Some kind of wonderful

Prodigies—those precocious children who possess musical skills that astound and confound us. Mozart was one. Clara Schumann, too. Today we have Alma Deutscher.

Born in England in 2005, Alma is an accomplished violinist, pianist, and composer. Yes, composer. She wrote her first piano sonata at age seven, an opera at ten. An opera requires a full orchestral score, so she had to know the range and capabilities of all the instruments.

Here she is playing the piano at age 6:

I’m sure she’s not the only 6-yr-old child who can play this Haydn piece, but her playing is extraordinary. Nuanced, beautiful.

A 8, Alma was a guest on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. She showed Ellen the jump rope that helps her compose. “I wave it around and memories pour into my head.”

Then came a 60 Minutes profile of Alma. When asked where her musical ideas come from, she told correspondent Scott Pelley, “It’s really very normal to me to walk around and have melodies popping into my head.”

I love getting the melodies. It’s not at all difficult to me. I get them all the time. But then actually sitting down and developing the melodies and that’s the really difficult part, having to tell a real story with music.

She went on to explain that imaginary composers live in her head. In fact, she has made up a whole country where imaginary composers live.

Sometimes when I’m stuck with something, when I’m composing, I go to them and ask them for advice. And quite often, they come up with very interesting things.

When Alma sat down at the piano and invited Pelley to select four notes out of a hat, and then improvised a piece based on a melody consisting of those four notes, he looked like he was wondering if he’d been tricked. He had not.

After appearing on 60 Minutes, Alma’s popularity soared. She has her own YouTube channel. You can find plenty of performance videos there.

Of course, I love Mozart and I would have loved him to be my teacher. But I think I would prefer to be the first Alma than to be the second Mozart.

Alma makes her Carnegie Hall debut on December 12, 2019. She’ll be 14 years old and will play a program of her own compositions. Tickets have been sold out for months.

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey

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Let me call you sweetheart

A few years ago, I wrote a post about some of the distractions I’ve faced as a volunteer pianist: piano dusters, carpet cleaners, table clearers. And cell phones. Always cell phones.

But lately I’ve noticed a new category of distractions: Elderly men who approach the piano and ask me if I’m married. They pose the question without preamble.

It’s hard to keep playing with something like that hanging in the air, so I quickly say that yes, I am.

man hands waiting senior

The men’s reactions vary:

Of course you are.
Aw shucks.
Well, do you have a boyfriend?

I suppose I could answer their marriage question with a question of my own—the one often suggested in advice columns when people ask how to deal with nosy parkers: Why do you ask?

But because I can’t play the piano and talk at the same time, I opt for the quicker declarative.

I know that sometimes the flirty behavior is meant to be a joke. But other times, the men seem entirely earnest. I’ve even been warned by women about a certain male resident: Watch out, he’s looking for a new wife. And sure enough, a few minutes later, he popped the question: Are you married?

man sitting on bench

Feelings of loneliness and social isolation are common among older people as they lose spouses, family, friends, and connections to their community. Studies show that the health consequences can be great: depression, cognitive decline, even dementia.

I try to interact with my audiences before and after my performances. During is a challenge. Instead, I hope that when I play popular World War II–songs I’m doing more than entertaining. I’m showing my elderly listeners that I appreciate the times they lived through, that I respect and value the contributions of their generation. I’m saying, I see you. You have not been forgotten.

But I still don’t know what to do about that pesky marriage question. Suggestions welcome.

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey

Posted in Aging, Audiences, Music and emotion, Piano performance, Volunteering | 10 Comments

What did I have that I don’t have?

It’s not really lost till Mom can’t find it.

I don’t remember where I heard or read this, but I think it’s true.

green pin on brown hay

A few weeks ago, a windstorm upended our patio umbrella. Getting the base re-positioned required a special little tool that came with the umbrella when we bought it. Eleven years ago.

Did I find it? Yes, I did! (In a cardboard box I’d labeled “Umbrella Parts.”)

A couple of days later, I tested my finding skills again, this time to locate an old Madison (Wisconsin) Symphony Orchestra program that contained an anecdote I wanted to share.

Did I find it? Yes, I did! (The program was from the 2003-2004 season.)

But there are so many things I’ve looked for and haven’t found. Here’s one: I’ve carried on a decades-long search for a library picture book my daughter and I enjoyed reading together in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. I want to buy a copy, but neither of us can remember the author or title, only that the main character was a demanding little girl who wanted her parents to cut her toast in the shape of a hat.

“I want mine in the shape of a hat” has remained in our family lexicon to acknowledge a ridiculously fussy request. It’s our version of Mae West’s “Peel me a grape.” I’d love to find that book again.

People expect me to be able to find things, probably because I’m a librarian and a fairly organized person. I expect to be able to find things, too. That’s why I’ve indexed all my sheet music—a closet full—by title. As said, I’m a librarian.

Despite my best organizational efforts, I, like everyone else, spend way too much time looking for things like my cell phone and my car keys. I have solved the misplaced reading glasses problem though: I wear a contact lens in one eye for close vision. I put it in in the morning and I’m set for the day.

Sometimes my search for a lost item turns up a consolation prize: something good that I’d forgotten I even owned. I’m a minimalist, but I still seem to have a lot of stuff.

Oh, and that anecdote I wanted to share?

It’s from violinist Karen Bottge. When asked for her funniest concert experience, she reported this:

I was conducting South Pacific and told the pit musicians that they could bring snacks as long as they didn’t make any crackling or crunching noise. During an extended on-stage dialogue, I turned to the violin section only to find them warming marshmallows under their stand lights and eating s’mores.

It was worth the search.

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey

 

Posted in Reminiscences, Volunteering | 1 Comment

Everybody’s talkin’ at me

Fred Rogers used to say that we have two ears and one mouth because we should listen twice as much as we talk. And he meant actually listen, not just wait for the other person to stop talking so we can have our turn. I try to listen like Mr. Rogers, especially when I visit senior facilities. Residents there are typically talked to more than they are listened to. Being a willing audience for their stories—even stories they’ve told me before—lets them control the conversation for a while.

This is all too rare. I observe many visitors to senior facilities talking incessantly—about themselves. Reminds 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?”

I guess these visitors think all their talking provides entertainment for the residents. Here’s what would be better: enter their world for a bit, show an interest in their lives, past and present. Listen more than talk.

Photo by Edu Carvalho on Pexels.com

A few weeks ago, from my place at the piano, I watched an elderly man seated at lunch with his two sons and a daughter-in-law. The sons talked to each other. The daughter-in-law engaged the older man, asking him about his life, listening to his answers. They held hands and swayed to the music when a tune caught their fancy. He enjoyed her visit immensely. The sons might as well have stayed home.

I often ask my listeners to tell me what’s going on in their lives. Sometimes they say, “Nothing.” But if I’m quiet and give them the chance, they tell me stories. Stories about military service, about beloved deceased spouses, about why a particular song holds personal meaning.

Several years ago, I saw a skit on Saturday Night Live that has stuck with me. Comedian Kristen Wiig played Glenda Okones, a candidate for mayor. She’s recording a campaign ad:

“A lot of people say I’m a bad listener. You may be sharing a story from your life and that’s gonna remind me of a better story—from my life. So I’m just gonna start talking louder than you and hopefully you’ll give up and stop talking altogether.”

Yeah, I know people like that. I don’t want to be one of them.

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey

Posted in Aging, Music and emotion, Volunteering | 8 Comments

If they asked 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