Lounge pianists provide a certain atmosphere to an establishment, pairing pieces of music with patron’s food and drink of choice. Lobster bisque and Beethoven.
Chicken satay and Erik Satie. Bloody Mary and Mariah Carey. The list can go on as long as the song queue implanted in the pianist’s memory banks.
Hotels, restaurants, and bars are all common environments where lounge pianists practice their craft, as are the bars in hotel restaurants. There are also the dueling pianists, restless performers who accept ongoing requests and entertain large, often inebriated groups.
Of course, a piano is no good without the fingers floating above the keys. For many of these performers, lounge gigs are often a part of a wide range of musical jobs that allow them to make a living through their creative gifts.
Rob Kovacs is one example of what it takes to be a paid pianist in Cleveland. He made the move to full-time musician in 2008 after joining Howl at the Moon Saloon, the now-defunct dueling pianos establishment that was located in The Flats. Kovacs eventually left Howl at the Moon to move to New York City with his band Return of Simple. While there, he held another dueling pianos job and took on various musical projects with different singers, high schools, and theaters.
These days, Kovacs is back in Cleveland and juggling a few different roles. He teaches aspiring students three days a week, one day at home, one day at a student’s home, and one day at Laurel School in Shaker Heights. He’s been a musician-in-residence for the Cleveland Clinic Arts & Medicine Institute’s Performing Arts Program, where he and other musicians will play for patients, for around five years. There are also plenty of one-off gigs, such as private parties, weddings, and other events that can pay out anything from $75 to $1,000 depending on how long he plays and what’s being asked of him. Even after all of those, he has personal undertakings like his band and 88 Bit Music, a project in which Kovacs creates and plays piano arrangements of original Nintendo music.
“Being freelance is a matter of finding everything that comes your way,” Kovacs says. “You have good months and not-so-good months.”
Each job is part of a big juggling act for a full-time pianist in Cleveland, which includes figuring out which equipment is necessary for a performance. Some places have pianos on location, but Kovacs has a few keyboards that he’ll use for shows. He also has 300-pound upright piano that requires a van and some additional help to transport to certain shows.
Outside of all his other jobs and projects, he’s maintained a regular lounge gig in Cleveland. He spent time at Society Lounge before his current gig at W XYZ Bar in Aloft Cleveland Downtown, where he plays every Tuesday from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. during happy hour.
While some of these jobs will list openings on Craigslist or Facebook, landing a gig can be a matter of talking to the right person at the right time.
“Most of this stuff is word of mouth and hustling to contact the places you play,” Kovacs says. “Society Lounge was similar. I just walked in on a Thursday and asked ‘Can I play the piano?’”
It can be hard to tell just how many freelance pianists are working in Cleveland, although Kovacs estimates that it may be somewhere in the range of 30 to 50. For them, lounge jobs tend to be short-term affairs, arrangements that last a few months to a few years. While Kovacs’ career path is more typical for lounge pianists in Cleveland, Mike Petrone is a throwback to a different time.
Petrone has been a pianist for Johnny’s Downtown since the restaurant opened in 1993. He came from a musical family and began performing professionally when he was 14, playing at establishments like Swingos, The Keg and Quarter, and Nighttown. Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, it wasn’t uncommon for pianists to have full-time jobs playing piano in downtown Cleveland establishments. As time passed, that changed.
“By 2000, those places sort of dried up and the people who did it dried up as well to a certain degree,” Petrone says. “Downtown used to have a lot of piano players and spots with steady jobs for a lot of different people. It’s a different entertainment concept now.”
While the steady jobs started disappearing, Petrone found his place. He became the full-time pianist at Johnny’s in 1999 and played his 5,000th performance at the restaurant in November of 2017. These days, he may be the only true full-time lounge pianist left in Cleveland.
“I’m not sure that there’s anyone else who has a gig with that many nights a week,” Petrone says. “I was lucky; I made a good bet.”
The lounge piano profession may have shifted in the last few decades, but both Petrone and Kovacs know that there is still an appreciation for the craft, both in terms of the audience and the people who pay the pianists.
“Every bar is just trying to find a way to sell more drinks,” Kovacs explains. “If you can prove that you’re worth it, they’ll have you back.”
Money isn’t the only beneficial part of a lounge gig. The response from the crowd is another reward. Sure, the occasional patron will make an outlandish request or get short with them for not knowing every single song in existence. Even lounge pianists get calls for “Freebird.” But there’s always something special about seeing joyful reactions from the crowd when they recognize a piece of music or hear a song that’s meant for them.
“I like interacting with people and trying to guess what kind of music they like,” Kovacs says. “If you see someone playing and like what they’re doing, let them know. It definitely makes it worth it.”