Sunday evenings, Doreta Strotman’s job is to make Los Altos Grill patrons happy by performing her jazz-style improvisations on the restaurant’s piano. Seeing them enjoy her work puts a smile on Strotman’s face as well.
“There are always people who will stop and say something about how they’ve really enjoyed something,” the Mountain View resident said, “and that just really makes you feel good.”
That includes people like Los Altos resident Nancy Price Schlegel, part of a foursome that frequents the Grill.
“It is always a pleasure to find that Doreta Strotman is playing on an evening when we are there,” she said. “Doreta’s skill and choice of selections, old standards, lend so much to the atmosphere and really complete the dining experience.”
Strotman has been performing at the Grill for six years, but she was playing piano long before that. The retired teacher began taking piano lessons at age 4, after her parents discovered her pretending to play the piano on a windowsill.
“I remember they bought a big, old upright for $50,” said Strotman, whose mother came from a musical family.
In high school, Strotman accompanied the choirs and tap dancers before participating in instrumental competitions. Strotman described these “as fun times” growing up in Mason City, Iowa – the town where the famous musical “Music Man” was based.
After getting married, Strotman learned to play the organ, though not necessarily by choice.
“I played (piano) for church, and we had gotten a new organ. No one knew how to play the organ – including me,” Strotman said. “I would only get the courage to put my foot on the bottom keys as the last person left.”
A gift for improvisation
Later in her life as a kindergarten teacher, she found piano playing to be an invaluable skill. Strotman frequently improvised in class by playing what she called “singing games” with her students.
Strotman’s ability to improvise has served her well over the years. At the Grill, Strotman improvises – without sheet music – on a variety of familiar tunes, such as favorites “Over the Rainbow” and “As Time Goes By.”
“I rarely play anything the same twice,” said Strotman, a former Los Altos resident who moved to Mountain View in the late 1970s.
Strotman noted that some diners enjoy guessing the tunes she is playing. One patron recently told her, “‘Oh, we were playing Name That Tune,’” Strotman said. “‘We knew every one that you played.’”
Strotman added that other diners have told her how they want to go back to piano lessons now that their kids are grown and that they wish they had not stopped playing.
“I’m happy when someone tells me they enjoy my playing,” said Strotman, who recalled how her late husband, Dale, “always enjoyed listening to me.”
She and Dale raised three children in the area. Doreta is now a grandmother to six and has a great-grandchild as well.
Outside of performing at the Grill, Strotman has played piano at several fashion shows and Los Altos events, including those at the Los Altos History Museum. She has also performed for the Los Altos Senior Program’s Thanksgiving dinners.
Strotman said she is invested in “giving back” to her community through other volunteer work as well. After her husband passed away in 2004 after receiving care from Pathways Home Health & Hospice, Strotman began volunteering with the organization. She devotes 400-500 hours per year to Pathways and plays piano at its annual breakfast. In 2012, she received the organization’s 35th Anniversary Volunteer Award for her more than 4,000 hours of volunteer service.