Dave Kalil, better known as Ottawa’s Piano Man, has been sitting down to his keyboard every Saturday night during the pandemic to pound the keys and belt out the hits.
His weekly live stream concerts are performed from his home in Hintonburg, where a cozy little electric fireplace burns brightly in the background. His music helps to create a sense of togetherness amongst listeners feeling lonely, anxious or isolated during the imposed lockdowns. This piano man allows them to forget about COVID life for a while.
The 90-minute shows, called Take a Break, are produced by Erin Benjamin, president and CEO of the Canadian Live Music Association.
“Live music, it’s our soul,” Kalil told his audience this past Saturday night. “I don’t think I could live without it. I’m humming something every minute of every day. Music's a huge part of our life and I love this Saturday night thing.”
Take a Break has even grabbed the attention of James Taylor and/or his people. A supportive comment was posted by Taylor during one of Kalil's recent shows. On Saturday, Kalil paid tribute to the American folk legend with a triple shot of Taylor hits.
Kalil keeps a virtual tip jar, since he's no longer performing the two, three or four paid gigs a week he had before the COVID-19 crisis began. The performing artist says his weekly Saturday night shows allow him to do what he loves: connect with his audience through music. He’s been a musician for more than 44 years and performs locally as part of Ottawa’s Dueling Pianos.
What’s particularly noteworthy is the event's recent shift to include a charity component, focusing on a different nonprofit organization each week. Beneficiaries have included Youth Services Bureau, The Ottawa Mission, Shepherds of Good Hope, The Ottawa Food Bank, Cystic Fibrosis Canada, the Perley Rideau Foundation and Shelter Movers, whose total was more than $9,000. The organization supports women fleeing abusive situations.
Moreover, representatives from these organizations have been returning, week after week, to help other groups.
“I don’t know what to say,” Kalil, a little overwhelmed by the public response, said during the show. “This ‘movement’ is incredible. It’s grassroots, it’s organic, it’s me playing into an iPad and you guys connecting with me, and Erin producing this. It wouldn’t happen without her. Let’s keep it going; that’s all I’ve got to say. Let’s keep doing this.”
The fundraising aspect of the show started in November when one viewer offered to make a charitable donation of $1 per person in attendance. The idea caught on and the dollar amounts started multiplying during ensuing performances.
This past Saturday night, Liza Mrak from Mark Motors Group and her fiancé, Ottawa philanthropist Gary Zed, initially offered to match $2,500 in donations before bumping up their amount to $5,000.
"You guys rock!" Kalil said during his shout out to them.
“Folks really, really understand, I think, how hard hit musicians have been,” Benjamin is heard saying off-camera, directing her comments toward Kalil. “This is your livelihood, this is your show and we’ve spun it into something so magical on every level.
“Of course, Dave donates a substantive part of his tip jar to the charity of the night,” Benjamin continued. “That’s another win in the win-win here. Thank you to everyone who supports Dave and the charities that he’s been raising money for. It’s amazing."
Benjamin frequently shares with Kalil comments posted throughout the night by their followers, and delivers "breaking news" donations, just like a CNN reporter. Her voice can also be heard quietly singing along to the music.
Saturday’s show brought in $8,000 for Heroes Equine Learning Program (H.E.L.P.), a North Gower-based charity that uses horses to help therapeutically treat military and first responders struggling with PTSD.
Not to get too off course but Kalil is also a seasonal golf teaching pro at the Ottawa Hunt and Golf Club. He later told OBJ.social that his pandemic performances are not motivated by money.
“I don’t do it for the money, I’m doing it for the connection. I’m doing it to help people through the pandemic, just to give them some personal connection."
"I need to play and I need to connect with people, and this is the best and only way right now."
Also driving him is his strong desire to perform.
“I’ve been a musician for 44 years. I need to play and I need to connect with people, and this is the best and only way right now.”
The Take a Break shows started by fluke, said Kalil. He performed some songs on Facebook Live in March 2020, just as everything was shutting down due to the rapid spreading of the coronavirus. He realized he was attracting a following.
“It just kind of took off,” said Kalil, who initially did two virtual shows a week.
Kalil can seemingly perform everything, from Bruce Springsteen to The Eagles to Bob Marley to Kenny Rogers to the always-comforting House at Pooh Corner. He never does the same show twice and takes all kinds of requests. He has a warm and folksy kind of presence, proudly wearing a gifted sweatshirt on Saturday night promoting his alma mater, the no-longer Laurentian High School.
Kalil uses brief pauses during his shows to play a few musical bars from some television theme song or long-forgotten commercial jingle from our childhood. He also likes to keep his viewers engaged by encouraging them to clap and sing along to his songs, particularly during the familiar chorus part.
Well over a 100 households watch every week. The number of posted comments climbed beyond 700 this past Saturday. Viewers stretched from PEI to Vancouver and beyond.
“My people have been super, super supportive,” said Kalil, who avoids using the word “fans.” The public will often send him photos or video clips of themselves, their children or even their dogs enjoying his shows. “It’s pretty cute. It’s really cute.”
This upcoming Saturday, Take a Break will also support the Eldercare Foundation of Ottawa followed by The OutCare Foundation on Saturday, Feb. 20.