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An Art Two-fer: Playing Pianos After Painting Them

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Stan Jastrzebski
/
WBAA News

Ever try to move a piano? It’s not easy.

Last month, workers from Lafayette’s Northside Music unloaded six pianos from their trucks in a single afternoon and placed them along Lafayette’s Main Street and at two locations in West Lafayette.

It was the formal start of a public art project called Pianos For The Street, which was coordinated by the Tippecanoe Music Teachers Association and patterned after similar projects in other cities.

Fortunately for the teachers, moving local leaders to agree to the project was easier than lugging the upright pianos across town. West Lafayette city councilor Vicki Burch advocated for the project.

“We think people will enjoy coming and sitting down and playing the piano outside and seeing who comes to listen to them,” she said.

And indeed, the pianos did become a source of public concerts and impromptu recitals. Each instrument had a sign spray-painted on it encouraging people to play. After the pianos had been out for about a week, another sign appeared on one of them advertising free concerts nightly at an appointed time.

Caryl Matthews, who we should point out was WBAA’s Music Director for many years, helped spearhead the project and watched as the pianos were delivered. And it didn’t take her long to start tickling the ivories herself.

“The whole point of this is for people to enjoy these pieces of art that happen to be musical instruments and they can play them and maybe somebody will sit by and enjoy listening to them,” Matthews says.

Calling the pianos pieces of art isn’t a misstatement. As Matthews describes the project, artist Zach Medler vigorously shakes several cans of spray paint and gets to work.

On this piano, near the corner of 11th and Main Streets, Medler employs a garden theme, fashioning some beets on the wood just above the keyboard, complete with green leafy stems, fire engine red skin and black bands around each of the vegetables. Before the day is out, each of the six pianos has become the canvas for some piece of original artwork.

And less than an hour after the pianos have been delivered, passerby begin to not just notice, but take lessons.

Caryl Mathews sees a young boy, who’s walked by with his mother and his sisters, become intrigued by the piano with the beets on it.  That’s all the instigation she needs to begin to teach him "chopsticks."

As the days wore on, the pianos were rained on, heated, cooled and played daily. All of which meant they needed to be tuned.

Enter Richard Gordon, who spent a career as a public school music teacher himself. These days, he calls himself a “piano technician”. He’s wielding what looks like a socket wrench and a triangular piece of rubber on the end of a metal rod. He puts the wrench on pegs inside the piano and turns it ever so slightly, placing the rubber instrument, called a mute, behind each of the three strings attached to each key.

“If the piano’s out of tune, you hear the beats between the…sounds like a vibrato. And the closer you get, the slower it is. And you tune it till there’s no beat,” Gordon explained.

Gordon is only tuning the piano outside the West Lafayette Public Library on this sunny morning. The other one he was supposed to tune had been damaged by rain before the teachers could cover it with a tarp.

Gordon remarks the project is a risk for the people who own the instruments, but says he was heartened to see a young woman sit down and play before he began his work. Civic leaders say if enough of those sit-downs occurred this year – and the evidence will be anecdotal at best – they may bring the pianos back for a longer period of time in future summers.

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