Public piano on the beach isn’t music to crepe stand worker’s ears

on Jul23

23 July 2017 | 10:18 pm

To Zac Chamberlin, the piano placed outside his crepe stand a few feet from the beachfront in Rogers Park has become an instrument of torture.

It’s one of several pianos deposited in parks around town for use by the public. Since it was installed on June 21 at Loyola Park, unskilled fingers beneath broad smiles have been tapping the notes to “Heart and Soul” — the song made famous by actor Tom Hanks and an oversized piano in the movie “Big.”

Played over and over again, it has become the melodic death of thousand cuts.

“It’s the one familiar tune that people know. . . . It’s a little piece of hell,” Chamberlin, 23, said with a laugh.

“I hear people play “Heart and Soul” so often that it makes me want to just roll this piano into the lake myself,” Chamberlin said. “Just put it out of it’s misery at this point.”

When rain falls on the piano, Zac Chamberlin grabs a nearby tarp to shelter it. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

However, his relationship with the instrument is more complex.

When drops of rain fall on its wooden frame, Chamberlin is often the one to grab a nearby tarp to shelter it.

And when he noticed that someone had reached into its guts and torn out one its string-knocking hammers — rendering a single key mute — Chamberlin had a moment of melancholy.

Graffiti left in black marker had the same effect.

Chamberlin plays the piano occasionally. “I know a bit, a few chords,” he said.

“It was a perfect piano. I went out there the first day they put it out and all the keys worked fine,” he said. “The first week someone showed up and played some jazz improv and he came back later that night and others with guitars came and joined him. That was really cool.”

“There are plenty of people who come out and play beautiful music on it, but it’s a lot more common for people to just like experiment,” he said.

A 17-year-old life guard who works at nearby Loyola Beach said it was beautiful when a pianist played “Clair de Lune” a few weeks ago. She also finds it charming to see kids on their parents’ laps, tapping the keys.

“Occasionally you get someone who knows what they’re doing and it can be amazing,” said Mark Ballard, 65, a regular in the park who lives in the neighborhood.

Not all six pianos — part of the Pianos in the Park program — sit in high traffic areas, or near food vendors.

The one in Buttercup Park, 4900 N. Sheridan Road, is tucked into the corner of a grassy area — almost incognito.

The six-week program, which is in its third year in Chicago, is run by the Chicago Park District, the nonprofit organization Keys 4/4 Kids and Make Music Chicago, which promotes music in public spaces. Notes sent to each organization Sunday were not returned.

“One guy in particular comes by nearly every day and randomly hits the keys and sings gibberish at the top of his lungs,” Chamberlin said.

People regularly think the piano is a promotional stunt put on by the eatery Chamberlin works for, Crepes on the Beach.

“Everyone seems to think it’s ours,” he said, adding that he occasionally fields the same subtle request from customers eating on their patio: “Can you make it stop?”

“I think it’s a positive experience for people that don’t have to experience it all day,” Chamberlin said, fully appreciating he’s part of a small group of sourpusses who might appreciate the piano if visiting the park was an occasional outing.

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