Play It Forward on 10 pianos around the city

The team (from left) comprising Mr Lee Yan Chang, Ms Jean Hair and Mr Billy Soh.
The team (from left) comprising Mr Lee Yan Chang, Ms Jean Hair and Mr Billy Soh.PHOTO: PLAY IT FORWARD
A crowd watching a performance on the pianos at One Fullerton.
A crowd watching a performance on the pianos at One Fullerton.PHOTO: PLAY IT FORWARD

Three friends start a social experiment that puts pianos in various parts of Singapore for the public to tickle the ivories

What becomes of pianos in homes when they are no longer played?

"Some people don't play them anymore, so they become part of the furniture. Or they keep them for sentimental value. The pianos just collect dust at home," says arts manager Jean Hair.

"It's hard to resell a piano too, so a lot of them go to the incinerator. So sayang," she adds, using the local colloquial term meaning "what a waste".

Two years ago, she started thinking of alternative uses for such pianos. Seeing how not everyone can afford to buy a piano or easily have access to one to play, Ms Hair, 32, was inspired to put old pianos on the street for the public to freely play on.

The idea is based on a similar movement from the United Kingdom called Play Me, I'm Yours, which started in 2008. The street piano movement made its way to Singapore earlier this year.

Last September, Ms Hair and two friends - artist Billy Soh, 37, and architect Lee Yan Chang, 40 - started Play It Forward Singapore. The three were formerly part of the National University of Singapore's (NUS) piano ensemble.

Their "social experiment", as Ms Hair describes it, started with two pianos on Aliwal Road, as part of the Urban Redevelopment Authority's (URA) PARK(ing) Day, which transforms carparks into public spaces.

From that first one-day event, Play It Forward Singapore is now almost a year-long affair in different spots in the city and it does not seem to be ending anytime soon.

To date, 10 pianos have been part of the movement, travelling to about 18 spots, including under the Esplanade Bridge and outside The Arts House.

All 10 were donated by members of the public following open calls on the Play It Forward Singapore Facebook page and website.

In deciding where to place the pianos, the team works with venue owners, festivals such as sustainable light art festival iLight Marina Bay, and initiatives such as URA's Car-Free Sunday SG.

Currently, three of the pianos are located permanently in public spaces - one at NUS' University Town and two at the main entrance of The URA Centre on Maxwell Road.

The pianos are usually placed in pairs to highlight the social nature of Play It Forward Singapore.

Ms Hair, Mr Soh and Mr Lee were initially concerned about how Singaporeans would respond to the unsupervised pianos, not to mention how the humidity would affect the instruments, but their fears proved unfounded.

Says Ms Hair: "The pianos stayed in good condition, no one destroyed them. Also, we placed them in the city which is a bit more open, so you have a lot more eyes looking at you and you won't do anything funny."

The movement has seen encouraging response in the form of mini concerts by the Singapore River, with amateur musicians coming out of the woodwork to show off their talent, as well as intimate musical chance encounters, such as joggers stopping to tickle the ivories at two in the morning.

The pianos are also art installations themselves - local artists have given the instruments their own distinctive looks and each piano has a name.

After enjoying their day in the sun, most of the pianos are donated to various beneficiaries. For example, one of the two pianos on Aliwal Road, which is named Maurice and painted by Mr Soh, has found a new home at Chaoyang School, for special-needs children.

Members of the public who would like to donate their unused pianos to the movement can contact the organisers of Play It Forward Singapore, who will arrange to have a professional mover collect the pianos. Donors will be updated on the progress of doing up the pianos and invited to view the final transformed instrument.

Ms Hair, Mr Soh and Mr Lee check the condition of the pianos every other day, repairing and tuning them if necessary, but they also have the help of fans who alert them to issues such as loose keys.

Says Ms Hair: "We've built a following. We know some of them by their Instagram usernames because they tag us in their photos and videos.

"For amateur musicians, if not for this movement, they would not have a chance to play in public. It's democratic in that everyone gets to play."

Ngee Ann Polytechnic student Denise Chng, who does not own a piano, follows the Play It Forward Singapore Facebook page and says "wherever the pianos go, I will follow".

The 25-year-old plays a range of music on the pianos, from Harry Potter film scores to pop hits by Justin Timberlake and Madonna.

"To me, this movement is like a dream come true. I consider the street piano as my own free, open-air classroom.

"It gives me confidence and builds up my self-esteem. It's a place where I can find myself again."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 15, 2016, with the headline 'Playing it forward'. Print Edition | Subscribe