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Play me! I'm the piano, man: Public music experiment in Baltimore subway begs for players

Play me! I'm the piano, man: Public music experiment in Baltimore subway begs for players
A piano located in the Charles Center station is affixed with a sticker that reads "Play us a song. I'm the piano, man." (Juliana Kim / The Baltimore Sun)

Sounds echo inside the Charles Center station, of footsteps, trains and jazz from the radio station WTTZ, but none of them are from the recently installed public piano.

In December, the Maryland Transit Administration launched a program to install five acoustic pianos in Metro SubwayLink stations across the city for anyone to play and enjoy. The initiative Music in Transit hopes to “bring an element of surprise and delight to the transit experience,” the MTA said in a news release. The pianos were anonymous donations facilitated by the Maryland State Arts Council, according to Amelia Rambissoon, a spokesperson for the organization.

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So far, only the Charles Center station has received a piano and the locations to place the additional pianos are still undecided, according to Brittany Marshall, a spokesperson for the MTA.

The only piano installed for the program has been under renovation since Tuesday, according to Carlos Winkey, 50, an electrician for the MTA. A paint job and LED lights above the piano are planned to be completed before July 10, Winkey said.

The piano was moved from the second floor of the station to the first level last week in hopes that more people will play it, according to Tracy Mack, a janitorial employee in the station.

The Charles Center station piano is under repair.
The Charles Center station piano is under repair. (Juliana Kim / Baltimore Sun)

“The Charles Center Metro SubwayLink Station was chosen as the first station,” Marshall said, “because of the volume of customers frequenting the station and its accessibility to implement the piano in a timely manner.”

Samuel Jordan, president of the Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition, recommended that the next recipients of the program be the State Center and Penn-North stations for the same reason. “They handle a large number of riders at transit hubs,” Jordan said.

Despite a sticker affixed to the piano that reads “Play us a song. I’m the piano, man.,” many commuters at the Charles Center station didn’t know the piano existed or that it was free and accessible to all.

Aneita Myrie, 30, of Pikesville walks across the subway station during rush hour in the mornings and evenings for work, and said she’s never seen anyone use the piano. She was interested in knowing what it was, but was unsure whether it was open to everyone.

“If there’s not a sign,” Myrie said, “no one’s gonna touch it.”

Mack said she’s seen most people who want to play the piano ask an officer behind the ticket booth for permission before doing so.

Lawson Smith, 21, of Owings Mills, who also visits the train station often because his girlfriend works a few blocks north, didn’t notice the piano but doesn’t think it’s a good idea to have it in the stations.

“People could vandalize it,” Smith said. “I wouldn’t put it here.”

Smith plays the organ at his church but said he wouldn’t touch the piano provided by the MTA. “I wouldn’t feel clean playing it,” Smith said.

But to those like Mack who have witnessed the instrument in action, it has been a positive addition to the transit hub.

“Music itself adds a quality to the commuter experience,” Jordan said.

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Baltimore isn’t the only city to plant pianos in subway stations, let alone public stations. The acoustic piano in St Pancras International Station in London has become a tourist attraction. São Paulo and Paris also followed suit. In fact, Street Pianos is a global movement, transforming ordinary public areas into performance space.

“For centuries musicians have played music in public spaces,” Liesel Fenner, public art program director of the Maryland State Arts Council said. “Baltimore joins cities around the world where the piano installations create a musical playground.”

While many cities have found public pianos to be a success, more concerted effort might be needed for subway stations in Baltimore.

Winkey recommended hosting a youth piano contest in the station, like the break dance competitions he saw when he was younger. Jordan hopes to see more instruments and musicians perform in the station, with the encouragement of the piano.

“Baltimore is a city of a thousand expressions, perspectives,” Jordan said. “It helps to humanize the commute.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly spelled Samuel Jordan’s name.

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