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eyes on the island

Victoria has street art, street furniture, street people. The city will soon be getting two street pianos.

The pianos are to be set up at the edge of two downtown intersections, available for any passerby to play whatever they wish for whomever is listening.

"A spontaneous music performance," said 16-year-old Alastair Kierulf, who has led the initiative. "The public can walk up and play, and other people can sit around and listen to them."

The pianos are to be installed on July 14 and will be in place for nine days.

After gaining the necessary permits, Mr. Kierulf appeared before city council last week to encourage the mayor and councillors to take part.

The street pianos promise to become a popular feature in a tourist town always hungry for attractions. The street pianos offer the possibility of serendipitous moments of grace amid the hustle-bustle of commerce.

Mr. Kierulf advanced what he calls the Make Me Sing Project as part of the leadership program at Reynolds Secondary School, where last week he completed Grade 11 with a report card containing straight As. He plays trumpet in the school's marching band, has been studying piano for 12 years, and had the role of Hugo Peabody in the school production of Bye Bye Birdie.

He was introduced to the idea of public pianos during a family holiday in London two summers ago. Outside St. Paul's Cathedral, he played Beethoven's Für Elise and Debussy's Claire de Lune. His younger brother, Gavin, followed him on the piano. Young Alastair thought, "That's so cool, I want to bring this to Victoria."

The first street pianos appeared four years ago as an art project by Luke Jerram commissioned in Birmingham, England. Fifteen pianos were located throughout the city for three weeks and an estimated 140,000 passersby played at least a few notes.

The idea came to the artist after another dreary day of doing his laundry. He saw the same faces every time he did the tedious chore, yet no one spoke to each other. He noted these "invisible communities" existed in many places in a city. By placing pianos in public spaces, the artist figured the instruments not only changed the dynamics of the area, but created opportunities for strangers to have a conversation.

The Play Me, I'm Yours project spread to London, Paris, Sydney, Sao Paulo, Belfast and Barcelona. This summer marks the third year the pianos have been in New York. (The project is coming to the streets of Toronto this month.) In Victoria, the undertaking is inspired by, but unaffiliated with, Mr. Jerram's art.

After getting approval from his school, Mr. Kierulf faced a daunting task.

"The next step was getting the pianos," he said. "I went to my church, St. Andrew's Presbyterian, and talked to people I know there. I said, 'I'm doing this project and I need some pianos.' It's kind of a weird thing to ask."

As it turned out, the church was giving up a piano. A parishioner heard of the request and offered her piano for donation.

He then got a special-events permit from the city's parks department. Next, he found a sponsor in Allison Piano, a local firm that agreed to move the pianos. ("Good thing, too," he said. "Moving pianos is not something I can do alone.")

The two uprights – a Mendelssohn and a Kohler & Campbell – are stored in his grandmother's basement. In the coming days, one will be installed at the corner of Belleville and Government Streets (an intersection facing both the Legislature and the Empress Hotel), while the other will be at the CRD Square at the corner of Government and Fisgard Streets, facing the entrance to Chinatown.

The lids will be padlocked and the pianos secured. Tarps will be erected nearby for passersby to use to cover the instruments when it rains. Mr. Kierulf expects people will care enough about the pianos to protect them from vandalism. Any damage would be a sour note for a project likely to pull the heartstrings as well as tickle the ivories.

One local singer, Stephanie Greaves, so likes the idea she is already considering what songs to perform. Top of her list: Adele's Someone Like You and Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah. Her pianist, Darcy Phillips, tours with Jann Arden, so they might also perform her Good Mother.

Hope I'm passing by then.

Special to The Globe and Mail