Piano-shaped objects ruin a repertoire

I played piano for the Calhoun County Agricultural and Industrial Society (CCAIS) annual fundraising luncheon on February 5 at Cornwell’s Turkeyville. I’ve done this for the past five or six years, tailoring my music to the event’s theme. One year it was “Sinatra in Vegas.” Other years it was western or patriotic. Last year, it was Mexican fiesta-themed.

Because I’m a geek, I always come up with not just a special musical repertoire to support the theme, but corresponding garb to wear while playing it. Appropriate music and costuming makes an occasion more festive. So I was happy to learn this year’s event had a valentine theme.

I’ve got love songs galore in my repertoire. I’ve got Big Band and country and Beatles and Broadway and contemporary love songs. You get the idea. I also own a jacket with colorful appliquéd hearts. All I had to do for the CCAIS luncheon was show up and play; a no-fuss gig that’s worked out well, except for the year they didn’t have a piano for me.

Between wedding, funeral and event playing, I’ve learned to work around a number of logistical barriers, but one thing I absolutely refuse to work around is the absence of an instrument. I became rather diva-like that day and demanded a piano. “We don’t have one,” a staff member said.

“Yes, you do. It’s big and black and stored back in a dinner theatre dressing room,” I replied. “Would you like me to show it to you?” Suddenly he remembered he had a piano.

You’re probably thinking, “Yo, Ms. Professional Musician: Why don’t you travel with your own piano to avoid these problems?” Ah, I can see you haven’t walked a mile in my shoes carrying my full-sized Roland digital piano, piano stand, music stand, stool, amplifier, power strips and cords, plus music.

Also, there is no substitute for the sound and feel of an acoustic piano. I don’t care how closely simulated to the real thing they say the key action and tone is on a digital piano. It simply doesn’t compare to a REAL piano. Really.

I try to play in advance the pianos on which I’ll perform. But, if I’m already donating my time to play, I can’t afford to miss work to go and check them all out. That, of course, reduces to a big fat crapshoot my odds of having a positive piano playing experience. Because many a shiny, full-sized grand plays like crap.

When I attended Ragtime Piano Camp (I’m not making this up), instructor Bob Milnes spent five days helping mostly classical pianists lose the musical rules they live by and cut loose with their bawdier side. I succeeded, largely because I wasn’t as ensconced in formal tradition. Okay, ANY tradition. I’m musically eclectic.

Bob, who has played the globe, talked about the many PSOs he’s encountered. What’s a PSO? A piano-shaped object, something that for all intents LOOKS like a piano, but isn’t functional. It’s like a POS in the vehicle world.

I knew that of which he spoke. I’ve run into my share of PSOs. They run the gamut from never been tuned, to collapsing music stands, to missing crucial keys in the normal playing range, to having the soft pedal permanently engaged. And worse.

This year’s piano at Cornwell’s looked normal, but the sustain pedal would not sustain. Playing it was the vehicular equivalent of driving cross-country with a faulty transmission. It choppily affected everything.

The pedal deficit would have been okay for snappy ragtime numbers, but I wasn’t playing ragtime. It was cruelly ironic for love songs. Try playing a schmaltzy Jim Brickman tune like “Valentine” without sustains. The sugary Tennessee Waltz became a polka and “Unchained Melody” had a military march quality. My staccato rendition of “My Funny Valentine” drew a few stares, but few tips in my jar for the cause.

An anticipated 90 enjoyable minutes of playing became 90 minutes of white-knuckled Hell, leafing through my music for upbeat love songs that didn’t exist. I wished I had dragged my Roland there. Instead, I improvised a Valentine’s version of the “Rawhide” theme. It worked for “The Blues Brothers,” didn’t it?

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