08/30/2013 12:57 pm ET | Updated Oct 30, 2013

"Pianos for Peace" Project Unites Urban Rochester Community

pianos for peace

University of Rochester student Marissa Balonon-Rosen helps local children paint one of the eight pianos of her "Pianos for Peace" project in Rochester, New York earlier this month. (J. Adam Fenster/University of Rochester)

Picture this: you're hurrying down a dull city street on a busy weekday afternoon, your eardrums under assault from the squealing of car brakes and the sluggish groaning of busses. Suddenly, a snatch of piano music penetrates the din. You frown, wondering whether this unexpectedly pleasant sonority has issued from the iPod of a passing pedestrian, but then you hear it again, more clearly, and realize that it is actually emanating from a street corner just ahead. Curious, you quicken your pace, and soon discover that the beautiful melody is being performed by an energetic live pianist, playing on a brightly-painted instrument for a crowd of intrigued passerby.

This may not sound like a typical urban experience, but for residents of Rochester, New York, it has become a reality this past month. As of August 5, eight pianos have been made available in strategic locations around Rochester's inner-city neighborhoods for anyone -- child or grandparent, musician or non-musician -- who wishes to play them. Additionally, trained pianists have been presenting short performances and giving free lessons several times a week. This innovative community project is called "Pianos for Peace," and it owes its existence to Rochester native Marissa Balonon-Rosen, who is pursuing a degree in Urban Youth Studies at the University of Rochester as well as a Music Theory degree at the Eastman School of Music.

"Having grown up in the city of Rochester, having attended city schools, I have been able to see a lot of the issues that the city faces, [such as] poverty and violence," Balonon-Rosen explains. "So I've always been really interested in trying to help Rochester become a more peaceful place."

This passion led her to create a number of successful projects aimed at improving inner-city life, which included 5K runs to promote nonviolence, a youth conference, and even a music program at a nearby juvenile detention center. But it wasn't until Balonon-Rosen's junior year of college, which she spent studying abroad in Paris, that a chance encounter inspired her to instigate "Pianos for Peace."

"One day I saw this piano outside in the middle of the street, and it was for anyone to play and I thought it was awesome," she recounts. "I was playing, people were listening and [later] I researched online and saw that all over the world people were doing these outdoor piano projects, so I thought it would be really great for Rochester, which is so musical in some ways, to have a similar project."

Balonon-Rosen was particularly interested in the outreach potential of such an initiative, which she felt could be especially invaluable in certain parts of the city.

"What really interested me is the fact that we have the Eastman School of Music and we have so many people who are so into music, yet at the same time, there's this huge disparity and there's so many kids and parts of Rochester who never really have that exposure," she says. "Here we have world-class musical outlets, yet there are some in the neighborhoods who have not had the same chance at experiencing the joy of playing an instrument."

Back in the U.S. for the fourth year of her dual degree program, Balonon-Rosen pitched her idea to her fellow community members, and soon assembled a diverse contingent of supporters and volunteers. Families donated their pianos, local businesses contributed necessary materials, paint and moving services, and a group of dedicated neighbors agreed to watch over the pianos and ensure their security. In addition to this logistical support, a myriad of artists and community members have offered their time and talent to paint the instruments, and of course, Rochester-area musicians have been performing regularly at the various sites. A particularly invaluable asset has been a partnership with the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, which has provided administrative support as well as a home for the "Piano Park for Peace" that will be opened at the end of the month. Balonon-Rosen received additional financial and organizational support from her own school as well; the University of Rochester provided necessary insurance for obtaining city permitting, and the project received a small financial sum as a winner of the New Venture Challenge competition that is held annually by Eastman's Institute for Music Leadership. Now, with all of its logistical and artistic pieces in place, the project has elicited the positive community reaction that Balonon-Rosen hoped it would.

"Neighbors seem to really enjoy the fact that they were thought of -- 'Look, there's a piano in the park, there's a piano down the street!' -- I've been talking with a lot of people and some of them never played a real piano, and this just gives them the opportunity to do that."

One of the project's more unique aspects is that each piano was hand-painted by an artist portraying his or her personal conception of peace.

"Not only are we bringing pianos into these neighborhoods, but we're having the neighborhood -- and the community -- determine what peace means to them, and expressing it on the piano," Balonon-Rosen explained.

The performances and free lessons have been greeted with much enthusiasm by community members. Balonon-Rosen remembers one particularly memorable encounter with a group of children whom she met at one of the "piano corners": "They'd never really played before, but you could tell they had a lot of rhythm and great ideas, and I sat down with them and just started teaching them some piano."

The pianos are only going to be in the neighborhoods for a few more days, but Rochester residents will still have many opportunities to hear performances, take lessons, and play themselves in the coming month. This week, the pianos will be moved to the Gandhi Institute to create the "Piano Park for Peace" which will be accessible to the public until the end of September. After that, Balonon-Rosen intends to have them donated to area organizations dedicated to promoting nonviolence and improving the lives of urban youth.

Even when the music has faded from Rochester's streets, however, Balonon-Rosen hopes that the project will leave a lasting impression on the city's leaders.

"Right now, The Rochester City School District is cutting its arts budget, so maybe something like this will inspire the city to work towards reversing that trend," she says.

What's most important to her, though, is that "Pianos for Peace" will serve as an example of how a love of music can truly bring people together.

"It's just amazing how the community has really embraced this project. I'm really hopeful that this is just a beginning."

For more information on "Pianos for Peace," check out its official Facebook page: