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A Piano for Everyone: the Story of the Street Piano

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What would happen if you left a piano outside your house marked with a “play me” sign? Occasional attempts at something resembling a tune? A performance by an internationally renowned soloist? Nothing?

This experiment is exactly what happened in Sheffield in 2003, and it was so successful that the idea of the street piano was born. Local council attempts to list the piano as an abandoned item were repelled, and the piano enjoyed a musically busy life until 2008 when the weather-damaged instrument was finally removed.

Since then, the public piano craze has spread worldwide. London can boast over thirty public pianos, Barcelona close behind with twenty-three, São Paulo thirteen, and New York an impressive sixty. The spread of the piano is unstoppable. But should this invasive force of pianos be stemmed with military force, or do we allow an open border policy for pianos and let them settle amongst us? 

There is certainly an argument that public pianos can disturb and cause unwanted noise. On the more novel end of the spectrum, the BBC World Service heard a serious suggestion from a member of the public that, in order to attract more people to public pianos, quad bikes should be left nearby with the same “try me” attitude. The disadvantages of this suggestion need no discussion but it does serve to demonstrate that any opposing argument to public pianos stands on thin ground. The pianos are a way for anyone to perform and, most importantly, for everyone to listen- for free. Who knows what, or who, you might hear?

The Ukrainian-American concert pianist Valentina Lisitsa performs on a public piano in St Pancras International station.

Even a sitting piano waiting to be played has an energy and mystery to it, with all eyes on the brave individual who dares to play and captures the public attention. In the street, no programme notes give away the pianist’s talent- they have to earn it instead. No set concert programme has to be performed, anything can happen.

For clarity, I am not elevating public pianos to a position of superiority over conventional recitals. I am merely highlighting that public pianos add a new and exciting dimension to the musical world. The potential of an empty piano with permission granted for anyone to play is infinite. The next time you see one of these pianos, wait and see what happens. Someone might play it. Maybe you?

Elton John performs on a public piano in St Pancras International station.

Alec Coles-Aldridge 
Copyright by Alec Coles-Aldridge. Alec is a student at the Royal College of Music studying for a Bachelor of Music Degree.

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