At first, my husband and I thought we'd entered some kind of Twilight Zone as we wandered through San Jose's downtown streets and kept hearing piano music floating around us. That idea was quickly dispelled as we neared a piano -- illustrated, like a tattooed instrument -- with a flight of black birds against a white screen.
Another onlooker approached the piano. She and I nodded and smiled, confirming that this was, indeed, a playable instrument. She sat down and tapped gently the worn keys from the bass tones of the nether scales to the soprano sounds of the upper scales. Other people wandered by and listened; I ran through my archived repertoire and thought I might be able to play a Chopin waltz from a recital piece when I was 17. As the woman stood up, a small child ran up to the piano bench, trilled an arpeggio of notes and then, bashful about her impromptu performance, ran back to her father.
I lost my nerve to play, and my husband and I moved along, hoping to discover some more of what we later learned were 20 pianos set up near museums and hotels and theaters and parks in San Jose. We noticed players who alighted from skateboards or who interrupted their stroll to sit down and remember tunes that made us smile, everything from Chopsticks to jazz to Broadway show tunes.
The project, I found out, is called "Play Me, I'm Yours," the artistic conception of Luke Jerram, who since 2008 has installed street pianos in cities around the world. His project is supposed to invite the public to engage with and take ownership of their urban environment, and that surely was what I witnessed. People coming up to the piano, looking cautiously around, and then, like the man with his belongings stowed in a grocery cart, beginning to play music that lightened any burden they may have.
With all the heavy music of the daily news, the notes of one political maestro vs. another, it was musical liberation to hear the sweet simple sounds of urban neighbors. I'm hoping that beyond September 22nd, the closing date for these street pianos, inner music and urban harmonies play on. I'll be listening.