Years ago I shared my regrets of not learning a musical instrument and encouraged my kids to take lessons. They were both keen on the idea and I recommended the guitar because of its portable versatility. One of my friends who was with us at the time said I should put them in piano because it would give them a broader knowledge of music, helping them learn other instruments.
“Maybe,” I said having no idea if that were true. “But you can’t play a piano in the park.” Little did I know that five of them would be showing up in Kelowna parks one day.
The first evidence I saw of this was in a recent video posted on Facebook in which my talented friend James Elser was playing one of the custom painted uprights in front of City Park and singing Paul Simon’s “Love Me Like a Rock” as people gathered around.
Halfway through the five minute video a bystander spontaneously sits down beside him and starts playing one handed, eventually singing as well. That young stranger turns out to be Eric Disero, a gifted musician from Wild Son, a popular Kelowna band.
The man filming them was Andrew Barton, the videographer friend of James who had just told him about the Pianos in Parks program. Since James was eager to play one, and Andrew had new film equipment he wanted to try out, they decided to film a performance on the spur of the moment.
As soon as the video was posted to Facebook it started getting shared and within five days it had been viewed over 29,000 times. Since then James has played the other four pianos that are located across from City Hall, behind the courthouse, near “The Spirit of Sail” fountain and by the Rotary Centre for the Arts.
“There is something deeply rewarding and ethereal that feeds the soul when you play for the community,” James said. “Like at seniors homes or for preschool children. I love playing for kids because they just dance, and sing and are in the moment. Like the song I did with Eric – I just enjoyed being in the moment.”
Of course James isn’t opposed to getting paid for his music and providing for his family either. He’s been playing clubs, lounges and events for years and enjoys every chance he gets to do what he loves.
He didn’t start off with those feelings though. At the age of 13 his mother put him in piano lessons and forced him to learn. He hated it for about a year until his eighth grade art teacher played the movie “Ragtime” and showed him how much fun it could be.
“Brian encouraged me to learn songs I liked,” he said. “The theme to Hill Street Blues was my first ‘real’ song.”
As an adult he took a lengthy hiatus from music until he met some members of a band called the Rusty Nails. Andrew Barton was one of the original members.
“They’re from all walks of life, they’re not professional musicians,” James said. “ It’s an amazing group of people that love to play music, laugh and be together. If it wasn’t for their encouragement and love, I wouldn’t be playing today. I am forever in their debt for showing me how to have fun and enjoy music again. And that’s what I want to do for others – share the fun of music.”
The pianos placed around Kelowna inviting anyone and everyone to play for free inspires that sentiment as well.“There’s so much talent in the valley,” James said. “And Kelowna has such a diverse offering of venues for musicians to express their art.”
He believes the Pianos in Parks summer program has reminded people how amazing music is and that it needs to be shared, developed and supported, not just bottled up and sold. “I applaud all the people that got behind this and made it happen,” he said. “They along with the people at KeyStone Music, Disney Interactive, City of Kelowna and Festivals Kelowna have done a great thing for our city.”
And while this refreshing concept may be new to us, public piano programs such as this exist in many cities around the world – and the free spirited trend is growing.
“The music community is getting stronger,” James said. “ And people can help reinforce it by listening and giving support. Some musicians just want to be listened to and others need to get paid because it’s their livelihood. Either way they need an audience and the opportunities to play.”
And James will be doing just that when he performs again this year at Westside Daze on Sunday, June 28 at 7pm behind the Johnson Bentley Pool in West Kelowna where so many talented musicians and performers will be taking the stage.
My kids will not be among them since their interests shifted completely away from music and landed squarely on sports. But that doesn’t mean they won’t play chopsticks on one of those funky pianos as soon as they see one. And they, like me, will enjoy the musical abilities of those wanting to share.