Imagine your entire career revolving around a tool that you must constantly borrow.
Bobby van Deusen is a professional pianist who travels the country alone – in his own car – to share his talent with as many people as possible. But grand pianos aren’t the best travel companions, so he has to perform on a new instrument at every new gig.
“You have to be very flexible,” van Deusen said. “You have to have the ability to make the piano do what you want to do. If you have to be altering your technique to fit the piano, then you’re going to run into some problems. A clunky sounding piano, if you can’t work around that, it’ll be a clunky performance.”
And flexible he is. The Cheyenne Concert Association team recently got him to fill in for previously scheduled pianist Jason Farnham for the group’s March 10 concert at Central High after Farnham fell ill.
Pensacola-based van Deusen is a former member of the Barbery Coast Dixieland Band, and also spent part of his long career backing acts such as Pete Fountain, Al Hirt and Sammy Davis Jr. He’s known for a repertoire that includes everything from Ragtime stride and American Songbook ballads to instrumental jazz classics and bossa nova, and he said via phone that he’ll never turn down a request from the audience (even if he’s never played the song before).
“Even if I don’t know it, I can give it a whack,” he said, explaining that he’s quite confident in his sight reading ability. “I’m here for you, to give you a laugh, and get you stomping your feet and clapping your hands.”
Van Deusen always begins his preshow preparation by sitting down and getting to know an unfamiliar instrument. The first thing he does is play a single note and pay attention to how long it rings. Just from that one stroke of a single key, he can tell what kind of shape that piano is in.
He then practices his scales, working his way up to songs – slowly, but surely.
“I can’t emphasize that slowness enough. Nobody’s listening, nobody cares,” he noted as advice for musicians both young and old. “A lot of guys, when they get older, have performance injuries, but I don’t because I warm up very, very slowly.”
Philadelphia-born van Deusen said he began piano lessons at the age of 7, but it wasn’t until around age 10 that his talent for the instrument started to show. By the time he was in middle school, he knew he wanted to make music his career, but that goal was met with only negative reactions by friends and family.
They all told him to have a backup plan, but he became a full-time pianist by age 19, and several decades later, still hasn’t needed a Plan B.
He mostly made a living by playing bars in those early years, van Deusen said, which helped him become a talented accompanist with a plethora of songs in his back pocket. He developed his sight reading ability and soon took gigs all over the country.
One of those gigs, which he recalled as a highlight of his career, was a spontaneous performance aboard the Mississippi Queen steamboat on July 4, 1995. The boat was docked near downtown St. Louis, and his boss told van Deusen to go play the calliope (a steam-powered organ) for the Missourians off the coast of the Mississippi River celebrating the holiday.
“It’ll blow your ears, louder than hell, so I went up topside, and we turned it up as loud as it would go,” van Deusen said. “And I did a calliope concert for 250,000 people.”
He also won first place in the senior division of the 2019 World Championship Old-Time Piano Playing Contest in Oxford, Mississippi, which van Deusen noted as one of his most proud moments as a pianist.
Accolades aside, he said the most rewarding moments of his career are the often brief, yet meaningful exchanges he has with audience members on their way out of his performances. Van Deusen likes to stand at the door after every gig and shake as many hands as possible, and it’s in those moments that he gets feedback he always takes to heart.
“When they look at me and say, ‘When can you come back?,’ that’s just the ultimate compliment,” he said. “Then I did my job.”