I admit I was prepared to hate this series on Channel 4 (and, full disclosure, I was interviewed for the programme by someone from the production company last summer). It was made by the same production company which brought us The Great British Bake Off, another series which I have come to loathe, and was billed as “Bake Off for amateur pianists”. Oh dear.

The basic premise of the series was to showcase the pianistic talents of ordinary people through their performances on street pianos at railway stations in London, Leeds, Glasgow and Birmingham. Unbeknownst to these amateur pianists, their performances were being watched by “the world’s greatest pianist” Lang Lang and one-hit wonder singer-songwriter Mika. The series is presented by Claudia Winkelman.

The programme makers wanted us to believe that these performances were completely spontaneous, but in fact the participants had to go through an audition process and were then selected for the programmes. Also, the instrument on which they played was not the usual rather beat up, out of tune street piano of the type which this article rather rudely describes, but a rather nice Boston upright from Steinway’s ‘diffusion range’.

However, none of this matters in the least because it quickly became evident that the real joy and power of this programme lay in the people, their back stories, and of course their music. Just as in Bake Off, the participants were a mixed bunch, from the young to the very old. There were some really heart-warming moments, such as a 92 year old man who played the piano to communicate with his wife who had dementia, or the young man who had found comfort in music, following the suicide of his father.

During each episode, a young professional pianist friend of mine would message me to rail at the lack of “proper classical music”, and while I too had hoped for more Chopin or a drop of Mozart, it was evident that this series was about people and their connection with the music they played, and why the piano was so meaningful or special for them.

A number of the participants had taken up the piano during the covid lockdowns as a way to fill the excruciating sameness of those long, dull days. Others had been playing all their life. Some were self-taught. But all found joy, fulfilment and personal achievement in playing, regardless of the genre of music or their ability.

In episode two we met Lucy, a blind girl with severe learning disabilities but with a remarkable natural aptitude for the piano. Her performance of Chopin’s B-flat minor Nocturne was beautifully fluent, subtly phrased and elegantly shaped. Actually, it was simply astonishing. It held the audience at Leeds station utterly spellbound, and it was quite evident that Lang Lang was genuinely moved by her performance, along with the many others who watched her playing. She was supported by her teacher Daniel, who works with a charity called The Amber Trust, which provides musical opportunities for blind and partially-sighted children, and children with more complex needs.

The final episode of the series was a special concert in which the “winners” (although this wasn’t really a competition – and certainly nothing like any talent show presented by the likes of Simon Cowell) performed at London’s Royal Festival Hall. Once again, Lucy’s extraordinary talent shone through, this time in a mesmerising performance of one of Debussy’s Arabesques. But all the performers played with commitment and emotion, which really transmitted to the audience. At the end of the concert, Lucy was awarded star player (in a lovely, low-key way) and then Lang Lang and Mika made a special announcement: each player was to be gifted an acoustic piano.

The four finalists at the Royal Festival Hall with Lang Lang, Mika and Claudia Winkelman.

Reactions on social media are a testament to the appeal and power of music, as people were genuinely moved, amazed and intrigued by all the performers in this series. The more relaxed, spontaneous way of presenting music, on a street piano, will, I’m sure, remind people that music is for everyone and one need not enter a formal concert venue to experience the wonder. And if this series inspires people to take up or return to the piano, or for young (and old) piano students to find renewed enthusiasm in their practising, then it has served an important purpose. Finally, this show must surely raise the profile of the piano, and music in general, at a time when classical music in particular is under attack – and that has to be A Good Thing.

As the various performers demonstrated, through an incredibly eclectic range of music and ability, it’s not about winning; it’s about doing something that you love and finding fulfilment, comfort, self-improvement, and above all pleasure in what you do.

The Piano on Channel 4 is inspiring, joyous, uplifting, poignant, moving and life-affirming. Do seek it out on All4.

Q&A with the finalists

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

Transport for London (TfL), in partnership with Yamaha, today 16 November 2017 launched a programme which will make three pianos available at stations for customers to play. The first, placed at Tottenham Court Road, was launched with a performance by multi-instrumentalist, composer and producer Tokio Myers.

The two-year project named #Platform88 takes its name from the number of keys on a standard piano and provides opportunities for musicians to play and entertain their fellow passengers.

During the two-year run of #Platform88, the pianos will ‘travel’ around the network to various stations, giving a range of our customers the opportunity to show off their musical talents. At the end of the scheme the pianos will be donated to charity.

One piano will be auctioned off to benefit the charity Railway Children which supports children alone and at risk on the streets in the UK, Africa and India. The remaining two pianos will be given to the London Music Fund and Music for All to pass on to a worthy school or young individual to help encourage their musical journeys.

Mark Wild, Managing Director, London Underground, said: “Music has been a part of Tube travel for many years now, with busking and classical music featuring at many of our stations, and we are always looking for new ways to improve our customers journeys.  This project will bring music to some of our key stations, generate money for charity and also offer a platform for aspiring musicians to perform to some of the many thousands of customers who use our network every day.”

Charles Bozon from Yamaha Music UK said, “Our global Yamaha philosophy is to enrich lives through music, and #Platform88 is the perfect opportunity to connect to huge numbers of music fans and players and to create a vibrant new community – and hopefully discover some new talent along the way.”

Tokio Myers said: “My musical journey to this point has been full of surprises, chance moments and happy coincidences. Everyone loves listening to music and it’s my passion to inspire more people to move from listening to creating their own music. #Platform88 is a brilliant, fun way of doing this.”

Two more Yamaha pianos will be launched by two well-known recording artists in support of #Platform88 before Christmas. Each of the pianos boasts a specially commissioned, eye-catching design that guarantees the instruments are destined to become part of London’s transport and music memorabilia.

Yamaha is a successful manufacturer of musical instruments for professional and amateur musicians with a philosophy of cultural enrichment through music and excellence in the arts. It partners its strong heritage of traditional instrument craftsmanship with leading musicians, educators, and technicians to inspire innovation and design in new instruments. The company has a huge range of creative partnerships with many artists and learning providers throughout Europe.

(source: TfL press)