Pianos Pop-Up for Classical Piano Music (and Jazz and Soul and Rock and Pop too)

Pianos Pop-Up for Classical Piano Music (and Jazz and Soul and Rock and Pop too)

In the summer of 2011, I learned Debussy’s First Arabesque. The ending—arpeggios waxing and waning, placid whole notes edging towards a healing E-flat—transported me. I did not know that at the same time, an amateur pianist named Daniel Toelke was playing the Arabesque on pianos throughout New York City: on a violet upright winking with silver stars in East River State Park; on a glittering pink piano swathed in a giant bow in Greeley Square, on a yellow grand supported by a blue sawhorse in the rotunda of Grand Army Plaza.

These three pianos belonged to a set of 88 uprights and grands—each decorated by a volunteer artist; each tended by a volunteer buddy—that for two weeks last summer transformed the parks, squares, and plazas of New York City’s Five Boroughs. Unexpected, captivating, and sometimes insouciant—how often does one see a piano on a street corner, let alone one painted by a professional artist?—the pianos had seemingly charged into the open and dissolved the barriers our society constructs around music. Each piano was the locus of one free, outdoor concert, yet at all other times during the two weeks, passersby were free to sit down and play. Classical, jazz, soul, rock, and pop rang out. Children spontaneously banged on the keys. Some people simply sounded a few pearly notes.

After two weeks of glorying outside, the pianos took up residence in under-resourced schools, hospitals, and community centers throughout New York City. This was the Piano Pop-Up Program, created by Monica Yunus and Camille Zamora, the two founders of Sing for Hope.  These two Julliard-trained, professional opera singers believe that music should be accessible to all.

For the installation, their primary philanthropist, Joseph Flom, had persuaded the founders to expand from 2010’s inaugural 60 pianos to 88, one for each key on the keyboard. But before the summer installation bloomed, Joseph Flom died. Monica and Camille lost a cherished supporter. After the program’s smashing success, the months ticked from fall into winter. The year drew to a close, yet still no alternative donor stepped forward. The Pop-Up Piano installation for 2012 was in jeopardy.

While the founders grappled with Pop-Up Piano’s future, I still did not know of the program’s existence. In the fall, I put away the First Arabesque and turned to Debussy’s enchanting Clair de Lune. While I practiced the shimmering octaves, time slowed, becoming more luscious and palpable. I remembered how, amidst the jealousy and violence of my childhood home, the piano had offered a refuge, the only place where I truly could feel my sadness and confusion.

Now as an adult, reclaiming the piano had revealed to me a path towards happiness, and I sensed that I had the desire, in fact the responsibility, to do more. No doubt there were children in the world who had my same deep connection to music, for whom the piano would be a solace. I wanted to find them, to offer them the piano, yet I was not sure how to start.

It was not until New Year’s weekend, the clock about to tip into 2012, that I learned about Pop-Up Pianos at a humanities retreat. I felt as though I had been given a revelation. At home after the retreat, I watched the video of Daniel Toelke playing Debussy’s First Arabesque. At the end, he laughed with delight, and I smiled along with him. On those summer nights when he and I, unbeknownst to each other, had played the Arabesque, tiny filaments of my connection to Pop-Up Pianos had begun to form.

Now I have donated money on the Pop-Up Piano website. In a few weeks, I plan to attend a meeting about how to become more involved in the organization.  Yet at this late date, the Pop-Up Pianos installation for summer, 2012 still lacks sufficient funding to move forward.

The fact that there are children in the Bronx, in Brooklyn and Queens, in Staten Island and Manhattan in need of piano music still haunts me. For their sakes, I hope that those whacky, whimsical pianos will Pop-Up again this year on the streets of New York City.  It’s time for those of us who care so deeply about the piano to step forward. Together, we can take the place left by Joseph Flom.

Please consider a donation to Sing for Hope’s Pop-Up Pianos program.  From now until February 29, 2012, GRAND PIANO PASSION™ will match readers’ donations up to a total of $1,000.  Click here and note GRAND PIANO PASSION™ in the Corporate or Matching Gifts section.

Here is Daniel Toelke playing Debussy’s First Arabesque on pianos throughout the Five Boroughs during the Summer 2011 installation…

…as well as a moving video tribute that Sing for Hope made for Joseph Flom, the original donor.

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