“Play me, I’m Yours” – Bringing Music to the streets

Since Monday 22 October, fifteen pianos destined for the scrap heap have been given a new lease of life as part of a community music project and a piece of public art. Revived for the University’s Festival of Ideas, these pianos have been decorated by local artists and charities and placed in communal spaces around Cambridge with an open invitation for anyone and everyone who fancies tinkling the ivories to have a go! Members of the public have until the 3rd of November to visit these pianos and share making music together. The project has already engaged with huge numbers of people who have posted photos, videos and comments to the website www.camstreetpianos.co.uk to share with us how they are enjoying them. Groups have even been setting up their own events!

Working with local artists and community groups has been a real highlight of this project although there were times when I was worried they were never going to finish. The women from the Women’s Resource Centre were so determined to make their piano perfect that they spent four days priming the piano with white paint before they even began to add their design!

FLACK midsummer common piano, in the process of getting a new skin ; photographed by Ruth Hardie

Jerry and Simon from FLACK, the charitable social enterprise working with homeless in Cambridge, worked day in, day out, and even slept in the FLACK office to complete the Midsummer Common Piano on time. After their piano was installed, Jerry wrote a beautiful thank you letter to the music faculty which really brought home how important the experience has been for the people involved.

The amount of trust that you’ve put on me was huge and I really appreciate it, I hope that I didn’t disappoint you. It’s not the days and nights or the amount of time we spent on it that’s important, it’s what we can achieve by showing it to people…. I hope people will see that the homeless community have talents and care…. Thank you Ruth for trusting us and always smiling when you came round.

The stories of members of the public who have enjoyed playing them are equally touching. One of our volunteer piano teachers from the Festival Family Day on Saturday 27th October reported the following highlight for her:

Piano at Jesus Green, part of Street Pianos, Cambridge 2012 ; photographed by Ruth Hardie

Ed, a man in his seventies with a shabby tan coat and thick glasses, stood around for several minutes watching the lessons but was too shy to play. I eventually coaxed him over onto the bench and explained the 12-bar blues progression using a chord diagram and showing him how to make each of the chords in turn. As we went through them, his eyes lit up when he realized that he knew what sounds to expect next. He hummed along, anticipating the chord changes, and it became apparent that what he really wanted to do was to sing. We talked about where to put the words in relationship to the chords, and eventually we were belting out blues vocals together. I had a great time singing with him, and when we finished, I turned to tell him how well he’d done. I was surprised to see tears in his eyes; he gave me a huge hug and asked if we were going to be doing this every week with the pianos. He scooted off the bench to make way for the little girl who was next, and I watched him walk away smiling, humming, and clutching his chord handout. It’s been quite a few years since I taught piano lessons, but this reminded me of the joy and power of making music and why, ultimately, I chose to the area of study that I did.

There were many sceptics when I first raised my plans for this project but If you don’t provide people with opportunities then they never have the chance to show how much they value those opportunities. I wanted people to see the invitation ‘Play me, I’m yours’ and do just that and it’s been a huge success. Take this opportunity while you can to go to play these pianos, create events, meet people in the community and enjoy it. Please share your experiences at www.camstreetpianos.co.uk so we can keep a record of these wonderful weeks of community music fun! With a bit of luck you might even win a meal for two in the Hotel Du Vin Bistro (Cambridge), a competition sponsored by CaMEO.

Ruth Hardie
Outreach Officer, Faculty of Music, University of Cambridge

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