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Playing in Public

August 12, 2023

The other day, while on my daily afternoon walk at the Yerba Buena Gardens near my office in downtown San Francisco, I came across someone playing piano out on the terrace in front of the main building. The piano was an upright that had been painted a vibrant blue with red flowers, and someone was filming the player. I don't know what it is exactly about public pianos, but whenever I see one, I'm filled with excitement. Perhaps it's the multitude of Youtube videos I've seen where someone finds some random piano out on the street, sits down, and suddenly starts playing some crazy hard piece that draws a huge crowd. Or maybe it started with my first visit to Flower Piano in Golden Gate Park, where I not only got a rare chance to play on an acoustic piano (I only have a digital piano at home), but got to play amidst a backdrop of sweeping trees and colorful flowers. There's something magical about being able to sit down and play something beautiful out of the blue, made even more special if a passerby actually notices or recognizes the song and slows down to listen. I've even been trying to memorize my pieces so that I can have a small repertoire at arm's reach (no pun intended!) when the opportunity arises.

I did my usual loop around the garden, saw the guy was still playing, and decided to take another loop, hoping he might leave but trying not to get my hopes up too high. I still had to go back to work after all. As luck would have it, he left just as I circled back to the piano for the second time. Before I could overthink it and before someone else could get to it, I marched over to the piano and sat down. It was a Kawaii and the keys were in surprisingly good condition despite being out under the sun for so long. I started to play One Summer's Day from the movie Spirited Away. The sun blazed down on me and the keys felt hot to touch. Cars whizzed past on the street I was facing. I was half-afraid some homeless guy might come up to me (this is SF, after all). The setup was so bizarre that I forgot half the notes and kept having to stop, even though I can play the piece almost perfectly at home. No one came over, although one passerby might have slowed down and turned their head a bit. I felt a little silly for feeling so self-conscious when one one was even watching. When the piece was over, I played another one. This time, it went a little better. Then, a bit reluctantly, I softly closed the lid on the piano, stood up, and headed back to the office.

I think there's more to my love for street pianos than just wanting to show off or be in the spotlight. I genuinely want to share my music with others and for others to experience the feelings the music portrays. For very much the same reason I write, I want to inspire others with my playing, whether it's evoking feelings of nostalgia when they hear a song they haven't heard in a long time or introducing them to a tune they've never heard before.

I really hope that piano will still be there when I'm back at work next week.