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