The Tinkling Piano

Yes, we know that sound well, that “tinkling piano” that is ever-present at parties, black tie events, upper crust restaurants and late-night scenes in many of the old movies. The song, “These Foolish Things,” lyrics by Eric Maschwitz and music by Jack Strachey, gives homage to our subject with the line, “A tinkling piano in the next apartment, those stumbling words that told you what my heart meant.”

You can hear it in your mind, can’t you? Soft, mellow, searching, setting a mood that suggests sophistication at parties, classy background music at restaurants that make it easy to converse over, and of course that late-night tinkling in the movies, or perhaps even in the next apartment, that relaxes and invites introspection, perhaps even tender thoughts or precious memories. Fairly powerful stuff, right?

One of my fave songs in this regard is Brenda Russell’s “ Piano In the Dark.” Here’s the link –

But what of the tinkling piano player himself? Is he “playing the room vibe?” Or is he in his own little world, noodling around on the high keys, knowing it has worked in the past, and it’s what the function expects? My experience has been that he’s having more fun than anyone at the party or function. Tinkling away on an old standard gives the player the time and freedom to think beyond the ambiance of the moment. For instance, sometimes my mind would wander into the possibility of playing what the people there were really thinking, really feeling.

MJ Williams & me playing together in Helena, MT. What fun, wonderful times we had, playing the old standards to our heart’s content.

Seeing those people drinking, perhaps dancing, standing around with their cocktails, mingling while looking and sounding so pleasant, so friendly… what were they really thinking? Who among them was working the room with a hidden, perhaps even sinister agenda? How many of them were faking it all the way, hating being there but not being able to show it? How much fun would it be to play some dark, menacing chords and wicked-sounding melodic phrases to replicate where the room was really at… to play the real vibe of the room, rather than what they were pretending to be, with the help of this tinkling piano?

I asked my lady love, Betty Ann, what the sound of a tinkling piano made her think of. She smiled and replied, “Oh, I always wanted to go and sit by the piano and really listen. Although I do fine in social situations, it would always be a welcome out to stop the idle chatter and go to the piano.”

Over the years I noticed that sometimes the sound of a piano could really lift the mood and overall ambiance of a room, and sometimes simply hit a stone wall. I remember this cancer fundraiser that I was playing. There were quite a few teenagers there for some reason, and they were bored and eye-rolling with the whole procedure. In an effort to include them, I played the Charlie Brown theme. I heard one of the girls exclaim, “Hey, isn’t that the Charlie Brown music? Cool!” And for the rest of the event they stood close to the piano and listened. Ah, music… able to stop a teen eye-roll with a simple melody.

So you know, the whole “tinkling piano” thing doesn’t work at all if the piano isn’t in perfect tune. An out-of-tune piano is a clunky, old western barroom piano that is totally out of place everywhere except in a dirty old western barroom movie scene. I know, I’ve had to play dozens of them, and they’re painful. Making an out-of-tune piano sound even palatable is one of the neatest tricks any piano player can pull off. It’s tortuous at best. For years now I’ve owned an electric piano that has a great acoustic grand piano sound, and I love it. Never needs tuning, always good for an occasional ‘tinkle.” And if you ever see a tinkling piano player sight-reading his music, then he’s a phony tinkler, not the real deal at all. The genuine tinker pianist is playing his heart, his mind, not something that someone else wrote down.

Forever I have admired the tinkling piano players who enhanced all those old movies, often wondered what else they could play, how good they really were. Then I finally got my chance to be one of them, composing the music to the B film “Eve Of Destruction.” There is a club scene in this epic that begged for tinkling piano, and hey, here was my chance!

I recorded the section with great delight, and it turned out to be a one-taker… and why not? I’d been one of those background tinklers for a good portion of my life. It was as easy as, well, falling off a piano bench. So satisfying, for now I was finally one of those background piano tinkers, documented by an actual film!

Because of how the times were when I first began playing, a lot of the pianos I played had cigarette burns on the low keys and high keys. Piano players back then were still mostly smokers, and they’d leave their lit cigarettes at one end of the keyboard or the other, mostly on the keys they never used. The burning cigarette would stain those keys to a nasty yellow or even brown, and it was a common sight on almost every piano I played for the first 15 years of my professional life. Hell, the piano in our bar that I learned to play on had stains and burns at both ends, so it wasn’t like I wasn’t used to it.

I still remember the first grand piano I ever played. It was in the music school of the U. Of Montana, and it was life-defining for me. All the keys were clean, and the instrument was in impeccable tune. After only a few notes and chords on it I realized that this piano was so beautiful and responsive, I could play only half the notes I heard in my head and get twice the sound, twice the emotion. And when I tinkled around on the high notes… well, pure heaven. Suddenly I sounded, and felt like, a real piano player, rather than just some guy trying to make a bad piano sound good. As I said, it was a life-defining moment for me. I had suddenly realized that I could actually do it, that I could actually be a good and expressive player, given the right instrument!

I followed that dream for 45 years, with many successes and only a few failures. And these days, with Betty and I both in our 80’s, we still enjoy those occasional moments when I sit down and play that tinkling piano for us. And it still rings of a time gone by, when our hearts were lighter, and our world then was sweeter, gentler.

And if, by chance, my B were to quietly say across the room, “Play it again, Sam,” in her best Bogie impression, I’d probably die and go to heaven right there.

Steve Hulse


2 Replies to “The Tinkling Piano”

  1. Those old pianos are a bit like us. A bit worn but still playing lovely music. Congratulations for all great times then and now.

  2. Thanks for the great flashback to my first Hulse Band gig in Helena (or Billings, maybe?). I remember MJ and the jazzy piano accompaniment fondly. And that photo from the Intercontinental Hotel in Buckhead always makes me think I might have walked right by you as you were tinkling the night away…!

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