Playing The Street Piano On Ward’s Island
Before winter draws to a close, Bob and I wanted to make a visit to Ward’s Island in Toronto Harbour. With the coldest winter in years still embracing Ontario, we set off on the ferry at the bottom of Bay Street for the 10-minute ride across the frozen harbour. I think it took a bit longer since the vessel had to cut through a thick veneer of ice. Once on the island, and near the pier, I found a Street Piano.
The Toronto Island Ferries have reduced service during the winter months due to the conditions and lack of demand. Few pleasure seekers bother to travel to the islands during the coldest months of the year. Still, the residents of Ward’s Island and Algonquin Island depend on the service to get to work, shopping, school and entertainment. During the remainder of the year, frequent city ferries transport visitors to Centre Island, Hanlan’s Point and Ward’s Island.
When Bob and I disembarked at the ferry dock, we spent considerable time photographing a wide variety of ducks that were enjoying the open water by the pier. Then, we progressed a short distance towards this enchanting little cottage perched at the side of the walkway. With its door hanging ajar, there was an open invitation to come on in and investigate.
I was delighted to find not one but two upright pianos ready for anyone to play. The pianos had seen better days and were grossly out of tune, but who am I to talk when my own piano at home hasn’t been visited by a piano tuner for years? I promptly pulled up the ramshackle piano stool, flipped up the tops of my mittens, and tried to play a tune. For some reason, my mind went blank, and I was left struggling to string notes together in any semblance of a melody.
With the front face of the piano missing, a wonderful opportunity presented itself to see the hammers in action. It was interesting to note the 10-year warranty on this old upright grand piano. Being in out of the elements, the interior workings seemed to be holding up quite well.
That one piano was made by the Colonial Piano Company, and although the label suggests that it was manufactured in Toronto, Ontario, I was unable to find any information to confirm that. It seems that the Colonial Piano Company operated out of Ste-Therese, Quebec, so perhaps it was distributed through a dealer in Toronto. In any case, I thought it was particularly apt that the piano’s present location is on one of the Toronto Islands.
Piano building in Canada began in the second decade of the 19th century, and it grew into a major industry between 1890-1925. The R.F. Wilks & Co. manufactured pianos such as this one in Toronto. Today, for whatever reason, a lot of pianos lie in neglect and are underused.
An innovative artwork called Play Me, I’m Yours has helped to spark renewed interest in these wonderful instruments by placing installations in different cities around the globe. The one above is located on a street in London, England.
Street Pianos is a site that lists the locations of Play Me, I’m Yours street pianos all over the world, some of which can be found right here in Toronto…dozens, in fact, including this one on the back of the “Sam McBride” Toronto Island ferry.
Oddly enough, those two pianos on Ward’s Island have not made the Street Piano list yet. But no matter, simply by being out there, these pianos are doing what Play Me, I’m Yours had hoped.
Play Me, I’m Yours is an artwork installation created by British artist Luke Jerram. His inspiration was to change the dynamics of a space and provide a catalyst for conversation wherever people gather on a regular basis but fail to interact with one another. Hence, a strategically-placed piano inviting passersby to Play Me, I’m Yours. Today, his artistic efforts have seen more than 1,000 pianos being installed in 43 cities across the globe, from New York to London and yes, Toronto. His efforts won the ‘Best Public Art’ at the 2013 Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards.
Although these two beaters have yet to be embellished with artwork or personalized by the local community, the whimsical decor of the quaint cottage more than makes up for that. What better place for them than at a ferry terminal. I’m sure during the busier months of the year, people are encouraged to engage with one another simply because a sole pianist pecks out a melody while they wait for the ferryboat to pull up at the dock. I think they are fantastic!
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