Pianos in public places draw me like a moth to a flame. A few weeks ago in the rain-sodden southwest Peloponnese, a highlight was finding a well cared for but lonely looking upright in the bar of a hotel in Pylos. There was no one there except the proprietor and me; he seemed happy for me to tinkle, and I lost myself in a medley of Mozart and Schubert. At the end of an impromptu session I found that a large tumbler of Scotch – exactly what I needed – had been placed by the side of the piano.
This kind gesture recalled another, when a barman in one of the squares of Gràcia in Barcelona offered me a drink on the house after a rather lugubrious Chopin waltz. Barcelona in those days was full of good spots for compulsive amateur bar pianists, not because of the quality of the pianos but rather because of the tolerant attitude of their owners – special mention should go to the Bar del Pi in Plaça de Sant Josep Oriol just off the Ramblas.
Further afield, the best place I have found is Cuba. Travelling around that peculiar time-warp island in pursuit of an elusive poetess, I found it full of big white Russian grand pianos parked in museum foyers and hotel lobbies. A further advantage was the open-hearted spirit of the art-loving Cuban people, who seemed to find nothing strange in the sight of an insomniac English poet launching without warning into mazurkas; this was also a good way of making friends.
You may have me down as an exhibitionist; you may not be entirely wrong. There is certainly something transgressive about playing pianos in public. The piano has come to be seen as the most bourgeois of all musical instruments, at home in a million polite parlours, possibly adorned with lace doilies or, if it is a grand, festooned with family photographs. That is to say, domesticated and denatured and made to resemble a piece of genteel furniture that has no connection with anything as soul- and body-stirring as music. Apart from the old canard about the Victorians covering the legs of pianos with skirts of drapery to avoid any improper suggestion.
Taking this epitome of middle-class cosiness out of the private parlour and into the much more promiscuous public place is already an act of rather delightful subversion. Unfortunately, most of the pianos in public places in England and America are treated with a neurotic over-protectiveness, as if being in public made them even more private. Woe betide any insomniac amateur who tackled a mazurka in the bar of the Ritz.
For that reason I am an enthusiastic supporter of Luke Jerram’s public art project featuring pianos in public places entitled “Play Me, I’m Yours!” (streetpianos.com). Jerram’s initial motivation was about how to get people talking to one another in city spaces where human interaction is sparse. He was sitting in a silent launderette and suddenly wondered whether importing his old piano from home might act as “a catalyst for conversation”.
Jerram found that dozens of companies in the UK were being forced to get rid of as many as 400 pianos a year, and he came across warehouses piled high with unwanted uprights. The scheme was launched with 15 reconditioned pianos placed on street corners, in parks and in squares in Birmingham in 2008.
Not all the early experiments were successful. When Jerram installed a piano in a park near his home in Bristol, it was smashed to pieces the very first night. On the whole, though, vandalism has been the exception rather than the rule. It helps, he thinks, that pianos should be made to look approachable and touchable by being painted in bright colours, with the “Play Me I’m Yours” motto prominently displayed. That certainly worked for me when I came across one parked in a small pedestrian area near our home in a busy part of west London.
The scheme, rather wonderfully and improbably, has spread all over the world, with more than 1,300 pianos, to date, having been installed in 43 cities. It has proved just as popular in São Paulo, where some people had never seen a piano in their lives, and where a modest second-hand upright might cost a year’s wages, as in Sydney, where a 95-year-old woman was brought to play on one of the pianos by her son and pronounced it the best day of her life.
For Jerram the project is more about people than about pianos, which in the end play a modest supporting role to the human drama. Street pianos have proved a magnet for the marginalised; in São Paulo, a homeless musician became the guardian of a piano in a park and started to give lessons on it.
Those drawn to street pianos, as I think I can attest, are not just or, perhaps, mainly the extrovert, the brash and the loud. Street pianos can be a lure for the shy and the withdrawn, revealing hidden depths and bringing non-utilitarian magic to our over-programmed world.
More columns at ft.com/eyres