This weekend I visited my friend in Denver CO for a little vacation. While walking around downtown Denver I noticed upright pianos scattered around the 16th St. Mall area, which is a promenade with bars, restaurants, and shops. I have seen these pianos in New York as well, but until now I haven’t given them much thought.
I wanted to learn more about the “why” and the “how”, so I did a little googling. It isn’t a nationwide event (as I originally thought), but on a city by city basis: Denver’s pianos are coordinated by “Your Keys to the City” created by the Downtown Denver Partnership and New York’s pianos are coordinated by “Sing for Hope”. Though each organization is independent, their mission statements are very similar. The pianos are donated, painted by local artists, and then placed in areas with heavy foot traffic, such as the 16th St. Mall area or Lincoln Center Plaza in New York. The pianos are intended to make art more accessible, showcase the talents of local artists, and encourage people to “interact with their public spaces in new and spontaneous ways.”
I think this concept is absolutely ridiculous. I think it might “showcase local artists” and “make art more accessible” if the pianos were accompanied by some kind of musical festival where pianists performed (and I realize the possible logistical nightmare of that scenario), but the way they are placed about the city in such a disrespectful fashion and played by people who know nothing about music or pianos is actually DEVALUING music instead of bringing it to the people.
I’m a pianist; I love pianos.These unfortunate creatures are OUTSIDE. They live outside in the summer months, experiencing extreme heat and often rain. The pianos are covered with a plastic tarp to protect them from the rain, but come on – that’s just ridiculous. They are not in tune, indeed they could never hope to be in tune under such conditions! They are constantly “played” by people who abuse the instruments and on the occasion when they are played by a musician of some sorts, observers do not stop and appreciate the music and performer, they watch him for what he has become : a mere novelty, a freakshow. A sidewalk will never be conducive to actual musical consumption. I’m not a snob but I’m a realist. Passing by and hearing 15 seconds of “Heart and Soul” is not musical consumption, it’s just noise.
And is it any better for the performer? I’m curious to hear from any pianists who have played the pianos, because I, myself, have not. Everytime I have tried to seek out a piano I am discouraged by the people who surround them.
When the season is over, the pianos are donated to organizations (schools, churches, etc.), and I also think this seems great at first, but what condition are the instruments in by that point? Are we doing any favors exposing children to such low quality instruments? Is it better than nothing?
I think children should learn to play piano. Having music in the house is a wonderful thing for a family – when I was growing up I remember waking up to my grandmother practicing Bach nearly every morning. It teaches discipline, creativity, problem solving, and it gives the pianist a way to interact (kindly and lovingly) with their fellow man. Do the people who fund these public pianos feel the same way?
Camille Zamora, one of the founders of “Sing for Hope”, told the New York Observer, the success of the program lies in “people who literally never touched a piano before and sit down and start plinking out a song and find they have a voice.” Learning to play the piano takes many years, and I’m sorry – but the idea that someone “has a voice” the first time they touch a piano (or pick up any instrument) is offensive to me and devalues the idea of spending years of your life practicing to become a musician.
Obviously the organizations who coordinate these public pianos believe they are doing good, but I disagree. I think treating these instruments and music in such a flippant way is just another way of diminishing the importance of music in our society.
Have you seen these pianos? Have you interacted with them? What do you think?