In the middle of the Lamar Boulevard pedestrian bridge over Lady Bird Lake lives a single piano — its keys painted a deep blue and its body covered in stickers, colorful illustrations and paintings. “Play Me, I’m Yours” is painted in large white block letters across the front of the instrument.
The piano is one of 14 in locations around downtown Austin as a part of “Play Me, I’m Yours,” a public art installation sponsored by the Austin Art Alliance and curated by local artist Johnny Walker, for the entire month of April.
“One thing that’s special that I think the Art Alliance is trying to promote is to bring art into the community,” Walker said. “Art that makes them active and makes them think about who they are and what they are doing and how they live.”
United Kingdom artist Luke Jerram started the project in London in 2008. Since its inception, more than 400 pianos have been installed in places across the globe, including Sydney, New York and Sao Paolo.
“Music is a universal language,” Walker said. “Music touches us and, even without lyrics, music is something that crosses over cultural lines. Music speaks the language that everybody can tune to.”
Meredith Powell, executive director of the alliance, said the organization started working on assembling “Play Me, I’m Yours” in September after the New York project was featured in the New York Times.
After months of fundraising, acquiring public permits and tracking down 14 pianos through Craigslist and donations, the project came to fruition, and the pianos were put in place on April 1. Powell and Walker said before they were even able to bolt the piano down on the Pfluger Bridge, someone sat down and tried their hand at the notes.
“The more barriers that are broken down, the more you understand and appreciate different perspectives,” Powell said. “Somebody you would have possibly never connected with or taken the time to get to know or even say a word to or say hello, suddenly you are sharing a piano bench or listening to them play. You are really leaving your mark on the piano. I really do believe the more we are connecting through art, the stronger our community is going to be.”
The 14 pianos are strategically placed around the city, from high foot-traffic areas such as the Lamar Boulevard bike and pedestrian bridge and Lady Bird Lake hike and bike trail, to areas with good acoustics such as the City Hall plaza.
“It’s fabulous. Actually, it’s delightful,” said Jayme Moore, whose two children were playing the piano on the trail while taking a break from their evening bike ride. “To be on the hike and bike trail is already great, then to hear beautiful music.”
When the weather is bad, there are volunteer piano “buddies” assigned to protect to each instrument. When the 50- to 100-year-old pianos fall a note flat, four volunteer tuners from the local Piano Technician’s Guild are on call to bring them up to speed.
“It’s interesting to think that this piano was used for many years and then was put into storage, and its days were really over until now,” said Steve Walthall, a member of the guild and UT piano technician. “At least these pianos got pulled out and repaired to the point that they would play and be tuned, and now they are stars. They are being appreciated again, and to me, in some sort of magical way, that’s special.”
Some people only know a few notes, others know components to symphonies. Whatever skill level the many players have obtained, they play out the purpose of project — getting the community involved with music, their city and, most importantly, each other.
“I’ve never had a public art project with people saying, ‘Thank you for doing this,’” Walker said. “This is what Austin art projects should be like. People of all ages get to get out and to play and to listen and to just engage. I hope in the end when these pianos go away, people stay engaged in this kind of dialogue with their community.”