The Piano Bar Rules

Cynics would have you believe that the piano bar gig is a purgatory of tired songs played on an out-of-tune piece of junk surrounded by tobacco-stained lushes who make William S. Burroughs look like the picture of health.
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Cynics would have you believe that the piano bar gig is a purgatory of tired songs played on an out-of-tune piece of junk surrounded by tobacco-stained lushes who make William S. Burroughs look like the picture of health. The bad news is, it can feel that way some nights. The good news is, you can make a lackluster piano bar gig fun and profitable. I’ve done a fair amount of such gigs myself, and for this column, called upon San Francisco piano bar mavens Michael Hatfield and Grant Ewald to guide us. You’ll soon be in their debt, so if you ever see them play, tip them lavishly.

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1. Play the request. Any request. When someone requests a song—even if it’s the lamest one that ever got penned—play it. This is your job. You don’t have to deliver the definitive version; you just have to whip out a spirited performance. And, surprise of surprises, people will love you for it. This, by the way, is the Magical Secret of Getting Tips.

2. Bring lots of sheet music. Not only are you more likely to get through a song (and get a tip) if you’ve got the chart, but if you’re doing an open mic night, the singers will now know all the words and feel good about their performances—thus facilitating tips. Are we beginning to detect a theme here?

3. Bring your smartphone or iPad. For some reason, when you entertain an obscure request by hunting it down and reading the chart on your web-connected gizmo, people go nuts with delight. Delighted people tip more.

4. Don’t sweat the tips. Having acknowledged that we are, after all, working for gratuities, it’s important to not dwell on it. Sometimes you’ll do three songs that you don’t even like for a rowdy, drunken group, and they’ll leave without even a “thank you.” But then there’s the high roller who really digs the way you just did “Lush Life” and slips a few $20s into the kitty to impress his date with his generosity. It balances out.

5. Treat the customers like buddies. Act like it’s your living room and they’re your guests. You’ll all be able to relax more and have some fun if you get to know each other.

6. Treat the drunks like children. Indulge them, distract them, tease them a little. But don’t ever appear mad at them publicly. If you find yourself getting steamed at the jerk who keeps requesting the song you’re playing right now, take a break.

7. Tip the bartendersand bond with the cocktail servers. Not only will they keep your libation topped off, they’ll cover your back. One night in a South-of-Market lounge, a crocked patron tried to take a swing at me, and the staff was all over him like brown on rice.

The Piano Bar Top Ten
This varies somewhat depending on what kind of bar you’re in, your location, and what song was just in a movie. In no particular order:

· “Sweet Caroline.” No, I don’t make this stuff up.
· “Don’t Stop Believing.” Journey did it. Glee did it. Now it’s your turn.
· Anything by Lady Gaga. “Poker Face” will do nicely.
· “Benny and the Jets.” This Elton classic is fun as heck to play.
· “Piano Man.” When someone offers you $20 to play it, ask, “Who’ll pay me $25 not to play it?”
· “New York, New York.” Surprise, surprise.
· “We Are the Champions.” Lucrative in college towns whose sports team just won.
· “Mack the Knife.” “Fly Me to the Moon” works almost as well.
· “The Way You Look Tonight.” A perennial revenue generator.
· “Happy Birthday.” You never know who’s having a party.