'Pianos on Parade' lends music, quirkiness to streets

Harvey Rothman, 30 years of piano
Harvey Rothman of California takes a moment to play a tribute to John Lennon. Rothman has become a regular on at the corner of Ford Parkway and Cleveland Avenue, sharing with other hobby pianists the melodies and pieces he's created over 30 years of playing.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

Call it random quirkiness or a moment of spontaneous community, but on the streets of St. Paul it's the summer of the upright piano.

Twenty artistically decorated pianos have been placed around the city, to lend a little music to the streets and bring its residents together.

"Pianos on Parade" is a collaboration between the city of St. Paul and the local non-profit "Keys 4/4 Kids."

There's a weathered mint green upright piano on the corner of Ford Parkway and Cleveland Avenue. It sits under a garden tree canopy with concrete benches on either side. Painted tropical birds are perched on its front panel.

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Not to be snide but this isn't some passive, fiberglass Snoopy statue waiting for a photo op. It's an 80-plus-year-old musical instrument with a history of touching souls and lifting spirits. Now it's battling traffic, commerce and the elements on a bustling intersection.

"The first question I always get is 'What are you going to do when it rains?' "

As project coordinator, Kelsey Shanesy of Keys 4/4 Kids answered that question long before the pianos hit the streets. She has them covered with tarps when it rains and some pianos are even positioned beneath building overhangs. But this isn't about putting pianos outside to see if you can keep them dry. It's about sharing music in a city square, from one citizen's fingertips to another's.

Decorated piano
Some of the "Pianos on Parade" have very unconventional paint jobs - one even has the spray paint cans attached.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Or, as Shanesy puts it, creating moments of spontaneous community.

"It has this magnetic effect, hearing music, hearing live acoustic music in a public space," she said. "And people who are coming to listen would never, I think, stop at a street corner, (or) maybe otherwise, take that moment out of their day."

As Shanesy speaks, a man slowly makes his way across the nearby Barnes & Noble parking lot. He sits down on the piano bench and stares out at the stores across the street. William Manuel stops by this corner often. When Manuel saw the piano for the first time, he felt a rush of memories.

"It brung me back to sitting in my mother's living room, and looking at her piano and playing it," he said. "It just made my mind just roam."

"It made me just think about what I'm going to be going through today, and kind of eased my fears," Manuel continued. "To see a piano sitting on the corner, letting me know that the area is not so wicked, so bad, you know what I'm saying?

"It made me want to close my eyes and make a wish, you know?"

Manuel is an unemployed furniture upholsterer, originally from Indiana. He's lived in St. Paul for 13 years. He says his days are like pulling a lawn mower cord; they go up and down. Today, Manuel stopped by the Barnes & Noble Starbucks for a glass of milk. He fiddles with a crumpled styrofoam cup and rubs his eyes, then puts his hands on the keys and starts to pick out some notes he says describe his day so far.

For Manuel, stopping by the piano is like going to church. He says it puts sympathy in him, gives him hope, and makes him feel like people care. It triggers a lot of pent up emotions.

Andy Broadnax, Ellen Martin
Andy Broadnax, 15, and Ellen Martin, are two people who met to make music on a random corner in St. Paul.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

"Because I was talking to myself when I first saw it," he said. "And it was all just building up inside, so I'm glad I got a chance to get it out. You gotta get it out because if it does, it'll tear you up inside, if you don't get it out." Manuel delivers a few God blesses and walks north up Cleveland Avenue.

By now a few people have gathered, including an older man in a ballcap. He bellies up to the keyboard like he's been waiting all morning to play.

"I was passing by and I got off the bus for a half an hour, and I'll hop on the bus again in about a half an hour, but I'm gonna play it for a while," said Harvey Rothman.

Sixty-eight-year-old Rothman has found a vacation oasis in this little piano alcove. He's a retired architect from Northern California, spending the summer in St. Paul with his grandkids. Rothman's become a regular on this corner, sharing with other hobby pianists the melodies and pieces he's created over 30 years of playin.

"The first guy that I saw, he played some nice things for me, I enjoyed it, and then I played some nice things for him," he said. "It's a very social thing, this piano. And it's encouraged me to play in public."

Rothman turns and faces the mint green upright. "Ah let's see... I'll do this one, it's kind of dedicated to John Lennon," he said.

As Rothman concentrates on his John Lennon tribute, a wiry teenager with a bush of brown hair shows up again -- he's been popping in and out all morning. Andy Broadnax, 15, lives about a block away and thinks the piano has changed his neighborhood.

"This piano here just reminds me of New Orleans," he said. " Because I went there over spring break, and there was just music everywhere and just... there's music in the air, there's sunshine. What's not to love?"

Broadnax has been taking piano lessons for the past year at Walker West Music Academy in St. Paul. He says he's drawn to the camaraderie and fellowship the piano seems to bring out in people.

"You know if you don't know someone, you hear them playing piano, you go sit down and listen, have a talk with them, meet new people, hear new styles," Broadnax said. "I even had a couple of friends who said they came down here with a snare drum, and a trumpet, and someone sang. You could start a little band right here if you wanted."

Broadnax rolls out a bottom heavy gospel number, and you can hear the Walker West style in his jazz-inflected chords. As he bangs the keys, a middle-aged woman pulling a wheeled suitcase strolls by, stops, and looks on. Ellen Martin, a jazz singer, has just arrived from New York, here to visit her saxophonist boyfriend. She sees the piano and it reminds her of home. New York started a similar public piano project last summer called "Play Me I'm Yours."

"I used to think that only that thing happened in New York City, but apparently it's happening right here in St. Paul and all over," Martin laughed. "I think it's really great."

With a little coaxing, Martin and Broadnax agree to perform together. They pick something Broadnax played a little earlier, "What a Wonderful World." It's not in Martin's key, but she adapts. Martin taps the screen of a borrowed iPhone as she reads and then sings the lyrics.

Just another "Pianos on Parade" moment of spontaneous community on the corner of Ford Parkway and Cleveland Avenue in St. Paul.