In my humble journey of finding work as an entertainment pianist, I've gained a fair share of peculiar experiences while playing an odd gig or two. One of these instances was performing in an assisted living facility.
I landed the gig of playing a weekly show at a nearby retirement home through a friend. I was apprehensive at the thought of playing Rock 'N' Roll classics in front of an unfamiliar crowd; my imagining of an assisted living facility derives from ancient childhood memories of visiting my grandmother in the Northeast at Christmas time. My father would knock on her assigned door and she'd feed us hard candy shaped in red ribbons. We would then travel to the dining room. The adults ate dry fish while I watched a Santa Claus statue that could sing and dance. Even though I was a child, I could sense an overall feeling of dread within the air, with unhappy residents and bleak circumstances.
Assisted living facilities can be deceiving. They can be stylishly decorated with luxurious accessories, fake foliage, and elegant birdcages. The entertainment departments of retirement homes are meticulous in scheduling and ensuring that every minute of every hour is planned and accounted for. One of the most uncomfortable parts of performing was when I had to turn off their communal television set in order to play the piano, interrupting Sunday cinema in the process.
Curating the appropriate selection of musical pieces was a complicated task, having considered the demographic and the respective popular music that derived from decades past. My piano teacher encouraged me to play jazz standards and Debussy, as I experimented with various artists and genres throughout each performance. Elvis Presley was always a hit and the finest crowd-pleaser. The audience would enthusiastically sing along, riding the wave of each composition as if they wrote the music themselves.
My opening act was one of my high school friends who played a set of bagpipes. She would walk into the lobby with her instrument in hand as the receptionist asked, "Do you really have to play those?!" My friend would answer, "Yes ma'am, I really do have to." The receptionist would then roll her eyes, shake her head and get back to typing on her computer. As my friend continued playing, I noticed that we would lose audience members in the process, as they quickly covered their ears, grimaced and tried to scoot away on the wheelchair. That was my cue to jump in and start my repertoire.
To fluff up my salary of 20 bucks an hour, I considered placing a tip jar on the piano. "I don't think you should do that", my father said. "You'll probably end up with rotting dentures, hard candy or medication." And with this piece of advice, I renounced the idea of having a tip jar be present.
After performing show after show, I realized that I wasn't playing for money anymore, but for the moral satisfaction of providing joy. I loved hearing applause with messages of encouragement, telling me to keep working and follow my dreams. From working this odd gig, I gained a new appreciation for music and it's ability to influence people of any age, gender, or ethnicity.