Maiden Voyage of Amy’s Travelling Piano Bar

I’m trying to recall any solo-gig experience that matched my night at Countryside Care Center for total, complete fulfillment on just about every level.

Haven’t found one yet, don’t care to look anymore.

It all started with a phone call to Martha, the activities coordinator at Countryside. I said I was Amy Saari, the daughter-in-law of one of their residents, and I wanted to share a glammed-up piano bar experience with him and his fellow neighbors sometime. She thought it was a fantastic idea but didn’t know if her area could fund it. After she got in touch with some of her people, they were able to pool some money together between a couple different areas of the site to have me there.

Once the booking was made, I got a call from Mom-in-law Marilyn saying she got the news from Countryside. When she told Dad-in-law Ray Sr. all about it, he started to smile and his eyes got moist, which is nearly impossible for a Parkinson’s patient, she said. The disease affects the facial muscles so that they can’t express emotion, and patients end up with a condition unsurprisingly called “the mask.” But Ray Sr. managed a smile and a tear when he heard I was going to come play music for him. Wow.

The night of the gig was pretty wild. True to the promise of my business, I got dolled up in a slinky red dress with heels and arrived at Countryside with Marilyn and my microphone gear. The main dining room was already set up for the concert, and even though their piano was slightly out of tune (they couldn’t get a tech in there), it felt serviceable. As the hour approached, the residents all wheeled in. I greeted Ray and a whole house-load of my brother-in-law’s family. Marilyn even had a couple of her friends come! I told her, “I have to hire you as my PR person out here.” She laughed.

I began the hour-long set by introducing the concept of Amy’s Travelling Piano Bar as a glam throwback to late- and post-Prohibition smooth: “Imagine the lights a little dimmer…the air a little smokier…” People started giggling. Then Martha dimmed the lights and I giggled right along. It was happening. I began with “Almost Like Being in Love” from Brigadoon, and it was immediately recognizable. Score! The whole point of choosing early-to-mid-20th-century standards was that they connected deeply with this older audience. As the set went on, weaving through “Crazy,” “Love Me or Leave Me,” “Cry Me a River” and “Stardust,” people started picking up on the songs more and more, and everyone even sang along to “Over the Rainbow.” The songs didn’t need introduction; in fact, it was more fun to scan the room for recognition when the first four bars were played.

And I didn’t mince lyrics, either. There was no editing of references to smoking (“Black Coffee”), drinking (“Bewitched”), sex (“Bewitched” again), or angst (“Black Coffee” again) in my presentation. Why? Because these were adults! They LIVED that stuff! The thing that turns me off about a lot of entertainment for seniors (especially in assisted living and nursing home situations) is that it tends to be dumbed-down, like it’s a kids’ program. They’re not kids! Martha said to me afterwards, “You can only sing ‘You Are My Sunshine’ so many times!” No kidding! Plus, we’re getting to a point where the music that today’s seniors grew up with contained exponentially increasing amounts of blush-worthy content, the kind of stuff that pissed off their own parents before they themselves grew up to rail against hippie rock and punk.

And how long will it be before hippie rock and punk form the basis of senior-center entertainment? Don’t hold your breath…

I saved the best for last: I dedicated the finale to Dad-in-law Ray, as I had learned from my husband that he was a HUGE Bobby Darrin fan. So I launched into “Beyond the Sea,” way fun and much appreciated. At the final curtain, Martha wheeled Ray up so he could present a bouquet of roses to me. It was the sweetest thing ever.

Nothing beats a night like that. I sincerely hope I can do the same thing out there again in a few months and keep spreading the love out in Jackson. In the meantime, I’ll be going to Pine Ridge and other centers in the Metro area to play, because few things connect us to our elders like the music they love, and it’s the least we can do as musicians to honor them.

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2 thoughts on “Maiden Voyage of Amy’s Travelling Piano Bar

  1. Cathy DeWitt says:

    So true, Amy–Playing the music of people’s era they grew up in reconnects them with who they are. This is especially valuable for folks who’ve lost their sense of identity through Alzheimer’s or dementia.
    I loved your idea of presenting the “piano bar” in all its glory and glamor, and dressing up!
    I often call the piano where I play in the hospital lobby the “dry piano bar,” as people stop by to make requests, tell me their stories, and sometimes sing along.
    Good stuff…

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