March 29, 2015

So You Want to be a "Piano Man"?

Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” is an iconic sing-along and is frequently requested at the exact kind of gig it describes. While there is considerably less drama on an average piano gig, Mr. Joel’s song does describe the challenges of this work.
The best pianist in the area occasionally calls me to sub for him at his steady piano engagement. It’s one of the better gigs in town, a long-established restaurant with a nice atmosphere, friendly staff, no gear required, and decent compensation. I have been doing work like this for many years and have learned that the qualifications have little to do with piano technique in the normal sense of the phrase. The more piano you play will be in inverse proportion to your success. The function of the music is to add to the ambience of the evening for the patrons and make them stay a bit longer, have an extra drink, and leave feeling their money was well spent.
Earlier in the week someone asked me how many songs I normally play during a piano gig so I decided to keep track last night. After every two or three songs I wrote down the names, and was surprised when I counted them this morning. Between 6 and 10 p.m. I played 79 songs, almost twice what I would have guessed. My breaks on this gig are fairly short; in total I probably played 3-1/2 hours worth of piano. You can do the math. Some of the songs were medleys, but I don’t feel that they were short versions. If you could see the set-up in this particular restaurant, you would notice that there’s no space for music to be placed in front of you. The lid on the piano is closed and there is no room for a music stand. This requires that the pianist has an extensive memorized repertoire; a list of the songs you actually know is a great help. My first song of the evening, at 6 p.m., was a lovely ballad from the 1940s, “These Foolish Things” and my last song, at 10 p.m. was Elvis’ “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You.” The selections covered tunes from eight decades.
What guides the choices? I draw an analogy to a Pandora station selection called “Dinner Party Radio.” The songs it yields fall under a category I describe as: “no one dislikes these songs.” You may not love all of them, but how can you dislike “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” or “My Girl.” My song choices are guided partly by this principle, with a caveat that I’m trying to play a wide variety of styles. Amongst last night’s selections: “On the Street Where You Live” and “Edelweiss” from Broadway; “My Way,” the required Sinatra; Bach’s “Minuet in G” for my token classical number; a few Beatles tunes; and “Fire and Rain.” Who doesn’t like James Taylor? And with this blog in mind, I included “Piano Man,” challenging myself by doing it in D flat.
It was a slow night for audience interaction. No happy birthdays to play and only two requests. “It Had to be You” was an easy one, but I was almost stumped by a patron’s request for the theme song from the Freddy Martin Orchestra. Freddy Martin! He led a sweet swing band and I had this vague recollection that his theme song was an adaptation of a classical number. When I asked the requester to hum a few bars (which rarely works) I followed with, “wasn’t it a classical number?”  And he goes, “Yes! A Tchaikovsky piano concerto.” That did it for me — enough to remember the first four bars and fake the rest. He seemed happy and exclaimed, “yes, that’s it!”
On occasion when I solicit requests from a table, a person will say, “well what if you could make a request, what would you like to hear? Play that.” And indeed I did last night, choosing a song I recently learned, “Hymn to Freedom” by Oscar Peterson — a Gospel-inflected number that is soulful but restrained enough to fit the setting.
I know for a fact that a significant number of substitute pianists have been hired and not called back for this gig. They may not know the reason, but I do. People like to sing along with songs in their head, especially the ones they love. If you’re playing a song that they love, and you disguise it in a style that demonstrates your own technique instead of celebrating the song, people will not respond, your tip jar will reflect it, and your phone will ring less.
If you’re playing on a piano that doesn’t have much to give, don’t make the mistake of trying to get out of it more than it has. Look around the room. Are people leaning close to each other because they can’t hear over your piano playing? Figure out what is required on the date and subdue your ego accordingly. You can take pride in demonstrating the considerable skill necessary to fulfill the requirements for the gig. It’s not that hard. Just memorize every song ever written in every style imaginable, and be able to fake the ones you forgot to learn. But don’t take my gig.
You might also enjoy The Tip Jar, another entry of mine concerning the logistics of playing a solo piano gig.

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