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Painted pianos to make rounds in downtown Winnipeg

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Remember when street art used to happen outdoors?

If we rewind about two months back to when the Junos were in town, there was a fair share of excitement surrounding seven intricately painted pianos that popped up downtown.

There was the one with the yellowed ivories that resembled rotten teeth by Old Market Square.

And the one in the skywalk above Portage Avenue that awkwardly jutted out, blocking part of the pedestrian walkway (but provided lovely accompaniment to hurried footsteps).

The novelty of the pianos might have worn off by now, but you might still stumble upon these keys in new locales this summer.

The Downtown Winnipeg BIZ launched the Play Your Part piano project in March in conjunction with the Junos. But the BIZ's managing director, Jason Syvixay, said their long-term plan is to integrate these gorgeous instruments into a rotation of public spaces for the rest of the season.

"Right now, we're moving the pianos to different locations every month or so because we don't want them to become part of the furniture of downtown... We want to put them in places people won't expect," he explained.

Unfortunately, two of the seven pianos had to be put away in storage. Winnipeg's sporadic spring storms proved too much for them. "With our climate, they weather easily," said Syvixay. "But we made a decision to keep them outdoors after the Junos."

While some of the keys might be a tad sticky, Syvixay said despite some of the pianos' weathered appearances, none of them has been vandalized.

All of the pianos are now housed in indoor areas to prevent further wear and tear.

"We actually have this one guy who's a big fan of them. He comes into the office every week and gives a rating for all of the pianos," Syvixay said, adding the piano that sits below the bell tower in Portage Place Shopping Centre earned top honours.

Happiano, as she's affectionately dubbed, is the happy piano (get it?) decorated with smiley faces at centre court.

She's a perpetual crowd favourite, said Scott Stewart, manager of events and sponsorship for the BIZ.

"Everyone seems to really be attracted to this one. It's been to a few locations now. It's gone to Manitoba Hydro Place and moved over to the Winnipeg Art Gallery, and has found its new home under the clock here," Stewart said.

The Free Press checked up on Happiano and the three other remaining Play Your Part pianos Wednesday to see if any spontaneous performances might occur.

The three pianos at the Metropolitan Entertainment Centre, the MTS Centre and The Forks were relatively secluded and didn't get much action.

But Happiano's position in centre court earned quite a few curious stares.

While about a half-dozen people idled in the vicinity of the piano, three-year-old Jorja Geal was the first to plunk down and play.

"She's shown interest in piano and guitar and she tries to sing," said her mom, Sarah, looking on with a laugh. "She really likes the songs from Frozen right now."

Stewart said he's noticed it's often the kids who get the party started with the public works of art. "They're usually the least shy, and then their parents come in after and are like, 'Hmm, I'll try that,' " he said, playing a single key.

After Jorja finished a solid seven-minute set -- complete with standing Elton John-type power stances no less -- others snuck up to play a few bars.

Marina Plett-Lyle was headed up the escalator, but stopped to take in a tune.

"I saw this piano on the other level the other day, but there was nobody there," she said, motioning upstairs to where Happiano stood before.

"I think it's a great idea," she said. "Winnipeg is a great place because of projects like this."

Syvixay said the positive responses to the Play Your Part pianos have been overwhelming. Photos and videos of people playing have poured in on Instagram and Twitter using the BIZ's hashtag, #PlayYourPart.

And what about that last mysterious piano from the original group of seven? After a stint at the airport and run-ins with former governor general Micha´lle Jean, Sen. Roméo Dallaire and musicians Tegan and Sara, among others, the Juno piano was sold to the highest bidder.

"It was sold on eBay for $10,000. All the proceeds go to MusiCounts, which is a great cause that's keeping musical instruments in schools," said Stewart.

Once the summer months are through, the BIZ is looking to donate its remaining pianos to communities in need.

If you know of a high school or social agency that would like a little more music in their lives, contact the Downtown Winnipeg BIZ.

jessica.botelho-urbanski @freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 29, 2014 B1

History

Updated on Thursday, May 29, 2014 at 6:30 AM CDT: Replaces photo

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