July 28, 2009

The Tip Jar

 Let me say upfront that I’m not complaining about the fact that I can make money while playing the piano. But it sometimes feels as though time is moving backwards during a four hour gig. I do two things to help pass the time. One of them is observing the audience, trying to guess what the best selections are. The other one is to welcome and hope for requests. A relative of mine once said “when you play solo piano, how can you stand it when people come up and ask for songs? I could never do that.” Actually, I welcome it. It’s a challenge, and, let’s be frank, it also helps feed the tip jar.

Last Friday I played a restaurant that I usually work about once a month. It’s an enjoyable gig. There’s always a decent sized crowd and even though they don’t seem like they’re listening, I know they are. It was an active night for requests but it didn’t start on a great note. A young woman came up and asked me if I could play “Somewhere In Time.” All I could remember was that there was a movie of the same name and this was the opening theme. I tried the approach “can you hum a few bars?” This sometimes will work. If a person can hum or sing the beginning of the song sometimes it’ll jog my memory and I can fake my way through it, filling their request. When I asked her to hum a few bars she looked a little puzzled and said “I’ll be right back.” And she went back to the table with her friends. I figured she was going to ask them to hum a few bars and then come back and hum it to me. She returned and said, “okay, how about ‘Mac the Knife’?” Now there’s a transition for you. But yes, “Mac the Knife” I certainly can play.

Afterwards I focused on a Hispanic couple I saw come in. So I did my standard queue to myself, what would I play for a Hispanic couple? This is a game of chance because making assumptions often does not work. In fact, shortly after they sat down the young man approached the piano and I said to myself oh whatever this is I’m not going to be able to get it. In fact, he asked for the “Theme from Love Story.” Sure, I can get through “Love Story” for you. And as I played it I saw them gaze longingly into each other’s eyes, and wondered if he knew that the woman in “Love Story” died at the end? Nonetheless, it made them happy. The next time I looked up he was giving her food from his own plate with his fork. This couple was tight. His next trip to the piano had me anticipate another cloying love theme. In fact, he asked for “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree.” This sent my mind off into all kinds of scenarios as I struggled to get through this not-so-typical pop tune. Perhaps one of them had been away somewhere in the military or incarcerated, and the other one did indeed tie a yellow ribbon around some tree in front of their house hoping for the return. Perhaps they like Tony Orlando because he is Latino.

These musings were brought to an end as the requests for the evening started to multiply. A young man I vaguely knew sat down with his parents and sister and the requests started coming one after another: “Autumn Leaves?” No problem. “Girl from Ipanema?” Sure. “My Funny Valentine?” What key? “Bridge over Troubled Water?” Bingo. I was on a roll and my tip jar looked healthy. Finally I was waylaid by a request from the oldest person at the table, the father. Could I play “Forgiveness” by Don Henley. Awww, an 80’s tune. The closer the decade to the present, the lower my batting average. I couldn’t play it. So I played “Peaceful Easy Feeling” by the Eagles as a consolation.

There’s an interesting social interaction that happens when people make requests. First of all, do they make a request without putting any money in the tip jar? I would say this is a faux pas, even if they don’t realize it. Do they hold the bill, make the request, and then if you say “sure I can play that” THEN put the bill in the tip jar? If they put the bill in your jar and make the request and you don’t know it, what then? Take it out? That has never happened to me. But if a person puts the money in the jar and then makes the request, you do feel a certain pressure to play the song. My experience has been that if you can play the first couple of bars and make it sound passable that most people will be happy and say “yeah, that’s how that goes.”

I’ve previously related how people have come up and made requests of songs that I played just a few minutes before, as if the tune got in their head and they didn’t know what it was at the time, but their mind told them shortly thereafter that that’s what they wanted to hear.

Near the end of the evening, an elderly woman pulled up a chair next to the piano just to watch. “I like your style,” she said. I said “thanks a lot, is there anything I can play for you?” “I’d love if you’d play ‘Stardust’.” STARDUST! “Stardust” is one of those tunes that you really can’t fake, and it’s also one of those tunes that I keep saying I have to memorize. In addition, on this particular night, I kept confusing “Stardust” with “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You.” If you know these two tunes and you hum the first couple bars of each one you’ll find that the ascending melody line is quite similar. Perhaps that’s why I couldn’t get one separated from the other. So I ended up playing what sounded like “I’m Getting Stardust Over You.” She seemed happy. I was aggravated with my own memory.

            After my “Stardust/Sentimental” medley I thought the night was over as far as requests. In the last five minutes a guy came up and asked for — you won’t believe it — “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree.” I looked at him and said “are you joking?” He said “well no, I like that song.” I thought he was in cahoots with the fellow from earlier on but — go figure. Two requests for that song in the same evening.

As far as the tip jar, experience tells me to feed the tip jar first. You have to put a couple of bills in there so people know why that jar is sitting on the piano. What denominations you prime it with depends on where you are playing. I usually put in a five and a couple of ones. I didn’t realize that I wasn’t putting the bills in correctly until the veteran hostess at this particular restaurant came over to my tip jar, took the folded bills out, straightened them out with a nice crease lengthwise, and then leaned them against the side of the glass. “Better to see them,” she said. People in New York City or Miami Beach may prime their tip jars with twenties, perhaps even fifties. I think the going rate around here is smaller denominations.

All-in-all it was one of the more enjoyable evenings I’ve played. There were a lot of playable requests and a lot of tips. When I grabbed the bills and stuffed them into my coat pocket they made a nice bulge on the way home. I always resist counting. I let my wife do that. They were all ones. 


  1. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



  2. Monk,

    I could never work in a joint where I had to take requests for songs written after 1940. I guess that's why you're getting the kale and I'm sitting at home not playing the piano. I do know "Stardust," though--verse and all. Hoagy based the theme on Bix's "Singin' the Blues" solo. (Not the record, but one he must have heard Bix play live.)

    Long live jazz on WHCL!



  3. Andy,

    Thanks for the comment. Perhaps you should play your piano at home and put a tip jar on it just to see what happens. I did not know about the Bix connection to "Stardust." No wonder it's such an elegant melody.