Amid the clamor of construction along Nicollet Mall, Holden Turner placed his lunch on top of the upright piano and gently moved his fingers along the keys.
Holden bent low over the keys, and the sound of “Falling Slowly” filled the cavernous space under a downtown Minneapolis skyway. He played for no one. And he played for everyone who passed by on the street and through the nearby revolving door to the IDS Center.
Holden, who taught himself how to play while in college, is among the many musicians and wannabes who have been sitting down at 25 pianos recently scattered outdoors throughout downtown Minneapolis as part of an art installation billed as Pianos on Parade.
Silently standing under canopies and skyways, the old uprights that were colorfully painted by local artists draw the curious who merely want to look at the musical canvasses that include the downtown skyline, tributes to Prince, the Stone Arch Bridge and the northern lights.
Then there are those like Holden, who sit down on a piano bench, reveling at a chance to make music or just test if they can remember what they learned long ago.
“It’s just something I like to do,” said Holden, who couldn’t help but grab a few minutes to play before returning to work. “It’s really relaxing and just breaks up my day a little bit.”
“If you walk by at the right time, you can see some really talented people play,” he added. One of his bosses wowed a crowd with Beethoven. Another guy came along one day and played jazz.
Jane Mauer, who works in the IDS Center, stopped to listen as two older gentlemen took turns at the piano painted with the Minneapolis skyline. “Those two guys just met,” she said. “This draws people out. It gets people to meet one another.”
Eighty-year-old Gerald Ollila’s bent fingers touched each key with careful intention but without a plan. “I never played one single song,” he said. “I just play whatever comes to me in my head. … I used to play 40 years ago, but I never learned music, notes or anything.”
“I play terrible,” he said, after giving up the piano bench to listen to the man who said he played drums but who sat down to make music with the piano.
William Sanders, who plays his guitar on downtown streets, added his instrument to the mix. “I jam anywhere I can,” he said. “Plus, you can learn something with other people.”
And just as quickly as the drummer arrived, he grabbed his backpack and left without giving his name. “I’ve got a plane to catch. I’ve got to go to New York.”
Williams moved down the street with his guitar, while Ollila sat back on the bench, touching the keys as music swirled in his head.
Three blocks away, Joseph Erickson was headed into the YMCA to work out when he sat down at the nearby piano portraying “On the Banks of the Mississippi.” He had played for six hours the day before, splitting his time between the piano at the IDS Center and another on Hennepin Avenue.
“I play guitar and I’m trying to convert to piano,” the 35-year-old said as his fingers moved across the keys until he suddenly had to stop to lift up a stuck key. “The piano seems like a good retirement instrument. You can do a lot with a piano.”
Erickson has stopped to take in others playing in various spots downtown. “I’ve listened to people who are really good,” he said. “It’s kind of discouraging. Kind of sobering to see where I’m starting.”
But he and others like him plunked away.
Roxanne Gillis, visiting from Toronto, put her tote bag on top of the piano before she began to play Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” It was the first song she learned when she was 11 or 12. She started, then stopped a few times before she got up from the piano. “I thought I could remember.”
On the piano outside First Avenue, 11-year-old Gretchen Mayer played “My Favorite Things” as her 8½-year-old sister leaned on the bench. Hours later, Pamela Folkert stopped at the nightclub midway through a self-guided Prince tour to play some Chopin, a little of “Hungary: Rapsodie Mignonne” and Beethoven’s “Für Elise” that she had learned for a piano recital.
“Our mom made us take lessons,” said her sister, Patti Ryno, who preferred to watch rather than play.
A wonderful world
Back outside the IDS building, Walter Hampton, a saxophone player who will perform at the upcoming Twin Cities Jazz Festival in St. Paul, swiped his iPad in search of music as he sat at the piano. He settled on “My Funny Valentine.”
Hampton, who plays sax on the downtown streets a few times a week, had noticed the artfully decorated uprights popping up downtown and “checked to see if it was in tune,” he said. “It was pretty decent. Good enough to play.”
And so he has, playing three to four hours at times, with other musicians sometimes taking over the keyboards while he jumps up on the sax. With the piano sitting under a skyway and amid tall buildings, the acoustics are amazing, he said. “It’s like a real concert.”
As sirens wailed, jackhammers pounded and a saw sent out a shrill wail, Hampton’s music mixed in. “There are all kinds of … sounds going on,” he said. “I’m creating a live soundtrack to life — to what’s going on now.”
On Hennepin Avenue, coffee barista Nate Williams was biking home from work when he sat down at the piano outside the Brave New Workshop. “I have three songs that I can play, including one I wrote,” he said, not bothering to take off his backpack as he played.
“It’s such a joy to play,” Williams said. “It looks complicated. … It’s intimidating because there are 64 keys. Should I use all of them or just two?”
He paused. “I just use the middle section.”
The self-taught player is grateful that he can dabble as well as watch talented musicians such as the man who skillfully played Louis Armstrong’s “A Wonderful World” and wowed an impromptu audience. “It adds an ambience to downtown,” Williams said. “It shows that there are lots of creative people.”
And he likes to think he’s one of them, and maybe, just maybe, someone will walk by and say, “ ‘Hey, I know that guy. He makes my coffee.’ ”