  • I’ve also learnt that it isn’t worth it to bang on the keys even when the restaurant is packed and the noise level has increased dramatically. Why? Because you won’t win. So why make a fool out of yourself?
  • It’s good to lose yourself in the music while playing but don’t get so carried away that you’ve forgotten about the level of sound you’re producing.

Ah, you ask. What’s your pet peeve? You really want to know? It’s this—I absolutely hate it when I walk into a fine restaurant and the pianist or musician insists on stuffing his/her music down my throat, together with my food. BLECH!! And also this—if you need someone to tell you that your music is too loud, you’re not a professional at all, you’re simply a show-off. So there!

Let me conclude by telling you one of my favorite pianist jokes.

A man and his neighbor are talking. The neighbor asks, “So now your missus has taken up the clarinet instead of the piano? Is that better or worse?”

“Better,” the man replies. The neighbor is intrigued. “Why?”

“Because she can’t sing and play at the same time.”

Cocktail Piano General

Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas

I’ve already recorded another version of this wonderful song in my other blog, but this piano version has been requested by a close friend of mine, so I have acquiesced. Forgive me if I look a little forlorn in this video, but this song always tugs at my heartstrings. It’s one of those Christmas songs I never tire of playing every Christmas.

And if you’re wondering why I have my penguin suit on, well a friend requested that. Enjoy and Merry Christmas, everybody!

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 (the more, the better)
  • 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—you get the picture. I’m totally in control. Besides, I have an extra source of income and that’s a good thing.

And what other job allows you a 15-minute break every hour? Allows you to choose your own repertoire? Allows you to practice while supposedly working, heh? 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 piano 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 damn noisy that you’re drowned out, no matter how loud you play. 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 35 years.