Person of the Week: Public Pianos Let Anyone Be 'Piano Man'

PHOTO Luke Jerram has given citizens the "keys" to their city, piano keys that is.

Luke Jerram has given citizens the "keys" to their city -- piano keys, that is.

Sixty pianos have now been set up in 50 places in New York City, with people waiting patiently for nimble fingers to challenge them.

"We all come up with ideas fundamentally, but the important thing is being able to take risks and put them out there and see what happens," Jerram said.

Jerram, a British artist, took a big risk and found the rewards exceeded his wildest dreams. He decided to create an art installation of pianos in public areas.

'Big, Blank Canvas'

Jerram's idea has snowballed. Right now, there are 21 pianos around London. They've also been set up in Barcelona, Spain, Sao Paolo, Brazil and Sydney, Australia. New York's installation is the largest.

"The nice thing about this project is that it turns people like me, who just play piano at home, into public performers," he said. "The piano acts as a big, blank canvas for other people's creativity across the city, and that's really powerful."

It is a project as creative as people will make it. Jerram came up with the idea two years ago while sitting in his laundromat, noticing how quiet it was. No one talked to anyone else. No one smiled.

"I realized then there must be all of these invisible communities across a city, people occupying the same space but no one sort of engaging with one another," he said. "So I thought what about putting a piano in that place to act as a catalyst for conversation to shake things up, and it does seem to be working."

Kindness of Strangers

Two men at one of the pianos in New York shook things up, playing as if they'd been a duo for decades. They had never set eyes on each other before.

"This guy Jerram is so cool because he's freed it up for everybody, anybody can play," said Mad Dan, a piano player in front of St. Mark's Church.

Jerram's art installation is showing the kindness of strangers.

"People are all around, sitting, watching and that's really what music should be about, like spreading the joy of the people to them," Jerram said.

'Like a Magnet'

Bill Skala is ninety-two years old. Ever since the pianos arrived June 17, he said, he has come every day to tickle the ivories.

"Anytime I see a piano, it's like a magnet," he said. "It draws me to it."

Jerram's keys are attracting seasoned pianists like Skala, the very small fingers of a 9-month-old baby and even the very shaggy paws of dogs. The spotlight is open to all.

Jerram said he is expecting great things from New York.

"It seems like half of New York knows how to play piano, I'm amazed," he said.

Life-Changing

The results in other cities have been surprising and life-changing, he said.

A woman in Sao Paulo listented to her daughter play the piano for the first time on one of the public pianos there. She had paid for lessons for her daughter for four years, but the family didn't have a piano at home.

"A piano over there costs a year's wage," Jerram said. "She saw her daughter play and she played beautifully, the mother was crying."

The piano hasn't just been a centerpiece for art, but for love too. In Australia, Jerram said, two journalists met at a piano, fell in love and are now married.

The art installation has become an Internet sensation, with photos, films and stories of shared creativity. The public pianos will make their way to Cincinnati, San Jose and Grand Rapids.

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