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.”

Reach Keila Szpaller at @keilaszpaller, at keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or at (406) 523-5262.

Reporter for the Missoulian

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(10) comments

Jake the Snake
Jake the Snake

Today, september 12 2014, I repaired the keyboard on the old yellow piano that sits on the sidewalk on Higgins street. 12 of the black keys had been knocked off. I cut some strips of wood to size and painted them with nail polish. Drove down town and superglued them to the piano. As soon as I finished, a talented young man named Joshua Farmer thanked me and proceeded to play. I felt great satisfaction.

Geoff Badenoch

A couple of things. First, it is NOT First Interstate Bank plaza. That area between First Interstate Bank and the Frances Superneau Parking structure is Bank Street Park. It is a PUBLIC park built on a former alley that was known as Bank Street. Incidentally. it is the place where Missoula started--the lumber and flour mill that was known as "Missoula Mills" was located there.

Second, I have no musical talent, but I like to listen to music. Those of you who can play, please go Downtown and share your gift. Please go play! Entertain the passers by! Take a picture! Post a YouTube video--Become a star!

Drummer

I think a piano should be placed in Engen's front yard. Perhaps is will have a calming effect on him, and he will stop regulating us and taxing us. Same goes for the Commissioners and City Hall.

Roger
Roger

I wonder how long it will take for the pianos to get trashed. Leaving them out in the weather, with a tarp nearby? The tarp probably will soon disappear, but hey - the transients will be entertained for a while, I suppose.

Readneck

Wow! Even pianos make you mad. I'm sorry for Republicans.

Roger
Roger

Where did you get that notion? It's what's going to happen to the piano that I'm worried about. Is that piano exposed to the weather? That's my impression. Kind of hate to see it ruined.

Miss Muralist 12

I was aggressively asked for money on skid row aka Ryman Street. Two drunkards were passed out in the bushes by the bank. I watched a police cruiser drive by while clearly intoxicated people went about drinking liquor out of paper Coke cups. I don't get the sense that any of our transients have the same respect for things that we do. These pianos will be another thing to urinate behind.

Greg Strandberg
Greg Strandberg

Good idea, hopefully they're not broken by some drunken college students. Are they brought inside each night? The pianos, that is.

nemo

College students, much like vampires, retreat to their lairs as dawn (or exams) approaches. I am not sure what pianos do.

Rattlesnake valley family

I have been hoping this would happen in Missoula. Looking forward to hearing who makes music on these pianos.

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