Under a canopy at the Durham Farmers’ Market, Tom Merrigan sits at the helm of an upright piano. His fingers dance from key to key, playing a boogie-woogie melody. The piano’s top panels have been removed, exposing a system of hammers working hard and fast to keep the tempo.
Merrigan’s aware that a piano is an indoor instrument. But he’s long felt that it can also belong in a more public space — outside, accompanied by the sights and scents of a city’s natural gathering places.
True, most street musicians “busk” (the term used for the practice of playing music in a public area) with instruments they can fit into a case. Merrigan, who has a full-time job, a wife, and two kids, is an exception.
“Busking with a guitar is fairly easy and is also easy to overlook,” Merrigan says. “Busking with a real, 88-key, upright piano allows me to put my music out in public, where everyone’s ears are.”
And “public” is the point. The Durham Street Piano Project started in 2011 as a Kickstarter campaign funded by anyone and everyone who wanted to see a piano leave its dusty post in the living room and enter the heart of Durham’s downtown life.
The first street piano was decorated and painted by those who helped fund the project. The result? A blend of street graffiti and personal images and messages. Local artists covered the hollowed frame of the second piano with vibrant scenes of Durham’s past.
These scenes, in spirit, aren’t unlike the vivacity of the one happening now: strangers coming and going through a pavilion of fresh fruits; a group of children vying for a spot up close to see.
“One of the great things about a city is the mixing together of everyone in the street, or sidewalk, or plaza,” Merrigan says. “The Saturday morning stroll, while shopping and eating, is such a perfect mood for the music.”
See Tom play at the Durham Farmers’ Market, or visit the Durham Street Piano Player Facebook page to stay updated on his performance schedule.
Anjelique Kyriakos was an intern at Our State in spring 2015.