Public Pianos, Vandalism & the Metrics of Hope (or, How to Win 99% of Bets)

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 06:  Guests play a piano during The 2016 Sing For Hope Pianos launch event on June 6, 2016 in New York Ci
NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 06: Guests play a piano during The 2016 Sing For Hope Pianos launch event on June 6, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images for The Sing for Hope Pianos )
Since 2010,
has placed a total of
in the parks and public spaces of NYC for anyone and everyone to play. Doing this, the two questions we field most are:
  • what happens when it rains?
  • don't people destroy the pianos?

The answer to the first question is that we have Piano Buddies--heroic volunteers in each community who keep their eyes on the weather forecast and cover the pianos with tarps when it rains.

And the answer to the second question is that, of the 336 artist-designed pianos we've placed in NYC parks and public spaces over the past 5 years, a total of 3--i.e. fewer than 1%--have been vandalized.

Sadly, one of those three instances of vandalism occurred earlier this week at Owl's Head Park in Brooklyn. The morning after the incident, our team met with the Park Manager and Parks Conservancy, and together we decided to return the piano to our SFH Pianos Art Studio at 28 Liberty in Lower Manhattan to see if our lead piano technician could repair it (the damage took the form a pried-off front panel and broken internal hammers, but the artwork had been left intact). The prognosis was good, replacement parts were secured, and three days later, the piano was as good as new and ready to be relaunched in a new location.

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The Sing for Hope Piano created by Volunteer Artist Rob Baird and entitled "Numbers," pictured last week with young friends in Brooklyn's Owl's Head Park several hours before the vandalism occurred.

This year, our small but mighty band at Sing for Hope is especially mindful of the imperative to keep our pianos in good working order long-term because the instruments' time on the streets is only the beginning of the story. Assuming we are able to meet our $25,000 fundraising goal by the end of this month, Sing for Hope's new partnership with the NYC Department of Education will allow us to transport all 50 instruments, post-parks residency, to permanent homes in under-resourced public schools, where they will benefit an estimated 15,000 students. For the past month, we've been fielding applications from schools who want the pianos, and the testimonials leave no doubt as to whether the arts are desperately needed, and sorely missing, in many of our schools.

So, with its bruises healed, this one vandalized instrument, now happily repaired, will join its 49 piano siblings and become part of a school community. For hundreds of students, the piano--created by Volunteer Artist Rob Baird and entitled "Numbers"--will, in Rob's words, channel "how the arts, math, and sciences are intertwined as fundamental building blocks of the human experience. It will encourage all of us to embrace the infinite possibilities created when we explore these realms together as a community."

In many ways, Sing for Hope is simply a working theory: the arts create possibility, possibility creates hope, and our city needs hope. Create direct inroads for artists to share their talents in communities, and see the blossoming that follows. In bringing creative opportunities to underserved communities, Sing for Hope has been referred to a resource re-allocator, but it's actually more like a resource magnifier. There is a palpable magnification of creativity on both sides of the equation, for volunteering artists as well as for partnering communities. Bottom line: sharing art in community is about placing a bet on the best of what makes us human, on our capacity for creativity and empathy. And when you bet on what is best in people, they step up.

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Four "SFHPianos Photo of the Day" selections chosen this week from social media shares by New Yorkers and visitors across the 5 boroughs.

There is much discussion in nonprofit-land these days about how we measure impact. To that end, how do we leverage the success metric of SFH Pianos placed in "at-risk" neighborhoods? Put another way, how does one measure hope? Over 99% (99.2518%, to be precise) of these beautiful artist-designed pianos emerge not only un-vandalized, but having uplifted spirits on a broad scale. At a time when our public discourse is divisive and a leading candidate spews vitriol that would have been unimaginable even a year ago, the possibility of coming together with strangers in harmony is compelling. A simple public piano is able to catalyze positive change on levels both communal and individual. Communally, it affirms our common humanity and honors our shared public space; individually, it allows disparate folks to really be seen and heard, and to connect in new and authentic ways (this one golden-voiced Brooklyn mailman is just one of countless examples shared over the past ten days).

The Sing for Hope Pianos are a distillation of the artistic process at its most essential--little seeds of truth and beauty that we hurl out into the world in the hope that they'll land on hospitable terrain, take root, flower, bear fruit. It can feel risky, but we know it's vital to our shared survival.

Vandalism happens. It is an urban reality. Part of the miracle of the Sing for Hope Pianos is how rarely our instruments fall victim to it. Less than one percent is a risk we are willing to take. We continue to place our bet on harmony, and we are right over 99% of the time. And for that reason, we play on.

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Learn more about Sing for Hope and find the SFH Piano nearest you at www.singforhope.org.

The 2016 Sing for Hope Pianos "KEY CHANGE: Pianos for the Kids of NYC" program is made possible by our partnership with the NYC Department of Education and the generosity of donors like you.

Follow Camille Zamora on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@zamora_camille