Story by LARRY KELLER/Photos by JASON GETZ
Every so often, in the midst of an average day, Alan Mothner’s ears perk up at the sound of music playing outside the central building at Dunwoody Nature Center. The melody emanates from the main meadow, where someone is seated at the public piano.
“If I ever hear music, I try to walk out there and find out who’s playing,” says Mothner, Dunwoody Nature Center’s executive director. “It’s so interesting to hear a piano sound in a place that you’re not used to hearing it. It’s very distinct.”
The park piano, affectionately named, Bennett, attracts both novices and experienced pianists stopping by to express their musicality. Recently, a romantic boyfriend intended to play the piano while proposing marriage to his girlfriend, but unfortunately, Bennett was barely playable at the time.
It’s one of several pianos at public spaces on the Northside and throughout metro Atlanta thanks to Play Me Again Pianos.
Kelly and Jason Brett founded the nonprofit, which installs and maintains pianos at parks, including Dunwoody Nature Center.
“I opened up the piano, took out every key, cleaned [them and the debris] and put it back together again,” says Kelly, on restoring Bennett to playing form.
The popular instrument is now ready for romance.
“There’s a tremendous amount of love generated by a public piano,” Kelly adds.
The idea for public pianos at Atlanta area parks came to the Bretts during a European vacation in 2013. Their then 7-year-old son, Nico, was committed to his daily piano practice, which had reached 700 consecutive days.
He was able to continue his streak in part because there were public pianos in the United Kingdom and France.
Sheffield, England, is credited with having the first street piano in 2003 when owner, Doug Pearman, tried unsuccessfully to carry it up the steps to his apartment. He ultimately decided to leave it on sidewalk as a gift for passersby to play. Although the community enjoyed it, the piano experienced weather damage and was removed in 2008.
More public pianos followed, however, with temporary and permanently placed pianos around the world, including Play Me, I’m Yours, a rotating presentation by Luke Jerram. Since 2008, Jerram, an artist, has placed temporary piano installations on streets and parks in the U.S., Germany, Australia and beyond.
Play Me Again Pianos has placed 18 donated and colorfully painted pianos. Artist Kelly Thames Mauldin painted Bennett in a nature green color, adding in trees, butterflies and animal wildlife to compliment its Dunwoody Nature Center setting.
More pianos are also located at Chastain Park, East Cobb Park, Wills Park Equestrian Center, East Roswell Park and other places where professional artists have adorned them.
Like Bennett, each piano is given a name, such as “Sunny,” “Morgan” or “Happy.”
“It’s really much more convenient to call the pianos by name rather than referring to them by their location all the time,” Kelly says. “And to be honest, it’s a lot of fun.”
The Bretts’ goal is to install a total of 88 — one for each key on a piano.
A small number of technicians tune each piano up to four times a year. Although they do so at a discount, it will cost approximately $35,000 a year for piano tuning once all 88 pianos are in place, Kelly says.
The Marietta couple hopes to recruit additional technicians and obtain donations to accommodate that growth. They also seek volunteer technicians to “adopt” a piano and tune it as needed, or stewards who visit locations weekly to make sure the instruments are in good shape.
The pianos are located in covered spaces to prevent direct exposure to outdoor elements, but they have no covering and must endure Georgia humidity, rainstorms, and daily wear and tear. Those in need of major repairs are retired and replaced, the Bretts say, as there is no budget to fix substantial problems.
“The No. 1 reason we do this is wherever these pianos go, they create a point of joy and happiness,” says Jason, president of Play Me Again Pianos. “They become a destination for families and individuals who want a place to go to experience music outdoors.”
Play Me Again Pianos. playmeagainpianos.org
Play Me Again Pianos is always in need of artists. Kelly Thames Mauldin, the artist who painted the piano at Dunwoody Nature Center, is an instructor at Spruill Center for the Arts. The piano is named Bennett, after the late Dunwoody artist Dick Bennett, who also taught at Spruill. Mauldin decorated the piano using Dick Bennett’s paint mixtures, which were donated to Spruill by his family after he passed away in 2016.
Obtaining and maintaining public pianos is not an easy task. A list of people in the community who have helped Play Me Again Pianos in a variety of ways is listed on the nonprofit’s website under “Visionaries.” playmeagainpianos.org/visionaries