November 15, 2007

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Going where the piano leads
Robin Spielberg invites listeners to daydream
By Alec O’Meara aomeara@hippopress.com

The piano has been a passport, ticket to adventure, a way to make a living and a voice for the causes Robin Spielberg holds most dear, but when the acclaimed solo artist sits down in front of her Steinway on Friday, Nov. 30, at the Dana Center, all she’s hoping the audience does is listen.

“I want you to come to the show and completely daydream,” said Spielberg, who believes that the music is an opportunity for her to give the audience the time to think about what the melodies mean to each of them personally. She has no problem telling you what they mean to her. As part of the performance, Spielberg will talk about the songs and what the themes mean to her and about her own personal experiences. As a rule, some track usually makes a deep connection with the listeners. One of her favorites, a piece inspired by her grandmother’s immigration and integration into American culture, is a piece that has drawn comments from crowds wherever she plays it.

“It’s because so many people have that relative that made that journey from somewhere else,” said Spielberg, who added that many say that in listening, they hear the voyage that their grandparent or great-grandparent endured.

Considering Spielberg’s gift for connecting with the crowd, it might be surprising to learn that the piano wasn’t always her dream. For a while early in her career, playing the piano was the day job, and musical theater was the dream. While studying acting at New York University, she had a chance to hear famed writer and director David Mamet speak. The speaking engagement morphed into an opportunity for her and other students to study in a retreat workshop with Mamet, where he unknowingly became a key influence on Spielberg’s other career, the one that hadn’t even begun yet.

“He said that you have to go out there and do the theater that’s in your heart,” said Spielberg. What she took Mamet to mean was that to get ahead in the business of theater, one had to take on projects that have personal meaning. Later, as her career in musical theater began to take off, Mamet’s advice took on extra weight.

“I loved being in a show, but I didn’t love the life,” said Spielberg. “You can’t sit in your living room an act, but you can sit at home and practice the piano.”

Spielberg began to look into more performance-based ways to bring her music to the stage, and went through a period where she had “one foot in and one foot out” of New York’s theater scene. Fourteen recordings, world tours, and a couple shows at Carnegie Hall later, it’s safe to say that Spielberg found her voice as a performer.

Through the piano, Spielberg has gotten the chance to cross the country to play for a variety of audiences. As a celebrity spokesman for the American Music Therapy Association, she occasionally finds herself sitting down to play at senior centers and other locales on the way to a larger show. It was at one of these intermediate stops that Spielberg was feeling a little unsure of her connection with the audience.

As she was heading out the door, a nurse took her aside.

“She said, ‘Did you see that guy over there in the corner that was singing along?’ and I said that I did see him as I was playing. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘he hasn’t spoken in months. Thank you for bringing him back to us,’” said Spielberg.

One of the reasons Spielberg advocates music therapy is that she saw its benefits in her own life. Spielberg believes that music was instrumental in the development her own child, who was born two months premature.

“Music played a very big part in development, and I kind of made a commitment right there to do what I could to help.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum from one-on-one connections have been trips to Asia that result in the full-blown rock-star treatment. During a recent trip to South Korea, Spielberg said, she got the “Britney Spears” treatment, with bodyguards, fans and whatnot. She believes part of the difference is cultural, as everyone in that country studies the piano in school, so many have a connection to playing. To prepare for an appearance on Korean public television, the studio asked for sheet music. The camera men used the sheet music to plan out blocking for the guest spot.

“It’s really completely mind-boggling over there,” said Spielberg. “Over there it’s completely different. Everyone plays the piano.”

One thing that the Asian audience missed out on, that those who attend the Dana Center show will get, is Spielberg’s commentary. The pianist will talk about what many of the songs mean to her. There will be some holiday standards on the set list, but also original pieces from In the Heart of Winter, a bestselling album that Spielberg has released again under her own label, remastered and resequenced.

Spielberg doesn’t care how deeply the audience gets into the themes of the music, only that people listen and go wherever their minds take them. If it’s anywhere like where the piano has taken her, the audience will be in for quite the trip.