MISSOULA — Chris Hahn sat down at the upright piano outside Higgins Plaza, and played part of a Chopin etude on the Kurtzmann manufactured in 1910.
Across the street, a couple people cheered at the brief but spontaneous concert, the first live music on the former University Congregational Church instrument in its new home in downtown Missoula.
Thus began the Downtown Piano Project, with an upright at the more “stagnant” plaza and another in the First Interstate Bank courtyard, a bustling corner designed with concerts in mind.
“I just can’t wait to see who comes to play these things,” said Hahn, a piano professor at the University of Montana School of Music.
A month ago, Hahn and the Downtown Missoula Partnership’s Noreen Hume decided – separately – the heart of the city would benefit from pianos. Hume learned about pianos placed downtown in Calgary and Toronto, Canada, and Hahn had mentioned the idea to a receptive Mayor John Engen at a Missoula Community Theatre event.
“I’ve been calling it a civic social experiment,” Hahn said.
On Friday morning, Rollie Dotz of Dotz Pianos rolled a yellow upright off a trailer and onto the sidewalk behind Worden’s Market. Gary Bowman of Morgenroth Music Center donated the piano delivery, and Dotz and the UCC donated pianos for the Downtown Business Improvement District and University of Montana Keyboard Society project.
“It’ll be something to brighten up this building, this side of the street,” Hahn said.
It’ll liven things up visually, too, since the Zootown Arts Community Center’s Art Youth Program and an artist-at-large will be painting the old pianos.
In recent years, some downtown regulars have repeatedly dirtied and damaged public spaces. Hahn and Hume, though, hope to tap into an “unspoken respect” people have for musical instruments, a sensibility they want to see engender pride and care.
“That’s a part of this social experiment as well,” Hume said. “Even if you don’t play an instrument, there is an intuitive respect.”
As Hahn leveled the piano with pieces of folded cardboard, the clouds turned a dark gray, and a sprinkling of rain started to fall. The pianos will be locked in place this summer, but they will stay outside come rain, sleet or shine, and a tarp will be nearby so anyone who thinks of it can pull the cover over the instrument if needed.
“I want people to go, ‘Oh, it’s raining. The pianos!’ ” Hahn said.
The piano at the plaza is located precisely where groups of people often sit and panhandle with backpacks and sleeping bags and other belongings spread on the sidewalk. Some rude behavior has deterred people from shopping downtown, but Tim France of Worden’s said he hopes the pianos infuse the area with a sense of community.
“We’re all in this together, to get creative with how we can increase our downtown economic vitality,” France said in a news release from the BID. “This project is just one fun idea, and it will be fascinating to see what happens when you put a piano on a downtown sidewalk.”
At Higgins Plaza, the BID’s Laurie Johnson said some of the musicians might surprise the public. Missoula Police Officer Andy Roy doesn’t tickle the ivories, but the downtown cop does play the harmonica.
“We figure there’s probably a transient that plays the piano, and he can do a duet with those guys,” Johnson said.
The best thing about the project so far is all the green lights along the way, Hahn said. If the experiment goes well this summer, the piano professor would like to see a coda, if you will, the following year, to keep the UM School of Music in people’s minds.
“This is kind of a way for us to be part of the community through the summer,” Hahn said.
The pianos enlisted to serve Missoula are old, and they have been in storage for a while. Hahn considers downtown their last stage, the final place they’ll sound etudes and sonatas before they go to the place pianos go to retire. But Hume is optimistic they will enliven audiences again.
“It’s art. It’s culture. It’s a piano,” Hume said. “We’re just hoping they remain in good shape.”