Under current circumstances, and despite the pedestrian mall renaissance that has taken over much of State Street downtown, it’s hard to think of a more poignant example of what we’re all missing right now than the annual Pianos on State event. Eleven years ago, a group of community artists came together to invent a tradition that’s been going strong ever since. Each fall at around this time, whimsically painted pianos, mostly of the upright persuasion, would appear on State Street as if by magic, and with the expressly implied invitation that passersby feel free to sit down and play them as much or as little as they liked. “Chopsticks” was heard, as was “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” and other pieces from the beginner’s repertoire, but so were many beautiful improvisations and even some certified canonical classics. For many of us, this kind of delightful spontaneity, set amid the splendor of our gorgeous downtown, came to represent one of the most precious aspects of life in this city — its collective willingness to stop and hear the music of life. The easy accessibility of rare and wonderful experiences at no cost, for no particular reason, and with no external agenda made Pianos on State an instant and undebatable hit.
Needless to say, clusters of people hovering around while strangers play keyboards that unknown others have lately touched is a non-starter in this era of COVID. Nevertheless, the dauntless crew behind Pianos on State has rallied, determined that not just in spite of, but explicitly because of the current necessity of social distancing, Pianos on State must go on. The result, “Pianos on State 2020: Pianos Online,” combines elements of the traditional event — in particular, the gloriously colorful painted pianos — with a new approach to making them public. From November 6 through November 25, seven pianos painted by 11 artists will be fanned out across six of the city’s performing arts venues. Solange Aguilar, David Diamant, Jack Mohr, Steven Harper, Karen Putnam, Irene Ramirez, Ginny Brush, Eliesa Bollinger, Adrienne DeGuevara, Judy Nilsen, and Wanda Venturelli have been hard at socially distanced work in the atelier SBCAW, creating their musical masterpieces for distribution. Now that the pianos are in place, there will be online concerts available to celebrate the season and to support music, the arts, our performing arts venues, and the human spirit at these fine locations: the Lobero Theatre, the Santa Barbara Bowl, the Marjorie Luke Theatre, SOhO, Center Stage Theater, and the Community Arts Workshop. Performances kicked off on Friday, November 13, at the Bowl, and continued on Tuesday, November 17, at the Lobero featuring Zach Gill and performers from Opera Santa Barbara. SBCAW will upload their contribution on Sunday, November 22, and the Marjorie Luke will present a six-pack of keyboard artists online on Wednesday, November 25, just in time for your Thanksgiving holiday.
It wouldn’t be Pianos on State, however, if it didn’t provide opportunities for members of the community — like possibly you! — to participate. There are two social media platforms @pianosonstate, one on Facebook and the other on Instagram, where the hashtags #pianosonstate2020 and #arthelps will be enabled to allow folks to upload and find their own and others’ keyboard performances on video. Made possible by a team of volunteers and seven generous sponsors, Pianos on State 2020 promises to deliver just the kind of Santa Barbara serendipity that we’ve all been missing so much. Even if we can’t do it downtown like we used to, we can still do what we can to keep this charming and heartfelt tradition alive.
CORRECTION: This story was emended on 11/19/20 to state that there are seven pianos, not six, that were painted by 11 artists, not six, and to add the names of five previously unnamed artists.
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