Want to go outside and play?

New Street Piano a ‘No Excuses’ Gift to Town

Reprinted from the Patagonia Regional Times – Written by Linda Jade Fong

Maybe you’ve always wanted to have fun trying to one-finger play Garth Brooks or Taylor Swift tunes on the piano, or maybe you’ve always wanted to become a concert pianist. But you didn’t have a piano. “Now you have no excuse!” proclaimed Christina Wilhelm, with a wink.

Wilhelm, the Executive/Artistic Director of the Santa Cruz Foundation for the Performing Arts (SCFPA), said this as she waved the scissors for the ribbon cutting of Patagonia’s first street piano.

Street pianos, located in public places for anyone to come sit and play, are becoming more and more popular across the country. This one is located just off the sidewalk in front of the Benderly-Kendall Opera House, on the highway across from the town gazebo.

“It’s our gift to the community,” Wilhelm said. “Someone wanted to donate a piano, and we didn’t really need one. But maybe we could do a street piano? How could we do this and protect it from the heat, wind, and water?”

The solution was to build an openable, waterproof aluminum-clad hut. To make it eye-catching and inviting to people walking or driving by, Wilhelm got Tammy Quiroga, director of the student art programs at the Creative Arts Association, to paint it.

On May 13, about 50 onlookers watched the doors of the hut open above a giant painted keyboard on the floor to reveal Tammy’s whimsical and colorful decorative designs on the winged doors…and, inside, a piano ready to be played on. A two-year-old in the audience instantly ran over to pound on the keyboard. Amid much laughter, Grandma rushed over to retrieve her. Wilhelm and SCFPA Artist-in-Residence Mari Tomizuka then sat down and performed a rollicking duet that brought smiles to the audience.

Then, totally unplanned, a couple of interns from the local Borderlands Earth Care Youth program taking a break from work stepped out of the audience and performed contemporary piano solos. Already, the piano was beginning to work its magic.

One of the audience members, Marilyn Majalca, shared her excitement. “I only knew how to play simple songs, but I played an hour a day, just for my soul,” she said. “Then we had to sell the piano because we didn’t have room for it. Now I have one to play!”

The street piano is the latest offering by Wilhelm and her husband Fred on behalf of the SCFPA, which they founded. Their mission is outreach, with a goal “to dispel the myth that classical music is for only certain people,” Christina explained.

“Classical music is music that improves in time because it becomes precious,” she said. “When you hear a familiar song such as Bing Crosby singing White Christmas, it evokes memories. Classical music has power to evoke but also make memories.” That is why the playlist for Christina’s “Zoombachs,” a weekly Thursday morning free-form movement/dance session to classical music, runs the gamut from Bach and Mozart to Scott Joplin or gypsy music.

The SCFPA’s first outreach endeavor was the Santa Cruz Singers, which the late Ann Caston persuaded Wilhelm to direct. It has now been performing under her direction for over 20 years. Programs have ranged from Broadway show tunes to Paul McCartney’s choral piece “Ecce Cor Meum” and Faure’s “Requiem.” “We’re happy that younger people from all walks of life are joining us,” Christina noted.

Then came the Concert Haul, a trailer complete with stage, sound systems and chairs. Created to bring music to places that would normally never hear classical music, it is used for the Summer Evenings in the Courtyard series at the Opera House. For tickets as low as $15, audiences can sit outside and enjoy performances such as big band, Latin jazz or mariachi. Last year, there was a film on performer Linda Ronstadt. It is also the site for Magical Morning Mini Concerts, which are free in the summer on selected days at 9am.

One of the original Santa Cruz singers, the late Virginia Benderly, gifted funds to provide a performance venue, which, under the Wilhelms’ direction, became the Opera House. It attracts musicians from around the world who want to perform in its fine acoustics and intimate audience space.

The street piano continues this legacy of providing community access to music. On the day after its opening, Kyle Carey, a volunteer scheduled to open the piano hut for its first morning, found local resident Marianne Shannon already standing there with music in hand. “I like it on the street because someone might come by, or no one at all. Both are fine. And if I make a mistake, there’s no pressure. I didn’t promise anything,” Maryanne said with a laugh.

Christina said, “Music is a ministry. If it’s going to bring some joy, some solace, even for just a moment in time, I’ll feel like I contributed in some way to the world.”

We now have a street piano to help us create and share some of those moments.

Summer hours for The Piano Hut will be Thursdays to Sundays, about 9am to 6pm. For a schedule of the other free and low-cost summer music concerts in the Opera House Courtyard, see scfpapresents.org or email scfpa@scfpapresents.org.