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Project plays it forward with rescued pianos set up around Portland — and the help of an app

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JULES ROGERS - Nathan Houghtelling was accepted to Berklee College of Music in Boston, but now works two jobs saving up for tuition to continue his degree at Portland State University. Piano Push Play allows people like Houghtelling to practice an expensive instrument without booking time in practice rooms, studios or stages at institutions.“When I started, I didn’t even have a piano at home,” said Megan McGeorge, founder of Piano.Push.Play.

“I was an undergrad at PSU and hadn’t had my own piano since living in my parents’ house as a teenager. I was in that situation of needing a piano to play on.”

Started with just one donated piano from the Portland Piano Co., Piano.Push.Play has eleven pianos in parks around Portland — more than double its five pianos in 2014 — and is in its fourth summer.

To keep track of the locations, Piano.Push.Play. developed a map app in coordination with developers from Portland Code School and Urban Airship.

“I’d be interacting with someone at one of the pianos and start telling them, well we have four other ones — they’re here, here and here,” McGeorge said. “I was looking at them and seeing in their face, they’re forgetting everything I’m telling them almost as soon as I’m telling them.”

McGeorge came up with the idea for a map app that pings users when they’re close to one of the pianos, and reached out to Portland Code School, where her idea became a capstone project for two students Misty DeGiulio and James Stiehl. DeGiulio is a technical support engineer at Urban Airship, taking classes to increase her skills.

“The main feature of the app is the map that displays all the locations of the pianos along with their descriptions,” DeGiulio said. “The app also has a camera feature on it so you can easily take a picture and share your experience on social media.”

The app has been submitted to the iOS App Store for review, and is expected to go live this month.

“We’re placing Gimbal beacons in all the pianos so when an app user comes within a certain radius of the piano, it sends him or her a notification,” DeGiulio said. “That’s essentially the user experience — users receive a message from a nearby piano, encouraging them to come play it.”

This year, Portland Parks & Recreation has partnered with Piano.Push.Play., offering 30 parks as locations. As a result, some pianos will spend two weeks at each location, making the app vital to keeping track and finding them, especially since this is Piano.Push.Play.’s first year expanding to the east side of the city at locations including the Sellwood riverfront and Mount Tabor Parks.

“We do want to keep it this big, we’ve been planning intensely since January,” McGeorge said. “The more people hear about us, the more collaborations we have.”

Each piano is sponsored by local companies, which this year include Portland Piano Co., Struck, ADX Portland, Gimbal, Awesome Portland, Lucid, Umpqua Bank, Hilton Portland and Executive Tower, Becker Capital Management, and Urban Airship. Each sponsor donated $1,000 during the summer, which goes toward transportation and weekly tuning before Friday night concerts.

Every Friday through the end of August, concerts are booked using the park pianos. One concert will have a graffiti artist decorating a fresh piano live during the performance. A piano is scheduled to be delivered to the Jade District Night Market, supported by commissioner Nick Fish.

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JULES ROGERS - Megan McGeorge, creator of Piano Push Play, fits in a couple of hours of practice a day between writing music commercially for local films, licensing songs and performing around the city.Each summer, Piano Push Play begins with fresh pianos. “The pianos are destined for dumps,” McGeorgen said. “Every single piano this year was destined to be recycled.”

“We’ve discovered there are so many pianos out there that don’t have homes,” McGeorge said. “Every year, there has been more community support.”

The pianos, all donated from the Portland Piano Co., are uniquely decorated by local artists including Struck, the Doug Fir Lounge, ADX Portland, Awesome Portland, Roundhouse Portland, Lucid Design, Open Eye Art, the Bureau of Betterment, North and Splash Worldwide. One, the Debussy, has a plexiglass front and seat, exposing a design of rolled sheet music. The Haydn has a solar-powered lamp.

“Some local artists and design studios chipped in their services to really make the pianos works of art,” DeGiulio said. “This whole project is about creating an experience and giving the public a chance to share their talent and appreciate music in and around the community.”

“Next year’s version may also include gamification elements,” DeGiulio said.

Game ideas for future development of the app include a “collect them all” social media challenge, taking pictures of yourself playing at each piano across the city. Winners could receive one of the pianos at the end of the summer. Other ideas include a live video to play duets simultaneously at different locations.

“The app is mainly about drawing people in to share the experience,” McGeorge said. “I’m absolutely not done: constantly, more people want to play. More pianos, more designers, they’ve kept this installment happening and continued to grow the map.”

“It will be a fun way to get people involved in this public arts project that is all about growing music appreciation outside of typical venues and concert halls,” said DeGiulio. “After the summer months, the refurbished pianos find a new life within nonprofits, schools and community centers to inspire the next generation of musicians.”

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