Throughout West Philly, pianos come into play

At first it seems like a Tom Waits song — a Polish piano tuner sits in the park, tinkering with an old upright.

“From a musical perspective, they are not a good instrument,” said Piotr Salwinski in choppy English, tapping the keys of a piano in the middle of Clark Park in West Philadelphia. “The story of this piano, somewhere hidden in a warehouse for 30 years. Nobody playing them. Suddenly somebody is going to play them.”

Artist Katie Holeman painted a floral pattern on the piano, complete with petals on the keys, a hobbit door in the front, and lanterns hanging from the fingerboard.

Salwinski inspects the unmarked felt on its hammers. “You can see, this piano was never used,” he says.

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This piano, and seven others scattered in public spaces throughout West Philadelphia, were interpreted by artists at the invitation of the University City District.

One by 30th Street Station is painted funereal black in honor of Bessie Smith and John Brown, whose bodies were transported through the train station. Another is encased in scrap wood, resembling a pile of rubble. Yet another is fitted with lace and has purportedly arrived from another planet.

From ‘Heart and Soul,’ the element of surprise

For the next 10 days, they are available to anyone who cares to tickle, bang, or trip over their ivories. The project is called “Heart and Soul.”

“It’s a pop-up event, there’s a bit of urgency around it,” said Mark Christman of the UCD. “I hope people come out and enjoy the art, and create their own art. The idea that these pianos surprise passers-by is a big part of the excitement.”

The pianos will be in public 24 hours a day, chained and padlocked into place and, if bad weather arrives, covered. Some pianos near residential areas will be locked shut overnight.

Similar public piano project have been executed in other cities. Two years ago Lancaster, Pa., set up 20 pianos in public all summer.

At the corner of 37th and Market streets, at the Science Center, “Space Piano” is tilted backward at a 45-degree angle and inside a roughly cobbled cage of scrap wood. The artist collective Kali Yuga Zoo Brigade intends it to resemble a “violent but fortuitous crash-landing experience.”

The angle forces players to sink into a seatback (a bucket seat ripped out of a car) and play with hands raised upward.

“I kind of like being in this spaceship effect,” said Will Walker, a trainer at a nearby medical certification company, on his lunch hour. “You know what’s relaxing about it? I don’t have to support myself. It’s neat.”

At first he was tentative, unsure if he was allowed to crawl inside the found-object sculpture. But after Walker sat at the keyboard and tore into full and lively numbers from “Rent,” “Wicked,” and the Billy Joel songbook, his co-workers were slack-jawed.

“I’ve worked with him for seven years. It’s the first time I’ve ever heard him sing,” said Peter Patrikios.

“How often is there a piano in the office,” replied Walker, before vamping into “Piano Man.”

The decorated pianos will be in public until June 17. After they are removed, the UCD is unsure what will become of them.

As Walker belted out Billy Joel, a smattering of strangers on their own lunch hours, stopped to listen and sing along.

Well, I’m sure that I could be a movie star

If I could get out of this place.

La la la de de da la

la de de da da dum

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