With these hands

I think being able to play the piano by ear is a remarkable skill. One I don’t have, as many of you know. Unfortunately, that makes taking requests a little tricky.

Actually I can often play songs people ask me for, because over the years I’ve gotten pretty good at predicting what songs my audiences will request. When I visit a nursing home or retirement center, I bring along only a small portion of my extensive sheet music collection. But tried-and-true favorites like “Embraceable You” and “The Glory of Love” stay permanently in my music bag. Someone always wants to hear them.

If I’m unable to fill a request on the spot, I bring the sheet music for the piece when I next visit. I know, though, that many of my listeners make requests not so much because they want to hear a particular tune, but because they want to participate in the entertainment by interacting with me. They’re often happy enough if I offer a different but similar song instead, say one written by the same person. For example, a fan of Jule Styne/Sammy Cahn collaborations might enjoy hearing “It’s Been a Long, Long Time” if I can’t play “I’ll Walk Alone.” In truth, a substitute song played right away often works better than the requested song played next time. Many of my senior listeners have forgotten about their requests by the time I see them again.

Sometimes listeners surprise me by asking for songs I’ve never heard of. I like that. My audiences have introduced me to many wonderful songs—”We’re the Couple in the Castle“; “Cuttin’ Capers” (also called “Canadian Capers”), a 1915 tune popular mostly as an instrumental—and a few not-so-wonderful ones (“Donkey Serenade” comes to mind.) Without a listener request, I wouldn’t know about “Betty Co-ed” from a 1931 Screen Songs cartoon featuring the famous “bouncing ball.” When I played it, everyone in the room sprang to life, singing the now strikingly outdated lyrics:

Flirtation is an art with Betty Co-ed,
Her station quite depends upon her charms.
She gets the men in rushes by well-cultivated blushes,
And she’s happy with a fellow on each arm…

I do my best to satisfy all requests, but I tire of explaining that I don’t play the piano by ear. People tire of hearing my explanation as well. I have evidence: Once in a while I play the piano in a respite day care center for adults with dementia. The caregivers lead sing-alongs and I accompany. One day a woman in the front row asked me to play a tune I didn’t have the music for, and I attempted to get across to her that I don’t play by ear. A man near the back of the room grew impatient waiting for the music to resume. Why the long discussion? he must have wondered. Isn’t it obvious? He loudly clarified for all in attendance: “She uses her hands!”

Copyright © 2013 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.

This entry was posted in Audiences, Music programming, Piano performance, Song requests, Volunteering. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to With these hands

  1. Judie says:

    Great clarification!! Wonderful story.

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