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Come tickle the ivories: Pianos returning to NYC parks, streets and public spaces this summer

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NEW YORK, N.Y. - A new player is coming to the city's street scene this summer: everyday New Yorkers.

Sing for Hope Pianos will take 88 rehabbed pianos, ask artists and school children to customize each with crazy colours and designs and then plant them throughout New York City's streets and parks and let anyone — and everyone — plink their ivory keys.

The two-week festival first debuted in 2010. It returned the following year under the name Pop-Up Pianos but took a backseat last year due to lack of funding

It's making a comeback through a major donation from the New York-based Greek yogurt company Chobani.

The festival is part of an outreach program by Sing for Hope, a grassroots group of over 1,000 artists who volunteer to make art broadly accessible to everyone.

The pianos, mostly donated uprights but also some grands, will be placed in some of the most iconic New York City spots this summer such as Times Square and Central Park and in more remote places like the Far Rockaways, Staten Island and areas underserved by the arts.

"We're sort of an artists' Peace Corp," said Sing for Hope co-founder Camille Zamora. "The idea is that some people don't get a chance necessarily to have access to great art, like in hospitals and the elderly. There are children in our city who do not have regular arts education."

After the festival ends, the pianos are donated to local organizations, schools and hospitals where artists volunteer yearlong, bringing workshops and concerts in music, dance and the visual arts. Groups can request and get more than one piano, as the New York City Housing Authority's youth chorus had done.

"The piano is kind of the hardware for the software of our programming that goes on year round," said Zamora, who founded Sing for Hope in 2006 with fellow opera singer Monica Yunus, launching the first piano festival in partnership with British artist Luke Jerram in 2010 when 60 pianos were featured.

"We have a huge waiting list of organizations," she said. "There's such a desire for this kind of programming."

The festival doesn't start until June 1, but it's already humming with activity since the logistics for setting it up are quite complex: Finding "piano buddies" to look after the pianos once they're on the street; assembling a team of technicians to keep them well tuned; and, of course, getting all the pianos into a large warehouse where artists will transform them into works of art.

The application process for artists, from professionals to emerging to students, is currently under way to paint the 88 pianos (the number stands for each key on the piano). Past artists have included Isaac Mizrahi and Julian Schnabel.

The pianos call to mind another whimsical art installation that took over the city in 2000 called "Cow Parade." About 500 life-size fiberglass cows, each decorated by a different artist, were strewn throughout New York and later auctioned to raise money for local charities.

But unlike the cows, pianos are sensitive to the vagaries of weather. That's where the piano buddies come in. Their main responsibility is gauging when it will rain and covering the instruments with a tarp.

And while professional pianists volunteer to go around and jam on the instruments, Zamora said the program's success lies in the people "who literally never touched a piano before and sit down and start plinking out a song and find they have a voice."

"That's the main message. Everyone belongs. Everyone's invited. Everyone can play."


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