How Public Pianos Decorated by Artists Came to Dot Portland’s Streets and Parks

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Yves here. I am a little puzzled as to how these pianos get by in Portland’s famously frequent rains. But a lovely program regardless.

By April M. Short is an editor, journalist, and documentary editor and producer. She is a co-founder of the Observatory, where she is the Local Peace Economy editor, and she is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she was a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Good Times, a weekly newspaper in Santa Cruz, California. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, LA Yoga, Pressenza, the Conversation, Salon, and many other publications. Produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute

Meander through a park or stroll the city streets in Portland, Oregon, in the summer, and you might come across a strange and beautiful piano that invites you to “please play me.” Atop a hill and beneath an old maple tree there could be a piano with big orange eyes or one covered in rainbows; on a city street corner you might find pianos covered in flowers or cartoons; or you might stop to play a piano painted like a brick chimney or a Nordic landscape while cruising on your skateboard under a freeway overpass. When the rains take a brief pause each year in Portland, a mélange of peculiar pianos begin to crop up on the city’s street corners and dot its parks. This is all thanks to Megan Diana McGeorge, founder of the project Piano. Push. Play., which has been bringing pianos to public spaces in Portland every year since 2013.

In the project’s current form, each year it sets up more than 10 pianos, in collaboration with the Portland Art Museum, as well as the city’s parks and recreation department. But when it was launched, it started much smaller, McGeorge explains. It all started with a single concert that took place with one borrowed piano on a busy street corner in Portland.

“It was just something I really wanted to make happen, and the magic that came from that one concert made me want to do it again,” McGeorge says. “I don’t want this to become some big commercial adventure. That’s not what I am doing this for… Honestly, I believe that if we are changing our immediate communities, we do in the end change the world.”

Inspired by Busking

In 2011, when McGeorge was studying music at Portland State University (PSU), she and a few friends were leaving a show at McMenamins Al’s Den, a music venue located at the downtown Portland corner of 13th and Burnside, and the song of a cello stopped them in their tracks underneath the cluster of mini bicycles that make up the Zoobomb monument (a sculpture that honors the tradition of Portlanders who bomb downhill from the Oregon Zoo to downtown Portland on undersized bikes).

“There was this cellist on the street corner playing beautiful, beautiful music, and we had this moment on this hot summer night, and we were kind of shocked that this gorgeous music was here in the middle of this urban, crazy intersection,” she says. “We were going to do our regular routine and just walk home, but the cellist just really made this moment happen. And I remember saying to my friends, ‘Oh, I wish I could do that. I wish I could create that kind of moment,’ but the piano’s a lot harder to bring out to the street corner.”

Months went by and McGeorge couldn’t stop thinking about finding a way to bring a piano out to the streets. One day she was riding her bike through the Pearl District, and she came across the Portland Piano Company, just two blocks from the street corner where she’d heard the cello music. She’d recently read a New York Times article about how more and more pianos are being dumped in landfills in the U.S., and thought to herself, “Maybe if I go in there [Portland Piano Company] and tell them about this article, and tell them about my idea, they might let me rent a piano and put it outside.”

“At the time I had all these funny conceptions about how hard it would be to ask,” she says. But she summoned up the courage and went in and pitched her idea of renting a piano and placing it outside on the street corner visible from the store’s door, for a mini concert. This was, after all, the era of the flash mob craze, she notes, and people were popping up with all sorts of creative activities on the streets. To her surprise, the store agreed.

“They said we like your idea, and we’ll mount a piano on a dolly, and when you want, you can grab it and push it up the street and play for people,” she says. “I was like, ‘I guess I’m going to actually have to do this now.”

Playing Piano

As McGeorge began to assemble pianists to join her for the initial outdoor concert, at first she tried to recruit fellow PSU music students.

“I began knocking on PSU practice room doors after I’d heard somebody play a piece that was probably light-years ahead of me—like some Rachmaninoff or whatever crazy, amazing recital piece they were working on,” she says. “I would say, ‘That was amazing… I’m going to do this thing where I bring a piano to 13th and Burnside. Would you come out and play that piece?”

But every student getting a performance degree whom she asked in that initial year of 2013 told her no.

“Every one of them told me something like, ‘Oh, I could never do that. I need two more months. I need time to get this piece ready,’” she says. “Every person that I asked that was from this music school program was thinking that your average person walking by was going to be listening as if the concert were a recital… And the people I did get to come out and play were a couple of my friends who were music school dropouts, and you know, you can’t get them off an instrument. It was really fascinating.”

The first summer of the project was 2013 and consisted of McGeorge and some friends pushing a borrowed piano across Burnside to the street corner every Thursday and playing.

“Another interesting thing that had never happened to me before was that a lot of people walking by would stop and listen to me play a song, and afterward they would come up and they would say, ‘Thank you,’” she says. “When I was growing up and playing piano recitals, I had never heard somebody say thank you after I played my little recital piece, you know? … A totally different emotional moment happened when I played music for people unexpectedly on the street.”

A few times people walking by would ask to sit in and would play something on the piano—be it a “Heart and Soul” duet or something more complex. “Sometimes someone would be walking by with a briefcase and you would never know that they were an amazing pianist, and they would wait for me to stop, then ask to hop on for one song. Then they’d bang out some amazing piece of music, and walk, which was just—wow.”

McGeorge says it was during that initial summer that somebody sent her a video of pianos on the streets in New York that were painted—a public piano project called “Play Me, I’m Yours.”

“They said, ‘This kind of feels like what you’re doing,’” she says. And the idea to expand her project was sparked.

At that point, McGeorge had gotten to know the folks at the Portland Piano Company, and better understood the model of the piano business.

“I had learned that it’s kind of like a car lot, in that if you buy a nice piano or you upgrade, they’ll haul away your old one,” she says.

She learned that the store had an attic full of older upright pianos, and that once each summer the store held a final sale and sold all the used pianos for $75-$100 or so. At the end of the first summer of giving pop-up concerts with her friends, McGeorge asked if the Portland Piano Company would give her five old pianos next year if she organized artists to paint them and locations for them to live during the summer. Again, to her surprise, they said yes.

Over the next couple of years, the project grew from a group of young musician friends playing weekly impromptu shows on the corner into Piano. Push. Play., which is a citywide project that rescues roughly 10 to 13 pianos each year (that are in good shape and can be properly tuned) that would otherwise be discarded. The project then connects the pianos with artists who decorate them and then places them around the city.

To grow the project, McGeorge began to look for funding through grants, forming connections with relevant groups around the city—from the parks and recreation department to landowners, the Portland Rose Festival Foundation, Portland Saturday Market, and others. She says that of all the places she reached out to for Piano. Push. Play., the Portland Art Museum was the most impactful. It was the first organization that agreed to host a piano outside, and then it became (and remains) the project’s fiscal sponsor, through which people can donate to support the project.

The museum had the idea to do “a friendly design competition,” and sent out an inquiry to their various connections—from design companies, to marketing firms, to artists, to production designers—to see who would want to paint a piano if given one. They told the artists that they could do whatever they wanted with the design—the only requirement was to include the words “please play me” visibly somewhere on the piano. Each year, Piano. Push. Play. gathers all of the artist-adorned pianos for an outdoor concert in the museum courtyard where performers play the rescued pianos. The songs range across genres and come from well-known performers (for instance, five-time Grammy winner Esperanza Spalding, who played during the summer of 2022 and has supported Piano. Push. Play.) and other musicians of all varieties.

“It’s one way that we try to democratize the whole idea of who’s the performer or who’s the professional musician—everybody gets to play these pianos,” McGeorge says. “I always ask about five people to come and play one song—people who I love from every genre of music and area of piano playing.” There’s also an open-mic opportunity, she adds: “We always save spots for the audience to put their name in the hat, and we draw surprise players from the audience.”

Pianos to the People

Part of McGeorge’s aim with the project became to dismantle some of the preconceived notions and assumptions people have about the piano, and about music.

The website for Piano. Push. Play. lays out a vision beyond offering artists pianos as a unique canvas and placing the instruments around the city, and describes a cultural shift that can happen when music is more accessible and public:

“This simple gesture [of placing pianos around the city] transforms a street corner into a space of connection. People slow down, listen to the music, take in who else is there, and form a deeper sense of community. The pianos provide a tool for interaction across social, economic, and cultural divides. Beethoven is played by someone you’d never expect. A new creative outlet is discovered by a bored teenager. Two unlikely strangers get talking and develop a new friendship. A more empathetic and caring city is cultivated.”

Mapping Public Pianos

Piano. Push. Play.’s website includes a piano map showing the locations of the pianos across the city. They also created a piano passport that anyone interested can stamp at each piano.

“Inside each piano bench is a stamp and ink pad, and the stamp was designed by that piano’s artist,” McGeorge explains. “When you go out and visit a piano in the wild, you can collect all the stamps in your piano passport, which is really fun.”

Zack Scholl, who loves to play the piano—especially the acoustic piano, which wouldn’t fit in his apartment—created the website to track public pianos around the world.

“I have always enjoyed finding new pianos to play,” he says in an email interview. “When I was traveling a lot, I would often try to find pianos in bars, lodges, and other public places. I got pretty good at finding them, and I started to think that it would be helpful if there was a website where people could share information about public pianos.”

He started the website in 2019, provided the locations of pianos he’d found to play, and encouraged people to submit information about other pianos that they knew about to the site. At first, he updated all of the data manually, but has since come up with software to help with the data management.

“Nowadays, the public pianos site is a popular resource for people who love to play piano,” he says, noting that the website has almost 10,000 pianos listed, and “people submit [the location of] new pianos every week.”

“I’m humbled to have created a resource that helps people connect with music and each other,” he writes. “Public spaces are important because they inspire people. Inspiration is a special form of human connection, and public music is especially good at facilitating this connection. For example, I once heard someone playing piano in a public space, and it sparked a conversation that led me to discover new music. Another time, I played piano in a public space, and it inspired someone else to play, which gave me the treat of listening. I’ve enjoyed listening to all the public piano performances I’ve had a chance to hear, from symphonic to carnival music, from jazz to honky-tonk, and everything in between. Everyone has a story to share, and it’s incredible when it can be shared through music in a public space.”

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  1. Carla

    We had a few of these “public pianos” in Cleveland several years back for a hot minute — maybe for one or two summers. They were a cheerful addition to the street- and park-scape, but I don’t remember ever witnessing one being played. Also can’t recall how they were covered, or by whom, when it rained.

    Most old uprights, including many that are in very playable condition, go to landfills, which is tragic. But then pianos need at least a modicum of maintenance and loving care — not in ready supply these days.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      When I was looking for Creative Commons images, I found some of your Cleveland pianos, some very prettily decorated. One did show a player but of course may have been staged.

    2. Robert Gray

      > Most old uprights, including many that are in very playable condition, go to landfills …

      Some 11 years ago I read a very informative piece on the BBC Online about this very topic. It was so interesting that I saved the link and, fortunately, it is still valid!

      It also touches on points made below, such as families making music at home, etc.

  2. Wukchumni

    There’s pianos all over Black Rock City and a friend is not only a heck of a piano player (loves his Elton John tunes) but also a piano tuner, and they don’t last all that long before going out of tune, and a $75-100 upright model is probably way out of tune.

    During Burning Man he tuned 6 or 7 pianos that were in tune before they hit the playa-but sounded like crap, and yeah its a different gig than Portland which has no alkali dust and dust storms to deal with.

    1. Adam Eran

      One additional comment: The “pin block” (the wood in which tuning pins are embedded) on upright pianos is un-replace-able. Not so on the “grand piano” pin block. This is why upright pianos past their prime cannot hold any tuning. The pins inevitably, and un-evenly slip delivering that sour, out-of-tune “honky tonk” sound.

      Sad but true: pianos are a high maintenance item. Humidity and temperature will have their way. If you put your acoustic piano against an outside wall, expect them to have their way sooner.

      Now if someone would make an all-weather electric piano…that would work in these settings. Sorry, no piano tuners needed.

      Incidentally, South Korea has lots of these too…but then they have a robust public realm, public transit that actually works, etc.

  3. Vodkatom

    I came upon one of theses pianos in the early Covid days. Approaching I heard someone playing a lovely tune. They were very fluid in their play, so I assume well practiced.

    Once I got closer, I saw the player was a middle aged woman. She was smiling and made some comment as I passed about how she loved playing. She was also obviously homeless and looked about as rough as its gets. Teeth destroyed, etc.

    I learned much about my own biases and prejudices
    in that moment. I’ve know friends wrecked by drugs, but for the homeless my imagined biography is a broken home, uneducated, failing out of school, or worse unmotivated and incapable.

    Yet here was this woman who clearly had the support in youth to take lessons, and the discipline to become somewhat accomplished. And who still has the capacity to feel joy in her talents. Her biography was outside my previous imagination.

    Such a thing as a public piano will never be measured by GDP, but they are lovely things that make the world a better place in small ways.

    1. jefemt

      Thank you for this comment.

      Beware “The Other”? or Beware Othering?

      Ft Collins Colorado had pianos all over Old Town— Tragedy of the Commons/ White Bike problem?
      Not that I saw. There were tarps under rocks, and I recall a deluge starting and a person walking into the courthouse grabbed the tarp, and covered the piano. Others joined in.

      We can have nice things, care for them, collectively. It was a beautiful moment of shared humanity and mutual care.

  4. Berny3

    Like much of the West’s Coast, it doesn’t rain in the summer in Portland which is why they can put pianos outside for extended periods. Basically, it rains during the cold months and goes dry in the warm months.

      1. playon

        Western OR and WA get less rain in the summers nowadays. When I first moved to Seattle in the 70s there was definitely more rain in the summer months.

  5. Alice X

    Thank you for this!

    One year, several years ago, my little post-industrial town put out a few public pianos and I played several of them. They overlooked including benches so I didn’t play for long. They have been cash strapped for many years, like the de-industrialized citizenry, after making a catastrophic misstep in acquiring a large central tract of land for redevelopment without doing a requisite environmental study. It is now a vacant brown site, and probably will be for a long time to come.

    As to the piano, my family all played, some very well, but I was off playing my string instruments, only to get to piano at the end of the queue. Now I have a good one and play it every day, but still it is after my other instruments.

    I suspect that playing music in the home has declined in the last 100 years. First came the radio post WWI, then the LP and portable 45 rpm record player post WWII. Then the audio cassette and on and on. Before any of that if you wanted music you played it yourself.

    1. playon

      I agree — I think there is much less home-made music now than there was a century ago. At one time most homes would have a piano, fiddle or guitar in the house and singing together was a pastime. Taverns and bars would also commonly have a piano. I think people singing together helps form stronger bonds in a community… we’ve lost a lot of that.

    2. XXYY

      I believe player pianos were the first nail in the coffin.

      Suddenly it was possible for (wealthy) people to have an appliance in their home that they could just sit back and listen to without any performing skill. The paper rolls these things played were the first public recorded music that people could buy, collect, and trade.

      Player pianos became a status item that you could have going during dinners and parties. One can imagine the shock to human piano players and other musicians when this invention came on the horizon. Like AI now.

      Obviously things have changed since then.

  6. juno mas

    Okay, let me tell you where public pianos are a resounding success. State Street in Santa Barbara.
    Go here:

    The embedded videos will give you a fascinating experience showing the history of the event and some spontaneous performance at the piano. “Transcendent Street Jam” is a nicely done video. (Disclaimer: I’m a veteran of the event.) The pianos are hand-painted by local artists (big and small). The event initially was an 11 day event. It is now 3 weeks long (Oct. 3- 22, 2023) and with auto traffic now removed from State Street the piano acoustics will be more dominant. (The pianos range from small household Spinet models to full honky-tonk uprights.)

    The tuning of a street piano is most affected by humidity (affects the sound board). The change in daytime/nightime temps are somewhat mitigated by placing them in shaded locations and covering them at night. They don’t have the range and reverberation of a grand piano, but professionals and amateurs alike make beautiful music for the multitudes that stroll the State Street promenade for spontaneous interlude.

    There are

  7. caucus99percenter

    In Amsterdam there’s a public piano at Amstel Station. I’ve seen one at Amsterdam Centraal (main station) too, off and on.

  8. margaret beresford

    The same offering of public pianos has been happening in Montreal, Quebec (Canada). What a welcome surprise in a world that appears to want division and removal of people. We need more not less inclusion to soothe the (inside/out, upside/down and twisted way the world is turning into). Take care all.

  9. Rubicon

    There’s a whole other side to Portland we repeated witnessed over the years. We lived across the River and often went shopping in downtown Portland, Shops were vibrant, people bustling about. Yves, is correct, there’s musical talent in Portland, even now.

    But being from California, we always felt there was something odd about the people. Most of them were closed-mouthed, and quite intolerant in listening to other opinions. You always felt they lived in small little cabals where each group is steadfast in their political, social mentalities.

    We could never really figure out why Portland was proud to claim itself as “Weird.” Finally, someone on Twitter, who has studied these people for years, pointed out that in the 60s & 70s, as a hippie in San Francisco, if you didn’t make it big there in music, there wasn’t any way you could afford to live there.

    So there was a significant part of that population that fled to cheaper places like Portland & much farther north on the cheaper side of Washington State’s peninsula area.

    We don’t go to downtown Portland, or surrounding areas any more. No wonder there’s simmering animosities between Southern Oregon citizens vs Portlanders. The Southerners are tired of governors that are either lesbians, or bi-sexual. Portland is truly strange.


  10. Arizona Slim

    Back in the 1980s, while I was living in Pittsburgh, St. Francis Hospital underwent a major expansion. It included a large open area with a grand piano.

    Story was that the piano was donated by Liberace. And you might be wondering, Liberace? Pittsburgh?

    Well, he was in town for a concert, and he decided to clean his uniform with, ISTR, dry cleaning fluid in his hotel room. Bad idea. Liberace poisoned himself to the point of being taken to St. Francis.

    The piano was Liberace’s way of thanking the hospital for saving his life.

  11. reify99

    I used to look for a piano to play whenever I was out of town for more than a couple of days.
    I could usually find a decent grand, at the high school, or the church.
    Kindness of strangers.

    I’ve seen a few truly public pianos. I always walk towards them, even to just play a few notes. To at least say Hi.

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