Megan McGeorge is flanked by half a dozen upright pianos, each adorned with colorful, sometimes wild decorations. Today she decided to play one with a huge snarling tiger painted on the front.
“The bench [has] tiger stripes,” McGeorge said, pointing to the instrument. “And on the back there’s also tiger stripes. And if we open the top, which we’ll do in a second, there’s a little brain – a little tiger brain. The artists really go above and beyond .
These beautiful works are all part of Piano. To push. To play. It is an annual interactive art installation founded and directed by McGeorge.
“And they’re on the streets of Portland,” she said. “They are in your public parks. They are in the courts of the city. And they are for everyone to play and enjoy.
His organization has humble roots. A little over a decade ago, McGeorge was walking down NW Burnside Street in Portland when she and a group of friends encountered a cellist playing on the sidewalk.
“We all stopped in our tracks and just stood there and had this moment that felt really transcendent,” McGeorge recalled. “It was so beautiful. And I remember saying to my friends at the time, ‘I wish I could do that.’
McGeorge is a trained musician, but her favorite instrument is the piano. Its size and weight make an impromptu performance on a sidewalk seemingly impossible. But undeterred, she pursued the idea and contacted the nearby Portland Piano Company to see if they would lend her a piano to play on the sidewalk in downtown Portland. To his surprise, they accepted.
The company even added a rickety cart to help move the instrument.
“Me and a few friends, every Thursday that summer, we would go to Portland Piano Co. at 3 a.m. and pick up that piano and push it down the street,” McGeorge explains. “Then we would park it and take turns playing for people.”
McGeorge’s friend, the musician and artist known as Jane, worked at the nearby Ace Hotel and was part of this first team of volunteers.
“We literally pushed the piano from that store to the corner where American Apparel was,” he says. “That’s how it started. She just needed help moving furniture, and I helped push the piano, hence the name.
Piano. To push. To play.
The following year McGeorge moved to the current form of the project where painted pianos are installed at various locations around the city for public use. Artists like Jane enjoy nearly unlimited creative license in their design. He finished his first piano in 2020.
“I ended up getting stuck on this line: ‘Black Is Love.’ I wanted to put it on a pristine background instead of something black, so we went with an all-white piano,” he recalls. “To kind of represent the growth and beauty that comes out of it. [of the piano and phrase], we have drawn dahlias and beautiful flowers on the side in metallic paints. It was kind of a whirlwind to get it done in time, but it sure was a lot of fun.
But there is a rule. Each piano must be adorned with the phrase: “Please play me.”
It may seem like a minor detail, but for Kyle O’Quin, who plays keyboards for the Grammy Award-winning band Portugal. The Man., these three words are what makes Piano. To push. To play. unique.
“Most of the pianos you see – and I can tell you this from personal experience – in hotels and such all have signs that say, ‘Please don’t play this piano. Do not play this piano under any circumstances. It’s not for you. We don’t want you to play it. They’re very unattractive,” says O’Quin.
O’Quin and his bandmates, all of whom are longtime supporters of the project, admire its goal of lowering barriers to art.
“Unfortunately, many people don’t have access to a piano. It makes it more accessible and less pretentious,” he says.
And that’s important because O’Quin argues that the piano is the most democratic instrument.
“It’s timeless. You can play anything on it,” he says before rattling off a list of songs ranging from Wu-Tang Clan’s “CREAM” to compositions by Chopin and Scott Joplin.
“You have 88 notes, a few pedals and your imagination,” says O’Quin. “It’s one of the things I love about the piano. It really covers all the time.
O’Quin’s enthusiasm for the piano. To push. To play. is not isolated. Over the past decade, the project has grown in scope and size. He has partnered with organizations such as the Portland Art Museum and Portland Parks and Recreation. The band has also received funding from prominent musicians like jazz artist Esperanza Spalding.
All Piano. To push. Play founder Megan McGeorge no longer pushes a piano down Burnside Street every Thursday afternoon, her mission remains the same.
“It’s a community-building machine,” says McGeorge.
“People have to remember that the things inside of them – their music, their art – are special things that you have to share.”
Piano. To push. To play. is hosting a launch concert on July 1 at Pioneer Courthouse Square in downtown Portland. Locations for this year’s piano batch will be announced at the event.