Belfast pianos in the key of free

 

Ten rescued, restored and random pianos dotted around the streets of Belfast have brought music, spontaneity and interaction between strangers, writes Fionola Meredith

PLAY ME, I’M YOURS – that’s the irresistible invitation inscribed on 10 battered but cheerfully painted old pianos that have recently arrived on the streets of Belfast.

Comically and rather incongruously parked in squares, parks or simply by the side of the road, the pianos are here for two weeks as part of the city’s August Craft Month. The idea is that anyone can sit down and knock out a tune.

Most people try a few tentative notes, a snatch of Happy Birthday, or a half-remembered version of Chopsticks. Children are less self-conscious, coming up with all kinds of crazy, made-up tunes.

But earlier in the week, passers-by on Rosemary Street were treated to a soaring rendition of Puccini’s lovely aria O Mio Babbino Caro, complete with lush piano accompaniment. Students Marcella Walsh and Debbie Henry, from the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin, were practising in a nearby church when they noticed that a piano had popped up outside.

So they grabbed their sheet music and soon Walsh’s powerful soprano was filling the street. Shoppers coming out of the TK Maxx store opposite looked variously surprised, confused and delighted to find themselves on an impromptu opera stage. One woman came up to slip a coin into Walsh’s half-full takeaway coffee cup, which she’d left on top of the piano, while others pressed money into her hands. This guerrilla recital had evidently touched a chord, in more ways than one.

“I’ll do anything for a laugh,” said Walsh, “but this really is incredibly liberating, standing here performing in the street. It brings music to life. People have been coming up to us wanting piano lessons, and we’ve even been asked to perform at a wedding.”

Buoyed by their success, Debbie and Marcella launched into a heartfelt version of Danny Boy,followed up by Pie Jesuand Ave Maria.

“What a brilliant idea,” said Jean Walker, out shopping with her friend Maureen O’Neill. “We came around the corner and the music just flowed up the street towards us, it was fabulous. This is exactly what Belfast needs.”

THE TRAVELLING PIANOS are a project by artist Luke Jerram, and they have been touring internationally since 2008. São Paulo, Sydney, London and Barcelona have hosted them, but this is their first visit to Ireland.

Jerram came up with the plan after noticing just how rarely city-dwellers stop and talk to each other: “Why is it that when I go to the launderette I see the same people each week and yet nobody talks to one another? Why don’t I know the names of the people who live opposite my house?”

Perhaps tapping into old memories of cosy family singalongs around the piano, Jerram believes that the instruments bring people together, acting as a catalyst for conversation, as well as a blank canvas for a bit of civic creativity.

The pianos themselves have been rescued, restored to working order and decorated by local artists and craftspeople, and once the two weeks are up, they’ll be donated to local schools and community groups.

Each piano is different: the Rosemary Street instrument is covered in rainbow-coloured graffiti handprints, while the one outside the Linen Hall Library sports its own customised sweater and legwarmers. Another has been designed by the Royal National Institute for the Blind, with Braille lyrics by Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles.

Part of the fun is actually finding them: some look a little lonely and sad, tethered like a dog to a lamp-post. There’s something rather poignant about an unplayed piano. But others are drawing massive attention. On Royal Avenue, the city’s main shopping throughfare, Sardinian pianist Fabio Tedde played one of his own compositions to the delight of a crowd of saucer-eyed young French female tourists. London-based Tedde started off as a busker on the Underground, and now he’s the resident pianist at the five-star Waldorf Hotel.

“I follow these pianos all over the world,” said Tedde. “Since coming to Belfast three days ago, I have played all 10 of them at least seven times. It’s the perfect way to meet people and tell them about my music.”

BUT YOU CERTAINLY don’t have to be a professional to tinkle the charmingly wonky keys of the pianos. Seated together at the City Hall piano, Queen’s University students Patrick McClure and Charlie Reilly were doing a bit of improvisation, knocking out some choppy 12-bar blues before seguing rather impressively into Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.A woman walking by with her shopping suddenly joined in with a snatch of lyrics – “thunderbolt and lightning, very very frightening” – before walking on briskly: just the kind of spontaneous interaction that Jerram was hoping for.

Public piano playing can be a solitary pleasure too. Office worker Faye says she discovered a piano while sitting in Writer’s Square, opposite St Anne’s Cathedral, having her lunch: “Since then I’ve gone for a walk every lunch time to find another piano to have a go on. It’s quite a bizarre feeling to sit at a piano on the high street with buses and people flying by, playing anything that comes to mind. I wonder which one I will find tomorrow.”