Rob Aronstein has played the Wishing Well for 10 years — longer than the Beatles worked together.
The latest in a 50-year line of pianists playing the tips-and-requests gig at the converted 1823 farmhouse/restaurant in Wilton, Aronstein has rolled with changes in musical tastes, technology and top tunes. He’s outlasted some venues where he honed his craft.
When he took over at the Wishing Well from Lou Palma in 2009, Aronstein had been working, by his own account, “all kinds of craziness, [driving] junk vehicles, [doing] custodial work and pumping gas.”
He’d studied classical piano with his mother before playing rock with high school friends, and has always been a forceful, versatile keyboard stylist.
“I remember Fred Sullivan, head of music at Scotia-Glenville [High School] in the ’70s, berating me for pounding the piano so hard,” Aronstein recalled.
After his first Wishing Well gig, Aronstein remembers owner Bob Lee “quietly telling me not to ‘work so hard,’ ” but working hard to learn lots of music in a hurry is Aronstein’s style. Growing up in the ’70s, he was inspired by rockers Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, then the Beatles, Pink Floyd, Chicago, Kansas and Led Zeppelin; then jazz kicked in.
“Boogie woogie and ragtime piano greats Jimmy Yancey, Albert Ammons, Scott Joplin, Eubie Blake,” Aronstein specified, adding modernists Dave Brubeck and Oscar Peterson.
Armed with wide influences, Aronstein landed his first of many solo gigs by accident.
Early for a furniture-shopping venture via Want Ad Digest, he hit Friar Tuck’s Pub for a beer. He found an old Steinway upright in the bar and played some boogie and ragtime.
The manager summoned the owner, who hired Aronstein on the spot, two or three nights a week. That led to regular gigs at Pauly’s Hotel, the Blockhouse Beef & Brew,
Dorato’s and Luigi’s, where he played “probably the first real restaurant gigs requiring a range from background playing to overt entertainment,” he recalled. He lamented another, five-nights-a-week engagement “was a deadly gig: 9 to 2, low ceilings, smoke-filled bar.”
Lee hired Aronstein for the Wishing Well after hearing him play at Ciro’s.
“Rob is an astute player and was able to read the room from early on,” said Lee. Aronstein said, “The crowd was really into piano music, and my repertoire seemed to go over quite well.” However, “Since my early gigs there, I have learned to read the room much better!”
He explained, “Over time playing at the Wishing Well, my repertoire has increased dramatically, and my ability to feel the atmosphere, and do what is best for the restaurant and room at any given time, has just gotten so much better — being able to change pace, volume and style as people wander in and out and the crowd changes.”
At the start, he carried suitcases of sheet music to the piano; now he consults his iPad. “My repertoire has grown from a few hundred tunes to over 1,200 songs,” he said.
While playing weekly at the Wishing Well, Aronstein — who’d dropped out of RPI after a semester — went back to school at 38. He majored in music education at The College of Saint Rose, then earned a master’s in music industry and has become a music industry of his own.
He started teaching at Central Park Middle School in the Schenectady City School District in 2003, when he also married longtime partner Donna, and was named Teacher of the Year in 2014. He sound-engineers for A Place for Jazz at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Schenectady, where his student jazz combo played during intermission last Friday. Aronstein recorded and mixed pianist Dave Gleason’s band Sensemaya’s album “Shake It!” and a live CD by Keith Pray’s Big Soul Ensemble at the Lark Tavern. He also rents out Hammond organs and other vintage keyboards, and plays in a trio with guitarist Mike Derrico and (Savoy Brown and Duke Robillard) drummer Dennis Cotton.
Guest players sit in at the Wishing Well, and Aronstein returns the favor. “I played Hammond [organ] at Shepherd Park with Matt Mirabile this past July,” said Aronstein, “a blues band gig that was a lot of fun.”
He also plays the Cock ’n Bull in Galway every six weeks, including Nov. 15, and monthly at Duke’s Chophouse in Rivers Casino. But the Wishing Well is home.
He returns week after week through life’s ups — Teacher of the Year honors, for example — and downs, notably his wife Donna’s death in 2016.
“Rob has such a broad repertoire that he can easily accommodate requests,” said Lee. “He still surprises us with his range.”
Aronstein said, “I really consider myself an interpreter, not a composer.” He added, “I get requests all the time, and rarely can’t do what’s requested.”
He recalled, “A guy staggered up to the piano and requested ‘War Pigs’ by Black Sabbath; tipped well for it, and I delivered!”
Some customers request the same tunes on each visit. “There is one who gets the full rendition of ‘Claire de Lune’ by Debussy,” said Aronstein, “some who like [Pink Floyd’s] full ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ album. … There is an out-of-town crew that stops in every year during [Saratoga] track season to hear ‘Freebird’ ” by Lynyrd Skynyrd. Lee said,
“Together we appreciate the sequence of ‘Radar Love’ [by Golden Earring] into ‘Moonlight in Vermont,’ ” famously sung by Margaret Whiting, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald with Louis Armstrong.
Aronstein appreciates the tips that comprise his pay.
“It’s always a nice surprise to see a C-note [$100 bill] in the jar,” he said. “It happens from time to time.”
His best tip, however, came on a recent June night when a woman was delegated to deliver song requests for friends.
“She made several stops at the piano with requests and tips,” said Aronstein, who found her phone number on a card in the tip jar. He phoned a few days later for a date: Now he and Kirsten are in a relationship. “I can tell you, it was the best tip I ever got. … I guess it’s good to be the piano player!”
At a glance
- Rob Aronstein plays the Wishing Well (745 Saratoga Road, Wilton) Friday and Saturday.
- First set 6 p.m.; second set after Aronstein’s dinner break.
- Call 518-584-7640 or visit www.wishingwellrestaurant.com for information.