Musical chords resonated throughout the south end of Wooster Square, as a jazz musician struck out notes on a piano. A crowd took seats on city benches to listen; a mother danced with her baby.
That was the lively scene for one of the many impromptu recitals the past few days plunked out at the newly installed Wooster Piano, New Haven’s first outdoor piano.
Located in Russo Park, the piano is planned to stay up all month for anyone to play, from roughly 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., at which point it is covered with a fitted, weather-proof tarp. If the feedback’s positive, the piano will return after winter’s over, and others may start to pop up throughout the rest of the Elm City, too.
Lauren Brown, who’s behind the project, said she was inspired to bring the music outside by the outdoor pianos in Montreal, 50 of which are placed throughout the city every summer. Up there, “so many people are outside; they find ways to congregate and socialize. It takes them out of their homes,” she said. “Every time we come back, I say, ‘I think we can do the same thing here.’”
Already the piano is causing people to pause at the corner of Chapel Street and DePalma Court to listen to the tunes or play a ditty themselves, said Brown, an access analyst at Yale’s Sterling Library who has lived in the Wooster Square neighborhood for 13 years. Just as she’d envisioned, “there were people who had never met each other before stopping and talking,” Brown said. “It’s a contagious community feeling.” Brown herself doesn’t play, but she enjoys going out to “just enjoy the smiles on people’s faces” from a serendipitous moment.
Adele On Repeat
On recent days, professional players worked through elaborate arrangements by Shubert and Chopin, while amateurs trotted out well-known compositions, like the Chopsticks waltz and Fur Elise bagatelle. Adele’s “Someone Like You” was also on repeat. A couple people just banged the keys. Luckily, “usually, the people who are not so good don’t play for very long,” Brown said.
Brown said she hopes the piano can bring vibrancy to an underutilized space. Aside from the huge crowds that flock to the CitySeed Farmers’ Market every Saturday from May to December, Russo Park’s wide concrete avenue remains largely empty during the rest of the week. For many, it’s just a pass-through from the neighborhood’s Italian restaurants to Wooster Park. “You see a lot of people with pizza boxes, but they don’t really stop here,” Brown observed.
That’s not for lack of trying to activate the space. In 2014, the city’s landscape architect proposed beautifying the park with a flowered walkway, but only a few stones and sbrubs arrived. And this summer, a neighbor set up a daily pop-up cafe, Downtown Table, until she started law school at Quinnipiac.
Brown’s project should be cheaper and easier to manage. The piano, found on Craigslist, was donated by an owner who didn’t have room for it in her house. Volunteers — more are still needed, she emphasized — just have to unlock the lid in the morning and throw on the red, heavy-duty tarp at night. Another neighbor will regularly tune the piano — “not concert-tuned, but pretty close” — and kids at New Light High School, who’ll be learning how to play indoors during the winter, will also “funkify” the piano with some paint.
The project did have one big logistical challenge, though: getting a 400-pound upright piano in place. It didn’t help that Brown broke her leg playing tennis the day before the scheduled move. (“I hope the piano didn’t drop on your foot,” one neighbor, walking his dog, commented on Brown’s cast.) Her son, Zach Proulx, helped the parks department get it in the right spot.
Volunteers who want to get involved in opening and closing the piano can email Lauren Brown at WoosterPiano@gmail.com.