Pianists of all ages and abilities Play Out Loud

Twice in the past week I have been at the intersection of Rose and South streets, where one of 13 brightly colored pianos sits in front of the Miller Canfield building. There has been spontaneous music making each time.

The contest that had people competing for the much coveted Diana Krall tickets by submitting to The Gilmore’s Facebook timeline pictures of themselves playing at the pianos is over, but the pianos are still in place and the instruments continue to bring out the musician in passersby.

It’s impossible to miss the candy colored uprights, all of which were donated to The Gilmore. They were sanded, tuned and painted before being placed in locations across Kalamazoo, Portage and Battle Creek. They’ve stayed outside throughout the uncertain and often damp spring weather, protected by a sheet of plastic when weather dictates.

Recently a touring a cappella group from Grand Valley State University, Euphoria, saw the piano on South Street and took it as an invitation to start a serenade. For them, the piano was more of a backdrop -- although someone did hit a key so they all started on the right note.

Queen’s "Somebody to Love" drew office workers from inside the building out to have a listen. People on the sidewalks gathered round. A man on the upper story terrace of the building shouted down his kudos as the song drew to a close.

Another day, a budding composer, his backpack at his feet, pounded out a tune all his own. It might not have had a recognizable melody or followed a discernible meter, but for the boy who looked to be about 9 years old, those rules were not what it was about. This is the kind of fearless creativity most adults have left behind.

Those are just the two musical happenings I happened to catch. All across town, the pianos draw some people to sit down and play simple songs they learned as children while others come with musical scores in hand.

Downtown Kalamazoo Inc. reports one instance where a young woman from Venezuela sat down at one of the pianos on the Kalamazoo Mall to play a classical piece that has two parts. Midway through, a stranger sat down to play the second part. Neither were using sheet music. And he was from the Dominican Republic. The first player ran out of time, she left the second to continue playing and along came a third player, who sat down to finish the piece, playing the first part. He is believed to be from Brazil.

During the Krall ticket contest, Ryan and Sean Milka took an afternoon to hit eight of the 13 pianos. Videos posted on The Gilmore Facebook page show a pianist playing "Mad World" as his friends giggle in the background, there’s a rendition of the "Pirates of the Carribean" theme and a sighting of American Idol season eight contestant Matt Giraud at the keyboard outside the Kalamazoo Valley Museum.

Mary McCormick of the Gilmore says young people have told them the pianos have made The Gilmore cool by making it more accessible to them, bringing the festival outside of the concert hall and into the community.

And she says The Gimore staff has no idea how many people have been taking a seat at the pianos, but the pictures and videos of the performers have definitely gone viral. The pianos will be on the sidewalks throughout the festival, which draws to a close May 12.

Back at the corner of Rose and South streets one of the listeners lets out a cheer as she walks away from the performance. "I love Kalamazoo."

Music in public places can do that to a person.

Kathy Jennings is the managing editor of Southwest Michigan’s Second Wave. She is a freelance writer and editor.

Photo by Erik Holladay

Nancy Johnson, left, and her granddaughter Barbara, 12, play an upright piano on the corner of South and Rose streets. The two had brought music from the Phantom of the opera to play as they enjoyed the mild summer-like weather.
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