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︎ Long Read: Play me!?

by Pim Janssens, May 7 2020

One of the nicest, most stimulating initiatives in the field of music in recent years I consider is the installation of pianos here and there in public. At train stations, airports, in libraries, hospitals, establish-ments and other places possibly not yet discovered by me. Thanks to this initiative, you can just come across unexpected really interesting music somewhere in the wild. And you can also bring something yourself if you feel like it and have some spare time.

I understand, of course, that there is a commercial motive behind the initiative. It's an advertisement by a piano store, but so what. It also costs the company that places pianos a lot - the value of the piano, often a grand piano, is reduced to nil almost immediately as soon as the instrument is installed. It is incomprehensible how the damage is done in no time. Usually the touch of the piano is spoiled more or less, quite often a pedal  hangs, certain keys do not work, or, worst of all, one or more keys (mostly blacks) have been broken off. What kind of people do that and how they get it done is a mystery to me. However, if you like playing on a public piano from time to time, you take the shortcomings of the instruments for granted. I do that. That is, as long as no keys have been broken. Because, to my surprise, in one way or another I become completely disorganized by missing keys with the result that I get stuck and cannot reproduce piece any further. Amazing experience!

Just to be complete and correct, it is not only piano stores that provide generally accessible pianos at places. In my country the pianos at railway stations are owned by the by railway company, Dutch railways, as I was told recently. The idea behind this is that the waiting time for travellers is made more acceptable or even pleasant by the available pianos, in the expectation, or at least hope, that this makes the public more tolerant about train delays. Indeed, in my view just another legitimate reason for placing pianos!

Man playing Simeon ten Holt’s Canto Ostinato on Utrecht CS (September 2017)
Listening to people playing on a public piano can be fun, or more than that. At Utrecht-Central Station, for example, I have heard playing Beethoven sonatas several times. Among these was the virtuoso Sonata Appassionata. Played by a young guy, with some errors here and there, but still! He produced it right away out of his head when I mentioned to him my special love for the Beethoven sonatas. Another time I encountered a young man playing Simeon ten Holt's Canto Ostinato. If you only just know how almost similar, although developing along the piece all those notes are! And this then was played by head! To my regret, having an appointment, I had only 15 minutes to listen to this marvellous, more than 60 minutes lasting piece. To express my admiration, while not wanting to disturb the player, I eventually wrote some apprehensive words on a piece of paper that I left on his bag next to the piano. I wanted to give him recognition in some way. Of course I recorded part of his playing with my smartphone and took a picture for recollection. Unfortunately I never heard of him again, although I left my e-mail address on the note. I would have been glad to know him, personally.

Admittedly, these are the peak experiences. Usually it is not very special what you hear on public pianos: youth playing the inevitable Flea Waltz, Für Elise or Alla Turka (Turkish March), girls - mostly those, yes - who ping something sweet from Einaudi or in the genre of Amelie (Yann Tiersen). I don't get so excited about that.

I can never resist touching a piano that I encounter somewhere. Bit strange ? In any case it is completely harmless. I regret it, but am not held back, if the piano shows some defects (as long as no complete keys are missing, as said). Funny, when I once played Chopin's Prelude no. 4 (Op. 28) on the grand piano at Amsterdam Central Station - a piano with quite a number of defects - a man who had been listening declared “nice, I suppose a composition of your own?!”. Apparently so many notes were missing in the music played (because of defects of the piano) that this extremely famous piece was no longer recognizable, at least for him. Not an expert, obviously. An alternative explanation of course might be that I played the piece so badly that it could no longer be recognized; but believe me, it wasn't that bad. By the way, that day I played on pianos at four different stations when travelling through the country (Amsterdam CS, Amsterdam-Amstel, Utrecht CS, Arnhem CS). I thought it was fun to have done this once.

Why do I want to play on all those pianos? Primarily, because I relish it. Nothing less. Maybe this is a manifestation of latent exhibitionism. But some-where it is also an expression of a strong wish to share beautiful music with others. The feeling that they should hear that too!
The public pianos have greatly stimulated me to expand my memorized repertoire. In fact, this was kindly boosted by an employee in the library in my hometown Arnhem where I played various times. As the employee expressed some appreciative words, I came to realise that I could not keep on hanging around with only the few pieces of Mozart, Satie,a half Nocturne by Chopin and an easy listening piece by some popular Dutch artist that I carried around at that time. This made me studying an memorizing new pieces by Scarlatti, Rameau, Tchaikovsky, Andrea Bocelli and others. The fact that I intend to play those pieces in public provides a strong incentive to master them. Ultimately you want to do it right, of course at the level you can handle. By playing in public again and again I also hope to get more and more routine and become relaxed in doing so. In other words, have less "stage fright". True, playing remains a challenge as well. That’s good and matches with my motto: don't be afraid, just do it!

When I play that Scarlatti (K.466) at a train station thoughts go through my head like "nice that there is such great music and that it is played in public space once, indeed right now". Something else than that aimless pop and background music that you hear far too often. At such a moment I want to say to passers-by "stop, listen how beautiful this is!". Sometimes you get a reaction. Nice! At the airport in Rome (good grand piano there), someone even exclaimed "bravo" when I finished a piece. That's what you do it for. But more often you have no idea whether what you played was heard. You have to be prepared for that and accept it. I keep on going, anyway. Comforted, as far as necessary, from what I have seen in the fantastic YouTube series "Street Piano Videos". You can see the most fantastic renditions on street pianos on that channel. Some even by real famous pianists. But nevertheless, as you can seen on those video’s, passers-by often barely look up at the player. Thinking perhaps “again such a street musician who wants your money”? People have to pay 50 euros for a concert of such a celebrity. But on the street they barely  take look at and listen him or her. True, people have their own activities, interests and taste. Or just have to catch the train.

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Me playing on the grand piano on Rome airport (April 2018)