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'We put it out and it's working': The Piano Project debuts in downtown Fargo

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FARGO – While he was waiting to meet a friend on Broadway downtown, Joseph Brauer took a seat at the old upright piano in front of Uptown Gallery.

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He played a few Coldplay tunes, some jazz and “What a Wonderful World,” “because it’s happy.”

“I like performing a lot so I don’t have the same inhibitions some people might about playing in public,” says the 22-year-old North Dakota State University musical theater major. “It’s a little weird though because it kind of breaks that social norm of fitting in with the crowds.” 

Brauer was one of the first people to share his talent at the debut installation of The Piano Project on Thursday. The public art project launched by Uptown Gallery executive director Susanne Williams encourages the community to interact with pianos.

“We put it out, and it’s working. I’m so excited,” Williams said.

She started pursuing the project after she learned The Arts Partnership was accepting applications for city of Fargo Public Arts Partnership grants. Williams received a $2,000 grant to pursue The Piano Project.

“I think what made it interesting is that it really created access in fabulous ways to live music,” says Dayna Del Val, director of The Arts Partnership. “There are lots of people who don’t have access to a piano who grew up with piano lessons or whatever, and this was suddenly a way for them to be able to, on a whim downtown, have the ability to sit down at a piano and play.”

Williams is especially passionate about the project because it allows anyone to share their talent.

“A piano invites anyone to sit down and play. It could be kids, it could be adults, it could be homeless people, anybody. That’s what’s so energizing and exciting to be able to bring to downtown Fargo,” she says.

Besides keeping old pianos from being destroyed, local artists will have the opportunity to paint them. Williams designed the first piano with a cat theme, and a second was decorated Thursday night by Corks and Canvas Art and Wine Walk attendees.

The Piano Project is inspired by a similar public art endeavor in Denver called “Your Keys to the City.” Other communities in the U.S. have used pianos in public spaces to encourage community interaction and appreciation of art.

“It’s a way that these pianos can get a little more life out of them,” Williams says. “Because they’re put outside, we don’t worry so much about tuning and the condition.”

Old upright pianos aren’t typically desirable because new pianos are relatively affordable and more attractive than say, an old 1960s upright, Del Val says.

“There are piano dumps in the country. Nobody wants old pianos anymore,” she says. “It was an opportunity for us to repurpose in a creative and fun way instruments that still have life and love in them and could be used in this new great way and available to anyone who wants to play them.”

Brauer was happy to play the old piano’s not-so-ivory keys. It reminded him of a Juilliard-trained pianist who played with the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony. The pianist chose to practice on what Brauer calls “one of the worst pianos” when he visited NDSU.

“You’d expect him to ask for a grand piano room,” he says. “But here he was, playing these huge Mozart symphony concertos on an upright worse in tune than this one. It hit me that the medium is not as important as the expression.”

The pianos will be secured in place so they can’t be rolled around or stolen. Spots for each piano will be announced when Williams confirms which local businesses would like one, and which areas the city will approve.

The pianos will be outside, rain or shine, until the winter months when they’ll be stored indoors. Of course, there are a few concerns about keeping the pianos outside 24/7.

“I think there’s some continued education to be done about how you treat a piece of public art. Even though this is usable art, I don’t want people to leave a bar and throw up on it or vandalize it,” Del Val says. “There is that concern, but we decided that the risks did not outweigh the benefits.”

Musicians hoping to make a dollar or two should be aware that they need a city permit to collect tips, according to the city of Fargo ordinance for street performers. The permits are $50 and valid for one year.

Williams will need more funding in the future to decorate the city blocks with pianos, but for now she’s thrilled that passers-by are stopping to play the piano, or stopping to listen to the music and observe the visual art.

When Brauer resumed his position at the piano after moving so a woman could take a photo, he decided he’d play a bit longer.

“I’ve got time tonight,” he said. “Do you have any requests?” 

If you have a piano to donate, contact Williams at (701) 793-7201.

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Anna G. Larson
Anna G. Larson is a features reporter with The Forum who writes a weekly column featuring stylish people in Fargo-Moorhead. Larson graduated from North Dakota State University with a degree in journalism and joined The Forum in July 2012. She's a Fargo native who enjoys travel, food, baking, fashion, animals, coffee and all things Midwestern. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter: @msannagrace 
(701) 241-5525
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