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.



It all started one day when I was six years old and playing in the garden. My mom came up and said “OK, it’s time to go to your first piano lesson.” And being a dutiful son, I obeyed and off we went. I started lessons with one of my aunts—Grace, who led me through some beginner’s books and the lower grades of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM). I didn’t mind going for piano lessons, in fact I quite enjoyed it. I also realized that I was enjoying all genres of music, since my dad had his own Jazz band and my mom had quite a sizeable record collection. Those were the days…

Pretty soon I was heading in the direction of the higher grades (the ABRSM has eight grades in all, 1 being the easiest and progressing up till Grade 8 ) When I reached Grade 5 level I was handed over to another aunt, Hoon—dare I say it, she was firmer than Grace, but she had an enormous love for classical music, as evinced by her huge record collection, her music books and scores. At one point they had about 5 or 6 pianos in the house! Needless to say I was very encouraged by her teaching, even though I found some stuff hard. Things like sight-reading and playing rhythms properly (in hindsight I should have been pushed to use the metronome more) gave me hours of sheer frustration.

As I was going into my teenage years, I came home from school one day and found another musical instrument in my living room—a Yamaha electronic organ, model D3. I was soon getting my hands all over it, experimenting with the different sounds and saying to myself, “Wow, what a fantastic instrument!” I learned to play the organ by myself, including the pedals. Never took any lessons, but my classical piano background gave me a firm foundation. To this day I haven’t regretted starting out on the piano. It’s still my most preferred instrument.

My parents also played their parts well. They allowed me to have one foot in the classical camp and the other in the Jazz and Popular music camp. However, they were very strict about practice times, especially when my piano exams drew near. I vividly remember the small clock on top of the piano. I would practice for an hour, then it would be my brother’s turn (I would be studying or doing schoolwork) then we would switch places again.

I passed my Grade 8 Piano exam at the age of 13, no mean feat in those days. I thought that’d be the end of all those laborious hours of practice, but nope—my parents insisted that I continue on to Diploma level. So I soldiered on and finally obtained the LTCL (Licentiate of Trinity College London) in 1979 and the FTCL (Fellowship of Trinity College London) in 1984. Those diploma exams were hard.

I should also tell you that after my Grade 8 piano exams I was playing with a band and holding rehearsals at home. Our band had a ridiculous name—The Flinkstones (up to this day I still haven’t found out who thought of the absurd name) Oh it was cool then in those days to play in a live band. There was a guitar player, a singer, a drummer, my brother on bass guitar and myself on organ (a Yamaha YC-20 portable combo organ, the sounds were pretty cheesy) We played a lot of gigs and what made me proud was the fact that I was earning pocket money before I had even finished high school. And we excelled in the Rock genre which was the pinnacle of popular music in those days. I was crazy about Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin then.

To cut a long story short, I graduated from high school here in Penang in the late 70’s and then decided to pursue a college education in music in the UK (I was a little rebellious at heart and thought this would be the perfect opportunity to get away from my parents, the authority figures) Read more about it in my Years in England posts, and also my Years in America posts, in my other wonderful blog.