The Piano Girl kindly sent me an advance copy of her new book Piano Girl Playbook (in pdf format).
The following is one of the stories, reprinted with permission (and picture provided by Robin :-)
Music for Naked People
An excerpt from Robin Meloy Goldsby’s new book, Piano Girl Playbook: Notes on a Musical Life, courtesy of Backbeat Books. Illustration by Julia Meloy Goldsby
It’s ten minutes to noon at Mediterana, a pastel-colored award-winning sauna and wellness spa located in Bergisch Gladbach, Germany, about twenty minutes from my front door
Mediterana, with its spacious gardens and multiple thermal pools, saunas, and steam baths, hosts up to 1200 guests a day. For me—a middle-aged, health-obsessed woman—having this place so close to home is like having Disneyland in my backyard. Spending a day here offers the bargain-basement equivalent of a mini vacation to the south of France, a Spanish island, or a Moroccan beach. For thirty-eight euros (about fifty dollars), I can show up at nine in the morning, sweat, soak, soap, and sleep the day away, and emerge in the evening feeling like I’ve peeled off a couple of years. Amazing what a little exfoliating can do.
Today I’m meeting Andrea, my friend and the resident director of the Mediterana. Her expert team of employees has put together a sauna ceremony called Piano del Sol, which features solo piano music from two of my recordings piped through an expensive sound system. . Piano del Sol, a twelve-minute sauna odyssey, with music, happens five-times a day. Five times a day people get naked and sweat to my music. It is almost too much to, well, bare. We will attend the noon ceremony, and, along with thirty other naked people, listen to my piano music and perspire. I’m not sure how I feel about this. I’ve been known to sweat while playing, and honestly, I feel naked enough when performing. Actually being naked sounds like one naked too many.
I’ve covered myself with a plain white bathrobe and a pair of flip-flops. I pace on a lavender-lined path and wait for Andrea to show up. Guests of all shapes and sizes—don’t ask—carefully hang their fairy-cloth designer robes on wrought-iron hooks attached to Moroccan-tiled walls. One by one, naked as the day they were born, they open the door to the Candlelight Sauna, and meander into the heat.
Andrea, the busiest gal in the sauna biz, careens around the corner at one minute to noon. She is wearing a pink bathrobe—not her normal workday uniform, but an appropriate costume for onsite inspections of the dozens of ceremonies and aromatherapy sessions offered at Mediterana.
“Woo,” she says, glancing at the clock on the wall. “Just made it. Busy day!” It’s not easy to look professional and stylish in a fluffy pink bathrobe, but she manages to exude an air of complete confidence. I am fascinated by her job. I can’t imagine working for a multi-million-dollar business where all of the clients are buck-naked.
“You ready?” she says, shedding her robe and revealing a plaid cotton wrap around her mid-section, discreetly covering all of her private parts.
“Hey!” I say. “What’s that? You get to wear a towel in there?”
“Yeah. I’m the boss.”
“Oh great,” I say. “But what about me? The featured piano player?”
She laughs and offers me nothing. I take off my robe.
I’m at ease in the naked sauna these days, but only when I can be anonymous. Because they’ll be playing my music, and because there’s a framed poster with my photo hanging next to the sauna door, I feel a little, uh, exposed.
“Wait a minute,” I say. “The sauna guy conducting the ceremony isn’t going to introduce me or anything is he? I mean, he’ll just turn on the music and conduct the ceremony and no one will know I’m here, right?”
“Hmmm. I’m not sure,” Andrea says.
“Okay,” I say. “But if I have to stand up and take a bow I’m going to die. I draw the line at naked bowing. As Ellie Mae Clampet would say, ‘It just ain’t dignified.’ ”
“Who’s Ellie Mae Clampet?” she asks. I guess The Beverly Hillbillies never made it to Germany.
I’ve performed live in fancy-pants concert halls, strip mall dumps, castle cocktail lounges, embassies, and third world countries. My recordings have been used occasionally in television and film productions, but they also have been played in hospitals and schools, funeral homes and birthing rooms, hotel restaurants and furniture store cafeterias. As far as I know no one is playing my music in elevators, at least not yet.
I like to think—and hope—the songs I compose and perform are relaxing without being mind-numbing, meditative without being boring. I live with two sophisticated teenage pop-music-experts and a jazz-bassist husband whom I’ve nicknamed the Chord Doctor. The three of them keep me from falling into a New Age tedium pit. I admit to having a fondness for the key of A minor and frilly, trilly grace notes, so I’m lucky my kids and the Chord Doctor patrol my practice sessions like an in-house harmony task force, making sure I don’t write anything that sounds like whale song, a Celtic dirge, or subliminal chimes.
Everyone in my house has a few suggestions about how to make my music hipper. In a nice way, they let me know when I’m too boring, too lackluster, too monotonous.
John: “Maybe you could add a b9 to that F#7 chord.”
Curtis: “That bridge needs some kind of groove. Try this. And play it faster.”
Julia: “Have you heard the new Ludovico Einaudi soundtrack? You should go in that direction.”
When I’m smart and feeling open-minded, I listen to their tips. When I’m stubborn I don’t. It’s composition by committee. I end up with a kind of meno-mom-meets-Meldau fusion that, in the best-case scenario, has the desired effect of chilling folks out too much when they should be shopping or ordering more drinks.
I write music, record it, and release it into the world. But ultimately, I have very little control over where it ends up or how it will be used. I like to think that what I record belongs to me—and during the creative process, even with the input of my in-house advisory team, it does. But once it’s out there? All bets are off. Some people listen to me at home after they’ve heard me play live at a concert (I’m big in Oslo and Charleston) or at my steady hotel gig, but most people become familiar with my solo piano musings when a streaming algorithm dumps a few of my tracks into their daily playlist—Pandora alone has logged hundreds of millions of streams of my music.
Not long ago, on a storybook-perfect Christmas morning at Schlosshotel Lerbach, a castle hotel not far from the sauna, Frau Eggrich-Bimmelstein—an aging wraith wrapped in satin and sable—charged into the lobby and zig-zagged through the crowd to the piano.
“Merry Christmas, Frau Eggrich-Bimmelstein,” I said.
“Merry Christmas,” she replied. Then, right there in the midst of all the ridiculously baroque German Christmas cheer—we’re talking gingerbread in every conceivable form, mulled wine that filled the room with the scent of nutmeg, thousands of candles, and real chestnuts roasting on a real open fire—she burst into tears. I abruptly stopped playing my joyous version of “Hark the Herald,” stood up, and hugged her.
“Whatever is wrong, Frau Eggrich-Bimmelstein?” I asked.
“My father died last week,” she said.
I had known her father, Detlev. He was a sweet old man with a winning smile and a chronic dripping nose. I would dodge the drips while he stood over me at the piano and showed me American business cards he had collected in the early thirties, before the war. He kept the cards in his wallet, held together with an old rubber band. In halting English, he would read the addresses to me and ask if I knew any of the men. I always suspected there was something more to the story, but our conversations never progressed to the point where I felt comfortable asking.
“I am so sorry, Frau Eggrich-Bimmelstein. You must be very sad.”
“He was a day short of his ninety-seventh birthday. When he took his last breath, he was listening to your music.”
I paused for a moment. “Really?” I said, halfway hoping this wasn’t true.
“Echt,” she said, which is German for “Really.”
I sighed. I knew she meant this as the highest compliment. I gave Frau Eggrich-Bimmelstein one more hug, perhaps a tad less sincere than the first embrace. She composed herself, dried her tears, and went off to eat the Christmas goose.
I got a little weepy and nostalgic, thinking about old Detlev with his drip, drip, dripping nose and his stack of antique business cards—I recall one that said: Mr. Dick Dahlrimple, III, Purveyor of Hoboken’s Finest Leather and Woolen Goods . The last thing I wanted to do at that moment was play “Jingle Bells.” My husband, on a break from his jazz gig in the castle’s Brasserie, came to meet me in the lobby. He noticed my blotchy face and smeared mascara.
“What’s wrong?” he said. “It’s Christmas! Joy to the world! Deck the halls!”
“Detlev Eggrich-Bimmelstein died last week while listening to my Songs from the Castle CD.”
“Really?” he said.
“Echt,” I said.
“Huh,” said John. “I wonder which track killed him.”
Back to the sauna. Here we are. Naked and waiting for the music to start. I am not the thinnest, but neither am I the fattest. I’ve got a front row seat at the penis parade and I try, really I do, not to stare.
About thirty very toasty Germans sit or recline on tiered wooden benches. They look pretty relaxed. They look hot. I mean that in the literal sense. Maybe my melodies will help the naked folks unwind. Maybe the songs will help cleanse away the effects of too much stress, too much gin, too little sleep. Maybe they will like what I play, maybe they won’t. I just hope they won’t die while they are trying to decide. I really hope they don’t dance. If there’s anything worse than naked bowing, it’s naked dancing. I don’t know. Hope this, hope that. But maybe that’s what making music is all about. High hopes.
I clutch my towel to my chest. The towel is a critical accessory in the German sauna. Skin is not allowed to touch any part of the wood. To comply with this very strict rule, you need a very long sauna towel, or you need two bath towels capable of stretching the length of your body. Getting your feet, your butt, your head and your arms all lined up on the towel can seem like a round of naked Twister.
Not that anyone is looking, but I doubt I’ll be recognized in here. In the photo hanging outside I’m cloaked in black silk, spackled with M.A.C. Studio Fix, and face tuned. In here, I’m stripped bare, clean-faced, and well worn. I look around carefully. Nope. No one cares, as is so often the case. I wrestle with my towel and get all of my body parts situated on a lower bench. Better to stay on the bottom—reaching the higher benches involves stepping over other people, which I refuse to do without underpants. Plus, heat rises. It gets really hot up there.
Andrea lounges on one of the top benches — she is a sauna pro and can take it. I eye her wrap. Because everyone else is naked, the wrap gives her an air of authority. I never thought I would covet an orange plaid cloth (with fringe!) that looks like a North African dishtowel—but I would give anything to be covered up right now.
At the stroke of noon, Sauna Guy enters the room and closes the door behind him. Like most of the employees at Mediterana, Sauna Guy is pony-tailed, buff, tan, and looks like he never breaks a sweat, even in a thermo-nuclear German sauna. He carries a huge wooden bucket of ice. He adds a few drops of aromatherapy essential oil to the ice and places it in a large Moroccan metal bowl—suspended from a pendulum in the center of the wooden ceiling. He sets the pendulum swinging back and forth over the sauna rocks. The ice drips onto the hot stones and sizzles.
We have only been in here for forty-five seconds and it already feels like it’s one million degrees. Celsius.
What better time for a little music?
“Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the Piano del Sol sauna ceremony. The ceremony will take approximately twelve minutes and will be divided into two parts, featuring two solo piano recordings composed by American musician Robin Meloy Goldsby.”
Sauna Guy seems a little nervous, but I’m sure it’s because Andrea, his boss, is in the audience. By the way, Sauna Guy is also wearing one of those plaid dishrags. He has it wrapped around his waist like a loin cloth. It’s now officially a “look.”
“We’ll be enjoying lemongrass and eucalyptus essential oils during the ceremony. You’ll have the chance to leave the sauna between songs. Otherwise, please remain seated. And please remain silent.”
This is new for me—I like the idea of a guard in a loin cloth who forces people to listen, sit still, and not talk.
The music starts.
The ice pendulum drips.
The rocks sizzle.
Sauna Guy parades around the room, majestically waving a white linen flag on a wooden pole. This circulates the scented, super-heated air, ideally, I suppose, to help expedite the detox effect. I can’t decide if this experience is ridiculous, or wonderful. Maybe a little of both. Once again—and this happens to me about twice a week here in Germany—I feel as if I’ve been dropped-kicked into the middle of a Mel Brooks film.
My neighbors on the lower bench take deep cleansing breaths. Inhale. Exhale. The first song, “Flying, Falling,” comes to an end. Sauna Guy opens the door for a moment, but no one leaves. Ich schwitze wie ein Schwein and would like to flee, but I can’t run out on my own recorded performance. Even in a room full of sweaty naked bodies that would be gauche, so I stay put.
My second song, “Magnolia,” begins. Because I recorded the damn thing, I know that it will play for exactly four minutes and fifteen seconds. Inhale. Exhale. I float into the music and listen, halfway expecting to hear careless phrasing, places where I should have listened to the Chord Doctor, or slipshod technique. But it all sounds okay to me—not great or glorious, but somehow perfect for this weird moment. At one point, I even forget I’m listening to myself. It’s an out of body experience in A minor.
No one dies. No one dances. Everyone sweats. No one complains. I do not have to take a naked bow—the applause at the conclusion of the ceremony is not for me, but for Sauna Guy, who has expertly guided us through our twelve-minute easy-bake musical ritual. I collect my towel and file out of the sauna with the other naked guests. I’m hungry for cool air. I’m relaxed and naked and one of the crowd. I’m—dare I say it?—hopeful.
Over the course of a few years, my solo piano recordings have become a tradition at Mediterana. Wellness plus soothing solo piano—the concept makes good sense. And just because your audience is naked and asleep, doesn’t mean they’re not listening.
As the naked gods of fate and good fortune would have it, Mediterana asked me to compose and record sixteen new pieces—four for each season—for continued use in the Piano del Sol ceremony. They’ve licensed the music from our record company and purchased the exclusive rights to sell the physical CD to their visitors over the next five years. I keep hearing rumors that music fans have stopped buying CDs. Hopefully this doesn’t apply to those who are naked, asleep, or both.
Mediterana released Piano del Sol on October 13th, 2015. Keeping with the industry tradition of presenting a launch concert, they booked me for a live performance on the drop date. Don’t you just love those music-biz terms? Drop, release, launch. Maybe not such fitting words when your audience is naked.
It’s three o’clock. In one hour, I’ll be performing in the Indische Hof, Mediterana’s East Indian indoor garden. The English translation of Indische Hof is Indian Square, which makes the event sound like a concert in a teepee. Circle your wagons while you can.
The Indische Hof — a Mecca of mosaic tile in soothing shades of green and blue — features a large granite fountain with floating rose petals, palm trees, ferns, and a skylight that filters the dusky German light into something a bit more gauzy and gilded. The garden vibrates with mingled fragrances of eucalyptus and lavender, myrrh and sandalwood. It is a refuge for meditation and reflection; a place to lie naked next to a complete stranger and hallucinate.
The Yamaha grand piano looks like a stout hostess at an embassy cocktail party in Mumbai — a sitar would be more appropriate in this space, but it’s Piano del Sol, not Sitar del Sol, so we’ll work with what we have.
What we have is me, dressed in my dream pajamas—a black, piano-lounge outfit with a vaguely East Indian-looking cape tossed over my shoulders. With the exception of my blingy flip flops (you can’t wear real shoes here), I’m dressed for a concert in Jaipur, or a hotel gig in a posh Punjab hotel lobby.
This is not true of my audience. Generic, white, hotel-issued terry cloth—or fairy cloth, as my daughter once called it—covers most of the guests. Towels, wraps, bathrobes, more towels. At the perimeter of the performance space, naked people stroll from one sauna area to another, but they don’t spook me. My nearsightedness blurs them into an impressionistic tableau of brown and beige skin. Mostly beige.
It’s plenty hot in here, but I still need to warm up. I want to get the sense of the keys under my fingers. Every piano feels different, and this one, delivered in a rush this morning, schlepped from the cool autumn air into a manmade tropical retreat, might have unique issues. The slightest temperature shift can mess with a piano’s tuning—a meteorological event like this could crank the piano way sharp and make it sound like Great Aunt Edna’s 1957 spinet. It is pin-drop quiet, people are sleeping, and other audience members are silently taking their places in beds and on brocade sofas. Not a good time for a soundcheck. I figure I’ll take my chances and wait until showtime before playing anything at all. I open the piano to full stick, then sit and check the position and height of the bench.
Uh-oh. Not good. Right in my sight line—at the end of the piano—is a corpulent man in a robe. He’s asleep. Not a problem, sleeping seems to be the activity of choice in this space, but he’s got a bad case of man spread, the robe gaps open, and there, right at eye-level, are things no self-respecting Piano Girl should have to see, at least not while performing, and certainly not while attempting to focus on a new composition that features complex chord clusters that are a bit ambitious for tentative fingers. Concentration is key for this performance. Am I really going to play something called “April Tango” while looking at “Benny and the Jets” at the end of my piano?
I escape to the “dressing room” and try to get hold of myself. The dressing room doubles as a First Aid station. I hope there are no medical emergencies between now and showtime. I check out the defibrillators on the wall and measure them for wear and tear. Forty minutes until I go on. I look around for the Bear. Thankfully he seems to have another gig.
I sip a cup of chamomile tea and ponder the potential for cardiac events. The beautiful J, a sauna supervisor, wears a cotton sarong. She’s rosy-cheeked and cheerful, excited about the concert, but concerned that there won’t be enough beds for the audience. There are 1200 visitors today at Mediterana—about 100 of them will recline and hear my performance. That’s a lot of beds.
I think about the guy in the front bed, and then I try not to think about him. Family jewels. Right. Obviously, a term invented by a man.
Voice of Reason, a reliable friend from my Piano Girl past, resonates in my head: Keep your eyes closed, Mrs. Goldsby, and imagine your listeners dressed in gabardine and silk. Or at the very least, underpants.
A loudspeaker voice blares through the building: “Please head to the Indische Hof in five minutes for the Piano del Sol concert!” The voice sounds like one of those “stand by for evacuation” announcements I used to hear during a fire alarm or bomb threat when I worked the Marriott Marquis in Times Square. Scary. I remind myself that I’m twenty-one years and 3,755 miles away from Times Square. Sure, we had the occasional naked person roaming Forty-second Street—usually a PETA activist or an escaped convict—but for the most part my daiquiri-swilling Manhattan fans were clothed. They weren’t always wide-awake, but at least their private parts weren’t flapping in a Broadway breeze.
I sit on the paper-covered exam table in the First-Aid-slash-dressing room and I go through my set list—I am scheduled to play all sixteen compositions with musical transitions between the pieces. There won’t be any applause until the end—an intense sixty minutes of new music for me, but a swell opportunity for music lovers to chill out and take a nap.
It’s time. I take another gulp of tea and leave the First Aid area. J introduces me. I take a bow and sit at the piano. It’s very quiet; management has turned off the fountains, and my naked audience, swaddled like big babies in towels and blankets, has settled in for an hour of meditative music.
Voice of Reason: Concentrate. It’s just another concert. It’s just music, with sleeping naked people, allowing you to accompany their dreams.
Voice of Doom: You’ve been putting people to sleep with your music for years. Nothing new here.
Voice of Bob (my father): Now would be a great time for the “Hokey Pokey.”
I swat the voices away—shew!—close my eyes and focus on the task ahead. I play the vamp to Piano del Sol, the title track of my album, and let the sound wash over me. Slowly, I wander through the faded light of my past. Through my fingers, I feel the relief of a shade tree on a hot summer day, the golden glow of a cloudless sky in mid-October, the miracle of a clear day in February. For several moments, I even feel young.
I play on and on, caught in my own self-indulgent spell. I don’t know if I sound good or bad, but it doesn’t matter. I sound like me. Take it, or take it not. My sleeping audience frees me—maybe their nakedness liberates me as well! Together, we’ve created something magical. Or, maybe, it’s just ridiculous. Let’s stick with magical.
It’s as close as I get in this racket.