It’s not summer in Portland until the pianos hit the streets.
The 10th year of Piano Push Play, Portland’s outdoor art piano project, kicks off Friday with a concert in Pioneer Courthouse Square featuring 10 painted pianos. The following day, the pianos will be placed in public spaces across the city, where anyone can sit down and make music.
Artists have turned the pianos into unique works of art, though each one includes the same written plea: “Please play me.”
Piano Push Play is the creation of Megan McGeorge, and it started with a single (unpainted) piano. Back in 2011, when McGeorge was a theater and music student at Portland State University, she saw a cellist busking at the corner of Southwest 13th and West Burnside.
“He had a tiny little amp and a loop pedal, and he was playing the most gorgeous music,” McGeorge said. “I remember saying to myself, I wish I could do that, but I’m a piano player, and that’s a lot harder to bring out to a street corner.”
Sure, she could use a keyboard but that wouldn’t be the same.
“An old upright is a beautiful thing and, maybe chalk it up to my theater background, but I wanted a little bit of a show,” she said. “The sound of a real piano is an entirely different beast than a keyboard.”
But how hard would it be, really, to put a piano on the street? She approached the Portland Piano Co., which at the time was just a few blocks away in the Pearl District. She asked if she could borrow a piano and play it on the street corner. The company loved the idea, and employees mounted a piano on a dolly.
“I found a couple friends from school that Thursday,” McGeorge said. “We grabbed the piano, we pushed it across Burnside … and took turns playing music for a couple hours.”
She named her project after the steps of that experience – Piano Push Play.
The following year, McGeorge saw a video of someone playing an outdoor painted piano in New York. She went back to the piano store and asked about purchasing a few of their used, trade-in pianos, then got artist friends to paint them. The project grew from there.
These days, McGeorge gets offered far more pianos than she can ever take, generally from individuals looking to rehome their old instruments. (No, she cannot take your old piano right now, please do not ask.)
Piano Push Play doesn’t have a storage facility. Pianos go straight from donors to artists to the outdoors. At the end of the season, the pianos are donated to community groups, schools or sometimes private owners. (If you’d like to provide a permanent home for a retired piano, please do reach out to McGeorge about that.)
The pianos stay outside for six weeks, and most get moved to new locations and tuned every two weeks. At the end of the summer, a handful of pianos are too worn to be saved and are sent to what McGeorge calls “piano heaven.”
“They get played more in those two months than they probably got played in their whole life,” she said.
Piano Push Play aims to make music creation and appreciation free and accessible.
One thing that’s surprised McGeorge over the years is how many people have musical talent. She recalled once leaving a piano along the Transit Mall downtown when a group of teens came by on skateboards.
“The piano’s been on the street like two minutes, and one of these kids gets off the skateboard, goes over, sits down, starts playing ‘Für Elise,’” she said. “All his friends get off their skateboards, listen to him play the whole thing, and they just get on their skateboards and skate off.”
It’s a beautiful thing to see a teenage boy stop to serenade his friends with Beethoven, she said.
Art in public places is always risky, but over the past decade, Portlanders have treated the pianos remarkably well.
“There’s a bit of a psychology of allowing people to be respectful and showing that you believe in them, that they are going to take care of this,” McGeorge said. “I think of how many hundreds of people interact with these pianos every summer, and I think that’s a pretty darn good percentage of people seeing this instrument and respecting it, loving it, enjoying it.”
Artist Trisha Shozuya will have her second piano out in the wild as part of this year’s cohort of pianos. Her piece is called “Harmony,” and it features linocut figures from Japanese folklore, including dragons, hummingbirds and Kitsune, a fox that can shapeshift into human form.
“This whole piano is just a good luck symbol,” she said.
Inside the piano bench, she places handmade paper cranes that people are invited to take home.
“This project is all about gathering and connection,” Shozuya said. “The last two years have been really hard on everyone, so this project is kind of like a reminder for all of us that we can still come here and experience joy together.”
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