I’d do anything for you, dear

I’ve blogged here and here about a listener I called Walt.

But I haven’t yet told you the most amazing thing about him. It’s not that he started taking singing lessons around age 90, and then gave monthly performances at his assisted-living facility. It’s not the extraordinary kindness and appreciation he showed me when I played the piano there.

By the time I met Walt, he’d been widowed for about 5 years. His wife died of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. For a while, he had cared for her at home. When that became impossible, he decided he needed to move her into a dementia facility.

She resisted. In fact, she became so distressed by the idea that he put it off for a while.

But eventually, Walt had to do it. And here’s that most amazing thing: To make the move less distressing for his wife, he moved into the memory-care facility with her.

He didn’t live in a different wing among people he could have normal conversations with. He lived with people just like his wife, people whose brains were being ravaged by dementia.

They say that the best way to interact with people suffering from dementia is to enter their world, their reality. Don’t correct them when they say something wild, like “Bob is taking me out to dinner tonight.” Bob, her husband, who died in 1990.

Just go with it: “Are you? That sounds like fun. I hope you have a good time.”

Well, Walt certainly entered his wife’s world.

He lived with her in the dementia unit for about a year, until she died. I can’t imagine what that experience was like for him. He had been a physician—the kind we used to call a GP. His brain remained sharp until the end.

At Walt’s memorial service, his daughters talked about his time living with their mother in the dementia facility. One daughter summed it up this way: “That’s when I really knew what love was.”

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey

Posted in Aging, Dementia, Volunteering | 4 Comments

I can’t get started with you

“You’re not gonna play that thing are you?” asked an assisted-living resident as I set up my keyboard near her lunch table.

I admitted I was planning to do exactly that. She went on to say that she had spent “the whole day yesterday” in her room because she didn’t like the pianist who was performing. When I asked what had driven her away, she would only say, “It was too loud.”

That must have been quite a marathon performance, I thought, if she had to hole up in her room for the whole day to avoid hearing it.

I promised her my music wouldn’t be loud. I told her I’d be playing standards from the 1930s and 40s. I even went so far as to suggest she might enjoy it.

She ended up staying for the entire hour I played, way past the point when she’d finished eating her lunch. I’ll take that as an endorsement.

When I feel burned out with volunteering, I remember a tiny, touching magazine article I read a few years ago in the “Readers Write” column of The Sun. The theme was “whispering.”

The author, Ted Glinski begins:

As a retired pianist in my eighties, I volunteered to play in nursing homes. At least my audience would recognize my repertoire, I thought. I had one-hour engagements at more than twenty homes a month, and I got back much more than I gave — until my attitude began to change …

You can read the rest here to find out why he got discouraged with volunteering, and how an audience member reminded him that being a volunteer pianist really does matter. (You have to scroll down through several other short pieces to get to Ted’s, third from the end. It’s worth it.)

After a recent performance when my listeners were less than enthusiastic about the music, I was lugging my keyboard and paraphernalia back to my car, feeling downhearted, when a regular visitor to the facility arrived. “Oh, no, I missed gentle music day,” she said when she saw me.

I feel only a little guilty admitting that her disappointment really improved my day.

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey


Posted in Audiences, Music and emotion, Piano performance, Volunteering | Tagged , | 1 Comment

Johnny one note

Last week, on a rainy Tuesday, my lovely Steinway grand received its annual tuning.

If you’ve heard a piano being tuned, you know it’s not particularly pleasant. The tuner repeatedly strikes a single note while using a lever to turn the pin inside the piano that holds a corresponding string. In tiny increments, the tension of the string is adjusted to the correct pitch.


One key at a time, all 88 keys, more than 200 strings. You get the idea.

My tuner, David, spends a lot of time in senior facilities, tuning the often not-very-nice pianos found in them. In fact, he tunes many of the pianos I play as a volunteer.

Assisted-living residents have told me how miserable they find listening to the piano getting a tune-up. Most try to go as far away from the tuning as possible, but they can often still hear it even from their rooms. Then there are always a few residents who like being there when the tuner is doing his thing, pleased to have something new and different to break the monotony that can blanket a senior home. They’re the ones hanging around the piano chatting with the tuner.

David doesn’t mind. He’s a chatty guy. At my house last week he wanted to schmooze a little before he started tuning. We swapped humorous (at least to the two of us) anecdotes.

His: David asked a spry nonagenarian her secret for longevity and good health. She said (and here he imitated an Irish brogue and pointed a scolding finger in my face), “I read the Bible every day and I don’t play the boogie-woogie!”

Mine: My brother-in-law, a piano tuner, told me about a woman in a nursing home who, after listening to him go through the tuning process for a while, approached the piano, patted his arm, and sweetly informed him, “That’s not a song, dear.”

David eventually got to work on my piano. For almost two hours, I listened to his one-note repetitions as I went about mindless chores around the house. The tuning makes it impossible for me to concentrate enough to do much else.

Then, my reward: To assess his work, he played a skillful, improvised rendition of “Here’s That Rainy Day.”

Appropriate for the weather and oh such a relief for my ears.

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey

Posted in Pianos, Volunteering | Tagged | 5 Comments

Snookey, ookey baby talk

Over the last 15 years or so, I’ve spent a lot of time in hospitals. Luckily, I haven’t been the patient.

During this hospital time, I’ve observed an annoying use of the word “okay.” Here’s an example: A nurse comes into the room and says something to the patient along the lines of “I’m going to stab you now with this large needle and it’s going to hurt like crazy. Okay?”

The nurse, or whoever it happens to be, does not wait for an answer before proceeding. Besides, what would the answer be? Yeah, sure, go ahead, I’d love that… It’s not like the patient has a choice.

I’ve noticed a similarly annoying way that many of us talk to older people. It’s called elderspeak.

It’s that “cootchy-coo” tone: high-pitched, sing-songy. like we’re talking to a child. In short, baby talk. When I play the piano as a volunteer, I listen to the way aides interact with the residents around me. Unfortunately, I hear a lot of elderspeak.

There’s the “royal we”: “How are we doing today?” (I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling old and achy.)

And the inappropriate terms of endearment: “Let’s go to the bathroom now, honey.” I’ve overheard aides calling female residents “Grandma” or “Mama.” It’s possible the residents asked to be addressed that way, but that seems unlikely to me.

Forced levity is another part of elderspeak: “Isn’t this fun, Dad? Maybe I’ll move in here, too,” enthused a daughter during an activity at an assisted-living facility.

I observed a son standing over his mother while she picked at her lunch. He was clearly concerned she wasn’t eating enough. “Good job on your soup!!” he gushed. She rolled her eyes. Overpraising gets old quick.

Elderspeak includes answering questions for the person we’re speaking to: “You’d like to have your lunch now, wouldn’t you?” or “You don’t want that, do you?”

While it might be meant as helpful and supportive, elderspeak is demeaning and patronizing. I’ve heard it described as “sweetly belittling.” Absolutely.

We lose so much as we age. Let’s not rob elders of their dignity, too.

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey

Posted in Aging, Volunteering | Tagged | 3 Comments

Hero in your own hometown

“Caregiver! Caregiver!” Mary Lou called weakly, hoping to get the attention of an aide serving lunch across the room. No luck.

I was nearby, playing background music to accompany the meal.

I don’t know Mary Lou’s health story, but she uses a wheelchair with elevated rests supporting her fully extended legs. I’ve observed her limited mobility, both upper- and lower-body.

My playing had already been interrupted several times by the whirring and grinding of a blender in the kitchen, so what the heck. Mary Lou was in distress and no one was responding. I left the piano to see if I could help her.

“There’s a stink bug,” she said, pointing to the window. Stink bugs—so named because of the pungent smell they release when crushed—have been rampant in Michigan this fall. Outdoors, they damage crops. Indoors, they’re mostly just a nuisance. They seldom bite. But boy they’re ugly.

I investigated the bug she’d spotted and determined it was outside, caught between the window and the screen. To prove my point, I tapped on the stink bug through the glass. It remained in place, undisturbed. Mary Lou still seemed worried. She told me that earlier in the day she’d had a stink bug on the blankets covering her, which was a particular kind of misery for a woman whose arms and hands don’t function well.

I returned to the piano.

Soon the women at Mary Lou’s table were “helping” by pointing out other stink bugs at the window. Three more times I got up to have a look and assured them that the dreaded pests were outside and could do them no harm.

The 5th time, when I left the piano and reached through the metal mini-blind to tap on the window, a stink bug fell off onto the carpet. Okay, that one was inside.

For some reason, I’m not particularly afraid of bugs. I don’t like them, but they don’t drive me out of the house like mice do. So I grabbed a tissue from the box on the counter and quickly took care of the bug, trying not to squish it too much. The women cheered.

That day, I was their hero. It felt good.

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey

Posted in Audiences, Piano performance, Volunteering | Tagged | 3 Comments

School days, school days, good old golden rule days

I’ve written about the magic of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” for my elderly listeners. I love the wave of soft singing that makes its way across the room and reaches me at the piano every time I play it. Here’s part of that earlier post:

“Battle Hymn” never fails to elicit a response. Part of its appeal is the beautiful melody and full, satisfying chords. And the song’s lower range makes it well suited to older singers, whose voices have deepened naturally with age. But there’s something else about the song that I’ve never been able to put my finger on. I’ve observed many patients from dementia units who slump mutely in wheelchairs seeming unaware of their surroundings, then raise their heads and begin singing when they hear the opening strains of “Battle Hymn.” The lyrics flow easily from their long-term memory, unlocked by the music. This occasionally happens when I play other songs, but it always happens when I play “Battle Hymn” in a memory-care setting.

Things are a little different in assisted-living, but audiences still enjoy the song. Len piped up to say that when he was in school the kids changed the lyrics:

Glory, glory hallelujah
Teacher hit me with a ruler…

I’d heard those lines before, but never the rest. So I asked Len and he obliged:

I bopped her on the bean
With a rotten tangerine
And she ain’t gonna teach no more.

Kids delight in these parodies—silly and often a bit cheeky.

Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday to you
You look like a monkey
And you smell like one, too

Or, to the tune of “On Top of Old Smoky”:

On top of spaghetti all covered with cheese,
I lost my poor meatball when somebody sneezed.
It rolled off the table, and onto the floor
And then my poor meatball, it rolled out the door…

Last Christmas, I played carols for a sing-along at a friend’s house. When we got to “We Three Kings,” both my husband and a woman in the group who grew up in the Philippines knew these lyrics:

We three kings of Orient are
Trying to smoke a rubber cigar
It was loaded, it exploded
Now we are seeing stars.

Here’s another one with a Christmas theme, familiar to those born after 1960:

Jingle bells, batman smells
Robin laid an egg,
Batmobile lost a wheel
And joker did ballet.

The amazing thing to me is that we remember these alternate lyrics decades later. For nonagenarian Phil, hearing me play the World War–II era ballad “I’ll Be Seeing You” brought back a memory he said hadn’t surfaced in years.

As a teenager, he and the boys he hung around with used to change the words to the song and serenade their girlfriends: “I’ll be seizing you, in all the old familiar places.”

When my daughter was little she occasionally did something she thought was entertaining, but I thought bordered on rude. On those rare occasions, I would say, “That’s not as funny as you think it is.”

I was reminded of this when my daughter, now grown, commented on Phil’s “seizing you” lyrics. Apparently she didn’t find those teenage boys of long ago as funny as they no doubt thought they were.

Her comment? “Haha, boys.”

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey

Posted in Audiences, Music and emotion, Reminiscences, Volunteering | 2 Comments

Light up the sky like a flame–fame!

Have you ever played that party game where everyone tells the story of their biggest brush with celebrity?

My celebrity sighting is pretty lame. I saw Ed McMahon, Johnny Carson’s fawning sidekick, at an ocean-front Los Angeles restaurant in the 1990s. I didn’t actually meet him. I just spotted him walking in.

But here’s my bigger claim to fame: I’m related to the writer Henry Morton Robinson. His novel, The Cardinal, was made into a movie released in 1963, directed by Otto Preminger. Robinson was married to my great-aunt. I never met him, but I visited her a few times in Woodstock NY after he died and I saw the outbuilding where he wrote.

My mom always claimed she saw Robert Goulet during a Florida vacation in the 1960s. She was never one to let the truth ruin her stories, so I recently checked with my dad about it. He confirmed that yes indeed, while on a drive in the Miami Beach area with my aunt and uncle, they all saw Goulet walking out of the luxurious Fontainebleu Hotel. My dad remembers the women in the car screaming with excitement.

Goulet had played Sir Lancelot in the Lerner and Loewe Broadway musical Camelot, which opened in 1960 and also starred Richard Burton and Julie Andrews. (A whole different cast was used in the film version made in 1967.) Goulet sang “If Ever I Would Leave You,” a romantic ballad that became his signature song.

After Camelot, appearances on The Danny Thomas Show and The Ed Sullivan Show brought Goulet into American living rooms. Women adored him—his dashing good looks, his gorgeous baritone. To catch a glimpse of him in person? Thrilling. At least for my mom and my aunt.

What’s your brush with celebrity?

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey


Posted in Music history, Reminiscences | Tagged , , | 9 Comments

Comes a toothache, see the dentist right away

Can you remember the name of your childhood dentist? Most people can.

Mine was Dr. Bigsby. My husband’s was Dr. Mastromatteo (dubbed “Dr. Mashed Potatoes” by a younger sibling). I have a friend who grew up in Milwaukee and went to a dentist named Roensch—it was pronounced “Wrench”—and then to Dr. Hurtie. I’m not kidding.

Names of childhood piano teachers stick, too. It’s a no-brainer for some students: Classical pianist Van Cliburn’s first teacher was his mother. Jazz pianist Oscar Peterson’s sister gave him piano lessons.

My first piano teacher was Ponnie Rey. I was 7. She drove to my house each week, which I think was a common arrangement in the 1960s. Ponnie (we were on a first-name basis for some reason) got me going with Teaching Little Fingers to Play from the John Thompson series. By age 10, I had worked my way up through the 4th grade book and Ponnie said she’d taught me what she could. It was time for someone else to take over.

My next teacher was a church choir director who shall remain nameless in this reminiscence. He was always in a hurry and always running late. I would arrive at his house after school and wait at the piano, his wife busy in the kitchen. Eventually he’d rush in, with no apparent plan for my lesson. This went on for about 6 months. During that entire time, he had me work on only one piece: the theme from Rachmaninoff’s famous second piano concerto, arranged for intermediate level.

At each lesson, I played the 2-page piece for him. It was not particularly difficult. He never seemed pleased with my efforts but gave me little feedback, so I didn’t know what to do to improve. I still have the sheet music, on which his sole notation is “Blur ped some places,” scrawled in a nearly illegible hand.

I didn’t make much progress until my parents found a new and much better teacher for me: Mrs. Derragon, an older woman with many students, beginner to advanced. I took lessons from her until I graduated from high school.

I remember her kind and supportive teaching style, and her intense focus during lessons. Her phone would ring and ring (before voice mail or answering machines) but she didn’t answer while she was teaching. I also remember the beautiful dresses she wore, custom-made to fit her severe swayback.

When I started, Mrs. Derragon charged $2 per lesson. After a few years, the local piano teachers’ group pressured her to raise her prices. So she did—to $2.50 per lesson. If it was difficult for my parents to come up with that money each week, they didn’t mention it to me. I’m forever grateful.

But I sure hated those non-negotiable recitals every spring.

So have you remembered it? What was the name of your childhood dentist?

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey

Posted in Piano performance, Reminiscences | Tagged , | 11 Comments

Who will buy?

You’ve probably never heard of composer Richard Trentlage, but every kid—at least in Wisconsin—knows his most famous song:

Back in 1962, Trentlage came up with his “Oscar Mayer Wiener Song” when the company (based in Madison, Wisconsin until a few months ago) ran a contest for a new advertising jingle. He won.

Oh, I’d love to be an Oscar Mayer wiener,
That is what I’d truly like to be.
‘Cause if I were an Oscar Mayer wiener,
Everyone would be in love with me.

For those of you who share my appreciation for proper grammar, I’ll mention that the lyrics correctly use the subjunctive case in that third line: were. The subjunctive case seems to have all but disappeared. More’s the pity.

My daughter, now in her early 30s, grew up in Wisconsin and gets nostalgic over the hot-dog shaped, bright orangey-red and yellow Wienermobile, a regular feature at summer library events, state and county fairs, and sports games. She fondly remembers the tiny whistles—perfect little Wienermobile replicas—that the drivers handed out.

Robert Swanson is another big name in advertising jingles, but is likely also unfamiliar to you. His greatest hits include:

Northwest Orient … [gong] Airlines.

Mmm good, mmm good, that’s what Campbell’s soups are, mmm good.

Don’t wait to be told, you need Palmolive Gold.

Here are a few other names in vintage jingle writing. They may surprise you:

Barry Manilow wrote many ad jingles during the 1960s and ’70s, including “Stuck on Me” for Band-Aid, and State Farm’s “Like a Good Neighbor.”

Randy Newman co-wrote “Be a Pepper” for Dr Pepper soft drink, with Barry Manilow and Jake Holmes (he composed the melody for the U.S. Army’s “Be All That You Can Be” recruitment commercials).

The Rolling Stones wrote and performed a jingle for Kellogg’s Rice Krispies in the early 1960s. The commercial only aired in the U.K.

Herbie Hancock composed original music for a 1960s Yardley’s men’s cologne ad. Later, he expanded it into his jazz standard “Maiden Voyage.”

So, no shame in writing advertising jingles.

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey

Note: If you liked this post, you might also want to read “Hey! Big Spender,” a post from last October featuring old standards used in TV marketing campaigns to sell products from soup to telephone service.

Posted in Music and emotion, Music history, Songwriters | Tagged | 4 Comments

Love’s old sweet song

I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to find Owen. He steadied himself with his walker and grinned. “Bet you didn’t expect to see me here, did ya?”

Until a few weeks ago, Owen lived in an independent senior community where I also play. He’s an upbeat, friendly guy and has told me a lot about himself over the year I’ve known him, mostly stories about growing up in Flint, Michigan.

But lately things weren’t going well for Owen. First his wife passed away, then his own health seemed to take a bad turn. It was time for a move to an assisted-living facility, where he would get more help.

This is a common scenario.

Sometimes my listeners know about a move long before it happens and freely share their new contact information. Other times, people move on very short notice and don’t get that chance. All of a sudden they just disappear. Because of privacy regulations, staff cannot tell me—or the friends left behind—where they’ve gone. Sad and frustrating.

Residents move from one senior facility to another for many reasons. They might choose to be closer to family—or their family might make that choice for them. Sometimes there are financial considerations. Most moves occur when a different level of care becomes necessary, due to mental or physical decline.

Whatever the reason, moving can be a tough transition: leaving friends, losing comfortable routines.

Sometimes my presence helps with the change. Because I volunteer at many places, elders-on-the-move might run into me again. That’s what happened with Owen. It was a happy surprise—for him and for me. I am a familiar face in his new home, my music a familiar sound.

The day Owen appeared at my side by the piano, he wasted no time before making his usual request: “Satin Doll,” a 1953 jazz standard by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn:

And, as always, he added, “I courted my wife to that song.”

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey

Posted in Aging, Audiences, Music and emotion, Song requests, Volunteering | Tagged | 1 Comment