If they ask me, I could write a book

Thanks to the many followers who have contacted me over the past few months to ask, “Are you still blogging?” It’s been a while, I know.

So what have I been doing that has kept me away from my Volunteer Pianist blog?

First, I became a grandma! And it looks like my beautiful grandson might enjoy books as much as I do.

Second, I sold my debut children’s book, to be published in May 2020! The story doesn’t have a music theme, but it does have a volunteer pianist scene. You can read more about it here.

Thanks for continuing to be interested in what I write. I will post something new here soon. I promise.

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey

Posted in Music and emotion | 14 Comments

Mystery girl

Whenever you put kids and a piano together, sooner or later somebody will play “Chopsticks.” It’s a tune that can be picked out by ear. No lessons required.

“Chopsticks” has an interesting history. A 16-year-old Glasgow girl named Euphemia Allen wrote a piece she called “The Celebrated Chop Waltz.” Her brother Mozart (her other two brothers were named Handel and Haydn!) published it for her in 1877. Mozart gave Euphemia a pseudonym: Arthur De Lulli.

Later editions of the sheet music bore the title “Chop Sticks Waltz” and later simply “Chopsticks.” Euphemia wrote two versions: solo and duet (with an oom-pah-pah bass).

In the duet version, the upper part is usually played with two index fingers, but Euphemia noted something different on the sheet music: This part must be played with both hands turned sideways, the little fingers the lowest, so that the movements of the hands imitate the chopping from which the waltz gets its name.


A pianist demonstrates Euphemia’s prescribed technique in the first 20 seconds of this video:

Euphemia Allen never published any other compositions, setting up a mystery that music historians have pondered ever since. Some have concluded that she didn’t write the music, she merely arranged a pre-existing piece. But no pre-existing piece has ever been found. Those who doubt that Euphemia wrote “Chopsticks” cite as evidence: 1) she was a 16-year-old girl and 2) we know of no other pieces she composed. I guess they can’t wrap their brains around the idea of a young, female, one-hit wonder.

Another twist in this musical mystery involves Russian composer Alexander Borodin (the music for Kismet was adapted from his works). In 1877, the same year that Euphemia Allen’s composition was published in the U.K., Borodin’s young daughter Gania banged out a two-finger tune known to Russian children as “Tati-Tati,” considered quite similar to “Chopsticks” (although the Russian melody has a two-beat rhythm and “Chopsticks” has a three-beat waltz rhythm.) Borodin was amused. He improvised a bass part and played a duet with Gania.

He called it “The Coteletten Polka,” which can be translated as “Cutlet Polka” or “Chop Polka.” Borodin shared the piece with his composer friends, including Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, who all wrote variations on the simple theme, later gathered and published together in a volume titled Paraphrases. Yet music historians have been unable to establish a connection between “Chopsticks” and “The Coteletten Polka.”

“Chopsticks” shows up a lot in the movies. Marilyn Monroe played it with Tom Ewell in The Seven Year Itch. Harold Russell played it with Hoagy Carmichael in The Best Years of Our Lives. (Russell was a WWII Navy veteran who lost both his hands while serving. A non-actor, he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in 1947.)

Tom Hanks and Robert Loggia played “Chopsticks” in the famous piano scene at FAO Schwartz in the 1988 movie Big (starting in this video at minute 1:25, after the “Heart and Soul” duet):

That’s the staying power of “Chopsticks” – whoever wrote it.

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey


Posted in Music history | Tagged | 3 Comments

I believe that children are our future

That’s the advice of a 9-yr-old boy named Tate, who decided to spend his summer volunteering at his grandpa’s senior center instead of going to camp.

Here’s a short video about his experience. It starts with a few words from a man I’ve written about before on this blog: filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett from the Alive Inside Foundation, a coalition aimed at “connecting the generations through music, story, and empathy.”

Rossato-Bennett suggests that we reformulate a question many of us ask ourselves: “What is the meaning of life?” A better question might be, “Is my life full of experiences that I find meaningful?”

May is “Older Americans Month.” The theme for 2018 is “Engage at Every Age.” Tate found a meaningful way to engage with the elderly.

He inspired me.

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey

Posted in Aging, Death, Music and emotion, Volunteering | Tagged | 9 Comments

Man with a harmonica

Just when I thought I might run out of volunteer pianist stories to tell, this happened:

I was just a few minutes into my hour of playing for the residents of an independent-living community when Joel sat down in an armchair by the piano and pulled a harmonica from his pocket.

He accompanied me on “Bicycle Built for Two.” Joel had the waltz rhythm down pat. But the notes? Not so much.

Okay, I thought, maybe he’ll only play one song.

But he continued to join in on another half dozen: “The Glory of Love,” “Bye Bye Blackbird,” “Blue Skies,” “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” …

Hey, get your own show.

After I played “It Had to Be You,” Joel said, “That was a good one. Now can you play that song about ‘a boy for you and a girl for me’?”

Amazingly, I knew what he meant! After all, I’ve been a volunteer pianist playing music from the Great American Songbook for close to 15 years now.

Joel was requesting “Tea for Two,” from the 1925 musical No, No, Nanette.

Picture you upon my knee,
Just tea for two and two for tea,
Just me for you and you for me alone.

We will raise a family
A boy for you, a girl for me,
Oh can’t you see how happy we would be?

The words are silly because they’re “dummy lyrics” written hurriedly by Irving Caesar and meant to be temporary, just to help work out the song’s metric form and rhyme scheme. Vincent Youmans, who wrote the melody, liked the lyrics so much he refused to let Caesar change them later.

So I played “Tea for Two” for Joel. He sang along. But he didn’t sing the lyrics about “a boy for you, a girl for me.”

While I played “Tea for Two,” Joel sang the words to “It Had to Be You.”

A couple of times he interrupted his singing to blow a few irrelevant notes on his harmonica, enjoying himself immensely.

I felt like I was playing that game mentioned in a recent post: “One Song to the Tune of Another.”

But Joel, man with a harmonica, sure had a good time.

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey



Posted in Aging, Audiences, Music and emotion, Volunteering | Tagged | 5 Comments

Together we can make such sweet music

Last week my piano duet partner and I started learning one of Antonin Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances. We played it through slowly a couple of times, well under the marked tempo. Tempo de lerno, as I think of it.

Then we looked at a few performances on YouTube, to get an idea of the speed we should aim for.

And we came across this:

To say that I was impressed by the musicianship of these two boys is an understatement. I was in awe of their talent and stage presence, especially the one closest to the camera. Look at his face. Such passion. Such focus. He’s 9 years old! Did you catch the way he rose up from the bench at minute 3:38? Did you notice his cute keyboard suspenders?

You often hear that young people aren’t interested in classical music anymore. It’s good to find exceptions like these two.

Here’s more about the fun and challenge of piano duets, from a post I wrote in 2013:

One of my extracurricular activities—when I’m not playing the piano for senior citizens—is playing piano duets. Four hands on one piano can make a lot of music!

We play mostly serious classical pieces by A-list composers like Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Schumann. But we’ve also tackled more contemporary pieces, like Gershwin songs rewritten for four hands, and duet arrangements of selections from West Side Story.

Playing duets is obviously a cooperative effort. First, there’s the sheet music itself. Both players read from the same music, with the two parts either written out one above the other on the same page, or separated out onto facing pages.

The player sitting on the right side of the bench plays the part labeled “primo,” generally using the upper half of the keyboard. The player on the left gets the “secondo” part (sometimes a bit easier), and the lower half of the keyboard. But it’s not a simple 50/50 split, as in “You play the high notes and I’ll play the low notes.” The middle of the keyboard is used by both players. Successful duet partners must be amenable to that arrangement and learn to share nicely. Each must be gracious in moving off a key quickly if it’s needed by the other player. In other words, a duet player has to learn to blend with another pianist, while at the same time knowing how to keep out of her way. It’s an intricate affair.

Duet partners might even cross over each other’s hands to reach their notes. This is a holdover from the 1800s. Duets peaked in popularity during that century, in large part because sitting side-by-side at the piano gave young men and women a socially acceptable way to spend time in close company. Composers played cupid by calling for hand-crossing in some sections of the music they wrote.

Playing duets requires the ability to stick to agreed-upon tempos, as well as the flexibility to allow for variations in timing that are critical to expressive playing. And there are other matters to be worked out. Who pedals? (Usually the player on the left side of the bench.) Who turns the pages? (The player who can manage to have one hand free for a moment.)

I’ll let Chico and Harpo Marx show you just how fun playing piano duets can be. This three-minute film clip is guaranteed to make you smile.

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey

Posted in Music and emotion, Piano performance | Tagged | 6 Comments

I like a Gershwin tune, how about you?

It was just about a year ago that I finished my first draft of a children’s biography of 19th century pianist Clara Schumann. Since then, I’ve polished and revised it many times. I’m hopeful I’ll find a publisher, but I know it’s a highly competitive field.

One thing I’m doing to increase my chances of a sale—besides writing the best book I can—is studying other recently published children’s biographies of musicians. These books serve as mentor texts, showing me what is selling now. Like this one, a 2016 picture book biography of George Gershwin:

It’s typical of a children’s biography to focus on one life event. For Clara Schumann, I’m focusing on her piano debut at age 9, when she mistakenly boarded the wrong carriage and had an unwelcome adventure, nearly missing her concert.

For the George Gershwin biography, author Suzanne Slade focused on how he created his 1924 masterpiece for piano and orchestra, “Rhapsody in Blue.” He’d been inspired to write the piece while listening to the sounds and rhythms on a train ride.

Gershwin wrote more than 500 songs, often working with his older brother, lyricist Ira Gershwin, before dying of a brain tumor at age 38. “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess is a standard in my repertoire from June through August. My audiences also enjoy “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” and “The Man I Love.”

During a volunteer gig a few months ago, a man stopped by the piano to express his appreciation for the background music I had played while he ate lunch with his mother. Then he told me a story.

He and wife had gone to the Tony Award–winning musical An American in Paris. It incorporates a lot of Gershwin’s best: “Embraceable You,” “I Got Rhythm,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” and more.

As the man and his wife were leaving the theatre, he struck up a conversation with a 20-something guy, asking him, “How did you like the play?”

The young man’s response: “Not a single good song in the whole thing.”

I’ll let you decide.

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey

Posted in Audiences, Music and emotion, Volunteering, Writing | Tagged | 4 Comments

I concentrate on you

A couple of weeks ago, a man wheeled his dad into an assisted-living dining room past the piano. I was playing “It Had to Be You.” The son was whistling something else, a song I didn’t recognize. He kept whistling his own tune while I was playing another. I was impressed with his ability to compartmentalize. Or maybe I’m giving him too much credit. Maybe he was just oblivious to my music.

It’s hard to effectively do two different things at the same time. Like patting your head and rubbing your stomach. Or driving and talking on the phone. Or writing and listening to music. I can’t do that one. I need complete silence. People who don’t play the piano sometimes marvel at those of us who do, because we play one line of music with our left hand while playing another line with our right. I don’t really think about that when I play, probably because I started taking piano lessons at age 7. I imagine it’s harder to get the knack of it if you start lessons later.

There’s a BBC radio program called I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue. It’s a comedy game show. In the segment “One Song to the Tune of Another,” panelists do just that: they sing the lyrics of one song to the tune of another song, accompanied on the piano. Like this:

First, the lyrics of “The Muppet Show Theme” to the tune of “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”

Then, the other way around.

Could you do that?

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey

Posted in Singing, Volunteering | Tagged , | 4 Comments

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 | 11 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 | 4 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