Something to remember you by

My Uncle Brian continues to slip away, his brain addled by advancing dementia. You might recall the post I wrote in February about my uncle and his robotic puppy.

Brian now lives in a small group home. He likes helping with simple chores like folding towels and drying dishes. Perhaps best of all, the household includes a real dog.

When family members visit, Brian’s face gives away the question in his head: Who are you? He sometimes grows impatient with having company. “Well, I’m expecting an important phone call,” he’ll say after a short while. That’s code for “This visit has lasted long enough. I want you to leave.”

I rely on old family stories for most of my interaction with Brian. It’s tempting to try to engage him by starting with, “Do you remember when … ?” But it’s better if I begin by saying, “I remember when …” Sometimes a memory is sparked and he joins the reminiscence. Mostly he just listens.

Often I talk to him about the time he took me to a performance by classical pianist Van Cliburn. The concert was somewhere in Detroit in the mid-1960s. I was probably around 12 years old.

Brian had no interest in classical music—he still doesn’t. But he knew that as a budding pianist I would be interested. I cherish the memory of that outing.

Van Cliburn’s launch to stardom came in 1958, when he won the first Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow, a surprise victory for an American during the Cold War era. It was six months after the Soviets launched Sputnik. Cliburn was 23.

Four years later, the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition was created in his honor. The Boston Globe once called the Cliburn Competition “a cross between the Miss America Pageant, the Olympic Games, the Academy Awards, and the Pulitzer Prize.”

Tomorrow marks the start of the 15th Van Cliburn competition, held in Fort Worth, Texas. Thirty of the world’s finest young pianists (ages 18-30) perform in the preliminary round. That field will be narrowed to twenty, then to twelve, then to six for the finals. Gold, silver, and bronze medals will be announced June 10th. The first-place winner gets $50,000 and three years of commission-free career management, ensuring a busy schedule of international performances.

I’m grateful to my uncle for nurturing my interest in playing the piano by taking me to hear Van Cliburn all those years ago. Brian doesn’t remember. That’s okay. I do.

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey


Posted in Dementia, Piano performance, Reminiscences | Tagged | 8 Comments

Sweet soul music

Earlier this month at my band rehearsal, we sightread through a new piece of sheet music: “It’s All in the Game.” Then we had our usual follow-up discussion after trying new pieces: Did we like it? Enough to work it up to performance level?

Maybe. To me, the waltz rhythm (3 beats per measure) gave it a schmaltzy feel. We toyed with the tempo a bit, then set the piece aside. We might come back to it another night.

But during our rehearsal discussion, a band member noticed the song’s copyright date: 1912. That intrigued me. I was sure a version of the song had been popular in my youth. A much less sappy version.

The next day I looked more closely at the copyright information. I’m not very good with Roman numerals, so I needed a minute to figure it out.

Turns out the 1912 copyright is for the melody. The lyrics came much later.

“It’s All in the Game” started as “Melody in A Major,” a wordless composition by General Charles G. Dawes, who was Calvin Coolidge’s Vice President from 1925-1929.

Carl Sigman added lyrics in 1951 and gave the song its new name. A new copyright was issued. Sigman wrote the words for many hits, including “Ebb Tide” and the big band tune “Pennsylvania 6-5000.” And another sappy one: “Where Do I Begin,” theme music for the 1979 film Love Story.

Tommy Edwards recorded “It’s All in the Game” for the first time in 1951, using a slow arrangement with lots of violins:

In 1958, Edwards rerecorded the song. This time, he ditched the ¾ waltz beat and toned down the orchestra strings, immediately updating the feel of the music. It became his biggest-selling record and his only top ten hit.

Many others covered “It’s All in the Game” over the years: Nat King Cole, Johnnie Ray, Louis Armstrong, Barry Manilow, Cass Elliott. Even Van Morrison put his unique spin on the song.

But the recording I remember from my younger years is this soulful one by Motown’s Four Tops, released in March 1970, when I was a junior in high school.

Definitely not a waltz:

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey

Posted in Music and emotion, Music history | Tagged | 2 Comments

The times they are a-changin’

I was eating a bowl of cereal in my kitchen last October when I heard on the radio that Bob Dylan had won the Nobel Prize in Literature. I abandoned my spelt flakes, went to my sheet music closet, found my copy of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and played it—twice.

A couple of days later, I included “Blowin’ in the Wind” in my set list for a group of seniors. I figured that most of my audience wouldn’t care for the song. And I was right.

There’s also a handful of baby boomers at that particular facility, live-in rehab patients recuperating from knee or hip replacements. I thought they might like it. And I was right.

Dylan’s rough voice has been much maligned and parodied. He was a controversial Nobel choice. Not everyone agrees that his lyrics qualify as literature when stacked against previous laureates like John Steinbeck and Toni Morrison.

But for people who came of age in the 1960s and early 70s, Dylan songs resonate: “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right,” “Forever Young,” “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

Now that people my own age are spending time in rehab facilities where I play, I’m getting requests for songs I don’t typically perform for my older audiences. Like Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge over Troubled Water” or “Turn! Turn! Turn!” by Pete Seeger.

So I’m starting to slip in something for the baby boomers. Maybe a Beatles ballad (“Fool on the Hill,” “Yesterday,” “Scarborough Fair,” “Norwegian Wood”). Just one. Or a tune by James Taylor or Joni Mitchell. Or a 1960s movie theme like “Somewhere, My Love” from Doctor Zhivago or “A Time for Us” from Romeo and Juliet, always a favorite at pajama parties with my high school girlfriends. Of course, we baby boomers love our rock songs, too, but I don’t think rock songs translate very well into solo piano performance. I leave those to the bands.

Usually there’s no audience response to my outlier musical selections, but you never know who’s singing along on the inside.

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey

Posted in Aging, Audiences, Music and emotion, Music programming, Song requests, Volunteering | Tagged | 2 Comments

Don’t be that way

One of the many books my daughter and I enjoyed reading together when she was little was The Bike Lesson, a Berenstain Bears adventure. It still makes me laugh.

Small Bear gets a new bike; Papa Bear teaches him how to ride it. Papa has a series of exaggerated, comically illustrated mishaps, like hitting a rock and catapulting himself onto the roof of the house, upside down, his head in the chimney. Small Bear gamely rescues his dad after each lesson goes wrong. Then Papa says to his son, “See? That is what you should not do. Now let that be a lesson to you.”

That line has become a standard in my household after an obvious blunder.

And it’s the line I thought of recently when I observed a visitor to an assisted-living facility where I was playing. His behavior was one big demonstration of what not to do.

He was middle-aged, strutted in like he owned the place, and plopped down at the lunch table of three women, right by the piano. I’m sure one of those women was his mother. But after an hour I still had no idea which one, because he didn’t interact with any of them.

Instead, he took out his reading glasses and got busy on his cell phone. Head down, distracted. He stayed that way. I played my usual genre—mostly standards for the 1930s and 40s—and the three women around him sang and chatted about the music as they ate their minestrone soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.

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.

That guy missed a wonderful opportunity to talk to his mother and her tablemates about the music: What it meant to them, where they were when they first heard a particular song, what memories it brought to mind.

He needed only to set aside his phone and start with three simple words: “Tell me about…”

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey


Posted in Aging, Overheard, Volunteering | 7 Comments

It’s fun to wander through the alphabet with you

One of the blogs I follow is Frances Wilson’s The Cross-Eyed Pianist. She’s a London-based pianist, piano teacher, writer, music reviewer, and blogger.

Back in November, I contributed to the “Pianist’s Alphabet” series on her blog.

My guest post is titled “V is for Volunteer Pianist.” You can read it here.

Writing that guest post for Frances Wilson’s blog inspired me to create this shorthand Volunteer Pianist’s alphabet:

A is for…        Alzheimer’s disease afflicting the Aged in increasing numbers

B is for…        Big band music, a genre my listeners love

C is for…        Crying over beloved old songs

D is for…        Dancing to waltzes and fox trots

E is for…        Emotional moments shared

F is for…        Family visits

G is for…        Great American Songbook, the focus of my volunteer repertoire

H is for           Hearing aids, the better to hear you with, my dear

I is for…         Independence (loss of)

J is for…         Joints, stiff and sore

K is for…        Kindness (small acts of)

L is for…        Listeners eating Lunch

M is for…       Memories stirred by music

N is for…        Nonagenarians, and the occasional centenarian

O is for…        Oxygen machines, accompanying me with their gentle swoosh

P is for…        Piano Lady, that’s me

Q is for…        Queues for bingo games

R is for…        Requests for favorite tunes

S is for…         Singing, a welcome form of audience participation

T is for…        Toe-tapping and usually some Talking

U is for…        Unforgettable stories, the reason I started this blog

V is for…        Veterans who appreciate patriotic songs

W is for…       Wheelchairs and Walkers, everywhere

X is for…        Xeroxed sheet music, lots of it, in the big bag I bring to volunteer gigs

Y is for…        Years left, too few

Z is for…        Zest for life despite pain, illness, and loss

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey

Posted in Aging, Music and emotion, Volunteering | Tagged | 1 Comment


As winter turns to spring, I hope we’re nearing the end of coughing season.

I attend a lot of classical concerts, most often performances by the Lansing Symphony Orchestra and by faculty and students in the College of Music at Michigan State University. And many a sublime musical moment has been spoiled for me by coughing in the audience. Coughing bothers performing musicians and orchestra conductors, too. Sometimes they take steps to manage it:

Baritone Thomas Quasthoff once instructed his audience, “Do not cough until the concert is ended. Because I love this music so much.”

A January 2014 New York Times article reported that “… the guest conductor Michael Tilson Thomas dealt with a bronchial audience at a Chicago Symphony Orchestra concert by tossing cough lozenges into the crowd between movements of Mahler’s Ninth.”

The article goes on to mention how conductor Simon Rattle addressed a fit of coughing after the opening movement of Mahler’s Ninth: “This piece starts with silence and returns to silence,” he told the crowd at Carnegie Hall. “The audience can help to create the piece by remaining silent.”

Conductor George Szell was more direct. He once halted a Cleveland Orchestra performance of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture, turned to the audience and said, “I’ll give you 5 minutes to clear your throats,” and walked offstage. Exactly 5 minutes later, he returned and said, “We are trying to do our best. Won’t you try to do likewise and exercise a little self-control and refrain from disturbing the performance?” With that, he restarted the concert.

Pianist Alfred Brendel, too, favors a direct approach. He once warned his audience: “Either you stop coughing or I stop playing.”

In 2012, Andreas Wagener from the School of Economics and Management, University of Hannover, Germany, published a scholarly paper about coughing in concerts. He cites studies showing that people cough twice as much in concerts as they do in everyday life. Why?

Some say it’s because the air in the hall is dry. Or maybe people are bored during slow, soft passages. Wagener has a different explanation. He writes, “… coughing is one of few acceptable ways of active participation within strict concert etiquette. It permits to make oneself heard in the anonymous crowd of concertgoers, to test unwritten boundaries of courtesy, to comment on the performance or to simply document one’s presence.” That last reason really got my attention. Wagener asserts that people use coughing to say, “Hey, don’t forget about me. Look, here I am. I’m at the concert.”

Minimalist composer John Cage believed that coughing and other audience noise is its own kind of music. His 1952 composition 4’33” is scored for any instrument or any combination of instruments. Doesn’t matter, because the entire piece—which lasts exactly 4 minutes and 33 seconds—is marked tacet. That’s Latin for “it is silent.” The musicians do not play a single note. The ambient sounds of the concert hall become the “music”: the air conditioning, the audience shifting in their seats, rustling their programs, and, of course, coughing. Okay, I agree that those things are sounds, but I wouldn’t call them music. Yet there’s actually a score for 4’33” (you can find out more here).

So, John Cage didn’t mind coughing at concerts, but I do. I understand it’s sometimes unavoidable. Still, coughing can be muffled with a sleeve or a handkerchief, or perhaps prevented with a cough drop or hard candy.

My plea to the concert coughers out there: If you must cough during the music, try to cough quietly. Very quietly. Pianissimo.

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey


Posted in Audiences | Tagged | 6 Comments

A dear old land of leprechauns and wondrous wishing wells

It was bound to happen sooner or later. I recently met a new resident of a senior facility who was, until a few months ago, a volunteer pianist like me. We chatted a bit and soon discovered we’ve played at some of the same places.

Cheryl has Parkinson’s disease. “Just the early stage,” she’s quick to add. But tremors and joint stiffness mean she’s had to give up scrapbooking and knitting and playing the piano. She uses a cane for walking, but can still drive. She admits she’s starting to feel the disease affecting her memory.

I applaud Cheryl’s decision to move into a senior facility now, before her health further deteriorates. It gave her the advantage of being able to select the place herself and she can transition gradually from her independent life into her new community. As her disease progresses, whatever help she needs will be available right there, because she chose a facility that offers a “continuum of care.”

In a conversation with Cheryl, she mentioned that she used to play a program of Irish songs for her March volunteer gigs. Next time I saw her, she handed me a neatly organized binder of photocopies. “See if there’s anything you want in there,” she offered.

I already had most of them: “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” “Molly Malone,” “Danny Boy,” “The Rose of Tralee.” A few were new to me. There was a jig called “Garryowen.” Hadn’t heard of that one.

And there was a lovely tune called “How Are Things in Glocca Morra.” Honestly, I don’t know how I missed it in all the years I’ve been collecting songs from the 1930s and 40s.

“How Are Things in Glocca Morra” is from the 1947 Broadway show Finian’s Rainbow. Francis Ford Coppola’s film version of the musical was released in 1968, starring Fred Astaire and Petula Clark. Finian’s Rainbow is sheer fantasy, a story involving magic and a pot of gold. There’s even a leprechaun.

Lyricist Yip Harburg wrote the words to all the songs. (Harburg seems to have liked make-believe worlds. Eight years earlier, he wrote the lyrics for The Wizard of Oz.) In his song about “Glocca Morra,” Harburg takes us to a mythical Irish village. It’s a ballad about nostalgia and homesickness. It’s also about believing, just for a moment, in a never-never land where no one gets old or sick.

“How Are Things in Glocca Morra” was recorded by Tommy Dorsey (vocals by Stuart Foster) in 1945, and a bit later by Gordon Jenkins and his orchestra (vocals by Dick Haymes).

I like this one by Buddy Clark. It made the Top Ten in 1947.


From one volunteer pianist to another, thanks for introducing me to Glocca Morra, Cheryl.

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey

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

Like the beat, beat, beat of the tom-tom

I remember a skit on the old Carol Burnett variety show in which she sang “Don’t You Hate It When They Turn the House Lights Up.” Of course, she was famous for just that: “bumping up” the lights in order to take questions from her audience at the beginning of each show. Clearly Burnett knew that some people are uncomfortable with the possibility of being called on. People like me.

I’m careful when I select theater seats, so that I don’t leave myself vulnerable to getting pulled onto the stage, or otherwise drafted into participating. I definitely would not tell a restaurant it was my birthday, for fear of the attention I’d receive. I recently read a good description of this behavior: “A lifelong habit of trying to avoid notice.”

At my volunteer gigs, I welcome others’ participation. In fact, I’m often in awe of how my audiences sing and dance when the music moves them.

When Roland’s daughter visits, the two participate in a less showy way. They compete to see who can be first to come up with the title of each song I play. It’s their own private game of “Name That Tune.” She is younger than I am, but very knowledgeable, because she used to work in an office with older guys who listened to big band music. Roland and his daughter actually keep score, and announce the winner to me when my hour is over.

So, people enjoy and participate in the music in varied ways. But I have only one audience percussion player: Gerald. A tall, elegant man, he turns up for lunch in a beautiful ivory sweater and dark slacks. He quietly sits down at the men’s table, and waits. He’s waiting for his food to arrive. But more importantly, he’s waiting for me to play a peppy piano tune.

I give him what he wants: “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” or maybe “Side by Side.”

And Gerald accompanies me with gentle percussion, his knife clinking the side of a water glass, a spoon slapping against his thigh. Later, he somehow makes a swooshing sound that perfectly complements the loping bass line of “Red River Valley.” Afterwards, when I ask him how he does that, he turns sheepish. “Oh, I don’t know. I get carried away sometimes.” Ah, shucks.

It turns out Gerald used to have a band, The Skylarks. He played “bass fiddle” and his brother was on the drums. “Gee, I miss those days,” he tells me. “I love music. It just makes me feel better.”

In most ways, Gerald doesn’t like calling attention to himself. But he can’t resist the music.

His fellow residents love the way Gerald participates in my performance. So do the food servers. I observed one as she cleared his place after lunch, taking only the plate, not the glass and silverware.

“I’ll leave your drum set,” she told him with a wink.

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey


Posted in Audiences, Music and emotion, Volunteering | 6 Comments

It took me by surprise I must say

I’d talked with Greg many times during my volunteer visits, but none of our conversations had been like this one.

He: I’ll be 64 on Feb 14th
Me: Oh, your birthday’s on Valentine’s Day!
He: Yeah, and I’ve got a heart-shaped navel. I’ll let you see it for a dollar.
Me: [stunned silence]
He: For $5, I won’t show it to you.

I had the feeling he’d told that joke many times. And I’m sure he meant no offense. Nonetheless, I consider it an odd exchange between a pianist and a member of her audience. How does one respond to that information? I could only manage a small, tolerant smile.

piano-keys-heart-800pxGreg expresses appreciation for my efforts every time I see him. I can’t believe you don’t get paid when you play for us! You don’t make a single mistake! (Yes, I do.)

And what a music lover he is. Once when I played “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” a 1926 song revived by Elvis Presley in 1960, he wept so deeply he had to leave the room.

The first time I met Greg he was in a wheelchair, his left leg extended with a big bandage around the knee. I figured he was a live-in physical therapy patient following surgery. But as months passed, and then a year, I realized something else must be going on.

Last month, I was shocked at the change in his appearance. He looked so thin and bald it took me a moment to recognize him, even though he was seated at his usual lunch table. But he chatted amiably, his voice still strong. And that’s when he surprised me with the news about his Valentine’s Day anatomy.

I’m in my 13th year of volunteering. I really should have learned by now to expect the unexpected.

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey

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

And they called it puppy love

My uncle Brian lived quietly after his retirement. He read, he took walks, watched television, spent time with family.

A couple of years ago, Brian started having trouble following conversations. A hearing aid seemed to help. But when he couldn’t find the thermostat in his house, we realized there was more going on than just hearing loss. He was showing signs of dementia.

When the time came, he went into a lovely senior facility built at the edge of a small lake, a place with walking paths and colorful, well-tended gardens where he could sit in the sunshine. Mostly, though, he wanted to keep moving.

He walked and walked. And then he walked some more. His dementia progressed. One day he slipped out of the building unnoticed and couldn’t find his way back in.

Now he lives in a dedicated memory-care community where the only outdoor space is a small, enclosed courtyard. Less freedom, less chance of getting lost.

For a while, he accompanied another resident who walked her dog in the hallway. He announced that he was going to get a dog too, which surprised us, since he’d never wanted one before.

He began to develop the physical problems associated with dementia. His balance was off and he was falling a lot. He fought against using a walker so a wheelchair was brought in. Being pushed around in his chair is a poor substitute for the walking Brian loves.

We tried to interest him in other things. He couldn’t read anymore, and he didn’t seem to care about listening to music or watching television or looking at family photos.

We worried that he was so alone.

Just before Christmas, I read a New York Times article about robotic dogs and cats being used for pet therapy in the memory care wing of a Bronx senior home. These Hasbro “Companion Pets” react to voice and touch.


I decided to take a chance. Maybe Brian really did want a dog. I bought him a golden, silky-furred robotic puppy and named it Sandy, which I figured could work for either a boy or a girl. I didn’t know which gender he’d prefer.

When we took the dog to Brian in early January, I tried to keep my expectations low. I hoped he would respond and interact, but knew he might pay no attention to it at all.

Success! Brian held the puppy on his lap and stroked its head. Sandy blinked, and made a light panting sound. We showed him how to cup the dog’s cheek to get it to nuzzle his hand, how to stroke the dog’s back to activate a heartbeat sensation. Brian quickly warmed to Sandy. When he tugged on the bandana, the puppy raised its eyebrows and wagged its tail. He blew gently on Sandy’s nose. The dog replied with a few soft barks.

I came back to visit two weeks later. Sandy was sitting on a side table in Brian’s room. The little bandana had come off. The name tag I had made was missing.

The dog goes to sleep when left alone, so I picked him up. (Brian has decided it’s a boy.) Suddenly the room was filled with puppy noises as Sandy looked around at us. Brian perked up a bit.

He called “yoo-hoo” to Sandy; the dog turned toward the sound of his voice. Then Brian said, “I’m going to try an experiment,” and pedaled his wheelchair with his feet on the floor, Fred Flintstone—style, past the dog. Sandy rewarded him with a burst of movement and animated woofing.

I’m pretty sure my uncle doesn’t think Sandy is a real puppy. It doesn’t matter. Even a robotic pet can be a source of joyful companionship. That’s what I want for Brian as he drifts away from us, into a world we cannot know.

Copyright © 2017 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.

Posted in Dementia | Tagged | 10 Comments