Walking on sunshine

Readers of this blog already know that I love short, short writing. Like the six-word story. Here’s one of mine:

Dementia stole speech. She still sings.

I recently entered a contest to write a children’s story in 50 words. That was hard. I ended up describing a piano recital, an event I dreaded every spring when I was growing up.

I heard just this morning that my 50-word story placed #8 in a field of 298 entries! The top 20 winners all get prizes (things like critiques from authors, editors, and agents) so I’m pretty excited about this, and wanted to share the news.

Here’s my 50-word story:

How to Survive a Piano Recital


Backstage butterflies
Beast waits, open-jawed

Take a seat
Deep breath
Music download, brain to fingers
Breeze through tricky passage
Get stuck

Rewind, try again

Heart pounds
Big chord
Grand finale


Next spring
Start again
Backstage butterflies

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey

Posted in Music and emotion, Writing | Tagged | 8 Comments

From the archives

Last Christmas my daughter sent me a lovely assortment of Penzeys spices, including a “Kind Heart Box” of three salt-free seasonings.

Penzeys is a Wisconsin-based company with a conscience. You can read about them here or visit their website here. They believe that “Kindness is at the heart of cooking” and “Even the littlest acts of kindness have a way of spiraling into so much more.”

When the world feels coarse and uncaring, as it often does to me these days, I try to counteract with small acts of kindness, things as simple as holding the door open for the person behind me, or picking up street litter in my neighborhood.

In my work as a volunteer pianist, a little act of kindness might mean helping someone whose wheelchair is stuck in a tight space, listening patiently to a story I’ve heard many times before, or playing someone’s favorite song again instead of the one I like better.

In January 2015, I wrote a post about the kindnesses I see in senior facilities. and a few unkindnesses as well.

I think now is a good time to revisit that post.

I am moved by small acts of kindness I observe in senior facilities, especially the little things residents do for one another. Many happen over lunch. Diners who can, read the daily menu to tablemates with failing eyesight. Those with nimble fingers fasten bibs around the necks of others with arthritic hands. They encourage one another to eat: Just try it.

Ninety-two-year-old Lila shuffles along in orthopedic shoes, steering her walker through the dining room, pausing to dispense her particular brand of kindness wherever she feels it’s needed: an assurance of love to bolster sagging spirits of one resident, a chair pushed closer to the table for the convenience of another. She socializes, she cajoles. Her every comment and action seems to say, Look at us, we’re alive and kicking, we’re safe, we’re warm, we have music, and they’re serving us a good meal. Come on, people! Look how lucky we are! The glass is always three-quarters full for Lila.

In the hallway, I came upon another sweet act of kindness between two elderly women. The first, seated in a wheelchair, moved a magnifying glass across the page of a hardbound book propped open in her lap, s-l-o-w-l-y reading aloud to her companion, who rested nearby on a floral sofa. I nearly wept.

But I’ve also seen plenty of scuffles among residents. Normally mild-mannered Arnie lashed out at a woman who stopped by the piano one afternoon to show me the braided gold necklace a friend had made for her. I took a few moments to admire it and was just ready to turn my attention back to the music when Arnie yelled, “Let the lady play the piano!” Well, all right then.

Staff at senior facilities rarely intervene when things get testy between residents. For example, when a man having lunch with a group seated near the piano burped, a woman at the next table made a show of her disgust and yelled, “STOP IT!” He responded along the lines of, “Mind your own business, you old biddy” (although his words were not quite that nice). Staff clearly overheard this exchange, but did nothing. Yet a few minutes later, when two residents in wheelchairs held hands and started swaying in time to the music I was playing, an aide immediately separated them with a curt “Okay, that’s enough.” Maybe there was some backstory I don’t know, but on the surface, the aide’s concern seemed misplaced.

I’ve been the recipient of many acts of kindness, too, in my work as a volunteer pianist. Recently, Glenn rolled across the room and waited until I was between songs to deliver his heartfelt compliment: “I want to tell you something: You’re a sweetie.”

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey

Posted in Volunteering | Tagged | 2 Comments

Anything you can do I can do better

From my place at the piano, I watch stories unfold.

A new resident moves into the assisted-living facility. He’s tall, handsome, and still drives. Woo-hoo! That gets the ladies’ attention.

Or a life-of-the-party woman in an independent-living complex starts a slow decline and doesn’t stop by the piano to chat much anymore. One day I hear that she’s been moved to a memory-care home.

I also have many opportunities to observe from the bench how visitors behave when they come to see their elderly relatives.

There are the visitors who won’t listen. I wrote about them here.

She holds court—with a captive audience—for the entire hour I’m there. Gwen is allowed few openings to speak, so mostly smiles and nods, grins and bears it. I can’t figure out the relationship between the two. It doesn’t appear to be daughter/mother. I guess it’s talker/designated listener. These one-sided “conversations” remind me of a line from the 1988 movie Beaches, delivered by Bette Midler’s character: “Enough about me, let’s talk about you. What do you think about me?”

There are the visitors who won’t engage, but instead spend all their time on their cell phones. I wrote about one such man here.

The women tried to involve the visitor in their conversation, but they just couldn’t compete with that cell phone.

Finally I got to Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia on My Mind.” At last, the visitor seemed to tune into the music.

“Wow, these songs are old timers,” he commented. “So are we!” I heard from the residents around him. He went back to his phone.

I’ll bet that guy gave himself a big pat on the back for visiting his mother that day. He didn’t deserve it.

Another way visitors go wrong is by making assumptions about elders.

A couple of months ago, my ear and eye wandered to the table next to the piano, where three well-coifed women were enjoying lunch and talking amiably about the music. Then Catherine’s 40-something granddaughter arrived. I’ll call the younger woman Maureen.

Maureen sat down and took over, being what I call “annoyingly outgoing,” a self-appointed social director. The topic of conversation was whatever she wanted to talk about.

I’m sure that Maureen’s inane and condescending prattle kept the women from enjoying the music. She went on and on.

Suddenly Lillian broke through Maureen’s yakking and said in a strong, clear voice, “ON A SLOW BOAT TO CHINA.”

Maureen burst out laughing, assuming that Lillian was confused and had said something wildly out of context. Maureen thought she knew better than Lillian what was going on. Maureen was SO wrong. Pretty rude as well.

Lillian was actually naming the song I was playing, a 1948 tune by Frank Loesser.

When Lillian announced “On a Slow Boat to China,” maybe she was trying to bring the conversation back to the music. Or maybe she just wanted the chance to hear her own voice for a change.

Oh, Maureen. Please. Be quiet.

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey

Posted in Aging, Audiences, Music and emotion, Volunteering | 4 Comments

Dancing Queen

I watched the entire season 2 of The Crown on Netflix in just a few days. It was so good I couldn’t help myself. Claire Foy’s portrayal of Queen Elizabeth II is a wonder to watch. She speaks volumes without saying a word.

In the midst of this Netflix binging, I came across an amusing little anecdote involving Her Majesty in a book called Musical Highlights from the White House by Elise K. Kirk.

During a White House musical program for Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip on July 7, 1976, this happened:

Queen Elizabeth II received another ill-timed tribute when, purely by accident, the Marine Band struck up “The Lady Is a Tramp” just as she started to dance. “We took the piece immediately out of our repertoire,” said Marine Band Leader Colonel John Bourgeois, recalling the incident.

“The Lady Is a Tramp” comes from the 1937 Broadway musical Babes in Arms by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart. The song’s about a group of teenagers whose parents are unemployed vaudevillians. The teens stage a revue to keep from being sent to work on a farm. You know, one of those “Let’s put on a show!” musicals. How else to have a reason for all those songs?

“The Lady Is a Tramp” was supposedly written by Rodgers and Hart in one day. It’s a spoof of New York high society: “I get too hungry for dinner at eight, I like the theatre but never come late…”

The song was later recorded by many big names, including Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, and Diana Ross. There’s even a Tony Bennett/Lady Gaga duet.

Strangely, it wasn’t included in the 1939 film version of Babes in Arms that starred Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. But here’s Lena Horne singing “The Lady Is a Tramp” in the Rodgers and Hart biopic Words and Music (1948).

What style she had.

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey

Posted in Books, Music and emotion, Music history | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

A kind of blind love

In the 1990s, I was active in a volunteer group that transcribed print books and other materials into braille dots for blind readers.

I spent several months learning the basic literary braille code. Then I submitted a test manuscript to the Library of Congress to obtain certification as a braille transcriber. Once certified, I transcribed legal papers, church directories, cookbooks, novels, and lots of children’s books. My favorites were the ones where we put the braille right in the print book so that a blind parent could read to a sighted child, or a blind child could read along with a sighted parent.

One year a mom wanted Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter for her blind daughter as a birthday present. I transcribed it during my own long winter, in Wisconsin, and I still remember how cold I felt working my way through Wilder’s evocative descriptions of blizzards and unrelenting subzero temperatures.

In the beginning, I pounded out pages on a braille writer, a typewriter-like machine that looks like this:

The braille writer is clunky and doesn’t allow for corrections, so as soon as braille computer software programs became available I used them instead.

Besides the basic braille code, there are two specialized codes—one for math, one for music. I tried a couple of times to learn the music code, but gave up after a few lessons. I didn’t have the patience for it. And I always wondered how blind musicians actually use braille sheet music. Another braille transcriber eventually set me straight, describing it this way: A musician runs her finger across a line of braille, memorizes it, then plays that line of music on her instrument. Repeat for the next line. And so on. I have great difficulty memorizing music, so that sounded inconvenient at best, impossible at worst.

I recently came across a video of blind jazz pianist and singer Diane Schuur. I liked her voice and her style, so I read a little about her life.

She’s about my age, blind from birth due to retinopathy of prematurity. As a child, she learned to play the piano by ear. Later she learned to read braille sheet music, but she didn’t like having to remove her hands from the piano in order to read it. Aha! Just as I thought… However, she does sometimes use braille lyric sheets (as you’ll see in the first video below).

Jazz saxophonist Stan Getz helped Schuur find an audience by arranging for her to appear at the Monterey Jazz Festival and in the Reagan White House. She has performed as vocalist with the Count Basie Orchestra, and with luminaries like Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Quincy Jones, and Stevie Wonder.

I enjoyed this video. Hope you do, too.

If you’d like to hear Schuur sing something more grownup, try this:

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey

Posted in Jazz, Singers, Volunteering | Tagged , | 7 Comments

Baby, it’s cold outside

Mid-Michigan was frigid over the holidays, with temperatures barely above single digits, and it hasn’t let up yet. Winter is not my favorite time of year. And yet, when I was in the 4th grade, I wrote a poem called “Winter Is My Favorite Time of Year,” which was printed in our little school newsletter.

I have Reynaud’s disease, which means my fingers and toes are almost always cold, due to reduced blood flow. Reynaud’s disease isn’t dangerous, it’s just a nuisance, and makes cold weather a particular kind of misery.

For years after I wrote that “Winter Is My Favorite Time of Year” poem, my grandmother taunted me with it. Whenever I complained about the cold, she’d smile slyly and say, “But I thought winter was your favorite time of year.” Not any more, Grandma.

Another 4th grade memory that remains clear is one involving music: My Catholic elementary school had no band or orchestra, but we did have “music appreciation” class. I remember one time the nun in charge played a record of classical music and told us to draw how it made us feel. And then she graded us on our efforts.

Honestly, what criteria could she possibly have used? Is there a wrong way for a child to feel when listening to music?

To make matters worse, I couldn’t draw. Still can’t. But there are other ways to be creative.

During January, I’m participating in a month-long brainstorming event, during which I will try to generate 30 children’s book ideas. I will not be generating 30 books, just 30 ideas for books. The writing comes later.

I think I can do it, if I don’t grade myself too harshly.

Here’s to nurturing creativity—of all kinds—in 2018!

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey

Posted in Music and emotion, Reminiscences | 4 Comments

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow

Before I moved back to Michigan in 2007, I lived in Madison, Wisconsin for 20 years. During that time, I achieved a life-long dream: I played in an orchestra.

I had always envied my sister’s experience playing in her high school orchestra. But piano was my instrument. And pianos don’t get used much in orchestras, except as soloist.

So when I was in my late 40s, I started taking cello lessons at a Madison music store, in a class with three other adults. I rented a cheap cello and after a few lessons I joined the store-sponsored community orchestra. I was terrible, of course, but I was in an orchestra!

I bought a better cello and kept taking lessons, eventually studying with a young woman working on a cello performance degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. And I moved on from the store-sponsored orchestra to the very supportive and welcoming Studio Orchestra, a group of about 30 mostly older musicians.

Their mission was to bring music to residents of senior living facilities who could no longer attend concerts. We played light classical pieces, Broadway tunes, and popular standards. In the Studio Orchestra, I experienced the camaraderie of playing music with other people and it was just as wonderful as I imagined it would be.

Unfortunately, leaving Madison meant leaving the Studio Orchestra behind. I don’t play the cello anymore; I concentrate on piano.

But the 1945 Jule Styne/Sammy Cahn song “Let It Snow” always takes me back to those orchestra days. We played it at every Christmas concert. Each time, our director introduced the tune to our audience with the same story: How, years ago, a terrible storm popped up during “Let It Snow.” So now, he’d say, he worried he’d tempt fate by having us play it again. He’d get a few pity chuckles from our listeners. Then we would play the song.

That story really got old! But the song still holds appeal.

Here’s a traditional version from Dean Martin:


One from Carly Simon:


Another from Ella Fitzgerald:


And finally, this flashmob a capella version on the London underground:


Merry Christmas! Happy New Year!

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey

Posted in Music and emotion, Reminiscences | Tagged | 3 Comments

I’d do anything for you, dear

I’ve blogged here and here about a listener I called Walt.

But I haven’t yet told you the most amazing thing about him. It’s not that he started taking singing lessons around age 90, and then gave monthly performances at his assisted-living facility. It’s not the extraordinary kindness and appreciation he showed me when I played the piano there.

By the time I met Walt, he’d been widowed for about 5 years. His wife died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. For a while, he had cared for her at home. When that became impossible, he decided he needed to move her into a dementia facility.

She resisted. In fact, she became so distressed by the idea that he put it off for a while.

But eventually, Walt had to do it. And here’s that most amazing thing: To make the move less distressing for his wife, he moved into the memory-care facility with her.

He didn’t live in a different wing among people he could have normal conversations with. He lived with people just like his wife, people whose brains were being ravaged by dementia.

They say that the best way to interact with people suffering from dementia is to enter their world, their reality. Don’t correct them when they say something wild, like “Bob is taking me out to dinner tonight.” Bob, her husband, who died in 1990.

Just go with it: “Are you? That sounds like fun. I hope you have a good time.”

Well, Walt certainly entered his wife’s world.

He lived with her in the dementia unit for about a year, until she died. I can’t imagine what that experience was like for him. He had been a physician—the kind we used to call a GP. His brain remained sharp until the end.

At Walt’s memorial service, his daughters talked about his time living with their mother in the dementia facility. One daughter summed it up this way: “That’s when I really knew what love was.”

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey

Posted in Aging, Dementia, Volunteering | 4 Comments

I can’t get started with you

“You’re not gonna play that thing are you?” asked an assisted-living resident as I set up my keyboard near her lunch table.

I admitted I was planning to do exactly that. She went on to say that she had spent “the whole day yesterday” in her room because she didn’t like the pianist who was performing. When I asked what had driven her away, she would only say, “It was too loud.”

That must have been quite a marathon performance, I thought, if she had to hole up in her room for the whole day to avoid hearing it.

I promised her my music wouldn’t be loud. I told her I’d be playing standards from the 1930s and 40s. I even went so far as to suggest she might enjoy it.

She ended up staying for the entire hour I played, way past the point when she’d finished eating her lunch. I’ll take that as an endorsement.

When I feel burned out with volunteering, I remember a tiny, touching magazine article I read a few years ago in the “Readers Write” column of The Sun. The theme was “whispering.”

The author, Ted Glinski begins:

As a retired pianist in my eighties, I volunteered to play in nursing homes. At least my audience would recognize my repertoire, I thought. I had one-hour engagements at more than twenty homes a month, and I got back much more than I gave — until my attitude began to change …

You can read the rest here to find out why he got discouraged with volunteering, and how an audience member reminded him that being a volunteer pianist really does matter. (You have to scroll down through several other short pieces to get to Ted’s, third from the end. It’s worth it.)

After a recent performance when my listeners were less than enthusiastic about the music, I was lugging my keyboard and paraphernalia back to my car, feeling downhearted, when a regular visitor to the facility arrived. “Oh, no, I missed gentle music day,” she said when she saw me.

I feel only a little guilty admitting that her disappointment really improved my day.

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey


Posted in Audiences, Music and emotion, Piano performance, Volunteering | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Johnny one note

Last week, on a rainy Tuesday, my lovely Steinway grand received its annual tuning.

If you’ve heard a piano being tuned, you know it’s not particularly pleasant. The tuner repeatedly strikes a single note while using a lever to turn the pin inside the piano that holds a corresponding string. In tiny increments, the tension of the string is adjusted to the correct pitch.


One key at a time, all 88 keys, more than 200 strings. You get the idea.

My tuner, David, spends a lot of time in senior facilities, tuning the often not-very-nice pianos found in them. In fact, he tunes many of the pianos I play as a volunteer.

Assisted-living residents have told me how miserable they find listening to the piano getting a tune-up. Most try to go as far away from the tuning as possible, but they can often still hear it even from their rooms. Then there are always a few residents who like being there when the tuner is doing his thing, pleased to have something new and different to break the monotony that can blanket a senior home. They’re the ones hanging around the piano chatting with the tuner.

David doesn’t mind. He’s a chatty guy. At my house last week he wanted to schmooze a little before he started tuning. We swapped humorous (at least to the two of us) anecdotes.

His: David asked a spry nonagenarian her secret for longevity and good health. She said (and here he imitated an Irish brogue and pointed a scolding finger in my face), “I read the Bible every day and I don’t play the boogie-woogie!”

Mine: My brother-in-law, a piano tuner, told me about a woman in a nursing home who, after listening to him go through the tuning process for a while, approached the piano, patted his arm, and sweetly informed him, “That’s not a song, dear.”

David eventually got to work on my piano. For almost two hours, I listened to his one-note repetitions as I went about mindless chores around the house. The tuning makes it impossible for me to concentrate enough to do much else.

Then, my reward: To assess his work, he played a skillful, improvised rendition of “Here’s That Rainy Day.”

Appropriate for the weather and oh such a relief for my ears.

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey

Posted in Pianos, Volunteering | Tagged | 5 Comments