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Public Pianos and Amplification

There’s a piano in a park not far from where I live in Prague. The park is the hub for a bustling tram station and metro line, and stretches out in front of a beautiful cathedral that people crowd around to photograph all day long.

But my favorite part of the square is one of the walkways leading toward the cathedral, where a piano has been placed. There’s an unadorned stool in front of the piano, and the instrument itself is somewhat gritty and aged. Yet that walkway has brought immense joy to me and thousands of other people who pass by it every day: some who sit down to listen before returning to work after lunch, some who stop for a few minutes between errands. Some people, like myself, go there for the express purpose of being the near the piano.

I usually sit near the piano for twenty or thirty minutes in the afternoon, and oh the things I’ve seen and heard during that short timeframe.

Music students taking turns at the ivories, working through tough songs they’re still learning, and basking in the applause from passersby.

Middle-aged tourists, taking the opportunity to show off an old skill, a little dusty from years of under-use, but clearly stoking the flames of a still-living creative passion inside them; they look ten years younger when they stand up after playing through a five song set.

Just today I saw a grizzled, paunchy homeless man sidle up to the stool, run his fingers along the keys with something very close to longing, and then play the most magnificent set of classical music I’ve ever heard performed live. By the time he was done, the audience of a dozen had turned into nearly a hundred, and he looked on the verge of tears when he realized people were applauding him and his performance.

A lop-eared child of six or seven was up next, and though he looked ready to wet his pants with nervousness, he played a few songs that, although simple, showed that he was very capable for his age. The climax of the performance was when the homeless man stepped back over and played a duet piece with the child, improvising over what the much younger pianist was comfortable with. All of it was caught on video (from two angles) by the child’s smiling parents.

It’s remarkable to me how much value can be created by so simple an act as installing an old piano in a public place. The effort required to get it there, and the effort required to cover it up when there’s rain, is amplified a thousand times by the joy it creates for those who play it, those who listen to the music played on it, and those who walk by, smiles on their faces, enjoying the novelty of a neighborhood that has a public piano. That part of the park just feels different, even when there’s no one playing. And though I’m certain it’s not easy making sure the piano itself is taken care of (there are pianos all over town, their presence instigated by a local man and several businesses he’s recruited to sponsor their upkeep), the investment pays an incredibly high dividend.

It’s worth keeping in mind that this is an example of amplified effort from the real world; a world of atoms and distances and potential destroyers of property around every corner. Amplification is even more feasible — and requires a far smaller investment, with the potential for even greater results — online. We live in a world where we have the ability to communicate with a significant portion of the global population, and that’s a powerful thing.

So the question is this: what is your public piano project? What is it that you can do that will allow you to invest a little effort or money or whatever, and that will result in an astronomical payoff for humanity?

Answer that question, and help others do the same. Sometimes the most creative and beneficial thing a person can do is figure out how to enable others to be creative in a beneficial way.