Sometimes a story idea is just a natural for TV and the email from my opera singer sister a few weeks ago seemed to fit the bill. A not-for-profit called Sing For Hope, an arts education and outreach organization, planned to put 60 pianos in New York City on sidewalks and in parks for two weeks in the early summer. Its aim was to get New Yorkers of all kinds to step up to the keys and play and to give music a special place in the crowded city.
Called "Play Me I'm Yours," similar projects had been successful in cities around Europe. It was time to bring it to Broadway - and many other streets in the city's five boroughs. The pianos were all donations, lugged out of basements and church halls and refurbished by volunteers who called it a "MASH unit for pianos."
Professional artists volunteered their time to paint the pianos. The idea was to call attention to the instruments and get people to play. One of the artists, Sophie Matisse, is the great granddaughter of Henri Matisse. She says she "put all she had into it," knowing that her finished artwork, four pianos, would be on the grand stage at Lincoln Center. Well, not exactly on the stage, more like on the promenade. She even painted the keys - turning the ivory and ebony into brilliant yellow and rich brown.
The painted pianos were loaded onto trucks and dropped off in more than 50 spots from Coney Island to Central Park, anchored to cinder blocks or lampposts, and locked and covered with plastic tarp. Project coordinator and co-founder of Sing for Hope Camille Zamora arrived at Times Square to unlock a brightly colored, checkered piano at the corner of 42nd Street and 7th Avenue.
"We're hoping people who have never touched a piano in their lives will play," she told us. A year of planning was about to pay off and Zamora felt her heart grow big with joy even before a note was played. Once the plastic tarp was unfurled, people ventured over: a young girl from Detroit played "Let it Be." A nightclub musician entertained with sultry jazz and 16-year-old Sing for Hope student Jaela Cheeks-Lomas pounded out Irving Berlin.
One singer-songwriter, Jennifer Lee Snowden, was determined to hit all the spots in Manhattan. "If anyone buys my CDs in the next two weeks," she said, "I promise to donate the money to Sing for Hope." The music could even be heard over honking horns and sirens.
Downtown near City Hall Sharon Davis stopped to look, vowing to come back later when no one was around. Richard Overbey was on his way to work when he sat down. Over and over, he played the theme from "Mission Impossible," the only tune he'd ever learned. "I learned how to play it when I was, like, 6 years old and I've never forgotten it. I've always wanted to learn the piano, but I never had time." He thought the whole idea was "cool" but thought it would work better if someone who could really play came along.
Someone who could really play came along uptown on a pier out in the Hudson River. Classical musician Sugar Vendil started with Bach and moved onto Chopin. The river and the George Washington Bridge formed her backdrop. When a mother and her 3-year-old son came by, she moved right over and joined them in "Heart and Soul."
Back in Times Square, as recent high school graduate Alexander Long was singing and playing, two men stopped to listen, their heads nodding, their feet tapping. Then they applauded and shook his hand. "Have a blessed day," one of them said, reminding us all of the power of music to inspire and unite.