Walking down State Street, car horns interrupt conversations and construction zones ring with disorder, the occasional dog chiming in for her moment in the chaos.
But there’s something else among the noise. Faint tones loop in and out of earshot, familiar songs emerging from the notes. Coming upon a street corner, the music grows louder, and people gather. Peeking through the crowd, there you see it – a piano.
For the past 10 years, pianos have dotted State Street as part of an interactive music exhibit. Put on by the Santa Barbara County Office of Arts and Culture, this year’s event will run from Oct. 21 through Nov. 8. Twelve unique pianos sit from West Anapamu Street down to East Ortega, each decorated by local artists and organizations.
Amateurs, professionals, groups and individuals are all invited to give the instruments a try. Impromptu performances happen day and night, with some organized pop-ups scattered throughout. One of these pop-ups came from Opera Santa Barbara, who will be playing at various pianos across the week.
“Yesterday was World Opera Day, so we’re celebrating with different performances and free community events,” said Tim Acurso, Opera Santa Barbara’s principal pianist. “We’re obviously professional musicians, but it’s nice to see everyone enjoying the pianos.”
Mr. Acurso accompanied two studio artists from the Opera for a 20-minute performance right on Paseo Nuevo. While there to promote an upcoming show, the group knew the exhibit was for more than publicity.
“(The pianos) encourage culture,” said Chandler Johnson, one of the artists. “They might spark people to take piano lessons or wonder what events are going on, so they look into the symphony or a local choir.”
Like Mr. Johnson, studio artist Julia Metzler saw interest at every instrument, sometimes surprised how often they were used.
“I’ve been walking up and down State Street over the past few days, and there’s always someone playing the piano,” said Ms. Metzler. “I thought I knew who all the professional musicians in town are, but I don’t know who these people are. There’s a lot of good players out there!”
Some of those players are just beginners, like SBCC student Kalin Rose. Last year, Mr. Rose saw the pianos on the street but didn’t really know how to play. Now, after teaching himself the basics, Mr. Rose came back for a second try.
“I play guitar and other instruments, and I’ve always wanted to add piano to that,” said Mr. Rose. “Since I started recording songs I wrote, I realized I wanted piano in the mix, so I just kind of did it.”
While unsure why the pianos were there to begin with, Mr. Rose noticed their popularity.
“You can see different people sit down from all over the place and they’re all really good,” said Mr. Rose. “People who you wouldn’t expect.”
Unexpected standouts included Cormac Wheeler, a 9-year old musician who began playing piano a couple years ago. After hearing about the exhibit from his mom, Mr. Wheeler couldn’t wait to get his hands on the keys.
“I wanted to feel the different pianos and see how it is to perform in public,” said Mr. Wheeler, moving from Mozart to The Beatles in a matter of seconds.
Growing up next to a piano teacher, Mr. Wheeler quickly learned his way around the instrument. He now practices every day, jumping at every chance to perform he can get. Initially, Mr. Wheeler wanted a tip jar, but his dad thought it was a little too early for that.
“I was going to use the money to play video games,” said Mr. Wheeler. “But this is still pretty fun.”
For some artists, performing wasn’t planned at all. Longtime Santa Barbara resident Tim Kepford sat down at a piano “just because it was there.” Playing on and off since he was a kid, Mr. Kepford liked that he could just walk down the street and have an instrument.
“I don’t come downtown very often, but when I am and when (the pianos) are here too, I try to spend a couple of minutes playing,” said Mr. Kepford. “Where else can just walk around and see a piano out of nowhere?”
Getting up, Mr. Kepford took a break while other musicians fought for a spot on the bench.
“I think it’s a wonderful opportunity,” he said. “Everybody should get involved in some capacity. I mean whether it’s just a drummer or playing the flute or whatever. Music is a magical thing.”