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  • Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine

Street Piano Comes to St. Helena

Competing with exhaust fumes, honking horns and barking dogs, an estimated 2,000 street pianos are entertaining locals and visitors in towns and cities around the globe. Boston has more than 60. Munich, Paris, Tokyo, Berlin, Stockholm and Singapore are all participants. Closer to home, Davis’ program, called In the key of Davis, has grown to five pianos. They’re placed strategically around this artsy community—in the park, at the train station and outside a grocery store. Yountville initiated its first street piano this summer, and St. Helena literally rolled out its own version of a street piano in August.

The piano was the brainchild of longtime resident Bill Ryan.

Bill Ryan read about other cities that were hosting pianos, and visitors and residents seemed to love them. There is a pied piper effect associated with a piano that’s placed in an outdoor park or plaza. People hear music, whether it’s a Beethoven sonata, blues or honky tonk, and they follow it to its source. “It seemed like a great way to create a livelier, friendlier downtown. A more welcoming environment for our visitors and locals. It’s a way to inspire dialog and create community.”

Ryan spearheaded St. Helena’s effort, which was no small undertaking. “It literally took a village to make this happen. It required generous contributions of time and effort by a surprisingly large number of people.” It began with a stealth campaign—Ryan talked to an attorney and the police chief about potential liability issues and city requirements. He prepared a proposal and got on the City Council’s agenda. In a five-hour meeting, he was the final agenda item at 11:00pm. Council members focused on adjourning for the night didn’t have a single objection! Ryan worked closed with City Planners Noah Housh and Lilly Bianco, who played a critical role in greenlighting the project.

Ryan checked items off his to-do list, but still hadn’t resolved the most important one

Ryan worked through his list, but still hadn’t located a piano! He reached out to contacts in the local musical community and one woman generously responded, donating a piano that was the perfect size and in excellent condition. Napa piano tuner Terry Miller spent an entire day tuning it. Local contractor Rodney Friedrich designed and built the undercarriage so the piano could be easily moved. Dave Liter moved the piano to its summer home in Lyman Park. Ryan recruited a few piano buddies who roll it out in the mornings and roll it back in under City Hall’s eaves in the evening.

The response to St. Helena’s street piano has been overwhelmingly positive, but there’s one missing element. In the true spirit of street piano, it needs to be painted. Art is part of the street piano culture.

How should a street piano be painted?

If you Google street piano, you’ll see that the designs are all over the board. Some are slick and professional; others are funky, the work of wannabe artists. The designs are modern and traditional; they’re scenic landscapes and psychedelic odysseys. One thing they all have in common: Lots of bright colors. Unrestrained, they’re meant to take center stage. This is street art in its purest form--neither defined nor dictated.

St. Helena’s street piano is an independent effort by group of people who selflessly donated their time to make a contribution to their community. But the official street piano is an organization that has a much deeper history.

Play Me, I’m Yours: How a piano became a catalyst for conversation.

Artist Luke Jerram is the creator of an international effort called Play Me, I’m Yours that had an unlikely beginning--his local laundromat. He saw the same people every week, but people didn’t talk to each other. This laundromat was a symbol of the isolation of urban life. Jerram moved a piano into this environment and created a catalyst for conversation, completely changing the space’s dynamics. Music brought the neighborhood together.

Since its inception, more than 1,500 street pianos have been placed in more than 50 cities worldwide; they have been played and listened to by more than ten million people across the globe. Street pianos have been integrated into prestigious events, including the Pan Am Games, the 2010 European Capital of Culture, San Jose Biennial, Sydney Festival, City of London Festival and Barcelona’s Maria Canals International Music Competition. Each new city that commissions the artwork becomes a partner in the rich, international musical legacy.

Denver tunes and repaints its pianos each spring.

Denver has its own version of street piano. The ten pianos on display are repainted every year by local artists of all ages, including a contingent of students from the city’s public schools. Every April, technicians come to the piano’s storage facility to perform maintenance and tune the instruments before they receive their new paint schematic for the season. There’s no theme, and the “artists” are given little in the way of direction, so there’s plenty of room for artistic expression.

Finding and redistributing pianos.

Unlike Denver’s and St. Helena’s efforts, Play Me I’m Yours generally is presented in any given city for two-three weeks, after which many of the pianos are donated to schools or community groups. London apparently has hundreds of perfectly good used pianos that get discarded every year. People move, downsize and live in tiny urban spaces with no room for pianos. Jerram rounds these up and transports them to those countries where there is a need so that people can enjoy them in the street-piano format.

Listen to St. Helena’s street piano in Lyman Park, across from the post office. It will retire for the winter, then roll out again in the spring. Ryan and his team are looking for artists to paint the piano before the spring season begins.

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