One piano drew a crowd, with a young woman playing an Alicia Keys song. Another pianist sat alone, a grizzled man plunking out one note at a time. On Hennepin Avenue, a preteen girl sat down to play “7 Years” for her friends avidly recording her on their phones. Outside Whole Foods, a whole jazz trio set up shop and lit up the sidewalk.
I took the Pianos on Parade — 25 pianos, painted by local artists with Minneapolis scenes, sprinkled around downtown — as a challenge, and determined to play them all before they get carted off at the end of June.
In the process, I witnessed the deep language and sheer delight of shared music-making.
The piano right outside my workplace, the Capella building, is at a busy bus stop, so there’s often someone sitting on the bench, not playing. I always ask if I can sit down, too, and then ask, do you know “Chopsticks”? How about “Heart and Soul”? And from long ago in a childhood piano lesson, a smile and a rusty tune emerge, and strangers form a little bond.
On the summer solstice, that talented jazz trio attracted a little group of admiring listeners. One began humming along, and was soon singing “Don’t Know Why” just like Norah Jones. I screwed up my courage and asked if I, too, could sit in with them, and we played “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” With notes in front of me, I’m a decent pianist, but without, I’m a little terrified. But I played that three-chord Gene Harris version of the song, with the pianist improvising on the octaves above me and drums and bass in perfect sync, and to me, it was poetry.
When I got up from the bench, a father and daughter were listening, and they requested “something she can dance to.” How about “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder? The trio did a quick chord check and started in, and there was dancing and singing (lyrics pulled up on cellphones) and all-around summertime joy. The pianist skillfully modulated into a song I didn’t know and the dad started shaking his head “yes,” all of us popping our knees and humming. “I think we just had a moment,” he said as he and his daughter high-fived everyone and walked away grinning.
The Pianos on Parade program also includes actual pros — people like Lorie Line and the Voice contestant Nicholas David — performing little concerts. And some of the not-famous people who play the not-great pianos sound pretty professional.
But to me, the power and beauty of making music shines just as bright here: The guy in the bike helmet struggling through “Chopsticks”; the lady reaching back to remember the last phrases of “Beautiful Dreamer”; the grad student picking her way through sheet music from the library; the very drunk young man who told me he was normally a great pianist; the handful of people I reminded how to find middle C; all the people who told me that they had loved to play at some point in their lives, and are sorry they don’t play anymore.
And why don’t they? We have lots of places to hear others sing or play, and when we’re in school, there’s band and choir (if they haven’t been wickedly cut from the budget). But after that, only those with the keenest interest, or who attend church, get a chance at it. That is a loss for everyone, as if we all used to know a second language that everyone understood but now we’re back to just speaking Minnesotan.
A few years ago, a dear friend of mine came to hear a concert of an amateur classical quintet that I play in (we do the senior-housing circuit). He told me later that he could see how much fun we were having, and it reminded him how good it is to practice music, even if you are not especially gifted or dedicated. So he took up the violin again, several decades after his last musical venture, and he’s been happily sawing out fiddle tunes ever since.
Outside the downtown library this month, a favored spot for people who are homeless, the piano on parade gets a lot of use. One evening I sat on the bench with a man who put down his many bags and played notes, one by one, as if each key had its own sweetness.
And he is right to savor that. Get outside and taste the music.
ABOUT 10,000 TAKES: 10,000 Takes is a digital section featuring first-person essays about life in the North Star State. We publish narratives about love, family, work, community and culture in Minnesota.