If you catch yourself in Prospect Park, don’t be surprised to hear the sounds of piano tunes wafting through the air—over the weekend, both Grand Army Plaza and the carousel were transformed into impromptu performance spaces by the non-profit Sing For Hope, which installed intricately decorated pianos at each location.
The park pianos are just a small part of a citywide project that this weekend installed 88 pop-up pianos in public spaces all over the five boroughs, from Norwood Park in the North Bronx, to Wolfe Pond on the southern shore of Staten Island.
The idea, said Sing for Hope cofounders Camille Zamora and Monica Yunus, is multi-faceted: the project brings art and music to all sorts of neighborhoods around the city, many of them arts-starved, but it also acts as a sort of “urban recycling” project, taking dying and discarded pianos, breathing new life into them, and then donating the now-functional (and pretty) pianos to schools and hospitals after the project is over.
“It's not about creating the next generation of performing artists—although that would be great,” said Yunus, a professional opera singer. “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 connecting artists with the community, as wells as a "radical way to bring arts to the people," said Yunus. The project was initially inspired by British artist Luke Jerram’s travelling installation, “Play Me, I’m Yours” (2008), which also put pianos into unlikely public, urban settings.
To begin, Sing for Hope first collects donated “dying pianos” from places like forgotten grandmothers’ attics or purchases them on the cheap from wholesalers, to be lovingly rehabbed by volunteer and master piano tuner Fred Patella. Then the organization farms the instruments out to its artists for beautifying, who apply for the privilege of decorating the instruments by submitting their vision to Sign for Hope (this year, 160 designs were submitted).
The finished pianos, on display through July 2, will host pop-up performances, but mostly, the point is for passersby to jump on and jam.
This year, artists range from big names like Isaac Mizrahi and Diane von Furstenberg to lesser-known local artists like Richard Fine and Ellie Balk, who did the pianos at Grand Army Plaza and the carousel in Prospect Park.
Balk, a community mural artist, hoped to capture the spirit of the park and its carousel with her piano. Her masterpiece is a colorful interpretation of Beethoven’s 14th Moonlight Sonata, a confluence of colors and lines that Balk says follows “the tones and the notes” of the piece, and is inspired by the “distance between the hands as someone is playing the song on the piano.”
On Sunday, Balk will perform at the piano, drawing the song as a pianist plays Beethoven’s 14th Moonlight Sonata for the crowd. Onlookers can join in on the fun, interpreting the song for themselves with chalk.
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 on Monday afternoon the sounds coming out were far from passe.
Prospect Heights resident Nick Spizzirri played Radiohead hits to curious passersby as his sister, Teresa, sang along.
Nick had been familiar with the project for only 10 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],” she said. “I wish it were here longer.”