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

They can’t take that away from me

A few weeks ago, I mentioned here that I’m working on a children’s book about 19th century pianist Clara Schumann. This project has required a lot of research, which I enjoy. Here’s a sample of what I’ve learned.

As a little girl, Clara spoke so seldom her parents thought she might be deaf. When she was about 5 years old her father, Friedrich Wieck, discovered she could hear music. He started teaching Clara to play the piano. The schedule was strict, especially for a small child: a daily one-hour lesson followed by two hours of practice. Playing music unlocked something inside Clara. Before long, she talked as much as other children her age. And she was on her way to becoming a piano virtuoso.

Life was not easy with a control freak for a father. Perhaps this is the most telling evidence of Friedrich Wieck’s extreme nature: He started a diary for Clara when she was 7. At first, he wrote the entries himself, pretending to be Clara. Later, he dictated what Clara should write. This went on until she left home at age 19.

Clara married composer Robert Schumann, who suffered from mental illness. It fell mostly to her to take care of their large family. When Robert died in 1856, she was only 36 years old. She supported her 7 surviving children by giving concerts. Robert’s music was a major part of her repertoire.

The piano was Clara’s livelihood, her solace, and her voice.

The piano has never been my livelihood. But it does provide solace, calming and comforting me in times of upset. And it gives me a voice.

At an independent-living facility where I play during lunch, two Fridays a month, a woman recently stopped by the piano and said she liked my music. She went on, “When I’m sitting way over there at my table, I can tell if it isn’t you playing.” Then she leaned in close and quietly added, “Don’t tell anybody. Just between you and me.” That was her polite way of saying she doesn’t like some of the other pianists who visit.

I’m pleased to have developed a recognizable style at the piano, one my audiences seem to like. It’s my musical voice.

Writing, too, gives me a voice. One I can use to say what I want, to finish my thought without being cut off or interrupted. A voice that can’t be taken away.

A friend who follows this blog says reading a post is like having a visit with me.

She hears my voice. And she’s listening.

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey


Posted in Audiences, Music history, Volunteering | Tagged | 8 Comments

Smoke! smoke! smoke! that cigarette

I recently inherited 3 big boxes of sheet music from my father-in-law, an amateur trombone player. He enjoyed buying sheet music on eBay, and often sent me copies of songs he thought my senior audiences might like.

I’ve sorted through only a little of the music so far. There have been items I expected—books of Cole Porter and Duke Ellington songs, for example. But I’ve also found the unexpected—“Georgy Girl” and the theme songs from both All in the Family and Dragnet. I suspect these weren’t things he particularly wanted to have, but rather they were part of a larger eBay purchase.

It’s common for old sheet music to be sold in batches, stuff nobody wants tossed in with more desirable items. If you’re after one song included in the batch, you have to buy all of it. You can end up with a lot of oddball music that the seller just wants to get rid of.

Anyway, I’m going through the boxes. Got it, got it, got it… Then: “Two Cigarettes in the Dark”:

“Two Cigarettes in the Dark” was the only song in Kill that Story, a 1934 Broadway murder mystery. It was a time when cigarettes were considered fashionable and sophisticated and a smoky room full of well-dressed people had a certain allure.

I found some recordings of “Two Cigarettes” on YouTube but didn’t care for them. However, that search turned up another similarly titled tune: “Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray,” recorded by Patsy Cline in 1957. I thought I didn’t like country music, but I was wowed by k.d. Lang’s version from her appearance on the Johnny Carson show in the late 1980s:

Back when smoking was in vogue, cigarette companies aligned themselves with popular radio and television shows. Lucky Strike, for example, sponsored The Jack Benny Program. Camel sponsored Camel Caravan, featuring Benny Goodman and his swing band. Jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams wrote the theme song, “Camel Hop”:

I’ll leave you with this for a laugh: an Old Gold ad from 1952. Dancing cigarettes and matches. Pure kitsch.

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey

Posted in Music history, Sheet music, Singers | 4 Comments

Feelings, nothing more than feelings

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that I haven’t been posting as often as usual. That’s because this summer I’m concentrating on another writing project: a children’s biography of pianist Clara Schumann.

She was one of the most important pianists of the Romantic era, certainly the most important female pianist of the era. Yet there’s very little written about her, especially for young readers.

Clara Schumann’s father started teaching her to play the piano when she was 5. He was an impatient and demanding teacher, but there is no denying he turned Clara into a virtuoso.

As a young pianist, Clara worried about making mistakes. Her father was more interested in how expressively she played. He believed that interpreting music in a way that created an emotional connection with the audience mattered more than showy technical feats. He taught Clara how to produce a rich, round tone and a singing legato.

Technique vs musicality is an ongoing debate in music competitions. What’s more important–playing flawlessly or taking chances and playing from the heart? Some judges want technical perfection. Others can overlook a minor mistake or two in favor of beautiful phrasing, tone, and interpretation.

From an early age, students are usually trained to reproduce classical music exactly as it’s written: the notes, the variations in tempo and volume, every marking. As pianist Robert Levin says, “They are actors who have all of their lines. When you put all your emphasis on reproducing something rhythmically and accurately, risk avoidance is paramount. You’re going to go to an international competition and you play three wrong notes and someone else plays only two, your fear is that that person will win the first prize and you won’t. So you don’t take any risks … The problem with that is—it’s not interesting … What we need is people taking more risks, to personalize how they perform.”

Generally, I am not a risk taker—in music or in life. But I understand Levin’s point. I’d much rather listen to a pianist who inhabits the beauty of the music, who makes it her own, who isn’t a slave to the written music, who doesn’t worry too much about a wrong note here and there. In short, a performer who is all in.

When my husband was in his early teens, he did yard work for “old Mrs. King,” as he remembers her. (He assures me she really was quite elderly, not in her mid-60s as he and I now are.). Mrs. King had hired him to cut down weeds in an unmown area of her property. The sickle he was using for the job broke and he went to her door to own up to what had happened.

Mrs. King took the news in stride, saying, “He who never made a mistake never made anything.” Then she sent him off to the corner hardware store to put another sickle on her tab.

There are many variations of this adage:

He who never made a mistake never tried anything new.

He who never made a mistake never made a discovery.

A man who never makes a mistake must get tired of doing nothing.

Old Mrs. King’s sentiment made a lasting impression, though looking back my husband realizes he didn’t really make a mistake that day. The sickle was old, the weeds were tough, and the tool simply broke. I suspect he was approaching the work in his usual way: Giving it his all.

Interesting pianists do the same.

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey

Posted in Music and emotion, Piano performance, Writing | Tagged | 7 Comments

Daddy sang bass, Mama sang tenor

When I play “Tip Toe Through the Tulips,” 92-year-old Marcie doesn’t think of Tiny Tim’s 1968 falsetto rendition. Instead, she hears her mother’s voice.

Marcie had a twin sister and another close childhood friend. When the three girls were little, they liked the seesaw—one girl on each end, the third girl in the middle. But three girls often have a hard time playing together. It’s tempting for two to gang up on one. And when that happens, it isn’t pretty.

So Marcie’s mother taught the girls to sing “Tip Toe Through the Tulips” while they seesawed. When the song ended, it was time for the girl in the middle to have her turn on one of the ends.

“My mother used to like that song.”

I hear that a lot. The mothers of many of my elderly listeners played the piano and sang, a common form of entertainment in a time so different from the one we now live in. Early 20th century tunes like “Let the Rest of the World Go By” or “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” were typically part of Mom’s repertoire.

I’m also often told “My dad sang that.” When I played “Melancholy Baby,” Estelle asked if she could borrow my sheet music for a minute to make a copy for herself. Her father used to sing that song to her as a lullaby. Barry wanted to copy “Sweetheart of Sigma Chi” so he would have all the lyrics—both verses and the chorus—that he remembered his father singing.

I treasure these moments when I know I’m providing comforting nostalgia to my listeners. If I select the right kind of music, I can take them back to good times past.

Readers of this blog often comment that a mention of a particular song in a post stirs musical memories of a parent or grandparent: Singing “Shoo-Fly Pie” in a duet with Dad or watching The Perry Como Show together, Grandpa belting out “God Bless America” while Grandma accompanied on piano.

No one who was close to my maternal grandfather can listen to “Carolina Moon” without tears. It joins “Harrigan,” “I Want a Girl Just Like the Girl That Married Dear Old Dad,” “K-K-K-Katy,” and a dozen other songs we remember him singing in his rich, resonant voice. He’s been gone for 50 years. We still miss him. Oh, to hear that voice again.

Music and memory. What a powerful duo.

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey

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

Memories light the corners of my mind

Remember Henry? In December 2013, I wrote a post about playing the piano for people with dementia, and how music awakens them. In that post, I mentioned the documentary Alive Inside and included the clip featuring Henry. Here’s how he responded when given an iPod loaded with personalized music selections:

Give people the music they loved in their youth and they come alive. That’s how powerful music is.

Dr. Peter Davies, whose research led to the development of Aricept, a drug used to improve cognition in people with Alzheimer’s, appears in the film and makes this surprising endorsement:

“I’ve spent 38 years working on Alzheimer’s disease and I haven’t done anything for patients that’s as effective as the music therapy is.”

Alive Inside won the 2014 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award. It’s now available on Netflix and Filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett is working on a follow-up documentary, Alive Inside 2.

And Rossato-Bennett has another project: He has created a headphone he calls the “Memory Player.”

As he explains:

“… Making Alive Inside I saw too many elders living at home, lonely, and living without the connection and music that could awaken their souls. It made me very sad.

I felt their great loneliness and wanted to help and that is why I invented the Memory Player, the only high-quality, inexpensive all-in-one player that two people can listen to at the same time.”

The wireless headphones come pre-loaded with music from the Alive Inside soundtrack, but any music can be transferred from a computer to the micro SD card inserted into the headphones. They’re designed to be comfortable even on ears wearing hearing aids.

You can buy the Memory Player headphone ($29.99) here.

With the help of sponsors and donors, Rossato-Bennett gives away the headphones to people with Alzheimer’s disease who live alone and do not have the means to purchase them.

Please consider joining his “empathy revolution” by making a $25 donation to cover the cost of a Memory Player for someone living at home with dementia. You can do so here:

And spread the word about this wonderful project.

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey

Posted in Aging, Dementia, Music and emotion | Tagged | Leave a comment