This past weekend, dozens of New York City parks were converted into impromptu performance spaces by a non-profit called Sing For Hope.
The organization, which connects volunteer artists with schools and hospitals, has installed 88 Pop-up Pianos in parks and on boardwalks all over the five boroughs, from Norwood Park in the North Bronx, to Wolfe Pond on the southern shore of Staten Island.
Bed-Stuy and its surrounding neighborhoods snagged five of them: Two at Fort Greene park, one at the Von King Cultural Center, one at Brower Park and one at Grand Army Plaza.
Sing for Hope was founded in 2006 by Camille Zamora and Monica Yunus, both working opera singers and friends from the Juilliard School. The non-profit helps connect artists who want to give back the opportunity to do so.
One program, Art U!, connects underserved schools with volunteer artists who provide arts classes. Another, Healing Arts, gives performing artists the opportunity to brighten the lives of the infirm at local hospitals. Sing for Hope boasts a roster of more than 700 artists.
“It's not about creating the next generation of performing artists -- although that would be great,” said Monica Yunus over the phone. “Its about really making sure that kids, especially with all the art [funding] cuts, that they have a time and a creative outlet for their expression."
The Pop-Up Pianos project, now in its second year, is a way for Sing for Hope to celebrate its year-round work, and also a "radical way to bring arts to the people," said Yunus.
The project is inspired by British artist Luke Jerram’s travelling installation, Play Me, I’m Yours (2008), which also put pianos into unlikely public, urban settings. Pop-Up Pianos, however, is no longer associated with Jerram.
As straightforward as the mission of the project is, getting a piano into a public park isn’t so simple, especially when the pianos are free. For the last year, Fred Patella, a Sing for Hope volunteer and master piano tuner, has reached out to his network of contacts and piano manufacturers to bring in 88 donated pianos, most of which were not in the best shape.
Yunus compared them to the type of piano you might find in your grandmother’s attic: old, out of tune. But Patella worked tirelessly to get the pianos in working order so they could be handed off to the volunteer visual artists who painted each piano, making each one as unique as its surroundings. Many refurbished pianos are propped up on saw horses that serve as kickstands.
A white grand piano in the Von King Cultural Center at Tompkins Park in Bed-Stuy has been painted rainbow plaid by Emily Lynch-Fries, to symbolize the city’s diversity. On top of the piano -- and all 87 other pianos -- lies a book of sheet music, with songs as diverse in origin as New York City (and the paint job) would demand: Korean, Russian, Arabic, Spanish and Hatian Creole all make appearances. So does “O Sole Mio!”
The piano on Myrtle Avenue, at the Northeast corner of Fort Green Park bears a photorealistic portrait of Patella, at work tuning a piano, painted by Scott Glaser. Early Monday afternoon, a middle-aged man played away at the bright red piano, his music as dissonant as he was confident. His sound could perhaps be described as Debussy-meets-”Chopsticks”-meets-Black Sabbath.
“I respect the guy for trying,” joked a Parks Department worker, in passing.
Up the hill, at the peak of Fort Greene Park, on a piano decorated by Scott Ackerman, a young woman practiced her scales in the shade of an oak tree.
In Crown Heights’ Brower Park, on Park Place and Kingston Avenue, the stand-up piano has been decorated with neighborhood scenes by students from the Bushwick High School for Social Justice Arts U! program. Across the front of the piano, it reads “Make Beauty out of Distortion.”
Charles Lawson, of Flatbush, watched children play the piano from a nearby bench. “This is fantastic,” he said, going on to say that “This lets [children] sit down and say ‘OK, this is something I want to do.’ Maybe they [can] pressure their parents enough that they may even pay for lessons." Lawson is also a musician and recognizes the value of making the arts available to young people in neighborhoods like Crown Heights; “I think every kid should have the chance to be musically inclined.”
Grand Army Plaza, appropriately, has a grand piano. Housed in a gazebo at the entrance to Prospect Park, the piano has been decoupaged with cutouts from books and newspapers from the distant past, but the sounds coming out were far from passe.
On Monday afternoon, Prospect Heights resident Nick Spizzirri played Radiohead hits to curious passers-by as his sister, Teresa, sang along.
Nick had been familiar with the project for only ten minutes, long enough to play “Airbag” and “Paranoid Android,” but his sister has been a fan since its inaugural year. “I was obsessed with this last year. I loved going and watching and seeing what kind of people showed up [and played].”
“I wish it were here longer,” she added.
The Pop-Up Pianos installation runs until July 2nd. Afterwards, the pianos will be donated to nearby institutions, like schools and hospitals. You can find a piano near you, as well as concert dates and other multimedia elements, at the website, pianos.singforhope.org.