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  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

How Public Pianos Decorated by Artists Came to Dot Portland’s Streets and Parks

Everyone is invited to play and enjoy public pianos rescued from the landfill.

Public painted piano in Portland -- image via Twitter

By April M. Short

Meander through a park or stroll the city streets in Portland, Oregon, in the summer, and you might come across a strange and beautiful piano that invites you to “please play me.” Atop a hill and beneath an old maple tree there could be a piano with big orange eyes or one covered in rainbows; on a city street corner you might find pianos covered in flowers or cartoons; or you might stop to play a piano painted like a brick chimney or a Nordic landscape while cruising on your skateboard under a freeway overpass. When the rains take a brief pause each year in Portland, a mélange of peculiar pianos begin to crop up on the city’s street corners and dot its parks. This is all thanks to Megan Diana McGeorge, founder of the project Piano. Push. Play., which has been bringing pianos to public spaces in Portland every year since 2013.

In the project’s current form, each year it sets up more than 10 pianos, in collaboration with the Portland Art Museum, as well as the city’s parks and recreation department. But when it was launched, it started much smaller, McGeorge explains. It all started with a single concert that took place with one borrowed piano on a busy street corner in Portland.

“It was just something I really wanted to make happen, and the magic that came from that one concert made me want to do it again,” McGeorge says. “I don’t want this to become some big commercial adventure. That’s not what I am doing this for… Honestly, I believe that if we are changing our immediate communities, we do in the end change the world.”

Inspired by Busking

In 2011, when McGeorge was studying music at Portland State University (PSU), she and a few friends were leaving a show at McMenamins Al’s Den, a music venue located at the downtown Portland corner of 13th and Burnside, and the song of a cello stopped them in their tracks underneath the cluster of mini bicycles that make up the Zoobomb monument (a sculpture that honors the tradition of Portlanders who bomb downhill from the Oregon Zoo to downtown Portland on undersized bikes).

“There was this cellist on the street corner playing beautiful, beautiful music, and we had this moment on this hot summer night, and we were kind of shocked that this gorgeous music was here in the middle of this urban, crazy intersection,” she says. “We were going to do our regular routine and just walk home, but the cellist just really made this moment happen. And I remember saying to my friends, ‘Oh, I wish I could do that. I wish I could create that kind of moment,’ but the piano’s a lot harder to bring out to the street corner.”

Months went by and McGeorge couldn’t stop thinking about finding a way to bring a piano out to the streets. One day she was riding her bike through the Pearl District, and she came across the Portland Piano Company, just two blocks from the street corner where she’d heard the cello music. She’d recently read a New York Times article about how more and more pianos are being dumped in landfills in the U.S., and thought to herself, “Maybe if I go in there [Portland Piano Company] and tell them about this article, and tell them about my idea, they might let me rent a piano and put it outside.”

“At the time I had all these funny conceptions about how hard it would be to ask,” she says. But she summoned up the courage and went in and pitched her idea of renting a piano and placing it outside on the street corner visible from the store’s door, for a mini concert. This was, after all, the era of the flash mob craze, she notes, and people were popping up with all sorts of creative activities on the streets. To her surprise, the store agreed.

“They said we like your idea, and we’ll mount a piano on a dolly, and when you want, you can grab it and push it up the street and play for people,” she says. “I was like, ‘I guess I’m going to actually have to do this now.”

Playing Piano

As McGeorge began to assemble pianists to join her for the initial outdoor concert, at first she tried to recruit fellow PSU music students.

“I began knocking on PSU practice room doors after I’d heard somebody play a piece that was probably light-years ahead of me—like some Rachmaninoff or whatever crazy, amazing recital piece they were working on,” she says. “I would say, ‘That was amazing… I’m going to do this thing where I bring a piano to 13th and Burnside. Would you come out and play that piece?”

But every student getting a performance degree whom she asked in that initial year of 2013 told her no.

“Every one of them told me something like, ‘Oh, I could never do that. I need two more months. I need time to get this piece ready,’” she says. “Every person that I asked that was from this music school program was thinking that your average person walking by was going to be listening as if the concert were a recital… And the people I did get to come out and play were a couple of my friends who were music school dropouts, and you know, you can’t get them off an instrument. It was really fascinating.”

The first summer of the project was 2013 and consisted of McGeorge and some friends pushing a borrowed piano across Burnside to the street corner every Thursday and playing.

“Another interesting thing that had never happened to me before was that a lot of people walking by would stop and listen to me play a song, and afterward they would come up and they would say, ‘Thank you,’” she says. “When I was growing up and playing piano recitals, I had never heard somebody say thank you after I played my little recital piece, you know? … A totally different emotional moment happened when I played music for people unexpectedly on the street.”

A few times people walking by would ask to sit in and would play something on the piano—be it a “Heart and Soul” duet or something more complex. “Sometimes someone would be walking by with a briefcase and you would never know that they were an amazing pianist, and they would wait for me to stop, then ask to hop on for one song. Then they’d bang out some amazing piece of music, and walk, which was just—wow.”

McGeorge says it was during that initial summer that somebody sent her a video of pianos on the streets in New York that were painted -- a public piano project called “Play Me, I’m Yours.”

“They said, ‘This kind of feels like what you’re doing,’” she says. And the idea to expand her project was sparked.

At that point, McGeorge had gotten to know the folks at the Portland Piano Company, and better understood the model of the piano business.

“I had learned that it’s kind of like a car lot, in that if you buy a nice piano or you upgrade, they’ll haul away your old one,” she says.

She learned that the store had an attic full of older upright pianos, and that once each summer the store held a final sale and sold all the used pianos for $75-$100 or so. At the end of the first summer of giving pop-up concerts with her friends, McGeorge asked if the Portland Piano Company would give her five old pianos next year if she organized artists to paint them and locations for them to live during the summer. Again, to her surprise, they said yes.

Over the next couple of years, the project grew from a group of young musician friends playing weekly impromptu shows on the corner into Piano. Push. Play., which is a citywide project that rescues roughly 10 to 13 pianos each year (that are in good shape and can be properly tuned) that would otherwise be discarded. The project then connects the pianos with artists who decorate them and then places them around the city.

To grow the project, McGeorge began to look for funding through grants, forming connections with relevant groups around the city—from the parks and recreation department to landowners, the Portland Rose Festival Foundation, Portland Saturday Market, and others. She says that of all the places she reached out to for Piano. Push. Play., the Portland Art Museum was the most impactful. It was the first organization that agreed to host a piano outside, and then it became (and remains) the project’s fiscal sponsor, through which people can donate to support the project.

The museum had the idea to do “a friendly design competition,” and sent out an inquiry to their various connections—from design companies, to marketing firms, to artists, to production designers—to see who would want to paint a piano if given one. They told the artists that they could do whatever they wanted with the design—the only requirement was to include the words “please play me” visibly somewhere on the piano. Each year, Piano. Push. Play. gathers all of the artist-adorned pianos for an outdoor concert in the museum courtyard where performers play the rescued pianos. The songs range across genres and come from well-known performers (for instance, five-time Grammy winner Esperanza Spalding, who played during the summer of 2022 and has supported Piano. Push. Play.) and other musicians of all varieties.

“It’s one way that we try to democratize the whole idea of who’s the performer or who’s the professional musician—everybody gets to play these pianos,” McGeorge says. “I always ask about five people to come and play one song—people who I love from every genre of music and area of piano playing.” There’s also an open-mic opportunity, she adds: “We always save spots for the audience to put their name in the hat, and we draw surprise players from the audience.”

Pianos to the People

Part of McGeorge’s aim with the project became to dismantle some of the preconceived notions and assumptions people have about the piano, and about music.

The website for Piano. Push. Play. lays out a vision beyond offering artists pianos as a unique canvas and placing the instruments around the city, and describes a cultural shift that can happen when music is more accessible and public:

“This simple gesture [of placing pianos around the city] transforms a street corner into a space of connection. People slow down, listen to the music, take in who else is there, and form a deeper sense of community. The pianos provide a tool for interaction across social, economic, and cultural divides. Beethoven is played by someone you’d never expect. A new creative outlet is discovered by a bored teenager. Two unlikely strangers get talking and develop a new friendship. A more empathetic and caring city is cultivated.”

Mapping Public Pianos

Piano. Push. Play.’s website includes a piano map showing the locations of the pianos across the city. They also created a piano passport that anyone interested can stamp at each piano.

“Inside each piano bench is a stamp and ink pad, and the stamp was designed by that piano’s artist,” McGeorge explains. “When you go out and visit a piano in the wild, you can collect all the stamps in your piano passport, which is really fun.”

Zack Scholl, who loves to play the piano—especially the acoustic piano, which wouldn’t fit in his apartment—created the website to track public pianos around the world.

“I have always enjoyed finding new pianos to play,” he says in an email interview. “When I was traveling a lot, I would often try to find pianos in bars, lodges, and other public places. I got pretty good at finding them, and I started to think that it would be helpful if there was a website where people could share information about public pianos.”

He started the website in 2019, provided the locations of pianos he’d found to play, and encouraged people to submit information about other pianos that they knew about to the site. At first, he updated all of the data manually, but has since come up with software to help with the data management.

“Nowadays, the public pianos site is a popular resource for people who love to play piano,” he says, noting that the website has almost 10,000 pianos listed, and “people submit [the location of] new pianos every week.”

“I’m humbled to have created a resource that helps people connect with music and each other,” he writes. “Public spaces are important because they inspire people. Inspiration is a special form of human connection, and public music is especially good at facilitating this connection. For example, I once heard someone playing piano in a public space, and it sparked a conversation that led me to discover new music. Another time, I played piano in a public space, and it inspired someone else to play, which gave me the treat of listening. I’ve enjoyed listening to all the public piano performances I’ve had a chance to hear, from symphonic to carnival music, from jazz to honky-tonk, and everything in between. Everyone has a story to share, and it’s incredible when it can be shared through music in a public space.”

April M. Short is an editor, journalist, and documentary editor and producer. She is a co-founder of the Observatory, where she is the Local Peace Economy editor, and she is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she was a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Good Times, a weekly newspaper in Santa Cruz, California. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, LA Yoga, Pressenza, the Conversation, Salon, and many other publications.

Independent Media Institute

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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