I sit on the gray, pleather couches in the East Quad Residence Hall lobby, passing time between a class and a virtual meeting. The long glass windows behind me tell me it’s gray outside; I wouldn’t be surprised if it started raining.
A fellow college student strays from the lobby’s traffic patterns and pivots toward the space’s musical focal point: the glimmering Yamaha grand piano. They set their backpack down to the side, adjust the simple black bench and rest their hands on the reflective keys. A few chords are played as a warm up, and the music soon turns into a Hans Zimmer melody from “Interstellar.” After some repetitions, the tune changes to an early 2010s pop hit I can’t remember the name of, modulating again into something lush and classical-like, the sounds of a modern Mozart.
I pretend to type on my keyboard while the pianist plays on theirs, and perhaps 15 to 20 minutes later, the song ends and the musician leaves. There is no bow, no applause, no fanfare, for this is nothing out of the ordinary. It’s a typical performance on the East Quad public piano.
There are versions of this scene scattered throughout the University of Michigan’s campus. You can try the dark, polished upright piano tucked down a hall in the Michigan Union, or the multiple sitting within the various spaces of Pierpont Commons. For dinner and a show, visit the dimly lit seating area in the rear of South Quad’s dining hall; the worn down wood grain seat of the instrument and mood lighting gives the appearance of a popular underground music venue while you eat meal-plan pizza. You are in the audience by default, so why not lean in and enjoy?
A year after my family moved to Michigan, my mom commandeered her childhood upright piano from my grandfather’s living room, placing it in our own where it now sits. My brother and I took lessons on it while in elementary school, and though they halted when I turned twelve, my fondness for the instrument never did. I played almost every day, especially when I didn’t have school. During the summer evenings, my arpeggios would float through the open windows, harmonizing with the symphony of cicadas outside.
In the months leading up to my first fall at the University of Michigan, I frequently thought about how I would play the piano once I moved out of my parent’s house. I daydreamed, perhaps too optimistically, of dazzling the East Quad lobby and touring my talents around the residence halls. My high school hobby would blossom into something publicly popular, quickly cementing my status as a university icon.
Upon my arrival in Ann Arbor, though, other hopeful musicians had similar ideas and more advanced skills. And upon hearing them play, I was overcome with jealous dread, deciding the public keys were not for me.
In the past month or so, however, realizing my access to these instruments is fleeting, I’ve forced myself to step up to the bench and play music in public. The moment I decided to do this I became incredibly nervous. My limbs forgot how to do their job and my eyes darted around the room, trying to uncover reasons I shouldn’t perform. I walked up to the keyboard but then quickly turned around, worried to offend, eager to eliminate anxiety.
How does everyone else make it look so easy? What are the comforts in being so publicly visible?
To investigate such feelings, I interviewed some campus public pianists, all of whom were within a variety of stages and majors in their college careers. What makes these musicians so compelling is the fleeting nature of their performances. They start and end without notice, except for the overheard chords of a spontaneous setlist. Their programming is a mashup of your favorite pop, classical and throwback playlists, but unlike your Spotify music player, the name of the artist is nowhere to be found.
Despite their lack of disguise, the pianists camouflage with the rest of the student body moments after playing their final chord. In an era where musical artists are aligned with their visual brand as much as their melodies, the campus piano player approaches the stage with the clothing of normality.
Some of these anonymous sensations have other musical outlets, like a cappella groups or bands, and some had collaborators. LSA sophomore Will Chehab, who also records rap under The Young XP, started early in making the pianos a part of his campus experience, playing in Stockwell Residence Hall and on the grand in the East Quad lobby during his freshman year.
“I had a friend who also played piano, he was really good, we liked to mess around for an hour or two,” Chehab said.
LSA senior Thomas Martin told me about “a little piano gang” that formed during his first year on campus, when a passerby recognized the “Fourth Chopin Sonata.”
“She sits down and starts playing the same thing … I mean, as a lot of friendships in college occurred, it’s not like we saw each other every day. But, we’re still friends,” Martin said.
Behind the allure of musical recognition is the opportunity for genuine and lasting friendship. Though others may see the piano player as just that, knowing them as people helps break down the barrier between audience and performer. Some moments of connection are much more fleeting, but are just as gratifying because of their unexpectedness.
Engineering graduate student Dan Maguire said, “I definitely have people come up to me a lot and say thank you for playing … Someone once left a note for me.”
When asked about the note, Maguire smiled and picked it up from its spot on his desk, reading: “Beautiful playing, thank you for the music. Hope you have a wonderful day.” The message concluded with a hand-drawn smiley face, providing something comfortingly genuine on a folded piece of notebook paper.
All of the piano players I interviewed indicated they are repeat performers on campus, with Martin going as far to imply it was his self-appointed job. “The University doesn’t pay me” he conceded, but described the routine musical acts as a kind of “addiction.”
Chehab had a similar sentiment, saying the sight of the piano poses enough of an incentive to play: “I look at it and (think) I kinda want to play this, and I go in and play. It’s usually pretty spontaneous.”
There is a sort of rugged individualism a person must have to initiate their own performance, to create something grand out of ambivalent silence. Dexter Kaufman, LSA sophomore and member of the Southeast Michigan band Luna Pier, told me the experience is quite different from being on stage with his group. “At the piano you’re by yourself, you can play at any tempo you want, all the keys are in front of you,” Kaufman said.
However liberating the freedom of no-strings-attached performance is, the inherent self-promotion of spontaneous song must be carefully balanced with the needs of an ever-changing campus audience. When a quiet study space unintentionally doubles as a de-facto performance hall, chaos can ensue. Maguire told me of a time when another musician’s act was stopped at the request of an irritated study group.
“It was kind of really sad, I felt so bad for the guy … I imagine a lot of other people were really enjoying it,” Maguire said.
Indeed, the flip side of anonymous praise and the serotonin it brings is the harsh bite of faceless critique. The campus piano player, though relatively free from the repercussions of identity, must take time to consider the effect of their sounds on the room to dodge unwanted scrutiny. Maguire tries to cater to the hypothetical piano skeptic, saying “I’m careful to play agreeable music … If it’s really crowded that day I’ll be like ‘nah,’ I’ll pass today, I don’t want to annoy people too much.”
This consciousness extends to the other performers as well. Martin, who, like other interviewees, plays for hours at a time, sees it as a matter of continuing the musical tradition: “I’ll have to balance my addiction to play with everyone else who goes here, (so they can) get what I got (from the pianos).”
The lack of artist recognition associated with this particular type of performance allows the impromptu stage to be claimed by anybody and for anybody, for as long as they want. As Kaufman stated simply: “(It’s) just a public piano, anyone can use it.”
Following Kaufman’s sentiment, it seems the pianos can occupy two paradoxical spaces in the public consciousness: they are meant to be played and heard, and their performers are aware of the effect their music has. But, they also bend some of the most basic rules of social performance; their ultimate accessibility leads to a sacred form of anonymity. The pianos and their players are taken at face value by those passing, but when the final chord of one’s new favorite song is played, we can be compelled to unravel surprising amounts of gratitude onto strangers, changing the reputation of a space for years to come.
Any space can be a stage and anyone can be a star. After talking with the veterans of the campus piano world, it seems I created my own high, impassable bar, preventing me from enjoying and participating in one of the University’s most appreciated experiences. Perhaps the nerves that come with playing for strangers are no longer as justified.
And so, I raise myself from the gray East Quad couch and move across the room to sit down on the piano bench. My first few chords are studders of their true intentions and nervous mistakes litter themselves throughout my performance. But at the end, I play my final note and exit the temporary stage with the same normality as when I entered it.
On the inside, the relief of post-adrenaline leaves me with an addictively positive feeling, something that begs itself to happen again. On the outside, there is no bow, no applause, no fanfare. For everyone else, this is nothing out of the ordinary. It’s a typical performance on the public piano.
Statement Columnist Oscar Nollette-Patulski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.