Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Art of Looking Like You're Doing Something Important

This is the piano at Chestnut and Prince streets in Lancaster city. (Suzette Wenger / Staff)

My father once told me a hilarious story about working in one of the many jazz clubs of Kansas City in the 1960s. He went early in the afternoon to a particular club to see how the piano played. It was badly out of tune and he told the club owner that when he came back later that evening, the piano had better be fixed, or else he wasn't playing. The owner assured him that it would be taken care of. When my father returned to play that evening, he saw that the piano had been painted bright green. He sat down to play it, but it was still very badly out of tune.

"I thought you said you were going to have this piano fixed! It's unplayable!" said my father.

"Whaddaya mean? I had it painted this afternoon!" said the owner.

This story may or may not be true, but I'm half inclined to believe it, because of the following story in my 'art' enriched town:

City street pianos hard to resist -- for the talented and not-so

By BERNARD HARRIS, Staff Writer, Lancaster New Era and Intelligencer News
There are four pianos along North Prince Street as Christian Smithson walks between Manos House, where he lives, and Clipper Magazine Stadium, where he works unloading trucks.
"This is the best. All the keys are in the correct place," Smithson said of the piano under the overhang at the Prince Street Parking Garage.
With cars, trucks and motorcycles passing behind him Thursday, Smithson's hands swept across the keys. He played a composition in which he had melded parts of the Christmas tune "Carol of the Bells" with the overture from the "Pirates of the Caribbean" film.
"I find it relaxing," the 19-year-old said of the stops he makes at the piano, sometimes four or five times a week.
In the past two months, Smithson and countless other people have stopped to play a tune or simply plink a few keys.
It's all music to the ears of John Gerdy.
"There are just so many magical moments that I have seen and people have been telling me about," said Gerdy, of the nonprofit organization Music for Everyone.
He had hoped the community would embrace the 20 decorated pianos that were put in public downtown locations in June.
He's delighted to see that they have been adopted. He cited evidence.
 During Wednesday's rain, people placed protective tarps over each of the nine pianos that are not under cover.
 On the piano near Fulton Opera House, instructional books have been left to encourage people to learn to play. The first page references a lesson from Jan. 23, 1958.
• And the feared vandalism of the pianos has not occurred. Gerdy could recall only one minor graffiti tagging in the two months the pianos have been on the street. And, he said, the graffiti actually complements the piano's design scheme.
"Lancaster's better angels are winning the day so far," he said of the care shown for the instruments.
The piano program, named Keys for the City, is a joint effort of Music for Everyone, a local group that promotes music and supplies instruments for school music programs, and the regional Society of Design, an organization of design and art professionals.
Corporate sponsors and individual donors are supporting the project and other groups also are getting involved.
The local chapter of the American Institute of Architects recently had a design competition to create a shelter for one of the pianos. That shelter, designed by Christopher Dawson, was built this week at North Prince and West Chestnut streets.
Wendy Tippetts, of Tippetts/Weaver Architects, hosted the design competition on behalf of AIA's central Pennsylvania chapter.
She said architectural projects typically take years from start to finish. The group was attracted to doing something that went from concept to completion in less than a month.
And, she said, they were attracted by the combination of the visual arts and music.
"It's just a fun, zany project in the city. It captured our imagination," she said.
Also getting involved are art teachers and students at McCaskey High School. A teacher-designed student-decorated piano was installed at the Roberto Clemente Park pavilion, along South Duke Street, in time for Friday night's Music Friday events.
Anyone who wanted to help decorate a piano was invited to participate in a "community paint" of a piano Friday night as part of Music Friday. That piano will be at the entrance to Place Marie, 52 N. Queen St.
A third piano is planned by the Demuth Museum operators for a spot on East King Street.
That would bring to 23 the number of streetside pianos in Lancaster.
New York City last month began a similar project. Sixty pianos were planned for public sites in the Big Apple. That represents one piano per square mile, or one for every 138,333 people in that city.
Lancaster, in contrast, will have more than three pianos per mile and one for every 2,407 people.
The Keys for the City pianos are scheduled to remain in place through mid-September.
Related Story
I hate to nitpick a popular program, especially one that exposes people to music, but do you know how many people actually learn to play the piano anymore? Not a whole lot. It seems like an aspiration from a bygone era. I have had piano students, most of whom have never heard classical music before. Only a scant few have ever been interested in it at all.

Schools used to teach music appreciation, which the slackers used to take because they thought it would be easy.....were they in for a surprise.  But the piano. Everyone used to have a piano in their home. Game shows couldn't get rid of them fast enough. Now? Maybe a kid has a 61 keyed Yamaha keyboard that makes funky sounds, but a real piano? Not too many these days have one.

So I'm torn about whether I should be rooting for this program. Most people who go by and sit down to play the piano actually just make a lot of noise and no music at all. The pianos are all out of tune and exposed to the elements. And for me, that is tantamount to piano abuse.

When my father brought my piano to Lancaster from Kansas City, It was almost 30 years old. It's  36 years old, now, and looks almost as new as when he first bought it. It also needs a good tuning, but that's the sort of thing that I keep putting off, for lack of funds.

He told me always to keep it in a warm place, with an electric warming device plugged inside of it, to keep the humidity low and never, ever place it by a window because of the variation in temperatures. So I keep his advice....

On the other hand, I have always wanted to play the piano out of doors, and this is just the excuse I need to do that!


  1. Schools used to teach music appreciation, which the slackers used to take because they thought it would be easy...

    The course was part of the curriculum at every grade school I attended (and I went to a LOT of 'em, being a military brat), back in the day (just shortly after Calvin Coolidge left office). Those courses were the foundation of my musical tastes. And my Mom, too.

    The lack of music appreciation is just another brick in the crumbling wall of our education system. (That metaphor ALMOST works...)

  2. Perhaps you meant to say, "The lack of music appreciation is just another missing brick in the crumbling wall of our educational system." Which is true. All the Classical Values have disappeared. Now we have "multiculturalism", which is a fancy schmancy way of saying, "European culture sucks, try some primitive backwater culture instead....because we're too lazy to teach classical culture, and the weed we're smoking is much better than the stuff they sell legally in Holland, anyway."

  3. jewel:
    kindly keep me posted on these programs, o.k. and, if you hear of a city that is leaving l-5 gibson on the street, please to let me know. i will be there, and outta there, is a real live flash. no one will ever know.
    john jay


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