Better Than Subway Mariachi: Piano Man Changes Street Music

Our culture has changed tremendously about how we approach street art—only a decade ago, street art was considered vandalism and looked with disdain. However, now with the cult of Banksy to street music as an organized event, street art is now part of culture, not as a nuisance, but as a welcoming part of how we connect together in the city.

One of New York’s latest projects truly embodies that relationship: Luke Jerram, an English artist, has placed 60 colorful pianos around New York City. These pianos sit on parks, street corners, plazas, and anywhere else where a piano can be put in New York to. As he writes on his website, “I hoped that by placing a piano into the space acts as a catalyst for conversation.” The project, Play Me, I’m Yours, has been in London, Barcelona, and even Australia, but this is the first time Jerram has come to the United States.

Here’s how it works: The pianos are positioned across Manhattan and the other boroughs, and the keys are open for play from 9AM to 10PM. Anyone can play—kids, tourists, professionals—for as long as they want (though if someone is waiting, please be courteous!). On the website, fans of the art can put up notes, pictures, and video of their exploits.

I took to the streets on Tuesday to find what kind of people would take a break out of their busy days to play a random piano. However, a piano in a public space is a daunting endeavor. You never know who could be listening, after all. Thus many of the pianos I spotted were simply empty: ones at Battery Park, just next to Goldman Sachs, and on the harbor of South Street Seaport. An occasional tourist would pass, hit a couple notes, and then walk off. Often the bravest players I saw were children, many of whom I saw around the four pianos in Lincoln Center. With no sense of shame, hildren were happy to hit notes as they pleased, not creating the most adorable music, but certainly looking adorable doing it.

However, I did have the chance to run into a couple of professionals who took the chance to play on the streets as a fun challenge. One piano, nestled in the small but cozy City Hall Park, was taken by storm by the hands of Gregory Post. Gregory did not look like your average pianist—skateboard, t-shirt, backwards Yankee cap—but as soon as a tourist got up, he jumped onto the piano, playing a mix of Beethoven, Chopin, and other piano greats.  He said he had played piano for about 10 years—5 years professionally—but had given it up for skateboard.ing However, he has made it his personal mission to hit all 60 pianos. “I’ve already done all of Brooklyn and everything South of here in Manhattan,” he boasted, hoping to cover the rest of Manhattan by the end of the day.

Up at Times Square, another young pianist named Dominique took his hand in the center of Manhattan. Dominique was not as ambitious as Gregory. When I asked him if he would try and play them all, he replied, “Just as many as I can get today,” (this was his fourth of the day). Dominic played a range of more modern music—a few jazzy themes and a couple quick diddies, mostly unnoticed by the hoards of tourists who were unable to take their eyes of the bright lights that surrounded the city.

That image stuck with my head. Play Me, I’m Yours can allow unknowns to have an audience of strangers. When I passed one piano near Alice Tully Hall, about twenty people looked on, stuck in a trance by the strange picture. Who plays pianos in the middle of the day, and on the street no less? Playing the pianos is not about glory or to win some award. It’s a sort of self-fulfillment exercise, in which strangers can become artists. Jerram may be the artist behind the placement, but it’s about the artist inside all of us that just needs a place to launch our debut. The piano is sitting there—play it, it’s yours.

Play Me I’m Yours runs through July 5th. Check out a couple of MP3s I recorded of Gregory and Dominique playing below that I posted through YouTube. The audio isn’t perfect—there’s a lot of background noise, but after all, one was recorded right in the center of Time Square.

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Peter Labuza, CC’11

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