On Collaboration, Piano Bars, and Carterhaugh

It hit me during the second chorus of “Hotel California.”

For the last hour, I’d been feeling a very weird sense of familiarity that, I cannot emphasize enough, did not jive with my surroundings – an underground bar I’d never seen before, filled with people I didn’t know, including the two guys sitting at the massive white pianos 10 feet in front of me.

But the twinges of I know this, I do this all the time persisted, despite the fact that my piano skills are somewhere along the rusty-to-nonexistent continuum, I’ve been in a bar all of two times since the pandemic started, and I worship at the shrine of Florence Welch and Enya (my deep and abiding love of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” notwithstanding), not classic rock.

When I figured out the feeling that kept pinging me, I laughed so hard, I almost spilled my drink all over the nice couple next to me that had just gotten engaged. 

Let me back up – April 14th was my 4 year wedding anniversary, and since Jared and I couldn’t really go out and celebrate on anniversaries 2 or 3, we decided to make up for it this year. Jared took actual time off work, and we went to Asheville, NC for a few days, where we swam, hiked, went on ghost tours, drank vanilla-jalapeno cider, and sat in front of the world’s most gigantic fireplace. And, our last night there, we wandered into a dueling piano bar.

Now, I’d never been to a dueling piano bar before, so I have no idea if my experience was representative of dueling piano bars worldwide, but here’s how this one worked: 

Two giant white pianos were up at the front of the room, positioned so that the piano players were facing one another. The show was all by requests – people in the audience would write down whatever song they wanted to hear on a slip of paper and stick it on top of either piano. And the dudes at the piano would have to play or sing whatever they got (unless, we were told, it was super sweary because the venue would have WORDS with them.)

There were a LOT of classic rock songs from the 70s and 80s, and plus a truly exquisite rendition of Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” (as sung by a 50 ish year old man – he killed it, it was great), and even Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon” (the first dance at Jared’s and my wedding.)

But, while I was happily screaming along to “Don’t Stop Believing” along with everyone else, I was also completely fascinated by the way the piano players were going about their performance.

At least one of the two of them was always singing. And a lot of the time, both of them would be playing and singing the same song, creating harmonies and echoes, and just making an incredible amount of fabulous noise. At other times, one of them would be on their feet, updating “The Phrase of the Night” (it was mostly about sportsball, I have no idea) on a giant chalkboard. Or they might be reading the next request slip on their piano, waving down their partner (who, mind you, was still playing and singing) and flinging it through the air to them because they knew the other guy could play it better. Or, the same song slip might get flung twice or just be generally evasive, so one of the singers would put on giant headphones (again, in the middle of this live performance), scrunch up their face furiously, and learn how to play it on the fly

It was absolutely wild to watch. Chaotic, creative, energizing…and all made possible by lightning fast responsiveness and epic collaboration. 

And I couldn’t believe it when I figured out what had been tickling the back of my mind, but it reminded me so much of what it’s like to work with Brittany. Even though the environment, the energy, and the type of creativity I’m describing here are so different from what we do, I recognized that zing.

I literally ran off in the middle of “Dancing Queen” to call her from the bathroom and cackle about it.

Our training and background is in academia, where we just didn’t see many models for collaboration. And, as we’ve written elsewhere, our collaboration was actively discouraged – we were told we’d never get jobs if we didn’t publish, research, and teach more independently. Academia and learning are often set up to be very solitary – you read for candidacy exams by yourself for months, you solo write a book-length dissertation for years. But some of the best moments of grad school for us were zingy conversations during the courses we took or comments that would make us laugh and think and write better from our dissertation writing group.

In some ways, Carterhaugh has been a pursuit of that zing, which I’m now recognizing is a zing of connection, of creating something bigger than what you could ever make alone.

The guys in the piano bar were doing that, too – working together, trusting each other to have their backs, so they could fill the room with more songs and more sound than they could have done alone, and using that to fuel a zing, a connection with everyone in the room.

And you, reading this now, you’re part of our zing. Thanks for helping us make something so much bigger than ourselves.

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