Public Pianos, are they promoting or devaluing music?

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.

Piano in Downtown Denver, photo courtesy of SuperStock.com

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?

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33 Responses to Public Pianos, are they promoting or devaluing music?

  1. Eric K says:

    I love the idea of public pianos, but in reality I have never personally been able to play one, because it has been outdoors and the quality of the piano was so bad that I did not feel comfortable playing on it. What I wish was more common is an indoor public piano. My mom found one in her city , and played it several different occasions. It definitely brought a lot of joy and interest to the people who were around the area and passing by.

    I think there are several big benefits of having the pianos in indoors public spaces rather than outdoors . The first is obviously the better climate to maintain the condition and tune of the piano. But also, I think people are far less likely to abuse a piano when it is indoors and very audible to all people around . When the piano is outdoors, and its sound is masked by all of the white noise of traffic, there is no consequence to being an ass and pounding aimlessly on the keys. But when the piano is indoors, the moment you play the first note, everyone’s head will turn to look at you. You will then be sure to play it well with your very best intentions, whatever your skill level may be.

    Someone mentioned that the first lesson in piano is to respect an instrument. I think that by coming across a beast of an instrument left outside in all the elements, the respect is instantly lost by the vast majority of people. If a public piano is found indoors however, I believe that its respect would be maintained to a much larger degree.

    I actually found this blog post by searching Google for a public indoor piano in my city. no luck. Only a bunch of junk that’s been rained on and snowed on. It is a shame, because those instruments can no longer bring music to the public space.

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  2. Sydney says:

    I think you were lucky enough to have a comfortable home with a piano in it. I think you were lucky enough to have the opportunity to learn music. I’m currently a music student who’s going through all the hoops of performance classes, but I would never degrade people who weren’t blessed enough to have the same musical opportunities that we did and tell them that they’re a disgrace to music. The purpose of these pianos in Denver are for people to have fun and to bring the city together through music. Yes, I agree the pianos won’t be in great condition, but they are old pianos. It’s just extremely unfortunate that you feel only the musically “elite” are allowed produce “real” music and anything less than that is not beautiful and is actually “DEVALUING” to music. That’s like saying a piece of art in the streets is devaluing to art. That the art didn’t mean anything. That it’s not real art. That those people don’t deserve to express themselves. It makes me sad when people tend to forget the true meaning of music.

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  3. Jake says:

    I play the piano, my sister plays and my kids play. I listen exclusively to piano music on Pandora at work. I love the piano. I also work just off the 16th street mall, so I see and or hear those piano’s everyday. I have heard some beautiful music on them. There is one particular homeless man in Denver who plays wonderfully. It is a beauty to see him be able to enjoy something that he is so good at, that otherwise would only exist in what ever past life he had. I have heard him play many times and although I enjoy seeing and hearing him play, can you imagine the joy that those instruments bring to him? My Family has also used those piano’s to play for some homeless people. We may not be able to play in Carnegie hall, but we have brought happiness and conversations to those who otherwise would never be able to hear Chopin or Bach or anything else even close to classical piano. I have talked to the volunteer tuners, who try to keep all the keys working and keep them in tune. They have a passion for expanding the love of this amazing instrument. I love talking to those guys and appreciate that they are trying to bring this to people who have never experienced it before. I have heard plenty of lousy music on them, but that isn’t the point. The lousy music is no different than the background noise from the busses and people and cars. The lovely music that sometimes fights its way through the people, the cars, the busses and busyness of a City is like finding a diamond in the rough. I LOVE it when it happens. These pianos likely were sitting in a basement NOT BEING USED AT ALL. They are beaters for sure. But they are giving the last of their useful life to bring joy to people and I think it is Wonderful. It’s more disrespectful to have a piano and have nobody use it. Next time you are in Denver, slow down on the mall. Don’t go during lunch hour. Go out about 3 in the afternoon on a warm day, and see if you can find the homeless guy I am talking about. Find a group of homeless people on a Saturday afternoon and play for them. Then think of the joy the homeless guy is receiving from playing, more than the joy of listening to it. See what conversation you have with the homeless, and look at if from that perspective. A sidewalk can be conducive to actual music consumption, and for many people it is the only consumption they will ever get. It it rare, but I guarantee you it happens…I have witnessed it myself.

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    • Thanks so much for your thoughtful reply Jake. I’m glad to hear you’ve had and witnessed positive experiences with the pianos. I understand your point of view about offering a musical experience to the underprivileged because that is the only experience they may have. That is a kind thing to do, for sure. I still take issue with the program being sponsored by government money which could go to other arts organizations.

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  4. If it were up to me there would be as many pianos as there are bathrooms. After all, it is equally discourteous to deny either one to a guest – and in proper working order.
    The problem I have with these programs is that I feel real pain at the sight of a beautiful instrument being “refinished” with latex and/or placed in a rugged environment. I also hate it when artists express themselves by dropping pianos from cranes to make a spectacle of their destruction. I can’t help thinking of the loving hours of respect and caring these instruments received in the past and what that means to the families who grew up with them.
    If the market does not presently support old uprights, then they should be stored by a wise investor in a warehouse because in our lifetime I am sure they will become sought after as valuable and useful antique instruments. If a piano is hopeless, then I believe it deserves to be dispatched in a more suiting, respectful and dignified manner.
    As for the kids, the first lesson in music is to respect the instrument.

    Howard Goldman
    Buffalo, NY
    http://www.LoungeACADEMY.com

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  5. Lynn goucher says:

    I agree with Champian: leaving untuned pianos outside in harsh weather conditions and then donating their battered remains is a stupid idea. If you really want to promote music and bring it to public spaces and encourage people to be musical, then hire real musicians for outdoor summer music programs that people can enjoy …. In a variety of genres …. Classical, jazz, folk, blues, world music, latin, etc…… if you want to encourage people to play music, perhaps you can include the occasional drumming circle or an open mike for amateurs or even a karaoke brown bag lunch series for people who enjoy singing or want to try singing. It’s important to maintain standards and equally important to break down barriers and make music accessible. You have to be smart about it. untuned, junk pianos don’t cut it. A lunchtime summer music series where the musicians actually talk to the audience and interact with people, maybe to explain why they chose a particular song, or what jazz improvisation is, or to display some unusual percussion instruments and invite people to join in just for fun.

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  6. What about having pianos in INDOOR public spaces, like in the old days? That would be nice! (Including every hotel and restaurant and bar and school room, like there was once upon a time–more or less.)

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    • I agree Jon! But I really think the pianos should be accompanied by some kind of “concert” series or something like that, where there is a scheduled performance. It could even be in addition to the random playing.

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  7. Atticus Brady says:

    I like the idea of running into a random piano on the street, yet as a public project it doesn’t quite work. I came across one a while back in Washington Square park and it was really banged up. A guy was playing pop tunes on it and, being outside, the acoustics were lousy and you had to be sitting with him on the bench to hear anything. As a work of art, well, let’s just say that if I want to see a piano as a beautiful work of art I go to the Steinway showroom.

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  8. Ellynne says:

    I both agree & disagree. First, a decent acoustic piano is a treasure, hard to keep in tune – especially in the Northeast where it’s humid and dry and hot and cold – so many extremes. And many folks in NYC don’t have room for a decent piano, even pros who play the instrument for a living! So, your point is well taken, Champian. But… Discovering an instrument for the first time can be amazing. What if an older adult with grown kids touched a city piano & it rekindled a love of classical lessons, motivating them to take it up again? What if anyone was inspired to learn and make music? In NYC, the likelihood of a virtuoso passing by to play one is pretty high. What about other places? Btw, school pianos are often in dreadful shape. We have an old Steinway that is beyond repair. It’s the saddest thing I’ve ever seen. Before the keys were stripped and some don’t sound at all, someone could have saved the poor neglected thing. Like a puppy, make sure it goes where it will be cared for & appreciated. My two (perhaps five) cents…

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  9. Glenn says:

    Its like why they locked the practice rooms. People will sometimes disrespect a privilege. This is just a silly thing. You can get a 30$ used electric play the street, and stay i tune.

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  10. Ernie says:

    I wouldn’t mind hearing some musical spontaneity in the streets.. as long as it sounds good. But i am no pianist and it doesn’t take much to impress my ear. I can see how it can get out of hand though. I envision drunks jumping on it at 2am slamming their fingers on the keys and shouting. Maybe if a semi professional volunteer pianist from that organization gave lessons to interested young aspiring musicians, it might serve some kind of productive means besides entertainment. But I can see how it doesn’t go well with a professional like you who have learned to respect music.

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    • Thanks so much for commenting Ernie. I would like to see some kind of organized performance or lessons from volunteer musicians to accompany the pianos. And here in NY I think drunks are jumping on the pianos 24 hours a day, not just at night! haha 🙂

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  11. Pete Carma says:

    When you say ‘local artists’ do you know how many of the worlds best artists live in NYC>
    you are all local NY artists are you not? This art was done by your standards….Monk, Brubeck. etc.

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    • Pete, I’m sorry I don’t understand this comment. I wasn’t trying to insult the idea of “local artists” either in NY or in Denver. Of course there are amazing local artists in NY and in Denver, and many other places as well. What do you mean, this was “done by your standards?”

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  12. Pete Carma says:

    PS, the pianos as last time they did this, after some time are tuned and DONATED to underprivileged schools…..so perhaps a future musician could blossom. And the problem with that is??

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  13. Pete Carma says:

    I am directly involved in this. My friend and please google her Jennie Booth, is a WORLD CLASS visual artist, women’s rights activist, she painted 2 of them, AND I got three young indie women artists into the gig when they had 88 pianos all playing at once, ALL of them told me it was a moving experience, to play with 85 other artists, and to learn a classical piece in the process.
    As for people touching a piano for the first time in a street, I personally love it. As a kid I could not afford a whistle and would have been overwhelmed to play a piano under any circumstances.
    And I have seen artists playing them brilliantly on the street to entertain passersby, the problem with that is??? For musicians to want to quarantine an instrument because they have skills on it is offensive to me.

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    • Thanks for commenting Pete! That’s great you know some of the people involved,and I’m sure it was a moving experience for them. I don’t want to “quarantine” the instrument, but I would rather these young children you speak of get to experience a more genuine opportunity to “meet” a piano than in passing on a sidewalk where the piano is in poor condition and no one is exhibiting any respect for music. I want the kids to learn about the JOY of music and learning a discipline, and I do not think this is the best program to offer that.

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  14. Why don’t they put oil paint & canvas along with typewriters & paper along side, so anyone commuting to work or random tourists can breifly become Picasso or Poe for a few minutes and “find their voice” while going to work or on their way to Ground Zero; or would that be too excessive? These pianos don’t appear to be in any well kept condition either, so it’s clear the goal for the non-profit here is to just provide something cool for folks to post on Facebook or Instagram under the guise that they are making some kind of positive artistic impact on the same kind of person that wants to buy a song for 99 cents and is disappointed that Manhattan has no Walmart. Meanwhile art becomes de-valued further.

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  15. It’s the American Idol syndrome: regardless of interest, training, discipline, experience, or ability, everyone is entitled to a spot on a big ol’ stage, and everyone’s contribution is great, and music is all subjective anyway, so if you don’t like how someone sounds, that’s just your opinion! Ugh. I agree with everything you’ve said, here, but I especially support the idea that an arts festival showcasing local musicians and artists is a far superior way of making the arts accessible than this public pianos project.

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  16. I totally see your point, but don’t completely agree. I do think it’s horrible that these instruments are exposed to extreme weather conditions. However, in a day where music education in the schools is dwindling, it’s an opportunity for kids to get curious about music. If they come to a piano and make the piano make a sound, maybe they’ll be curious. I’ve also seen people playing things more challenging than chopsticks. If someone who learned how to play at one point in there life but doesn’t have access to a piano now wants to play… great! I’ve enjoyed seeing amateur musicians play the piano and if it brings to joy to someone to sit down for a few minutes and play, fantastic. I haven’t seen many pianos this year, but I did experience the scenarios I’m mentioning during the first year of this project.

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  17. I agree, this is absurd and disrespectful.

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