The character and mystique of the Old Faithful Inn cannot be truly captured in photographs – the knobbed wood interior, tree branch banisters, log-cut steps, floors becoming ceilings – somehow all strangely skewed like an Escher drawing. Little library desks with stained-glass lamps shed a warm glow, while large wooden arm chairs and chocolate-colored leather couches look out into the atrium. There is a three-story chimney tower rising up through the middle of the lobby, hosting an enormous pendulum clock. Traveling down the hallways of the inn, there seem to be endless hideaways, nooks and crannies, each storing a whispered hint of history. A few lucky visitors have the chance to climb up to the rafters, accompanied by a bellhop, whose job it is to raise the outdoor flags in the morning.
There is a grand piano situated in one corner of the second floor, tucked away during the day, but played almost every night throughout the season. The sound of the piano carries through all three floors, down the halls, and through a window which opens toward the dining room below. This summer, I was invited to fill in for the regular house pianist for 23 nights, which gave me the opportunity to live in Yellowstone National Park for a month. The self-reliant, fortress of an original, indie singer-songwriter in me was a bit shy to tell people about this stint as a lounge pianist. But then I remembered my first piano teacher Nancy LeClair, whom I love dearly, performing in hotels and restaurants. And if it was good enough for Billy Joel…I figured I’d give it a whirl. So on the first night, I set up and started out with, “Piano Man,” which became my regular opening number. Along with the songs I know by memory or can play by ear, I had an array of books from the regular Inn pianist. These certainly filled in the gaps when listeners requested cowboy love songs or tin pan alley hits. Over the weeks, I built up quite a range of material. A typical night might include:
Summertime, Moon River, Man in the Mirror, Rondo all a turca, The Pink Panther, Tennessee Waltz, Killing Me Softly, Beautiful Dreamer, Firework, Jardins sous la pluie, If I Loved You, Downtown, Joy Spring, Norwegian Wood, Can’t Help Falling in Love, Crazy, Fantasie Impromptu, Every Little Thing She Does is Magic, Anything Goes, Bach’s Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue, Sir Duke, Solace, Drunken Sailor, Time After Time, Don’t Stop Believing, Soon It’s Gonna Rain, Simple Gifts, Stand By Me, Umbrella, Somewhere, It Don’t Mean a Thing, Us, Chopin Nocturne Op. 62 No. 1, Georgia, Bohemian Rhapsody, Beethoven’s “Tempest” Sonata, Waltz for Debby, If You’re Happy and You Know It, Blowing in the Wind, Bicycle Built for Two, Brahms Intermezzo Op. 118 No. 2, Wind Beneath My Wings, Hackensack, Swing Low Sweet Chariot, Misty Mountain Hop, Cold Cold Heart, Happy Together, My Favorite Things, Rachmaninoff Prelude Op. 32 No. 12, On the Sunny Side of the Street, Hedwig’s Theme, Shenandoah, Corcovado, I Got Rhythm, Blackbird, The River Flows in You, Claire de Lune…
Honestly, I can’t think of another gig where you can jump straight from Steven Foster to Katy Perry or from Queen to Beethoven without jarring the audience. But the energy in the room was bright and engaged, and the folks I talked with appreciated the surprises and the variety. Some people made requests and sometimes I just looked around the inn to try and guess people’s ages, where they might be from, and what kind of music they might like. One of the greatest joys was meeting little kids who approached me timidly to say they were learning to play piano and wanted to watch my hands.
I soon discovered that the music I chose was just the beginning of the conversation, and that I would need to keep playing while people came over to talk with me. One night just a few bars into “Piano Man,” a guy came running over delighted to tell me it was his favorite song. He soon returned with an open laptop and as we shared our admiration for Billy Joel, he showed me his bird watching photos – each bird named for the lines and characters in the song! By this point I had begun playing Debussy’s “Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum” and was finding it pretty hard to concentrate on accuracy, so I improvised an entire middle section, and when the conversation subsided, returned to the page. Moments later a father approached and thanked me for playing a favorite of his daughter’s piano repertoire, so I had to admit my version might have been slightly different!
Another night my background performance gradually turned into a Broadway singalong, with one of the dedicated fans making suggestions on impromptu medley’s. He was a lot of fun and we came up with his nickname, “My Lone Arranger.” Just a few nights in, I met a man who was deeply touched to hear “Claire de Lune” and asked me about my own songs. It was a perfect moment to share a song I’d co-written with Kevin Wanzor in the BMI program, “Hang a Paper Lantern on the Moon,” which has a little hint of Debussy’s classic. Some nights, especially earlier in the evening, groups of young tots would start dancing next to me. Once I rescued a family from their four-year-old’s impending temper tantrum with a quick rendition of, “Twist and Shout.” Makes you wonder at what point exactly when we’re growing up do we stifle that irresistible urge to dance?
An elderly gentlemen who stayed for about two weeks made a point to greet me every night, and introduced me to some wonderful songs like the Scottish, “Loch Lagond.” One night when I was on a Fiddler on the Roof kick the same person came up and told me he’d once had beers with Zero Mostel (Tevve)! An eleven-year-old girl came and sat right next to me for a couple of nights in a row, and said she was on a trip with her grandmother who had been coming to the park for more than forty years. I got a little teary-eyed just thinking about my grandparents, and I told her to treasure that special time. A group of Norwegians were all crowding on a couch one night, and it took me about a half hour while playing some other music to remember a Scandinavian folk song I’d learned in Sweden called, “Vem Kan Segla” (Who Can Sail?). I snuck that one in to their surprise and made a real connection with my “Dagmarian” roots. Early one night I segued straight from “The Muppet Show Theme” to “Rainbow Connection.” Stopping with no applause, I thought sadly to myself, “maybe kids these days don’t know about the muppets?” Suddenly I saw these two little thumbs up pop out from behind one of the library desk, which had been shielding a youngster who was reading on the other side!
I met adult piano students, piano teachers, a composer who also graduated from the Eastman School of Music, and one night I even met a guy from my hometown of Chelmsford, MA who turned out to be related to a close friend of mine! There were employee music requests too, and the front desk favorites seemed to be anything from “Star Wars” or “Lord of the Rings.” So on the last night, several of the employees bought me drinks and huckleberry candy. In a few short weeks, I’d really become a part of the fabric (or grain?) of that place. It was an experience I’ll never forget, and certainly exceeded my expectations of what it might mean to be a cocktail pianist. It may be a cliche, but music brings people together. It enlivens us, grounds us and reminds us of the dearest moments in our lives. There is much more of a canon of familiar songs across the generations than I’d ever realized. And I feel more in touch now with all of the styles of music I’ve grown to love over the years.