If you’ve recently visited the Vancouver Aquarium, the Central Library or strolled along the False Creek seawall, you probably came across a scenario like this: a brightly painted piano played by a random stranger surrounded by a small crowd of bystanders tapping their feet to the rhythm.
What you stumbled upon is Vancouver’s latest public piano project, Keys to the Streets. Inspired by street piano projects such as Play Me, I’m Yours, Keys to the Streets is transforming public spaces in Vancouver this summer — from mundane sidewalks, bridges and parks to vibrant gathering places.
Keys to the Streets: Quick Facts
July 1 – September 15
Number of Pianos:
Find a piano in your neighbourhood
“Wherever there’s a piano, there are people playing or listening to music and starting conversations,” Keys to the Streets organizer Aaron Tilston-Redican says. In fact, the pianos are so popular this year that Aaron and co-organizer Becky Till had to equip each piano with an “after hours” lock to prevent people from playing around the clock.
Chimp sat down with Keys to the Streets organizers Becky and Aaron at CityStudio to talk about Keys to the Street, the power of music and social isolation in Vancouver — the driving cause behind the piano program.
HOW DID KEYS TO THE STREETS COME TO LIFE?
Becky: It started as a CityStudio student project back in 2013 to address issues of social isolation in Vancouver, so the idea was to create a space with seating and a piano. The teachers actually didn’t approve of the piano going out at first, but the students secretly brought out a piano anyway. It got tons of media attention and the public really loved the project.
This year the CityStudio co-founders and managers asked if two of the alumni would carry it forward, and so Aaron and I took it up and since then we’ve seen the project developing into all kinds of things.
I THINK I HEAR PIANO MUSIC OUTSIDE – AND IS SOMEBODY SINGING OPERA?
[both look outside the window towards the Spyglass Dock piano in front of CityStudio’s offices]
Aaron: Yes. She’s singing opera. Amazing. I’m telling you, this piano is in use all day. There’s rarely a break.
Becky: It’s such an incredible mechanism for bringing people together. It’s actually really hard to explain why it works so well. It’s like what’s happening right now out there: someone started playing the piano and met an opera singer. Just like that.
WHEN YOU BRING OUT A PIANO, HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE UNTIL PEOPLE START TO PLAY?
Aaron: Less than a minute! Every time we bring a piano out, we put it down, and we haven’t even put the bench up yet and someone was playing. Every piano that we’ve gotten out has been like that.
WHY DO YOU THINK THE PIANOS ARE GETTING SO MUCH TRACTION WITH PEOPLE?
Becky: I think the fact that people can interact with it any way they feel comfortable. You can play the piano, you can watch people play the piano, you can join someone playing the piano, or you can just walk by and be surprised that the piano is there. That makes it really accessible for people.
Aaron: I think there’s also that element of nostalgia. A lot of people may have taken piano lessons when they were little, like myself. So it brings you back to that childhood phase, that happy time in your life.
Becky: And pianos are often in people’s homes, in people’s innermost spaces, so it’s an intimate object. There are all these stories attached to it, and when you put an object like that into a public space, people naturally gather around it.
The other thing the piano creates is a destination where there was only an empty space before, and now you can go there and explore these new places.
Vancouver feels like that no-fun, bland city to some people, so this is really creating these places where we can stumble upon those unexpected and spontaneous experiences.
SO YOU’RE SAYING BY CREATING THESE NEW DESTINATIONS, YOU GIVE PEOPLE A CHANCE TO GET TO KNOW EACH OTHER?
Aaron: It’s an icebreaker. Suddenly you have something in common with somebody who was a total stranger before. It’s the one thing that I’ve experienced over and over again: I sit beside a piano and someone starts telling me their story like “I just recently got out of a divorce. I used to play the piano, but now I don’t have access to my basement anymore, so I go to the public pianos.”
It’s like ‘Whoa! This guy here was a stranger five minutes ago, and now he’s sharing intimate details about his life with me. It just creates that sense of community where you say ‘hello’ and start to chat.
THE PROJECT WAS STARTED TO ADDRESS LONELINESS IN VANCOUVER. HOW IS THAT AN ISSUE IN OUR CITY?
Becky: There was this survey that identified social isolation as one of the largest problems in Vancouver and then the Engaged City Task Force started looking into how we can make Vancouver a more engaged place. It feels like it’s a bit of an unsolvable mystery why it’s such a big issue here.
Aaron: Yes. You can be surrounded by literally a million people and feel so alone. It’s not like it’s an age thing, or a gender thing. Everybody can feel that way.
I actually walked along the seawall and I asked people if they think social isolation is an issue in Vancouver and a hundred percent responded with ‘Yes, that’s something I’ve felt or I know people who felt that way.’
It’s a tough city to enter for sure. I myself felt that way coming here from a small town. Where do you meet people in Vancouver? You know, if you sit on a bus and start up a conversation with someone, they think you’re weird, like ‘Why are you talking to me?’ So, where do you find that icebreaker?
Becky: Well, it’s the pianos! [both laugh]
BESIDES THE PIANOS BEING THESE ‘MAGICAL OBJECTS’ THAT CREATE COMMUNITY, IS THERE ALSO SOMETHING TO BE SAID FOR MUSIC IN GENERAL BRINGING PEOPLE TOGETHER?
Becky: Definitely. I mean, music has that evocative quality. It has the tendency to bring people together because we know a lot of the same songs, and even if we don’t, there’s a feeling we can tap into.
And there’s also that element of people performing music together. There are a lot of local bands that are coming out to the pianos to share their music. Mother Mother did a performance here just yesterday. I think it’s really beautiful because it’s free and that makes it accessible.
There are all types of people that play, too. You get high profile musicians playing, or a 10-year old who just started taking piano lessons. Everyone can just be there together and they all share music which each other.
Aaron: Music is a language in itself and it’s universal in so many ways. I’m going to make an assumption here and say that everyone enjoys music to some extent. It’s that thing when you hear music and you can’t help but swaying a little.
It’s also a reminder that people are just people. That old cliche ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’ is true.
We all make snap judgements. We can’t help it. So there is that element of surprise when someone you’ve pigeonholed all of a sudden shows that incredible talent.
It’s a good reminder that everyone has a story. Everyone has many layers that you don’t get to see right away.
Becky: And imagine how many people would never have played in front of an audience if it weren’t for the pianos, and now they get to perform. There’s something very special about that. All of a sudden they can share that amazing song with other people.
Aaron: Yes, it’s really sweet. I think it makes people sweeter. The pianos make people nicer. That’s the bottom line. [laughs]
Bring Keys to the Streets back.
Support Your Neighbourhood Piano.
To roll out the program this year, Aaron and Becky raised $20,000 through a crowdfunding campaign. Now they’re looking to secure enough money to bring Keys to the Streets back next year. And they need your help!
What is my donation used for?
Bringing the pianos out and maintaining them throughout the season comes with a lot of costs, such as…
- paying a moving company to get the pianos on the street
- piano repairs & general maintenance
- installing locks
- buying and replacing protective covers
- paint for piano artwork
- emergency fund
Keys to the Streets would also like to pay volunteers next year for their work, including the artists who donate up to four days of their time to transform each piano into a piece of art.
How can I help?
Make a small donation to your neighbourhood piano to make sure Keys to the Streets can bring back music and community to Vancouver’s streets in 2016.