Blogs by Hilary Hopkins

Closer to Home

Street Pianos!

October 06, 2013 / Street Pianos!


That’s the invitation painted on 75 fancifully-decorated upright pianos now scattered around the streets of Boston and surrounding neighborhoods.   What fun!  It’s The Street Pianos!

Last Friday we went to City Hall Plaza for the kick-off festivities welcoming our pianos.  One of them was there of course, and it was labeled “1000th Piano.”  Before the mayor arrived to make things official, a small crowd gathered and some of them accepted the “Play Me” invitation.  A quite young man, a teenager maybe, set his backpack down and perched on the little square piano bench.  He picked out some tunes, oblivious to the large tv cameras stuck in his face.  He was followed by a small Asian woman who played sweetly but tentatively.  She didn’t care for the tv cameras and soon gave way to another fellow, who played exuberantly and sang, too.  When he was done he came and stood near me, and I heard a woman next to him chatting him up, and by the end of their conversation I believe he had a gig at some function or other.  Cast your bread upon the waters and you may get sandwiches back.

So what is this about the Street Pianos?  They are the inspired vision of UK artist Luke Jerram (who was at the Plaza and played a few chords on #1000).   About five years ago Luke was sitting in his local laundromat watching his laundry spin, musing that he’d been seeing the same folks there every week forever, but how weird and too bad it was that nobody ever spoke to anybody else.  How to bring people together, people who are strangers and yet share the same space?

Luke started small, in Birmingham, UK, with 15 pianos around that city.  The pianos were up for three weeks, and they think around 140,000 people either played or listened.  Strangers became improv or duet partners or sang together.  People took pictures and made videos of each other.   They laughed and got acquainted and maybe some went out for coffee or drinks after.  Who knows?

It went big.   Boston’s the 41st city to host Street Pianos, and we have the 1000th  piano.  There’ve been pianos on the streets of Hangzhou, China; Toowoomba, Australia; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Omaha, Nebraska; and Paris—and just about everything in between.  Nothing thus far in Africa.  Antarctica?  Not yet. 

So the pianos, usually ones ready for discarding anyway, are donated, painted up by local artists, placed in a busy spot, and sponsored by a nearby business or cultural enterprise, which promises to put a tarp over their piano at night or in rain, and uncover it every morning.   They get to keep their piano if they want it and if no one else has spoken up for it.

Who’s playing them?  On a recent afternoon I went round and visited some of my local pianos.  Here’s a toddler and her nanny (“I don’t think she’s seen a piano!” exclaims the nanny, picking out The Eensy-Weensy Spider); a concert-level pianist who wows a crowd; a couple of middle-aged ladies playing chopsticks; a young blind man with his mother—he hopes to play all 75 instruments; a 15 year old boy jammin’ his own improvs, as an elderly man bops around next to him, lit up with a beatific smile; and young Chloe there, who plays the Linus and Lucy song with brio all the way through, and makes a shy satisfied bow afterwards.

What’s the story here?  There are lots of stories, I think.  How music calls us out, and probably has since the first cave-person plinked a pebble on a stalactite, and then did it again ‘cause it sounded so nice.  How many talented folks there are right among us, who knew?  How much people yearn to play, I don’t mean play a piano, but just play, make and have fun together.   And how, in spite of everything that draws our attentions elsewhere, we still want to admire and love each other.


  • Jeremy 05:57pm, 10/09/2013

    I love this new piano program. I wish it were permanent and that there would be more projects like this in Boston.


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