Steal this job: Dueling pianist

March 10, 2014

Ronnie Smith, 40, performs at Bobby McKey’s in National Harbor, where he works as a full-time musical entertainer. (Jason Hornick/For Express)

Ronnie Smith, 40

Salary: Ranges depending on venue and location; typical gigs pay $200 to $300, plus tips

Position: Dueling pianist

What He Does: “Dueling pianist” is a bit of a misnomer for Smith’s role at Bobby McKey’s, a piano bar at National Harbor (172 Fleet St., Oxon Hill, Md.; 301-602-2209). Yes, he does play the piano — Peter Gabriel, Journey and even DMX, on request — but he’s not exactly dueling anybody (unless it’s part of an act to get laughs).

“When a dueling pianist show is [performed] correctly and properly, there are two players performing at the same time, and each is adding to the other’s music, helping the other,” Smith says, noting that you might also call this type of show simply a “singalong.” At Bobby McKey’s, four pianists typically take the stage each night: One pair play for an hour together, and then alternate with a second duo, and so on, until the night is over. Between acts, to entertain audiences, all four play together — and each does a lot more than tickle the ivories. Smith also sings and plays drums and guitar.

Shows last between four and six hours, making for “a pretty grueling schedule,” Smith says. He performs up to five nights a week at Bobby McKey’s (in addition to private shows). “By the end of the week, you have very little voice left,” he says.

How He Got the Job: At an early age, Smith started playing songs by ear on an old organ at his Maryland home. He never had formal training and doesn’t know how to read sheet music.

After high school, he worked in computers, but, Smith says, he soon realized “music was my calling.” He lived in Nashville, Tenn., touring with artists, and also wrote songs for his band, Divine Static.

About 10 years ago, he was vacationing in Myrtle Beach, S.C., and volunteered to play a few songs at the Crocodile Rocks dueling piano bar (the usual guy was absent). A few months later, the club asked him to return as a regular.

“I might be probably in the 2 percent of dueling piano players whom that has happened to,” Smith says, noting that most have to formally audition. While working in Myrtle Beach, Smith continued to travel nationally to play on a freelance basis.

In 2008, when Bobby McKey’s was opening, its owners (who knew the owners of Crocodile Rocks) approached Smith to ask him to become a full-time performer. Smith jumped at the chance.

Who Would Want This Job: If you’ve got sharp musical skills — whether you’re classically trained or self-taught — you might be a great candidate. Of course, it’s not that straightforward; a vast store of musical knowledge — and comfort with practically any style — is key, too.

Then, there are personality and endurance factors: Natural entertainers might feel right at home on stage — but to be a dueling pianist, you need enough energy to stay there for hours on end. And you’ve got to keep a sometimes-finicky crowd happy throughout. “You can’t just get up and sing songs and expect people to react,” Smith says. He often invites audience members on stage, especially if they’re celebrating an occasion such as a birthday or anniversary. “The memories you can create through this type of work are amazing,” he says.

How You Can Get This Job: If you don’t know how to play a piano, let alone a musical instrument, you might be out of luck — at least until you take serious lessons. If you’re already a musician with experience, practice, practice, practice. (Even Smith rehearses from time to time.)

Seek out chances to play alongside others, especially other pianists. “To co-exist and co-play with three other guys who do exactly the same thing you do is sometimes very hard,” Smith says. “You have to be very open-minded.” Smith recommends newbies observe plenty of dueling piano shows to pick up on performance skills.

Landing a steady gig usually requires an audition, and even after you’re in, you might be assigned the slowest nights. It takes time to work yourself up to bigger shows. But Smith believes it’s all worth it: “You can’t just go anywhere to see this sort of thing.”

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