Pianos on Parade in Kansas City

Program sponsored by Keys 4/4 Kids and Kansas City Music Teachers Association involves community in the arts.

by Cassie Hayes and Mary Hilliard

story by Mary Hilliard

This summer, sixty decorated, refurbished pianos appeared around the Kansas City metro area, from the Trolley Trail at 63rd and Brookside to the middle of Union Station to the Kansas City Zoo. These pianos were part of  Pianos on Parade, a public arts program run by Keys 4/4 Kids, a local non-profit organization. Keys 4/4 Kids sells donated pianos and uses the profits to fund charitable programs, including giving away pianos to families in need and bringing pianos and musicians to the bedside of children in local hospitals. Keys 4/4 Kids partnered with the Kansas City Music Teachers Association, an organization of about 200 piano teachers from early childhood to collegiate level.

Pianos on Parade officially started with a kick off event at Union Station over Memorial Day Weekend.

“We had 60 pianos painted by artists in Union Station during the weekend,” KCMTA board member and Pianos on Parade program director Lisa Cattanach said.  “It was so exciting. We had live music, activities for kids….On Sunday we had a Community Play Along…We had probably over 100 people, random strangers playing music all together on all 60 pianos. It was so awesome, like a huge piano orchestra.”

After the Community Play Along at Union Station, all sixty of the pianos were distributed throughout Kansas City for the summer. According to Cattanach, sponsors had a choice as to where their piano would be placed. Pianos were located all over the city from Liberty, to Leawood. Sixteen of the pianos were painted by and resided at area schools, from elementary school to high schools.
According to Cattanach, Pianos on Parade is part of KCMTA’s 100th anniversary celebration.  In the fall of 2013, a committee met to discuss how to celebrate the anniversary when the idea for Pianos on Parade came up.

photos by Cassie Hayes

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“I suggested putting painted pianos all the Kansas City area…” Cattanach said.  “I thought it was an original idea – but it’s not.  A friend there showed me the website of an organization called Keys 4/4 Kids out of St Paul, MN that had recently added a location here in Kansas City.  So, I contacted them and they were excited to partner with us.”

Cattanach and program co-chair Michelle Gerhring started out by seeking out sponsors. Pianos were sponsored at $2500 each.  Sponsorship supported Keys 4/4 Kids programs, as well as KCMTA and their scholarship programs for young pianists.

KCMTA member and artist liason for Pianos on Parade Kari Johnson was responsible for finding artists to decorate the pianos. According to Johnson, some artists found out about the event and asked to participate, while others she already knew from her piano studio or were referred to her by friends. She also contacted local school art teachers and browsed through area artist lists and websites.

“I think we found an eclectic mix of artists who represent the KC art scene, including folk art, art educators, professional artists, and art hobbyists who are very talented and dedicated,” Johnson said.

Artist Carrie Field’s painted piano resides at 39th and Rainbow near The University of Kansas Medical Center. According to Field, a friend’s mom sent some of her artwork to the Pianos on Parade committee, then she was selected to paint one of the pianos. At the time, Field had cancer and was undergoing chemotherapy treatment.

“The experience was perfect for me, as I did Chemo a few days before and took two days to paint the piano,” Field said. “I made the piano with a rainbow theme to symbolize hope and health.”

Field plans on participating in another Keys 4/4 Kids program, the Ellen Project, which brings pianos and musicians to hospitals for child patients.

Artist Michael Schliefke was offered to paint the piano for the River Market Neighborhood.

“It was a great fit because I live in the River Market and the finished piano has been on display almost literally across the street,” Schliefke said. “I am able to walk by and see random people playing it.”

Schliefke incorporated the defining characteristics of the River Market in his design, he said.

“When I was designing the piano, I wanted it to capture the things I love about the neighborhood – the old brick buildings, the city market, the fresh fruits and vegetables, the views, the river and the bridges,” he said. “I decided to use old postcards as a theme to tie all of this together and I composed the scenes into postcards and on top of the piano I was able to hand letter ‘River Market’ in an old postcard font.”

He also created a piano to be on display at Avila University to commemorate their 100th anniversary using current pictures of the school with the original structures, in addition to the school’s logo and centennial logo.

“It is always nice to create art that directly comes into contact with the general public,” Schliefke said of his experience.
According to Cattanach, Pianos on Parade received a positive response from the community.

“The response from the community via Facebook and our website was great,” Cattanach said. “I also got a lot of personal emails with testimonials from people who just loved it.”
One response, according to Cattanach, included a group of people  participating in a “piano crawl”.

“They rented a limousine and drove around and sang songs around about 5 of the pianos…I got to join them and it was a blast.”

Others took the summer to make a project of finding as many pianos as they could, like a scavenger hunt.

Cattanach also received an email from someone at KU Med who said the nurses coming off work “were tired and they enjoyed the piano to lift their spirits and have fun after long hard shifts”.

“One woman told me that her son played the piano but their piano wasn’t good and he practiced on the POP piano that was near their house,” Cattanach said. “ She was in tears.”

Many of the pianos have been or will soon be picked up as fall begins, but a few that are indoors and will stay. According to Cattanach, they hope to repeat Pianos on Parade next summer and they are already looking for sponsors.