Play me, I’m yours for a day

by Kendall Stark / Beacon Correspondent • October 16, 2013

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Kennedy reached the final piano on Columbus Day, wrapping up his project with a performance of "Sweet Caroline."
courtesy of Kennedy
Kennedy reached the final piano on Columbus Day, wrapping up his project with a performance of "Sweet Caroline."
courtesy of Kennedy

While meandering the streets of Boston, there’s a myriad of sounds to be heard. The mindless chatter of pedestrians, the screech of the T, construction vehicles at work, and — since Sept. 27 — melodious piano music.

With the installation of 75 pianos throughout Boston, the Play Me, I’m Yours exhibition has allowed residents and tourists alike to create music in public places including Faneuil Hall, the Prudential Center, and Newbury Street. The showcase, created by British artist Luke Jerram, has toured worldwide, appearing in cities from New York to Tokyo.

For senior performing arts major James Kennedy, it was the challenge of playing all 75 pianos in a single day that was most intriguing. Having played piano since age six, Kennedy said he has always been fascinated by the instrument.

“Music has always been a huge part of my life,” said Kennedy. “So I was thrilled when I heard that pianos were being added to the sound-scape of Boston.”

Kennedy said his project, “75 Pianos, One James,” was a spur-of-the-moment idea.

“I just asked myself, ‘what if I could play all 75 pianos in a single day?’” said Kennedy. “So I made a Facebook event purely to take song suggestions from friends and invited about 20 people, who then started sharing the event. Before I knew it, people I didn’t know were requesting songs.”

Shortly after the creation of the Facebook event, freshman visual and media arts major Jackson Davis contacted Kennedy, proposing to document the endeavor.

“I immediately thought James’ project would translate well to the screen,” said Davis. “I saw a good story and I thought it deserved to be told, so I didn’t think twice about asking permission to film it.”

Thanks to social media, Kennedy said, the event quickly transitioned from a personal venture to something that involved the whole community.

“People requested personal favorites, music they listened to while falling asleep, and even wedding songs,” said Kennedy. “Most of the requests were songs that had a lot of personal resonance.”

From classics like Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” and Etta James’ “At Last,” to pop ballads like One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful,” Kennedy said he wanted to create a diverse set list that would accommodate a variety of genres — rock, contemporary, musical theatre, and classical. Kennedy added that playing familiar tunes attracted bystanders and usually led to more requests.

“One of the best experiences I had was when I played in Kenmore Saturday night right after the Red Sox versus Rays game got out,” said Kennedy, who performed outside Fenway following a game attended by over 38,000 fans. “I played Nicki Minaj’s ‘Super Bass,’ which initiated a big sing-along.”

Although many aspects of the project did not go according to plan — he couldn’t play them all in one day, for example — Kennedy said the setbacks he encountered only added more color to the adventure.

“Some of the pianos were not only far away, but could not be accessed by public transportation, so things took longer than anticipated,” said Kennedy. “It poured all day Sunday and some pianos were padlocked.”

Davis added the inconveniences he encountered tested his perseverance as a filmmaker.

“These pianos were not easy to find,” said Davis. “There were a lot of moments when we wanted to quit, so it was a bit of a personal battle for myself as a filmmaker.”

Kennedy said the unexpected complications made him reevaluate why he took on the challenge in the first place. He said the experience reiterated just how much people benefit from having music in their lives.

“We got to the 75th and final piano and it was padlocked, which was a bummer,” said Davis. “However, James thought of the idea to organize a big performance of ‘Sweet Caroline’ on Columbus Day. I think it’s a great way to wrap it up.”

Since the commencement of the project, other Emerson students have taken advantage of the street pianos in several ways, making use of the instruments for sing-alongs, film projects, and other creative ventures. Freshman marketing communication major Hamad Al Badi said the pianos are a great way to connect with the people of Boston.

“Having these pianos available makes Boston a more approachable city,” said Al Badi. “It also helps that they’re strategically placed in populated areas.”

Freshman performing arts major Dominique Carrieri said that she loved how the pianos served as a creative outlet for Emerson students.

“I notice many of my classmates use the pianos to alleviate the stress from schoolwork,” said Carrieri. “I think it’s great that people who don’t necessarily feel like partying on a Friday night are able to sit down at a piano and express themselves.”

Kennedy said he was grateful that people beyond the Emerson community were able to benefit from his project.

“I truly believe in the value of giving from yourself,” said Kennedy. “How I can give back is by playing piano.”

As for future endeavors, Kennedy said he can’t imagine subjecting himself to a similar challenge anytime soon.

“I kind of want to keep this special for a while,” said Kennedy. “It was a long two days, and I’m not exactly ready to marathon like that again.”