In late July, the tinkling of piano keys reached the ears of this reporter. Unlike the usual suburban sounds of mowers, blowers, and barking dogs – or the jarring after-dark noises of racing autos, helicopters, and firecrackers – the piano sounds struck a happy note. That was a feeling shared by nearby residents who were hosting the piano on their corner, as well as those who have stopped to play it.
Kirsten Anderson and her husband, Joshua Patrick, who live at S.E. 60th and Steele, on the east edge of Woodstock neighborhood, first learned about the opportunity through social media. An organization named "Piano. Push. Play." had put out a call on Facebook, asking for suggestions of places to take pianos that would normally be placed in parks that were closed due to the pandemic. They sought sites that could host a piano through the month of August.
The community-minded couple, whose sidewalk-facing chicken coop already attracts many families with children to their corner, jumped on the invitation – and the site was soon approved as a well-suited location. Before the instrument arrived, Kirsten began having doubts, and fretted that neighbors might experience the piano playing as a nuisance. But in the end, she said, it has been a lovely experience, and more than one neighbor has commented on its "calming" effect.
Considering the way this one piano's presence has surprised and delighted so many in the neighborhood with its "joyful noise", some may assume it was a balm designed for this moment. But actually, "Piano. Push. Play." has been placing pianos around Portland since long before the pandemic hit. Now in its ninth season, the organization has outlived many other public piano programs that have played out across the nation. Its longevity can be attributed to the sustainable approach taken by its founder, Megan McGeorge.
Nine years ago, Megan, a professional pianist who earned a music degree from PSU, experienced a beautiful moment hearing a cellist playing on a public street corner. At the time, she said to her friends, "I wish I could do that – but, being a piano player, it's not going to happen." Nevertheless, the seed was planted, and it was just a matter of time before she approached a piano store in Southwest Portland and succeeded in organizing a "pop-up concert" on a nearby street corner.
For about two months, Megan and some friends from Portland State continued the street recitals. With the full support of the piano store, they would show up and push a recital piano out to the corner on a dolly, play for a couple hours, then push it back again. Since pianists usually practice alone at home or in studio spaces, they loved having the public exposure and appreciation. They could see they were touching people with these unexpected moments, just as Megan had been touched by the cello player she'd happened upon, with her friends.
As luck would have it, the piano store had a lot of pianos that just weren't selling – old upright models that were out of date, and not worth much. Megan had heard of public pianos in other cities, and took it upon herself to figure out the details. When she asked the store if she could I have five of their old uprights to try the idea out the next summer, they said "YES!" In fact, she found so much support for the endeavor that it turned into a sustainable nonprofit venture, creating a day job for her, for at least for half the year. The other half she makes a living as a professional pianist, singer, and composer.
"Piano. Push. Play." is purposefully sustainable. Every spring, ten pianos are donated from the public. There's no warehouse space to store them, so the pianos go directly from the donors to the artists who decorate them with bright and playful motifs, before they are released into public spaces to be played.
For a number of years, the Portland Art Museum has hosted a big kickoff concert in their courtyard where Megan and her friends, alternating with piano-playing audience members, would showcase the ten decorated pianos before they were pushed out into various parks and other public locations. Other impromptu concerts were held from time to time throughout the summer season, and a closing concert atop Mt. Tabor eventually became part of the tradition.
Megan commented that the piano is an instrument that is usually hidden or, if seen in public, usually has a "don't touch!" sign attached. So, it's significant that for nine summers, "Piano. Push. Play." has been able to bring ten pianos to locations across the city where everyone has access. The pianos invite interaction, whether it's a toddler just plinking around, a teenager getting in a practice session, or an accomplished concert pianist happening upon it.
Typically, the pianos are moved around every two weeks or so throughout July and August. After the season is over, the pianos are then donated to community spaces, schools, recording studios, individuals in need. And then "Piano. Push. Play." goes into hibernation mode from September until June. It's a sign of community trust that although the pianos are left outside 24/7, the organization has had very little trouble with vandalism or theft.
In 2020, due to COVID-19, volunteer hosts or "piano buddies" have taken responsibility for covering the pianos in case of rain, wiping down the pianos in the morning, and reminding the community to wear masks and to sanitize hands before and after use. For the past six years, the pianos visited at least ten parks during the summer, but since Portland Parks have technically been closed this year, more have been placed in locations "off the beaten path", surprising and delighting neighborhoods like Kirsten and Joshua's. (There is also a piano in Foster-Powell this year, right outside Henry Higgins Bagels on Foster Road near S.E. 65th Avenue.)
Sheet music is not supplied, though some people bring their own. But if you lift up the piano bench seat, you will find a rubber stamp and ink – so those who to seek out and play each of the ten pianos over the summer can keep track with some kind of passport system.
Though admittedly biased on the subject, this reporter will testify to the calming effects, the lovely sounds, and the community-building aspect of public pianos – which invite interaction, not just with the ivory keys, but with neighbors: Those who stop to play, to listen, to share a beautiful musical moment. Visit the "Piano. Push. Play." blog to find inspiring stories and pictures from years past, as well as a map of this year's piano locations. It's online – www.pianopushplay.com
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