Public playtime

In praise of street pianos

Tottering back through Canary Wharf after a boozy lunch with friends in Docklands, I came upon a street piano in a clinically-lit walkway in the Jubilee shopping centre. “Why don’t you play it?” my husband suggested and tanked up on too much lunchtime Prosecco, I pulled out the score of Bill Evans’ Peace Piece (which I just happened to have in my handbag) and sat down on the wonky piano stool. The corridor acoustic was rather good and about half way through my “performance”, I was aware of a passerby pausing to listen. Afterwards he said, “that was really beautiful. Thank you!“, and I continued on my way to the tube station.

Street or public pianos are now quite commonplace, often located in railways stations or public spaces for anyone to play. The first public piano was in Sheffield in 2003, with a friendly “Play me” sign on it. It proved hugely popular and in 2008 the Play Me I’m Yours project, created by artist Luke Jerram, was first commissioned in Birmingham, UK, with 15 street pianos located across the city. Within just a few weeks it was estimated that over 140,000 people played or listened to music from the pianos. The project has since gone from strength to strength, with more than 1900 street pianos located in 70 cities worldwide. In 2017 Transport for London (TfL), in partnership with Yamaha, launched  the #Platform88 scheme to make pianos available at stations for people to play. During the two-year run of #Platform88, the pianos will ‘travel’ around the TfL network to various stations, giving commuters, tourists et al the opportunity to exercise their musical talents. At the end of the scheme the pianos will be donated to charity.

A piano asks to be played and is a wonderful reminder of the nature of play and the pleasure of making music, regardless of genre. Most people passing by a piano can’t help but strike a few notes, improvise a riff, or play a whole piece. A street piano invites us to pause, do something spontaneous, bring pleasure to others and enjoy ourselves. Street pianos attract players of all ages and abilities – Elton John and the Russian pianist Valentina Lisitsa* have both played the street piano at St Pancras Station, amongst countless others. Members of a piano club I’m connected with made a special club trip to the street piano at St Pancras to perform exam pieces and other repertoire, treating the experience as an important performance opportunity.

A rather grumpy article in The Times recently suggested that street pianos encourage “attention-seeking” and that “unless it’s a child, the sight of someone expertly playing a Mozart piano concerto next to a branch of Upper Crust” is a cringe-inducing experience. The many reactions to this article reveal that the author was way off the mark (and possibly even secretly envious of anyone who can simply sit down and play!), and that most people think street pianos are a thoroughly good thing, offering the opportunity to experience and share music, and adding a different dimension to the activity of “performance”. And in an age where music provision in our schools is being seriously eroded, surely we should encourage and celebrate this kind of participatory music making?

Never sat down at one, but still I love ‘em

– Marc-Andre Hamelin, concert pianist

Another commentator tweeted that for “a marginal group of people…..these pianos are a kind of aqualung”, implying that people are driven to play street pianos out of a desperate need, as if their lives depend upon it. And so what if they do? Music has known therapeutic benefits and if some people find comfort or distraction from the exigencies of life by playing the piano – or indeed any other instrument – who are we to criticise them?

For many people, street pianos offer a special kind of pleasure, an escape from the everyday, a chance share music with others, or simply to practise. Several people, including a number of professional pianists, who responded to the original Times article, highlighted the usefulness of street pianos for practising while waiting for a train, especially if one doesn’t have access to an acoustic piano at home.

I think these endorsements from pianist friends and colleagues more than confirm the positives of street pianos:

For those of us of a very nervous performance disposition, these are GREAT. For attracting more people to music making rather than the commercialised electronic production and marketing the general public THINK is music, even better.

– David, advanced amateur pianist

I love them, for the simple fact that they are a wonderful pattern interrupt, particularly when they are placed in busy stations or clinical walkways. So many people are rushing from place to place in a hollow shell of a body, absorbed in their own worries, their ego and their misery, not even slowing down to notice someone else who may be struggling with their luggage……A piano….takes you out of automatic mode and into a fresh perspective.

– Christina Cooper, piano teacher and cognitive hynotherapist

I’ve found street pianos are a great way to connect with people who may never have come to a concert before

– Daniel Roberts, concert pianist

I have used these pianos sometimes for practice while waiting for a train traveling away or a warm up waiting for a train going straight to a concert.

– Ieva Dubova, pianist

I love street pianos because of the spontaneity of them

– David Barton, music teacher

I LOVE them and many of my students have really grown in confidence because of them. I feel they are a really great thing!

– Karen Marshall, music teacher and writer

A postscript……

Kindertransport commemorative sculpture by Flor Kent
Sculpture by Flor Kent

In London in 2011 the spirit of the street piano as a means of sharing music with others in a public space was invoked during a very special all-day concert organised by a friend of mine to celebrate and commemorate the extraordinary work of Sir Nicholas Winton, a British humanitarian, who organised the rescue of 669 mostly Jewish children, from Czechoslovakia on the eve of the Second World War, in an extraordinary operation later known as the Czech Kindertransport (“children’s transport”). The children he rescued arrived at Liverpool Street station. A grand piano was placed in the main concourse of the station and the day-long concert included performances by British pianists Anthony Hewitt and Viv McLean, and violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen. As much a celebration of Winton’s remarkable work as the sharing of music, the event also proved just how special the street, or public piano can be – because they go right to the heart of making music as a social activity and remind us that music unites and connects people.


Global map of street pianos

*Video by Geoff Cox