January 12, 2018

Free Keys

Student group places public pianos around the UMass Amherst campus for all to enjoy

The University of Massachusetts Amherst Campus Center is a hub for students at noon, rushing to beat the lunch lines at Blue Wall, collecting donations for victims of Hurricane Maria, and, as of this semester, listening to live piano music. Today, some students walk by without noticing while others pause to hear the impromptu and graceful performance of “River Flows in You,” coming from the maroon and white piano by the window.

The current pianist, senior computer science major Nikolai Narma, was happy to find a public piano outside the University Store. “It’s my third time playing this. If I see a piano I have to play it,” says Narma.

Courtney Dewey, a senior sociology major, is another regular public piano player. “I play in the Student Union or Campus Center every day—usually a few times a day. I play in between classes and after doing homework as a reward,” says Dewey.

Free Keys, a student-led and student-designed project, unveiled three painted public pianos on campus in October. With locations now in Hampshire Dining Commons and the Student Union, as well as the Campus Center, students have ample opportunity to brush up their keyboard skills. Free Keys project manager and senior biochemistry and molecular biology major Owen Henry got his inspiration from similar efforts on campuses across the country, as well as international projects such as “Play Me, I’m Yours.” These groups place pianos in train stations, markets, streets, and parks; Henry happily took advantage of them during travels abroad. As a music minor, Henry recognized the need for a public practice space for the UMass community members who may not have access to the music department.

Once the idea came about, Henry and other student volunteers met with Student Affairs and Campus Life to figure out the logistics for the piano placement. “They were on board with the project right away,” says Henry. “They immediately asked, ‘How can we make it work?’”

A few months later, the Student Union lobby transformed into a Free Keys premiere with performances from students, including Henry himself. The selections varied from classical piano to rap, making for a unique listening experience. A live recording of the opening concert, as well as more information about the project, is posted on the Free Keys Facebook page.

With frequent performances by students and campus community members, the project took off. “Every day people have been on the pianos,” says Henry, who often stops to listen. Although Owen Henry is graduating this winter and passing on his managerial role, the project is far from over. The organization already received a fourth piano, and students have plans for more creative recitals.

Henry enjoys watching the project come to life through spontaneous duets and lively melodies by students such as Narma and Dewey. Dewey plays frequently, but listeners usually don’t recognize her music. “All the music I play is improvised, I just play what I’m feeling,” she says. Often, students come up to ask her about her music or to join her. “I love when people come up to me and play with me. I’ve met five or six people this semester that way!” says Dewey. With public pianos spread throughout campus, skilled musicians and eager beginners can try their hand at piano playing and make friends between classes.

By Ali Ziomek ’18