Zen and the Art of Piano Bar

piano_2There’s a couple sitting at the bar. Fifty-something, but dressed like they’re dating. He leans into her, whispers something playfully in her ear. She smiles back at him like she’s eighteen. “Fill my heart with gladness, take away my sadness,” I sing, coaxing the soul out of the piano. The melody cuts through the muted din of shuffling plates and muffled conversations. “Ease my troubles is what you do.”

B flat major seven to an A minor nine. Two chord, dominant five, and slide back to the one. I can feel Van Morrison floating through my fingers, down through the keyboard, and out into the restaurant.

Behind me, an older gentleman sips slowly on a draft.  Sitting back in his stool, he keeps time with his fingers. I know he’s there because occasionally, I’ll hear him sing a little of the chorus with me. I float from Adele to Maroon 5 and then to Eric Clapton. He pulls me aside later to tell me something of no small urgency. “You really moved me with that one song, man,” he confesses. “I loved Carole King, used to own her albums.”  He nods to himself. “Yeah, they don’t write them like that anymore.”

Key of G. I slide through the circle of fifths to the key of F and land on a 6/8 tempo. Soon I’m deep into Jason Mraz.  “I won’t give up on us, even if the skies get rough. I’m giving you all my love, I’m still looking up.”

I notice a family slowly walking through the bar area, watching me sing. Most likely they’ve been listening to me for the past hour as they ate their dinner in the main room. Maybe celebrating a birthday or something. Still playing, I make eye contact with their young daughter and give her a goofy smile. Wide-eyed at the sight of a grown man singing to her, she grins sheepishly and gives me a little wave. Her mother, following behind, mouths a thank you to me. The father puts a five on the bar in front of me, nods in approval, then leaves. I’m reminded of a John Mayer song, so I flip to it and sing.

“Fathers be good to your daughters, daughters will love like you do,” I intone. “Girls become lovers who turn into mothers, So mothers be good to your daughters too.”

I first began to play solo piano when I was eighteen. My little brother was working at a pizza parlor, one of the popular hangouts in our home town, and he convinced the manager to hire me to play the piano on Saturday nights during my summer breaks. My set then was as musically naive as I was: Bread, Elton John, Eagles, and the occasional Charlie Brown theme song. That experience transferred easily to the college coffee house circuit, where I graduated to Al Jarreau, Steely Dan, and the then ubiquitous Billy Joel. By the time I was a young adult, I was playing jazz standards off of fake books at restaurants downtown. Yeah, I’ve forgotten more songs than I know.

I need to mix it up a little bit, so I decide to launch into some old school James Taylor. “Oh, I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain. I’ve seen sunny days that I thought would never end…”

Life is made up of stories. My story, your story, their story. All entwined in a series of events and circumstances, in tragedy and in serendipity, fire and rain, stretching back from the beginning of time to the ever present moment. When we meet, when we interact, when we share life together, our stories pass through one another. We write ourselves into one another’s story.

“It’s times like these you learn to live again. It’s times like these you give and give again. It’s times like these you learn to love again. It’s times like these, and time and time again.”

Songs are like stories set to music. Through the melodies, through the lyrics, through the emotions, they remind us of times and places and ideas and feelings.  Songs unlock us, unravel us, reveal us. They stir the stories imbedded within us. And sometimes when I sing my songs, they help reveal the story that is my audience.

And this is the sacred act I have the privilege of witnessing when I play piano in these places. I am privy to a little glimpse of the stories that people share with me. The couple at the bar. The older gentlemen humming along. The family having a dinner celebration.  As C. S. Lewis reminded us, “There are no ordinary people. You have never met a mere mortal.”

“The colors of the rainbow, so pretty in the sky, Are often on the faces of people going by. I see friends shaking hands, saying ‘how do you do?’ They’re really saying, ‘I love you.’  I see skies of blue, and clouds of white.  The bright blessed day, the dark sacred night. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.”

I glance at my iPhone, see that there’s only a few minutes to my break. The bartender slips me a napkin with a request written on it.  “Sorry,” I reply. “Tell them I don’t know any Barry Manilow.” To appease them, I decide to do some Beatles, the common denominator of all modern musical influences. After all, everyone loves the Beatles.

So I say a little prayer for all the people in the restaurant, take a deep breath, and launch into the last song of my set.

“Hey Jude, don’t make it bad. Take a sad song, and make it better…”

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