One of the laugh lines in my show makes fun of how unrewarding it is to play piano at Nordstrom. That’s not entirely true, and I want to explain why, because I’m indebted to many people I will probably never meet again for the true gifts they gave me while I sat at the piano and they…were my customers.
Back in the early late 80s and early 90s, I was invited to join the piano staff at Nordstrom Main Place Mall in Santa Ana. I did so as a part-time pianist for a year or so before moving to Pennsylvania to take a promotion at the company for which I worked full time. A few years later, back in Southern California, separated, trying to keep my business afloat, keep from being homeless and see my kids as often as possible, playing the piano at Nordstrom was literally my only steady — if meager — income. I took every opportunity to play because I needed the money and, for a time, the Steinway grands in the Nordstrom Main Place and South Coast Plaza stores were the only pianos available to me to play semi-regularly.
I’ve observed lots of audiences, both as an audience member myself and as an onstage performer, but it was the Nordstrom “audience” that gave me my real education on the ways that music actually works on listeners, whether they are consciously paying attention or not.
I made some close friends while playing for Nordstrom, and I’m honored to know from their stories how deeply music moved them. Most of them are now passed away, a few remain with whom I’m no longer close. I’m humbled to have had their friendship, wisdom and insight, as well as their candor about the music I played while they were listening. Each one has had an impact on my life. But this story is about the others who heard my play and what I learned from them — the hundreds, maybe thousands of people who floated through Nordstrom back in the glory days of the Internet.
Most of the time, sitting there at the piano pretty much on autopilot with the latest Disney movie themes or pop tunes, I could look around at what was happening in the store. After a few months I could recognize most of the employees who worked in departments close by the piano, as well as the roaming personal shoppers and plainclothes security. Eventually, I could recognize most of the employees throughout the store, if only from the frequency that they appeared floating by me through endless streams of people. Both the Nordstrom stores at which I played positioned their pianos close to the incoming entrance to an escalator, so there was always a constant surge of people coming from behind me towards the escalator and moving past me either on their way up or down a level or just alongside the piano to some other part of the store.
Once in a while, someone would stop somewhere near a railing or counter, not to look at the displays or purchase something, but to…what? Rest? Wait? Listen? In a constantly-churning river of shoppers and employees, one person stopped still stands out sharply. Most of the time, in that fixed place, the man or woman would look sort of aimlessly around (this was before everyone had smart phones for distraction at those resting moments), sometimes scanning for someone else, or admiring the decorations at holiday times, or semi-focusing on where that piano music was coming from.
Part of the job of a piano player at Nordstrom was to be a kind of greeter. We were encouraged to make eye contact, smile, speak to people if we could while playing or during breaks between sets, give directions if asked. If you think about it, seeing someone in a tuxedo or evening gown making amazing music at a very large grand piano in the middle of a department store is a bit of a novelty — and Nordstrom was quite effective at exploiting it for many years — and the novelty is enhanced when the pianist actually takes time to smile and say hello while playing. It’s a unique personal touch, and Nordstrom was “high touch” with its customers in those days. I really enjoyed this part of my job which, in a formal concert setting, would have been mostly Vorboten, so when I offered a smile or “hello” to someone stopped in the store observing me, I can imagine it being surprising to a customer at first, and then somehow welcoming.
Meeting the eyes and smile of some random person stopped in the store and just gazing around to find the piano happened often. What happened next was always amazing and unpredictable. Some folks would collect themselves and whatever bags they had momentarily set down and scurry away on some quickly-remembered errand, almost as if they had been caught napping at work. Some folks would pretend not to have shared my greeting and keep scanning the store. Some folks would stay focused on listening and watching, even from far across the atrium, until the end of the song or sometimes until the end of the set, intent on the music. Some folks took the time to approach the piano and stand closer until I finished whatever I happened to be playing. The people who showed interest, it seemed, always were the most interested when I played music one wouldn’t expect to hear playing in a large, elegant department store: ragtime, dramatic Rachmaninoff, Chopin or Beethoven, odd arrangements of TV theme music. Their interest wasn’t derisive, it was mostly curious and (I’m glad to say) appreciative. Random people told me how pleasant it was to hear music other than the top-40 sound tracks most retail stores use, but I began to understand something else was going on. The only way I can describe it is that the folks who listened somehow had a need for the music.
A Nordstrom piano player was not supposed to be an entertainer, in the sense that many street musicians actually have a carefully-constructed performance that produces donations in the guitar case (for example), so I wasn’t thinking or attempting to put on a show, but it started to be clear to me that people wanted some sort of presentation in the music, especially when they stopped to listen. Their generous offer of musical time with me needed to be met with a satisfying musical experience that sent them along to the next purchase or errand. People expected more, and Nordstrom was about exceeding customers’ expectations, even when that included making live music for them.
This challenged me to not only play the very best I could but also to assemble the music I used in a way that listeners felt was satisfying and somehow complete, all spontaneously and without much (if any) direct input from the listeners. Sure, I was often asked for the same song multiple times each shift, but if that happened I had to figure out how to turn out a fresh “product” each time, or weave together a medley with a clear musical direction — beginning, middle, end — and a satisfying arc of emotion. I’m sure I kludged a few loser playlists back in the day, but over time, people taught me what worked, and I started to get better at it.
There were a few setbacks, but I’m still grateful. One crowded holiday some college frat brat came up behind me while I was playing and lifted my arms and hands off the keys. He’s lucky he didn’t get clocked on both sides of his head — pianists have fairly well-developed arm and back muscles — and instead received only a smile and a nod and very little interruption in the music. There was always the superior person who scoffed: “I can play that piece much better than you!” (yup: really happened…a lot) or who observed loudly to companions: “He must really be desperate to waste such talent on Nordstrom.” They all got a smile, sometimes a grin. They all helped teach me about live performance and what it takes to produce one in a very un-concert-like environment. Every one of them gave me a gift I could take back to the recital hall and use in some way. Often, in addition to giving a smile to these difficult customers, I’d intentionally play a wrong note in an obvious way just to further their superior self impression, often to the delight of other folks standing by who had observed and heard the interchange. In this way, even the hard stuff became pleasant — almost a game — and my fear of going into the crucible of a concert hall lessened.
Like the trapeze artists who intentionally fail a stunt twice to build their engagement with the audience, playing at Nordstrom taught me the value of vulnerability and the joy of sharing a listening experience with an audience. So much of what appears as live music in a concert hall situation is about an audience’s expectation of virtuosity from the performer — of how he or she will “interpret” some classic, difficult work. Will he be able to play the really hard part? Will the interpretation be “correct?” If it is a premiere, will the piece of music and the performance pass critical muster in the highbrow word of musical sophistication? The opposite of that was happening to me at Nordstrom, even if I played the same music I took into a formal concert: all those formal expectations, while still there, took the form of a delightful shared journey with the audience.
So I’m writing today with thanks for Nordstrom. Playing piano at Nordstrom literally kept me fed and housed when I had no other income. Nordstrom taught me the importance of being able to perform under any circumstances, and to make every rendition of the latest Disney tune fresh, even if playing it for the tenth time in four hours. But my biggest gratitude for Nordstrom goes to the people who came there: employees, shoppers, folks just passing through from one part of the mall to another. Without Nordstrom and its commitment to having a grand piano and pianist in every store, the people who listened there would never have inspired me and taught me to do what I do today, and I’d be just another guy in a tux on a stage with a big piano.
Happy Thanksgiving! Thank you Nordstrom!