What is cocktail piano music?
The term “cocktail piano music” conjures up a lot of images that are generally associated with high society from that bygone era of "class," the period from the 1920s through the early 1950s. One envisions an elegant social setting in a fine restaurant or hotel bar or at a private party with a formally attired gentleman or lady, seated at an elegant grand piano, softly playing popular Broadway and jazz standards from that era. The music was blended into the backdrop, enhancing the ambience of the environment but never disturbing conversation or dining.
Sadly, that era is gone (along with the grand pianos that were everywhere in clubs and restaurants), but nevertheless cocktail piano still remains relevant. Cocktail piano is really a style of playing, a technique rather than a compilation of music from that bygone era. Cocktail piano music is simply tasteful music, played in a pleasant and unobtrusive manor while people are relaxing and making conversation in a social setting anywhere. This could be in a hotel lobby, restaurant, corner bar, cocktail lounge, private party, wedding, company event or at any gathering of people.
Though Broadway classics and jazz standards are generally expected to be a part of a cocktail pianist's repertoire, in these modern times pianists can add various types of music to their cocktail gigs. If you are playing for baby boomers, you can create soft, easy going arrangements of Beatle tunes, Elvis or Elton John and such. If your audience is even younger you can play current pop tunes as well. Just remember to keep it quiet and in and in the background. Even if it’s an exciting tune, you'll need to find a way to present it in an easy-going manner.
For this type of gig, it is important to remember that you're not there to put on a show and wow people. Your role is to subtly add to the ambience with your playing in an unobtrusive way so that the guests can enjoy their conversations and drinks without having the music overpower them. When I am playing a cocktail job, I generally keep my foot on the soft pedal the entire time (the foot pedal on the far left) and I keep my eye on the guests, from time to time, to make sure that I am not forcing them to talk loudly so they can be heard over my piano. If I see people cupping their ears and straining to hear conversation, then I know I am playing too loud.
No matter what age group you are playing for, it’s always a good idea to have some of the popular old standards in your repertoire, such as Over the Rainbow, As Time Goes By, The Girl From Ipanema, Georgia on My Mind, etc. These are the tunes that are timeless and are the most requested. All generations seem to know them. People expect a pianist to know them so, it’s a good idea to have them at your command. And oh yes, make sure you know how to play Happy Birthday. You are sure to get a request for that one and it will help to make you a hit at the gathering.