How carefully do people listen to live “background” music?

If you’ve ever played piano as background music for a social event, you may have found yourself wondering if anyone was listening to you play.

In one sense, we don’t want them to really listen. After all, they didn’t buy a ticket to hear us play. They came to celebrate their niece’s wedding, or to attend their company’s holiday party. The function of our music is simply to create a pleasant atmosphere for their socializing.

But….. we’re human beings. We want to be recognized and appreciated. And we want to share our love of music with the others in the room. (“Check out this great song!”)

A friend and piano student of mine, Mike, emailed me this morning about an experience he recently had at one of these events. Mike has been playing solo piano as background music for a few years now and likes to mix up jazz with some pop tunes. After watching my Journey Through The Real Book video on the Irving Berlin song Easter Parade, he decided to learn the song himself and play it as background music at an event.

Easter Parade

As he played the tune, he wasn’t sure if anyone recognized it or was even listening. But later on, as he passed some people sitting around a table, one of them yelled out, “Hey, Easter Parade!” Yes – they had heard the song and enjoyed it after all!

Over the years, this has been my experience, too.

I was once playing in a jazz group at a fancy New York City social club. It was in a small, wood-paneled room, and celebrities like the actor Ben Kingsley and the writer Kurt Vonnegut were there. Vonnegut was across the room, talking to some friends when our sax player leaned over and said, “Kurt Vonnegut is from Indiana, so let’s play Back Home Again In Indiana for him.” We launched into a joyful rendition of the song as Vonnegut continued to talk to his friends, seemingly oblivious to our efforts. About 30 minutes later, however, he came over to us with a big smile and said “Hey guys, thanks for Indiana.” As with Mike’s experience, we found that the audience was listening.

Perhaps the most poignant experience I’ve ever had with this came back in the early 1990s. I had recently moved to New York City and was subbing for another pianist in the bar of a Japanese restaurant. It was a small bar, and was totally empty except for a lone Japanese businessman. He appeared to be in his late 50s/early 60s, and he was sitting at the bar, drinking alone and reading the newspaper.

As I played, I wondered how long he had been in town, far away from his homeland, friends, and family. Perhaps he was on an extended business trip.

In any case, I felt something for this man’s situation, and after about an hour, I decided to play Duke Ellington’s tender ballad “Solitude.”

As I played the jazz ballad, he continued to drink and read the paper. But as soon as I finished the final chord, he stood up, walked over to me, placed a $20 bill on the piano, and silently left the room.

To this day I have no idea if he knew the name of the song I was playing. Maybe he didn’t. Perhaps he gave the pianist a tip every night he was there. Or maybe he did recognize it, and had welcomed a subtle nod to the plight of a dedicated businessman who was halfway around the world from home.

I’ll never know the answer to that question, but I do know this…. The audience was listening.

Wherever you find yourself playing piano, enjoy the journey and “let the music flow!”


PS – Here’s Duke Ellington himself playing “Solitude,” as a piano solo. It’s a great recording -Enjoy!

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