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

Tell it like it is

On a dark cold January morning, I was riding a shuttle van to the Detroit airport parking lot after taking a red-eye flight from Seattle. The driver had tuned into a rebroadcast of Marian McPartland’s NPR program Piano Jazz. The music was soothing, the talk portion low-key. The volume was respectful of the needs of a passenger facing 6am on two hours of sleep.

I’ve been too often subjected to loud, obnoxious radio in situations where I have no control, like restaurants and stores. So when the shuttle driver dropped me off at my car and handed me my suitcase, I told him I appreciated his selection. He responded with this gem:

“Most music today tells you how to feel. Jazz lets you decide for yourself.”

I loved that observation.

When I volunteer, many of my listeners stop by the piano to share their opinions about music—both the music I’m playing and music in general. They lament how little most young people today know about the old standards collectively called the Great American Songbook. The generation gap runs in both directions. My elderly listeners don’t care for current popular music either. “It just sounds like yelling,” one told me.

Once in a while, I come across an audience member whose music appreciation seems to extend to just about every genre. Tim is like that. Old music, new music, he likes it all. With one important exception. He told me he can’t stand rap.

“Oh,” he added, “I forgot to put the ‘c’ in front of that.”

I don’t disagree.

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey

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

Something to remember you by

My Uncle Brian continues to slip away, his brain addled by advancing dementia. You might recall the post I wrote in February about my uncle and his robotic puppy.

Brian now lives in a small group home. He likes helping with simple chores like folding towels and drying dishes. Perhaps best of all, the household includes a real dog.

When family members visit, Brian’s face gives away the question in his head: Who are you? He sometimes grows impatient with having company. “Well, I’m expecting an important phone call,” he’ll say after a short while. That’s code for “This visit has lasted long enough. I want you to leave.”

I rely on old family stories for most of my interaction with Brian. It’s tempting to try to engage him by starting with, “Do you remember when … ?” But it’s better if I begin by saying, “I remember when …” Sometimes a memory is sparked and he joins the reminiscence. Mostly he just listens.

Often I talk to him about the time he took me to a performance by classical pianist Van Cliburn. The concert was somewhere in Detroit in the mid-1960s. I was probably around 12 years old.

Brian had no interest in classical music—he still doesn’t. But he knew that as a budding pianist I would be interested. I cherish the memory of that outing.

Van Cliburn’s launch to stardom came in 1958, when he won the first Tchaikovsky International Competition in Moscow, a surprise victory for an American during the Cold War era. It was six months after the Soviets launched Sputnik. Cliburn was 23.

Four years later, the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition was created in his honor. The Boston Globe once called the Cliburn Competition “a cross between the Miss America Pageant, the Olympic Games, the Academy Awards, and the Pulitzer Prize.”

Tomorrow marks the start of the 15th Van Cliburn competition, held in Fort Worth, Texas. Thirty of the world’s finest young pianists (ages 18-30) perform in the preliminary round. That field will be narrowed to twenty, then to twelve, then to six for the finals. Gold, silver, and bronze medals will be announced June 10th. The first-place winner gets $50,000 and three years of commission-free career management, ensuring a busy schedule of international performances.

I’m grateful to my uncle for nurturing my interest in playing the piano by taking me to hear Van Cliburn all those years ago. Brian doesn’t remember. That’s okay. I do.

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey


Posted in Dementia, Piano performance, Reminiscences | Tagged | 10 Comments

Sweet soul music

Earlier this month at my band rehearsal, we sightread through a new piece of sheet music: “It’s All in the Game.” Then we had our usual follow-up discussion after trying new pieces: Did we like it? Enough to work it up to performance level?

Maybe. To me, the waltz rhythm (3 beats per measure) gave it a schmaltzy feel. We toyed with the tempo a bit, then set the piece aside. We might come back to it another night.

But during our rehearsal discussion, a band member noticed the song’s copyright date: 1912. That intrigued me. I was sure a version of the song had been popular in my youth. A much less sappy version.

The next day I looked more closely at the copyright information. I’m not very good with Roman numerals, so I needed a minute to figure it out.

Turns out the 1912 copyright is for the melody. The lyrics came much later.

“It’s All in the Game” started as “Melody in A Major,” a wordless composition by General Charles G. Dawes, who was Calvin Coolidge’s Vice President from 1925-1929.

Carl Sigman added lyrics in 1951 and gave the song its new name. A new copyright was issued. Sigman wrote the words for many hits, including “Ebb Tide” and the big band tune “Pennsylvania 6-5000.” And another sappy one: “Where Do I Begin,” theme music for the 1979 film Love Story.

Tommy Edwards recorded “It’s All in the Game” for the first time in 1951, using a slow arrangement with lots of violins:

In 1958, Edwards rerecorded the song. This time, he ditched the ¾ waltz beat and toned down the orchestra strings, immediately updating the feel of the music. It became his biggest-selling record and his only top ten hit.

Many others covered “It’s All in the Game” over the years: Nat King Cole, Johnnie Ray, Louis Armstrong, Barry Manilow, Cass Elliott. Even Van Morrison put his unique spin on the song.

But the recording I remember from my younger years is this soulful one by Motown’s Four Tops, released in March 1970, when I was a junior in high school.

Definitely not a waltz:

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey

Posted in Music and emotion, Music history | Tagged | 2 Comments

The times they are a-changin’

I was eating a bowl of cereal in my kitchen last October when I heard on the radio that Bob Dylan had won the Nobel Prize in Literature. I abandoned my spelt flakes, went to my sheet music closet, found my copy of “Blowin’ in the Wind,” and played it—twice.

A couple of days later, I included “Blowin’ in the Wind” in my set list for a group of seniors. I figured that most of my audience wouldn’t care for the song. And I was right.

There’s also a handful of baby boomers at that particular facility, live-in rehab patients recuperating from knee or hip replacements. I thought they might like it. And I was right.

Dylan’s rough voice has been much maligned and parodied. He was a controversial Nobel choice. Not everyone agrees that his lyrics qualify as literature when stacked against previous laureates like John Steinbeck and Toni Morrison.

But for people who came of age in the 1960s and early 70s, Dylan songs resonate: “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right,” “Forever Young,” “Mr. Tambourine Man.”

Now that people my own age are spending time in rehab facilities where I play, I’m getting requests for songs I don’t typically perform for my older audiences. Like Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge over Troubled Water” or “Turn! Turn! Turn!” by Pete Seeger.

So I’m starting to slip in something for the baby boomers. Maybe a Beatles ballad (“Fool on the Hill,” “Yesterday,” “Scarborough Fair,” “Norwegian Wood”). Just one. Or a tune by James Taylor or Joni Mitchell. Or a 1960s movie theme like “Somewhere, My Love” from Doctor Zhivago or “A Time for Us” from Romeo and Juliet, always a favorite at pajama parties with my high school girlfriends. Of course, we baby boomers love our rock songs, too, but I don’t think rock songs translate very well into solo piano performance. I leave those to the bands.

Usually there’s no audience response to my outlier musical selections, but you never know who’s singing along on the inside.

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey

Posted in Aging, Audiences, Music and emotion, Music programming, Song requests, Volunteering | Tagged | 2 Comments

Don’t be that way

One of the many books my daughter and I enjoyed reading together when she was little was The Bike Lesson, a Berenstain Bears adventure. It still makes me laugh.

Small Bear gets a new bike; Papa Bear teaches him how to ride it. Papa has a series of exaggerated, comically illustrated mishaps, like hitting a rock and catapulting himself onto the roof of the house, upside down, his head in the chimney. Small Bear gamely rescues his dad after each lesson goes wrong. Then Papa says to his son, “See? That is what you should not do. Now let that be a lesson to you.”

That line has become a standard in my household after an obvious blunder.

And it’s the line I thought of recently when I observed a visitor to an assisted-living facility where I was playing. His behavior was one big demonstration of what not to do.

He was middle-aged, strutted in like he owned the place, and plopped down at the lunch table of three women, right by the piano. I’m sure one of those women was his mother. But after an hour I still had no idea which one, because he didn’t interact with any of them.

Instead, he took out his reading glasses and got busy on his cell phone. Head down, distracted. He stayed that way. I played my usual genre—mostly standards for the 1930s and 40s—and the three women around him sang and chatted about the music as they ate their minestrone soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.

The women tried to involve the visitor in their conversation, but they just couldn’t compete with that cell phone.

Finally I got to Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia on My Mind.” At last, the visitor seemed to tune into the music.

“Wow, these songs are old timers,” he commented. “So are we!” I heard from the residents around him. He went back to his phone.

That guy missed a wonderful opportunity to talk to his mother and her tablemates about the music: What it meant to them, where they were when they first heard a particular song, what memories it brought to mind.

He needed only to set aside his phone and start with three simple words: “Tell me about…”

Paulette Bochnig Sharkey


Posted in Aging, Overheard, Volunteering | 7 Comments