There is something magnetic and wonderful about an outdoor piano. An old white honky tonk was parked on Willow Street this week, begging to be played. It was quite a character, splashed with colour like a Jackson Pollock painting, sitting in the open waiting for pedestrian offerings of Chopsticks.
I noticed that people loitered around the piano. Instead of scooting by in a hurry they stopped and played it. People listened to each other and applauded. They herky-jerked that well worn Heart and Soul duet with each other. One guy sat and performed a piece of pretty impressive classical music.
This is all irregular behaviour, isn’t it? Interacting with strangers on the street is not the kind of thing we normally do. The footpath is more often an annoying space between point A and point B that we stride through as quickly as possible. It’s against our nature to stop en route, to take a moment to play, listen, and share a smile with people we don’t even know.
A public spaces guru, David Engwicht, says that if you want to double the number of people in town all you have to do is get them to walk half as fast. Slow them down and make the street itself a reason to be there.
It seems a piano will slow people down, even if you hate Chopsticks.
Street or no street, we need more pianos in the world. When I was a kid there was a piano in each of my friend’s homes. The piano was once as ubiquitous as televisions are today.
Times have changed. All of a sudden I’m older than microwave ovens, cell phones and personal computers.
I remember the day we got our first colour TV, just a box you could plonk on the table. I was seven years old and that night I basked in the glorious orange glow of the Dukes of Hazzard’s General Lee.
My dad remembers the day the very first television set arrived in his street. I guess my children will remember the day we got a high definition wide screen with Blu-Ray.
Television has replaced the piano as the household anchor. I fear that pianos are becoming specialty items. Not enough people have access to them these days.
Call me sentimental but a home feels empty without a piano. The piano is my favourite unplugged machine, a technical marvel. Science and engineering combine with artistry to place music at my fingertips. Electric keyboards are okay but they have no soul. I love the unruly resonance of a living acoustic.
A piano is also a portal into the past. When wrestling with Chopin, for example, I’m discovering notes that he wrote over 150 years ago. “Why did you write it that way?” I argue. Chopin replies: “Trust me. Practice it a bit more and play it faster.” A few bars later I finally get what he’s doing. “Ah, I see.”
He nods. I smile. Two pianists (one very amateur) communicating across the centuries.
I’ve learned that there are plans to plant more street pianos around the city. It’s a artist initiative that came out of the “Love Your City” sessions Peter Kageyama did in Tauranga earlier this year. Check out the pianos at www.theincubator.co.nz. The prospect of seeing these marvels being enjoyed in public puts an extra skip in my step.
On a slightly flat note, pianos slip out of tune easily when they’re being shifted. Too many bung keys will scare away decent musicians and then we’ll be stuck with the most chaotic kinds of Chopsticks. Perhaps there are some kindly piano tuners out there who might help maintain the sweetness.
It’s going to take more than a few enthusiastic artists to usher in the renaissance. It’ll take a community. Let’s all join in. If you see a piano, play it.
First published in Bay of Plenty Times 11 October 2013. Reproduced with permission.