by John G Taylor
It can be easy, sometimes, to take your instrument for granted. Whether you inherited it or bought it, eventually your piano, your violin, or your cello can become part of the furniture. That corner of the living room is no more than the bit of the home that contains the instrument. That’s how it is, how it always has been and, except for the moments when you sit at the stool and roll out a tune, the instrument rarely gets a second look.
An artwork by British artist Luke Jerram has been reminding us all how much we undervalue our access to instruments. Play Me, I’m Yours places pianos in public sites in cities around the world. The installation started in Birmingham in 2008 where fifteen pianos were placed on the city’s streets for three weeks. An estimated 140,000 people are believed to have played or listened to the instruments. Since then, the installation has been invited to an additional 36 cities from Tilburg, Holland to Toowoomba, Australia. It’s reached more than 3 million people and installed more than 1,000 pianos in spaces that range from parks and bus shelters to markets and ferries.
Many of those pianos are discarded but playable instruments which may be decorated by local artists. At the end of the installation, they are often donated to local schools and community groups. The idea for the artwork, says Jerram, was less about music and more about people and what it would take to bring them together.
“The idea for Play Me, I’m Yours came from visiting my local launderette,” he says on his website. “I saw the same people there each weekend and yet no one talked to one another. I suddenly realized that within a city, there must be hundreds of these invisible communities, regularly spending time with one another in silence. Placing a piano into the space was my solution to this problem, acting as a catalyst for conversation and changing the dynamics of a space.”
Pianos Form Communities
For Jerram, the pianos become the focal point of a new community, the grit in the oyster around which the pearl is formed. Pianos have always had that role. Place one in a bar, add a few beers and a reason to celebrate, and eventually the people present will always congregate around the instrument and break into song.
But when you look at the videos shot at all the local sites where the pianos were installed what becomes clearest is the power of the piano, not just to draw a crowd, but to inspire people to play, to create a relationship between one person and one instrument. Pianists with training, finger skills, and sometimes good voices too, sit and produce beautiful music. People who once learned a single tune show pride at being able to remember it years later. Children who have never touched a key get to play for the first time.
The result is inspiring, surprising and powerful enough to send us back to the instrument in the living room.