Don’t ask me to play “The Entertainer”

When you’ve played piano for any length of time, there are several songs that qualify as must-knows. These standards have withstood the test of time, most people of a certain age know them, and your playing them has you meeting the “real musician” standard.

It’s like some kind of weird club initiation: The Citizenship Test for musicians. You’d better be able to play songs such as Anniversary Waltz, Moonlight Serenade, Beer Barrel Polka, New York, New York, Darktown Strutter’s Ball, I’ve Got You Under My Skin, and Your Cheatin’ Heart, or you might as well hang it up! 

If only someone had told me this back when I was a 10-year-old just starting to play piano! I could have saved myself a lot of time by learning just the songs on the unofficial list. Granted, it might have been a bit limiting musically, but no one would have been the wiser. I just would have had to make sure I never played anywhere beyond an hour or two where someone might hear me publicly exhaust my repertoire.

But in the early 1970s, an equation-changing phenomenon occurred. Paul Newman and Robert Redford starred in a blockbuster movie called “The Sting.” The pair was at the height of their popularity, which, in turn, helped vault the movie’s ragtime score and its arranger Marvin Hamlisch to new heights. The bonafide hit that emerged from the movie was a formerly overlooked Scott Joplin tune called “The Entertainer.”

Suddenly the song was everywhere. It flooded the airwaves, high school bands were marching to it, beginning piano students were learning simplified versions of it, and people who couldn’t carry a tune were insisting on toting it around, anyway.

I was one of those beginning piano students, only I lacked a simplified version. Shortly after taking us to the movie, my mother went to the Music Mart store in Coldwater and purchased me a written musical score from ”The Sting.” Not a stickler for detail, she bought the organ version.

“But Mom,” I protested. “There are three lines of music. It’s written for organ.” That meant I was overwhelmed by more notes than my newbie mind could read and my fledgling right hand could play. I also had to pull the crucial lower bass notes from the third, pedal line and figure out how to insert them into what was going on with my left hand.

Quite the feat for a fourth grader who had just started taking piano lessons. And all because like so many other mothers, my mother harbored fantasies of me becoming the next Marvin Hamlisch. She wanted so badly to hear me play that stupid Entertainer piece that she bought a record album of the “The Sting” soundtrack so I would know what the finished product should sound like.

Probably because I didn’t realize it was impossible, I somehow managed to teach myself to play a modified version of the organ arrangement of The Entertainer. This led to what I refer to as the “trained bear” phase of my life. No visitors were allowed to enter our home unless they were willing to hear me play “The Entertainer” on cue. If you were one of those visitors, please accept my retroactive apology.

Back on the music front, I grew to hate my nemesis, “The Entertainer.” Over time, I graduated to the complicated Scott Joplin original version. I also discovered all the other truly wonderful pieces he had written, including: Gladiolous Rag, Solace, Pineapple Rag, The Easy Winners, Maple Leaf Rag, Bethena, Weeping Willow, and my all-time favorite, the intoxicating Heliotrope Bouquet.

To play Joplin’s versions as Joplin intended is a highly athletic, full-immersion musical experience that engages most of your fingers at once. Hitting all the marks is rewarded by a satisfying, gorgeous full sound. I make a point of requesting other pianists play the lesser-known Joplin stuff. Those who know it are always happy to oblige.

Most listeners know not what they are missing. So I’ll be playing somewhere and receive the inevitable “Can you play The Entertainer?” request.  I cringe and go into trained bear mode. Da de du di du do.  Da de du di du do.  Grrrrr.

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