Some of my most gratifying moments as a volunteer pianist are small and easy to miss if I don’t watch for them. They are the times when my music proves irresistible to a listener.
Here’s one: Fran gave me a quick “Thanks” as she passed the piano and headed back to her room. Just then I began the opening measures of “Begin the Beguine” by Cole Porter. Must have been a favorite. She abruptly reversed course and decided to stick around. A similar thing happened at a different facility when I played “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” a song from 1926, although now mostly associated with Elvis Presley. I looked up from the keyboard at exactly the right moment to see the back of a man shuffling down a hallway. Then, as if the music tapped him on the shoulder, he put the brakes on his walker and turned around to face me, attentive until the song’s final chord.
When I played “Jingle Bells” for a Christmas program last month, I could hear Ginny keeping time to the music well before I could see her. The health aide who escorted her in had no choice but to fall in step with the rigorous beat Ginny marked by pounding her cane against the low-pile carpeting.
Nonagenarians Sylvia and Allen gave me another moment I cherish. She used to sing professionally with her husband; he’s an amateur musician with a good voice. One day, Sylvia was leaving the dining room at the same time Allen was arriving. They paused by the piano as they passed one another, positioning their walkers like police who park their squad cars side by side in opposite directions, so that the drivers’ windows are aligned for conversation. (I always figure the cops are planning a doughnut run.)
Sylvia and Allen began harmonizing as I played “I Don’t Know Why I Just Do”:
They crooned, they hammed it up a bit. Nearby diners applauded their impromptu performance. Being their accompanist was my privilege.
I’m always delighted when a listener gives in to the urge to dance. It happens frequently when I play something jaunty, like “Pretty Baby,” a 1916 ragtime tune. Ruth stopped on her way to the salad bar and did a little happy dance when she heard it. She must have had that feeling Elton John sang about: “When your feet just can’t keep still.”
Performing in a band, as I sometimes do, offers the same kinds of rewarding moments. I remember during one gig at a retirement center we played Irving Berlin’s rhythmic “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” A man in the audience climbed out of his motorized scooter and danced back and forth behind a row of sofas, holding onto the tops of the cushions for support. (Here’s the song as Harry Richman introduced it in 1930, and here’s a modern take in a 2012 Moscow flash mob performance.)
From my place at the piano, I often have the best view in the house.
Copyright © 2016 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
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