Julia L F Goldstein

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Pianos in the Parks

Aug 05, 2015 by Julia L F Goldstein

An unusual art exhibit is on display in parks throughout the greater Seattle area, and I am endeavoring to experience as much of it as I can. This is both an artistic and a musical journey, and I carry with me the sheet music to the Grieg Nocturne and Beethoven’s Fur Elise. The Grieg has special significance to me. When my parents sold their home in 2001, they gave the grand piano and most of the piano music to my sister, the professional musician in the family. I kept the Grieg Nocturne with the inscription “Happy Birthday” and the date. My piano teacher had given it to me for my 14th birthday. In 2003, when I decided to buy a piano for my home, that is the music I took with me to try out pianos.

My Pianos in the Parks journey began, somewhat appropriately, on my birthday, with a bike ride to visit and play two of the pianos. Seeing all of them by bike would require biking in heavy traffic – something I certainly have no interest in attempting – and traveling more miles than time or my current fitness level would allow. So I resorted to a car for the rest of the journey.

As I traveled, I tried to find people nearby who would take my photo as I played. In the process, I met some interesting folks. Here are my stories of each piano, in the order I visited them. To see photos all 22 pianos, go to the Pianos in the Parks website.

Sammamish River Trail, Woodinville

This piano is best reached by foot or bike, just off the Sammamish River Trail in Woodinville. I was a bit nervous as I began to play, as I had not played piano in public for probably five years, but there wasn’t much foot traffic at 8 am on a Sunday. Artistically, the Woodinville piano is one of my favorites, and the sound wasn’t too bad, either. Of course, these are not top-of-the-line pianos being painted or otherwise decorated and left out in the elements for a month.

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Marymoor Park, Redmond

Five miles south along the Sammamish River Trail is Marymoor Park, which I believe is the largest park in Redmond. I biked a few extra miles trying to find the piano – if you’re going, I recommend checking the website for the exact location within the park.

When I arrived, a preschooler and her mom were sitting at the piano. They stepped aside to let me play, and afterward the mom asked if I could teach her daughter something. The girl recognized the tune “Mary Had a Little Lamb” but couldn’t quite reproduce the right notes. To her, the keys probably all looked the same. I did suggest that the mom consider lessons when her daughter gets a bit older.

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Denny Park, Seattle

The whimsical design on this piano is called “A Day at the Beach.”  The art is fun, but unfortunately the piano is in bad shape. It is really hard to play Grieg when the sustain pedal does not work and not all the keys respond. (Sorry, I forgot to take photos.)

Mercerdale Park, Mercer Island

This is a piano I could imagine having in my living room – the pianos are all for auction – except that we already have a piano, and my husband would never agree to buying another. The image of birds in flight and floating feathers is beautiful, almost musical, and the sound is better than most. The label says “Chickering,” a company that made some really nice pianos, but I don’t know the vintage.

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Luther Burbank Park, Mercer Island

From the beautiful to the absurd. This piano is outrageous, with those huge eyes staring out and the colorful fabric plastered all over. When I happened to be at the park several days later, I found that the bench was gone. Did someone steal it, or was it out for repair? I might have to go back again to see if it has reappeared.

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Downtown Bellevue Park

Here’s another ridiculous design with eyes that just makes me smile. It’s hard to be glum when the piano looks so whimsical. Unfortunately, no one stopped by who could take my photo.

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Ashwood Plaza, Bellevue

This piano is in front of the Bellevue Library, on busy 10th Street. The sound of traffic in the background isn’t what I’m used to when playing piano. Still, this colorful piano might make a nice addition in a home with children. One of the gentlemen I met here asked about my playing schedule – I think he thought I was an official part of the exhibit!

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Bellevue Botanical Gardens

This is an elegantly painted piano in a serene setting. If you look closely, you can see that the design isn’t painted on the surface, but actually carved into the wood and then filled in with an iridescent substance. It sort of seems a shame to carve the wood of a piano, but the effect is stunning. Being surrounded by plants heightens the experience, as does the sound of a gently running fountain.

When I first approached, a young boy was playing music he invented in his head. I talked with him – he doesn’t read music but just plays whatever occurs to him. I can’t say it’s all brilliant, but I admire his creativity and enthusiasm. He was fascinated watching the strings and hammers move as I played. I have to admit, being able to watch the action is part of the appeal of a grand piano.

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Wood, metal, ivory, and plastic

I can’t stop writing without including some reference to materials, so what better to discuss than materials that go into making a piano, and why they are selected?

Pianos are made primarily of wood, but the species of wood varies, and it effects the sound. Steinway and Sons explains the importance of wood selection on its website. The soundboard is made from Sitka spruce, chosen for its strength and resonant qualities. The rim on a Steinway grand is made from multiple layers of hard rock maple that can withstand the tension from the piano strings and best project the sound. Other woods are used for the legs, body, and key beds and are chosen for strength, texture and/or color. Less expensive pianos often use less expensive woods, and may include plastic components. In low-end pianos, the soundboard may actually be plywood rather than solid spruce.

Historically, the tops of the piano keys were covered in ivory, which is why playing the piano is sometimes called “tickling the ivories.” I didn’t look closely enough to determine if any of the Pianos in the Parks instruments had ivory keys, but some of them look old enough that they might. In the 1930s piano makers started using plastic, which was less expensive and more durable than ivory. Today, of course, use of ivory is severely restricted, and so all pianos made in recent decades have plastic covered keys. Higher end pianos use proprietary polymer resins that approximate the feel of ivory.

Piano strings are made from high quality steel, with longer and thicker strings as the notes get lower. The lowest strings are not made from pure steel, but from steel wrapped in a copper cladding. Tension in the strings, and therefore pitch, varies with temperature and humidity, and they loosen over time, which is why pianos need regular tuning. As for the pianos being kept outdoors for a month, I’m sure they were tuned at the start of the exhibit, but by now they are all out of tune. So it might have been better to play them at the beginning of the exhibit (which runs July 16 through August 16), but don’t let that stop you from visiting and trying them out. If you choose to buy one, though, make sure you hire a piano tuner.