“Are you a volunteer?” The question came from Jason, a young man helping assisted-living residents back to their rooms following my performance.
I said I was. “That’s so cool,” he replied.
Why, thank you.
I’ve tried a lot of volunteer work over the years: transcribing print books into braille, delivering surplus food from restaurants and grocery stores to soup kitchens and homeless shelters, organizing a cancer resource library. But in the end I decided to concentrate on music.
Jason asked if the type of music I play—American standards from the 1920s, 30s, and 40s—is my “specialty.” I thought for a moment. Yes, I guess it is.
Things haven’t always been that way. Before becoming a volunteer pianist, I played mostly classical music, along with Christmas carols, accompaniment for plays while in high school, and the occasional Broadway tune or popular movie theme.
Here’s a story to illustrate just how little I used to know about songs from the era that has now become my focus. About 40 years ago, when I was in my early 20s, I was visiting my in-laws in the Detroit area, and my father-in-law invited me to try out their grand piano.
As I sat down, he asked, “Can you play for a quarter?” Or at least I thought that’s what he asked.
Turns out, his question was actually “Can you play Cole Porter?”
Who? I was clueless.
So, you see, I’ve come a long way.
When I retired and came up with the idea of playing the piano for older audiences, I knew I wanted my programs to have emotional appeal and bring back memories of times past. At first, I pulled my set lists from a small pile of sheet music that had been passed down through my family, songs popular when my dad and his sister were young.
To expand my repertoire, I started checking out songbooks from the library and buying them at used book stores. I looked for vintage sheet music at estate sales. Along the way, I learned a lot about “The Great American Songbook,” which is not really a songbook at all. It’s a label used to refer collectively to the popular songs from the first half of the 20th century, songs by lyricists like Dorothy Fields and Johnny Mercer. Songs by composers like Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Hoagy Carmichael and, yes, Cole Porter.
After 12 years, my work as a volunteer pianist has expanded into a part-time job, albeit an unpaid one. I drove more than 1500 miles last year to bring music to residents of retirement communities and senior facilities.
I still play classical music, but not for my volunteer gigs. My older audiences want to hear selections from The Great American Songbook. I know because they tell me so: We like that you play our music.
It’s nice to have found my niche.
Copyright © 2016 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.