Music to Their Ears: Play Me Again Pianos

Written By: Amy Meadows

IT WAS AN EMOTIONAL MOMENT for Jason Brett and his mother, Frances Ann. As the piano on which she had learned to play as a child was set in place in a pavilion near the playground at Chastain Park, they recalled all of the wonderful times the instrument had brought them. They looked at its newly painted façade, complete with spectacular yellow, orange and red flowers against a green and blue meadow-inspired backdrop, and they thought about all of the people who would now find the same joy thanks to their family piano. They envisioned the many strangers who would happen upon “Janssen,” touch the keys and bring it to life with music for everyone nearby to hear. And it was that exact vision that encouraged Brett and his wife, Kelly, to found Play Me Again Pianos in 2014.

“One of the great things in this world is music,” says Brett, who conceived the idea for the nonprofit organization after he and Kelly took their now teenage son, Nico, to Europe. Nico, who has played piano since the age of 5 and was 7 at the time, wanted to practice while away on vacation, and the family found several temporary art exhibitions in London and Paris that featured public pianos for him to use. They loved the experience of creating and sharing music with passersby and people on the street, and upon returning home, they wondered if there was anything comparable on a local scale. They soon realized there was not and wanted to see if they could do something about it.

“We reached out to organizations hoping to find someone to [create a similar program], but we couldn’t find any takers,” Brett states. “A lot of people thought it was a neat idea, but it wasn’t within their vision.” So the Bretts decided to start an organization on their own, and Play Me Again Pianos was born.

STRIKING A CHORD

According to Brett, the goal for the organization is to place 88 pianos across the region (the same number of keys on a piano). However, in a twist on what they saw in Europe, Play It Again Pianos aims to make each installation permanent, allowing the community to enjoy each one for years to come. Currently, there are 24 pianos throughout Atlanta and North Georgia region, finding homes in such locales as The Woodruff Arts Center, the Chamblee Rail Trail, the Dunwoody Nature Center, The Sewell Mill Library and Cultural Center in Marietta, Egg Harbor Café in East Cobb and Cogburn Road Park in Alpharetta, among others. Each piano is donated by a local resident or family, fixed up and painted with a unique motif by a local artist or group and given a special name, often with a connection to the location in which it is being placed or the story of the piano itself; names like Tommy, Morgan, Ida, Oscar, Millie and Zoey truly expand on each instrument’s newfound character.

“We do outreach to local arts organizations and through galleries, and we ask artists for concept submissions,” Brett explains. “We keep a catalog of the concepts. And when we work with municipalities and other venues that want to sponsor and host a piano, we go through the catalog with them so they can select an artist [and a concept]. They get to choose whatever they feel fits with their venue.”

Once a venue, artist and piano are brought together, the process of completing and delivering the instrument can take a few weeks or a few months depending on the artist’s timeline. Once placed, each piano is maintained and tuned four times per year. And when a piano has aged beyond maintenance (which typically is four years for outdoor installations and up to 10 years for indoor ones), it is retired and replaced; in many cases, the old pianos are taken apart and donated to artisans so they can be upcycled and turned into something else, like indoor furniture pieces. Of course, when Janssen, Play It Again Piano’s original piano, on which Nico also learned to play, was ready to be retired, the Bretts brought it home. It currently sits in their sunroom as a testament to the amazing organization they have created and brought to the community.

A COMMUNITY PROJECT

As much as Brett sees Play It Again Pianos as a family venture, he also recognizes that it is a community project. In fact, it’s the community that plays a huge part in the organization’s success. In addition to residents donating studio upright pianos themselves, community members are needed to volunteer as professional piano technicians, to help move and place pianos and to serve as Piano Stewards, who visit designated pianos regularly to perform a few basic tasks between each maintenance session. Of course, fundraising also is a key element, as maintaining the pianos costs approximately $500 per instrument per year. For the Bretts, though, all of the effort is worth it.

“We get e-mails on a weekly basis telling us how people found our pianos and really experienced joy. We get videos of musicians who have found pianos and improvised together. For example, a man was on a road trip and stopped at Atlantic Station to see a movie. He found our piano and skipped the movie to sit and play. Another man heard him and said, ‘I play the sax. Let me get it out of the car.’ They jammed for a couple of hours, and everybody who passed by got to enjoy it,” Brett says. “The pianos create a sense of community and connections between people who may not have found each other otherwise.”

For Brett, that connection is particularly important today as the world continues to grapple with the COVID pandemic. And although Play It Again Pianos has had to slow its efforts because We get e-mails on an of the health crisis, the weekly basis telling organization will move forward because Brett understands the power of the endeavor and what it can really do.

“Music has a healing power. It has the ability to bring people together even when you can’t physically touch,” he concludes. “Human connection is so important right now. We are looking for opportunities to connect with neighbors in safe ways. And we get videos of people making music out there for the world to enjoy. This is a way to make real meaningful connections.”

For More Information, please visit playmeagainpianos.org. Are you a community or organization that would like to host a piano for your visitors’ enjoyment? Then sign up through their website at playmeagainpianos.org/host-a-piano.

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