It took me by surprise I must say

I’d talked with Greg many times during my volunteer visits, but none of our conversations had been like this one.

He: I’ll be 64 on Feb 14th
Me: Oh, your birthday’s on Valentine’s Day!
He: Yeah, and I’ve got a heart-shaped navel. I’ll let you see it for a dollar.
Me: [stunned silence]
He: For $5, I won’t show it to you.

I had the feeling he’d told that joke many times. And I’m sure he meant no offense. Nonetheless, I consider it an odd exchange between a pianist and a member of her audience. How does one respond to that information? I could only manage a small, tolerant smile.

piano-keys-heart-800pxGreg expresses appreciation for my efforts every time I see him. I can’t believe you don’t get paid when you play for us! You don’t make a single mistake! (Yes, I do.)

And what a music lover he is. Once when I played “Are You Lonesome Tonight,” a 1926 song revived by Elvis Presley in 1960, he wept so deeply he had to leave the room.

The first time I met Greg he was in a wheelchair, his left leg extended with a big bandage around the knee. I figured he was a live-in physical therapy patient following surgery. But as months passed, and then a year, I realized something else must be going on.

Last month, I was shocked at the change in his appearance. He looked so thin and bald it took me a moment to recognize him, even though he was seated at his usual lunch table. But he chatted amiably, his voice still strong. And that’s when he surprised me with the news about his Valentine’s Day anatomy.

I’m in my 13th year of volunteering. I really should have learned by now to expect the unexpected.

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey

Posted in Audiences, Music and emotion, Volunteering | 5 Comments

And they called it puppy love

My uncle Brian lived quietly after his retirement. He read, he took walks, watched television, spent time with family.

A couple of years ago, Brian started having trouble following conversations. A hearing aid seemed to help. But when he couldn’t find the thermostat in his house, we realized there was more going on than just hearing loss. He was showing signs of dementia.

When the time came, he went into a lovely senior facility built at the edge of a small lake, a place with walking paths and colorful, well-tended gardens where he could sit in the sunshine. Mostly, though, he wanted to keep moving.

He walked and walked. And then he walked some more. His dementia progressed. One day he slipped out of the building unnoticed and couldn’t find his way back in.

Now he lives in a dedicated memory-care community where the only outdoor space is a small, enclosed courtyard. Less freedom, less chance of getting lost.

For a while, he accompanied another resident who walked her dog in the hallway. He announced that he was going to get a dog too, which surprised us, since he’d never wanted one before.

He began to develop the physical problems associated with dementia. His balance was off and he was falling a lot. He fought against using a walker so a wheelchair was brought in. Being pushed around in his chair is a poor substitute for the walking Brian loves.

We tried to interest him in other things. He couldn’t read anymore, and he didn’t seem to care about listening to music or watching television or looking at family photos.

We worried that he was so alone.

Just before Christmas, I read a New York Times article about robotic dogs and cats being used for pet therapy in the memory care wing of a Bronx senior home. These Hasbro “Companion Pets” react to voice and touch.


I decided to take a chance. Maybe Brian really did want a dog. I bought him a golden, silky-furred robotic puppy and named it Sandy, which I figured could work for either a boy or a girl. I didn’t know which gender he’d prefer.

When we took the dog to Brian in early January, I tried to keep my expectations low. I hoped he would respond and interact, but knew he might pay no attention to it at all.

Success! Brian held the puppy on his lap and stroked its head. Sandy blinked, and made a light panting sound. We showed him how to cup the dog’s cheek to get it to nuzzle his hand, how to stroke the dog’s back to activate a heartbeat sensation. Brian quickly warmed to Sandy. When he tugged on the bandana, the puppy raised its eyebrows and wagged its tail. He blew gently on Sandy’s nose. The dog replied with a few soft barks.

I came back to visit two weeks later. Sandy was sitting on a side table in Brian’s room. The little bandana had come off. The name tag I had made was missing.

The dog goes to sleep when left alone, so I picked him up. (Brian has decided it’s a boy.) Suddenly the room was filled with puppy noises as Sandy looked around at us. Brian perked up a bit.

He called “yoo-hoo” to Sandy; the dog turned toward the sound of his voice. Then Brian said, “I’m going to try an experiment,” and pedaled his wheelchair with his feet on the floor, Fred Flintstone—style, past the dog. Sandy rewarded him with a burst of movement and animated woofing.

I’m pretty sure my uncle doesn’t think Sandy is a real puppy. It doesn’t matter. Even a robotic pet can be a source of joyful companionship. That’s what I want for Brian as he drifts away from us, into a world we cannot know.

Copyright © 2017 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.

Posted in Dementia | Tagged | 10 Comments

Heard from the bench #6

“Look at all those handsome fellas!”

No one expresses appreciation for the world around her quite like Mae. That day, it was the sight of three young maintenance men walking by that delighted her.

I looked up from the piano to see the guys, probably all in their mid-20s and clearly embarrassed, smile shyly in Mae’s direction, then hightail it out of the room. An aide who witnessed the scene commented to a co-worker, “Wouldn’t you have liked to know Mae back in the day? I bet she was really something.”

She’s still really something, a live wire who’s always smiling, always quick with a thank you and a compliment. “We’re lovin’ your music, honey,” she tells me often.

Mae’s remark about the “handsome fellas” brought “Standing on the Corner” to mind, from the 1956 Broadway musical The Most Happy Fella. Frank Loesser wrote all the show’s songs—both melodies and lyrics. (He’d done the same in 1950 for Guys and Dolls.)

The Four Lads had a hit recording of “Standing on the Corner” but I prefer the Mills Brothers’ version below.

Substitute guys for girls in the lyrics, and it could be Mae’s theme song:

Standing on a corner watching all the girls go by
Standing on a corner watching all the girls go by
Brother you don’t know a nicer occupation
Matter of fact, neither do I
Than standing on a corner watching all the girls
Watching all the girls, watching all the girls go by.

I’m the cat that got the cream
Haven’t got a girl but I can dream
Haven’t got a girl but I can wish
So I’ll take me down to Main street
And that’s where I select my imaginary dish.

Standing on a corner watching all the girls go by
Standing on a corner giving all the girls the eye
Brother if you’ve got a rich imagination
Give it a whirl, give it a try
Try standing on the corner…

Copyright © 2017 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.

Posted in Audiences, Overheard, Volunteering | Tagged | 1 Comment

Bingo was his name-o

“Mind if I make the announcements now?”

At some point about halfway through my hour of lunchtime background music, this “life enrichment” director always asks me to stop for a few minutes. Microphone in hand, she reads her list of activities scheduled for the rest of the day:

“At 12:30, we’ll be showing a movie about Johnny Cash called Walk the Line.”
No response.
“Then at 3pm, there’s exercise.”
Not a peep.
“At 7 o’clock tonight, bingo.”
OOOOH!!! Excitement ripples across the large dining room.

What makes bingo so irresistible to senior citizens?

My grandmother adored bridge, and played every chance she got. She kept a close eye on the activities room in the nursing home where she spent her last few years, ever alert to the possibility of a bridge game. But bingo—as simple a game as bridge is a complicated one—also drew her in.

I remember the bingo fundraising nights at the Catholic church my family belonged to when I was growing up. I hear church bingo nights are still popular, despite claims by some that they take unfair advantage of people with a weakness for gambling.

Very little is allowed to stand in the way of bingo at a senior facility. I once played the piano in the assisted living home where my mother was for a brief time. Because of a staff miscommunication, bingo was scheduled to start halfway through my informal concert. When it was time for the game there was a mass exodus, leaving me with an audience of three. (At least my mother was one of them.)

At another place where I have a twice-monthly volunteer gig, the residents start lining up outside the bingo room at 12:45 for the 2pm start. Winners earn “bingo bucks” they can spend once a month, on an assigned day, in the gift shop. A couple of weeks ago, I happened to walk by on bingo shopping day. Seven women in wheelchairs waited to get in. The one at the front had turned her chair to make it impossible for anyone to cut ahead of her. Her steely expression alone would have kept me from considering the move.

These seniors take their bingo seriously.

And then there’s the retirement community I visit where sorority “girls” call the numbers at bingo. Men reluctant to participate in other activities hustle to the bingo game when these young college students arrive.

There’s even a music-themed version of bingo. The cards have titles of old songs instead of numbers printed in the squares. Players try to match song snippets they hear (a CD comes packaged with the game) to titles on their cards.

Bingo variations for people with dementia include identifying colors and shapes, foods, animals, body parts.

So, why bingo? There are the obvious reasons, social and cognitive. But when I ask participants, I get this answer: “It’s just fun.” Reason enough.

Copyright © 2017 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.

Posted in Aging, Volunteering | Tagged | 3 Comments

There’s something about a uniform

Joining the Navy when you suffer from motion sickness is perhaps not the smartest move. Yet at age 16, that’s exactly what Raymond did. And the experience shaped his life.

The week before Christmas, I played the piano at Ray’s memorial service, a privilege that both comforted and pained me. He was one of my biggest fans—and I felt the same about him.

I knew Raymond for only the last 6 of his 91 years, when he lived in an upscale senior facility where I play twice a month. We’d learned a lot about each other during our visits and lunches together.

Ray told me that in 1941, knowing he’d be drafted, he enlisted.

But why the Navy? His daughter explained it this way in her eulogy: “He wanted to get three square meals a day. And he liked the color of the uniforms.” Classic understated Raymond humor.

Ray’s father had been in the Navy, but soon discovered that boats made him seasick. He played clarinet in the military band instead. Ray couldn’t play a musical instrument, so the band wasn’t an option for solving his motion sickness problem. He ended up serving on PT boats.

I knew that Raymond was stationed in the Aleutian Islands during WWII. But somehow he had never mentioned that during that time there were just a handful of records available for entertainment. One of them was the soundtrack from the 1943 Broadway show Oklahoma! He and his fellow seamen listened to it incessantly.

Over the years, Ray had asked me to play “The Nearness of You” and “Red River Valley” and “The Man That Got Away” and “Georgia.” But never a song from Oklahoma!

It was only after Raymond’s death, during a discussion with his son about music for the memorial, that I learned the deep emotional significance Oklahoma! held. His family asked me to include two special songs in the service.

So, my selections bookended by hymns and prayers, I played “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’” and “Out of My Dreams (and Into Your Arms).” On an out-of-tune piano, in a small, poorly heated chapel, on a cold, sunny December afternoon.

It was a sentimental tribute to a gentleman I’ll miss.

From now on, these will be Navy songs, filed in my brain right next to “Anchors Away”:

Copyright © 2017 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.

Posted in Death, Music and emotion, Volunteering | Tagged , | 2 Comments

So happy together

Remember the scene in The Music Man when the gossiping women from town sing “Pick a Little, Talk a Little” (cheep, cheep, cheep)? The school board arrives, demanding to see Professor Harold Hill’s credentials. Hill distracts them by singing “Goodnight, Ladies” in harmony with the women’s “Pick a Little.” The men from the school board can’t resist joining in, barbershop quartet–style, and Professor Hill slips away.

I recently learned that a combination of songs like the one in The Music Man is called a “quodlibet,” a strange word that comes from Latin: quod meaning “what” + libet “it pleases.” So, “as you please.” It’s pronounced kwod-luh-bet.

Jazz vocalist Nina Simone partnered two songs in a quodlibet on her 1958 debut album. She combined the melody and lyrics of Rodgers and Hart’s “Little Girl Blue” with the melody of the popular carol “Good King Wenceslas.” It’s stunning. (The quodlibet starts at 1:35.)


Here’s another one. “Night of Silence,” a Christmas carol written in 1981 by American composer Daniel Kantor, can be sung simultaneously with “Silent Night.” (Skip to 2:50 if you want to hear the songs together.)


I’ll be back in January. Merry Christmas! Happy New Year!

Copyright © 2016 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.

Posted in Singers, Singing | 4 Comments

From the Archives

Yesterday I played Christmas carols for a group at a nursing home. They gathered around the piano to sing along. Between songs, they chatted with me.

When I announced I’d be playing “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” Gail lamented, “Yeah, we wish.”

After “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” Cora informed me that many more than three Wise Men followed the Star of Bethlehem. For such a long trip, she explained, a larger number of travelers would have banded together.

I learn a lot from my audiences. And over the next few weeks, learning opportunities abound as I take on extra volunteer gigs: senior holiday parties, an open house, a memorial service.

So, while I prepare for all that, here’s a seasonal post from 2013, recounting the time I was upstaged by a Christmas tree…

The week after Thanksgiving, I arrived for my twice-monthly volunteer gig at an assisted living center. I headed for the dining room, where I play a neglected upright piano while the residents eat lunch. About halfway through my hour, I heard music tinkling nearby. I was confused. “The Twelve Days of Christmas” wafted into my right ear, but I was playing “It Had to Be You.” A moment later I realized why.

A little musical Christmas tree revolved in the center of a table a few feet from the piano. There sat four well-coiffed elderly diners, calmly eating their Salisbury steak. Theirs was the only table with a wind-up tree, so one of them likely brought the decoration herself to brighten the institutional setting. I struggled to pull my attention back to the keyboard, to concentrate on the melody beneath my fingers. I played a handful of wrong notes. Eventually my ceramic competitor slowed and stopped. Thankfully, no one opted for a partridge-in-a-pear-tree encore.

I continued my program and a short while later the four women silently filed past me to return to their rooms. As they left, I was distracted by the thought that one of them—seated close enough to touch the piano bench where I sat—reached out and wound up that tree, perhaps commenting companionably to her tablemates, “Let’s have a little music while we eat.”

Copyright © 2016 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.

Posted in Audiences, Piano performance, Volunteering | 3 Comments

Heard from the bench #5

Any time I need a little reassurance that someone out there is actually listening to the background music I’m playing, I pull out an evergreen from 1945: “It’s Been a Long, Long Time.” When I hear singing – and I always do – I know my audience hears me.

Kiss me once and kiss me twice
And kiss me once again
It’s been a long, long time.
Haven’t felt this way, my dear
Since don’t remember when.
It’s been a long, long time…

This crowd-pleaser was a collaboration between Sammy Cahn (lyrics) and Jule Styne (music), whose other successes include “Saturday Night Is the Loneliest Night of the Week” (1944), “Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!” (1945), and “Three Coins in the Fountain” (1954).

Harry James made a top-of-the-chart recording of “It’s Been a Long, Long Time,” with vocals by Kitty Kallen. So did Bing Crosby, accompanied by Les Paul’s Trio:

“It’s Been A Long, Long Time” captured the emotions of servicemen returning home at the end of World War II. The words were equally meaningful to the loved ones they’d left behind.

Those sentiments still resonate with my elderly audiences. A listener named Sue Ellen responded to the song this way: “You got that right. It sure has been a long, long time.”

Her table companion laughed, then added, in a voice turned wistful, “You can say that again.”

Copyright © 2016 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.


Posted in Audiences, Music and emotion, Overheard, Volunteering | Tagged | 2 Comments

Evil ways

devil4-202x240How controversial could a musical interval possibly be? Very, as it turns out.

Not many of us have perfect or absolute pitch, the ability the sing or name a particular pitch without hearing it in relation to another. People with perfect pitch need no reference tone to start with. They just know: a D is a D, with its own unique sound. Absolute pitch is something we’re born with. We either have it or we don’t. Most of us don’t.

Relative pitch, on the other hand, can be learned. Developing relative pitch is an ear-training basic the musicians. They learn to identify or create a certain pitch by comparing it to a reference note and figuring out the distance—or interval—between the two.

One way to train your ear to recognize intervals is to associate them with well-known melodies. For example, the interval at the beginning of the song “Over the Rainbow” is an octave: SOME-WHERE over the rainbow…

The DING-DONG of a doorbell is a descending minor third.

“My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean” starts with an ascending major sixth, MY-BON-nie. Willie Nelson used the same interval, this time descending, in the first two notes of “Crazy.” CRA-ZY, I’m crazy for feelin’ so lonely…

Then there’s an interval called the augmented fourth, so dissonant that it was labeled diabolus in musica (the devil in music) during the Renaissance, and banned in church music. Another name for this interval is the tritone, because the notes are three whole tones apart. From F up to B, for instance.

What does this “devil’s interval” sound like? Listen to the first two notes in the theme song to The Simpsons. That’s a tritone:

Another well-known tritone is the interval you hear when Tony sings the first two syllables of the name “Maria” in West Side Story: MA-RI-a, I’ve just met a girl named Maria…

Given the subversive nature of The Simpsons (a favorite of mine), the tritone at the beginning of that theme song fits. It’s less clear to me why Leonard Bernstein chose it to start the lovely “Maria.”

The tritone is an “unstable” interval, meaning it leaves us on edge, craving a less dissonant, more stable sound, what in music is called resolution. Not surprisingly, there are tritones galore in heavy metal songs like “Black Sabbath” and “Purple Haze.”

But I prefer my music tamer, so I’ll leave you with something fitting for Halloween: The theme song from the 1960s sitcom The Munsters. It starts right off with a tritone (E up to B flat, resolving to B), giving the theme its lighthearted, spooky feel.


Copyright © 2016 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.

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

Hey! Big spender

I rarely watch television during the day. And I rarely watch a tv program I haven’t prerecorded. Which means I rarely watch a tv commercial, other than in fast-forward mode. But one recent afternoon I did all those things.

To fend off the boredom of leg stretches, I tuned into an episode of HGTV’s Tiny House Hunters. I enjoyed imagining myself living in one of those tidy little gems. Where would I put my piano?

The commercial interruptions were annoying, until an ad for Uncle Ben’s rice caught my eye and my ear. It featured the song “The Sign,” by Ace of Base (I opened up my eyes and saw the sign…):

That made me think of other old songs used in tv marketing campaigns. Usually the lyrics are tweaked. For example, The National Dairy Board’s “Cheese, Glorious Cheese,” a jingle based on “Food, Glorious Food,” from the 1960 British musical Oliver!

Occasionally, a song appears in its original form, like Carly Simon’s “Anticipation,” in a classic 1978 Heinz ketchup commercial:

Here are other vintage tunes that made their way into commercials:

  • Irving Berlin’s “Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee” was heard in Nescafé ads during the 1950s.
  • To advertise an early powdered creamer, a simple word substitution gave us “You’re the Pream (Cream) in My Coffee,” a take-off on a 1928 song from the team of DeSylva, Brown, and Henderson.
  • A second 1928 DeSylva/Brown/Henderson effort, “Button Up Your Overcoat,” appeared in a late 1960s commercial for Contac cold medicine.
  • For decades, Oldsmobile sold its cars to the tune of “In My Merry Oldsmobile,” a waltz from 1905.
  • Call Me, a song made popular by Petula Clark, was perfect for Bell Telephone ads in the 1970s.
  • Northeast Airlines featured “Yellow Bird,” a West Indian folk song recorded by Harry Belafonte, in its pre-1972 tv ads. After that, Northeast’s yellow-and-white planes disappeared from the sky when the company merged into Delta.
  • Food businesses have had a lot of success with old songs in their tv ads: “Try a Little Tenderness” for Perdue Chicken, “Make (Bake) Someone Happy” for Pillsbury, “It’s So Nice to Have a Man (Cake) Around the House” for Betty Crocker, “Give Me the Simple (Campbell) Life” for Campbell soups. Wesson Oil made up the marketing word “Wessonality,” a play on the 1945 song “Personality.”
  • “My Romance,” a 1945 Rodgers and Hart song from the musical Jumbo, was used to sell a Ralph Lauren fragrance called “Romance.”
  • The National Safety Council co-opted “Buckle Down, Winsocki” (1941) for its “Buckle Up for Safety” ads in the 1960s, before seat belts were mandatory.

And finally, finding inspiration in a couple of fun Beach Boys tunes, advertisers came up with catchy ways to promote Sunkist orange drink and Hondas. Separately, of course:

Copyright © 2016 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.


Posted in Music history | Tagged | 7 Comments