Photo from PennLive.
I was asked by Grant Station to write about the community-building power of music for their website newsletter. Grant Station connects non-profits to potential grant opportunities.
One of the most effective ways to build community is through the power and potential of shared music. That belief is one of the driving forces and guiding principles of Music For Everyone. Founded in 2006, the mission of Music for Everyone (MFE) is to cultivate the power of music as an educational and community-building tool to change lives, schools, and communities in Lancaster County, PA.
In addition to many educationally focused programs, MFE’s most visible and impactful community-building initiative is Keys for the City. Established in 2009, the program places between ten and twenty artistically designed and painted pianos throughout the city of Lancaster each summer. Whether you are a virtuoso or a beginner, whether you play Chopin or “chopsticks,” every citizen has access to these pianos 24/7 for four months. The community impact of Keys for the City has been nothing short of extraordinary. Everyone who plays one of these pianos, or hears one being played while walking through downtown Lancaster, feels a heightened sense of community. Tens of thousands of magical musical moments occur around these pianos every summer with people of all ages, races, and beliefs coming together to share this very public experience.
A major part of that shared public experience is the extraordinary way the citizens of Lancaster have embraced the program and cared for these pianos. During the first season of the program, there were serious doubts that the pianos would last a week on the streets before being vandalized and destroyed. But the narrative centered on the belief in Lancaster’s “Better Angels.” And Lancastrians proved the naysayers wrong. That first year, after 20 pianos were on the streets 24 hours a day for four months, there was only one incident of vandalism. This very public display of caring and responsibility has resonated throughout the community ever since. It has instilled a sense of civic pride in the decency and integrity of the citizens of Lancaster.
In short, Keys for the City has had a significant impact on Lancaster’s vibrant arts scene by providing the random gift of music throughout the city all summer long. This is a real-life testament to music’s tremendous ability to contribute to a sense of community in profound ways.
Further, Keys for the City is an important fundraising vehicle since the proceeds generated through piano sponsorships provide significant support for MFE’s annual grant program. Since 2006, MFE has provided almost $1 million in instruments to Lancaster County schools and community music programs. And in 2018, MFE kicked off an initiative to catalog and repair every instrument in every public school in Lancaster County on an ongoing basis.
Another important aspect of Keys for the City has been the involvement of many local artists, who design and paint the pianos. This powerful combination of music and the visual arts has unleashed exceptional energy and creativity that is felt throughout the city. But to make that happen has required the buy-in of the local visual arts community. Over the years, over 60 different artists have stepped forward to volunteer their time and talent to create wonderful pieces of public art. Their support and work have been extraordinary and inspiring.
Ellen Mowrer, GrantStation’s President and COO, and her husband David Mowrer, have been painting pianos for Keys for the City since 2012. They appreciate spending time together creating something that will bring joy to many people. After so many years, they have a smooth division of labor worked out: Ellen designs; Dave sands; Ellen does the drawings and paintings; and Dave does base coat and clear coat. Spring has become known as “piano season” among the neighbors when the Mowrers spend evenings and weekends in their garage giving new life to a musical instrument that hopefully reflects the sponsor’s vision. This year’s sponsor was RKL LLP, a professional services firm. Here is a picture of the piano “live” at the local library:
And since 2017, the “Salvaged” project has squeezed more “juice” and revenue from Keys for the City. At the end of each season, the pianos are moved to a warehouse where six local artists “harvest” materials from the pianos and use those materials to create art to be auctioned off to benefit MFE. Once again, Lancaster’s artists have stepped forward, volunteering to create beautiful art on behalf of MFE.
The summer of 2019 will mark the tenth anniversary of Keys for the City. After a “Decade O’ Keys” and over 140 pianos, the community is proud to call Lancaster, PA, the “Street Piano Capital of the World.”