Play Me, I’m Yours Places Pianos In Random Places

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The motivator for many philanthropic organizations is to provide a voice for otherwise invisible communities. But we can sometimes think of those communities as some type of “other;” we’re often surprised to find that in many ways that invisibility envelopes us too.

Bristol, UK-based, multidisciplinary artist Luke Jerram saw an invisible community, comprised of everyday people, in our own highly-connected yet socially-disconnected technological societies. It’s the height of irony: how the proliferation of screens, the very symbol of visibility, allows us to mask ourselves to the point of being invisible. An idea sprung into Jerram’s mind, and all this while doing a few loads at the laundromat.

“I’d see the same people there every weekend washing their clothes and no one talking to each other,” says Jerram of the idea that sparked Play Me, I’m Yours, an international artwork project that places artist-decorated pianos in public areas. “I realized that there must be all of these invisible communities across the city as people are cueing up for the bus every day or at the train station waiting for the train; they’d see one another and recognize one another, but they wouldn’t talk. So I thought that by putting a piano in that location, it would act as a catalyst for conversation, get people talking and get strangers connecting to one another.”

Play Me, I’m Yours is about urban transformation. It ties into the idea that changes in a city’s dynamic — in this case, placing art in public spaces — can benefit large numbers of people and encourage diverse experiences. Play Me, I’m Yours asks local artists and other members of the community to personalize the pianos, which are then dispersed and later donated to schools and other local groups. Who plays them and how long they’re stationed in each locale is up to the community.

Public art can, unfortunately, become ignored over time. Play Me, I'm Yours is different; it’s a living artwork: the people who play — by the simple, persuasive power of music — initiate interactions with other citizens and experience their environment in a different way.

“The measure of a good piece of public art is whether the sculpture would be better if it wasn’t there or if it was replaced by a tree,” Jerram tells Samaritanmag. “I feel the pianos transform the street and create a little area of privacy and intimacy and a space for the public to connect with one another. There’s a sort of interesting dialogue about private versus public space, who owns the space or the street, and what can we do on the street.

“We’re not asking the public to go into a music studio or gallery where they might feel slightly uncomfortable — we’re delivering a creative and artistic opportunity at their door step, and that’s a very powerful thing.”

Those opportunities resound most powerfully in the stories Jerram tells about people who never had access to a piano before Play Me, I’m Yours visited their cities.

“In São Paulo [Brazil], there are people who’ve never actually seen a real piano before,” says Jerram. “We came across a mother and daughter at a train station. The mother worked as a cleaner for four years — a piano over there costs $4,000 which is a year’s wage for a lot of people — so she never heard her daughter play. She’d been paying for all these lessons over four years but never heard her daughter because they didn’t have access to a piano. [Her daughter] sat down and played the most amazing piano. It’s a very transformative art project.

“I’ve seen a few tweets from the public, who’ve seen homeless people playing the piano surrounded by businessmen,” Jerram continues. “A homeless person would often be considered invisible, almost like street furniture within a city, but if someone can play the piano suddenly they can be the centre of attention and that’s really nice.”

Play Me, I’m Yours launched in 2008 and has reached an estimated 5 million people worldwide, in such locales as Geneva, Switzerland; Sydney, Australia; Barcelona, Spain;  Los Angeles; Salt Lake City, Utah; and Malta with Perth, Australia; Hangzhou, China; and Cambridge, England scheduled for October. It’s most recent stop was in Toronto to celebrate the three-year countdown to the 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Am Games. Beginning August 1, the pianos will decorate Stratford, Ontario to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the birth of iconic Canadian pianist Glenn Gould.

Samaritanmag.com is an online magazine covering the good deeds of individuals, charities and businesses.