Taking pianos to the streets
Sean Pacey dabbles at the keys in Burnaby, near the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts. (photo from Sean Pacey)
Keeping a business afloat for more than four decades is accomplishment enough, but to keep it in the family is especially noteworthy. “My grandfather and his oldest son started the shop in the 1970s,” said Sean Pacey, the current owner of Pacey’s Pianos on Broadway. “In the 1980s, my father took over. When I was 18, my father gave me the keys and walked away.”
The young Pacey was well qualified for the job. “My mom has a small manufacturing business, and I helped her since I was 11,” he recalled. “I’d come home from school and answer the phones. At 13, I started working at tradeshows, representing her company all over the world. We traveled to Germany, China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Hong Kong and many cities in North America.”
Later, already the owner of the piano shop, Pacey got his diploma in business and marketing from the University of British Columbia.
It’s been a little over a dozen years since he accepted the keys to Pacey’s Pianos. In that time, he has expanded the company, and it offers more services and events than it did in his grandfather’s and father’s days, including charitable enterprises. One of these charities is Support Piano, the Vancouver version of Street Piano.
The Street Piano movement started in 2008 in England and has spread worldwide. More than a thousand pianos have been installed outdoors in 45 cities across the globe. Anyone who wants can play them. Some impromptu players are professional musicians, others are children learning to play or adults who learned in the past but, for various reasons, abandoned their music. The freely available pianos entice many hidden musicians out of the woodwork.
Vancouver picked up the initiative last year, when City Studio installed three instruments in public spaces during the summer. This year, the number has increased manifold: City Studio installed 10 pianos, and Pacey partnered with the studio, donating 12 more pianos for the project. However, he wasn’t satisfied with simply leaving a piano on a street corner. He wanted communities to unite around the instruments, to claim ownership of their urban landscape and its music.
“We engaged in similar projects since 2009 but not on such a scale,” he said. “For this project, we decided to match each piano we installed with a certain group we wanted to showcase. Every opening was a musical event. The involved group painted the piano, and there was a concert by a professional musician.… For me, it is a strictly nonprofit venture; it is about doing something beautiful.”
Pacey’s sponsorship groups came from all over Metro Vancouver and included neighborhood kids from a summer camp, seniors with mental disabilities and terminally ill children. “We picked iconic locations that meant something to us,” he explained. “I had a dream to have my instruments everywhere – in a public park, on a lake shore, on a mountain, under the Skytrain, at a music festival.”
He made his dream come true. The pianos with his shop’s mark are standing on Grouse Mountain and under the Skytrain station in Surrey. They offer their black and white keys to anyone who wants to play in Richmond and East Vancouver, Burnaby and Squamish. One of his pianos allows pianists to entertain visitors beside the Jewish Community Centre of Greater Vancouver.
“I drive through the spots of our pianos and, everywhere, people are playing. It’s amazing,” he said.
To inspire more participants, Pacey organized a video competition. “People play our pianos, film themselves and upload their videos on our website. We’re going to select a winner and award him or her $400 plus an opportunity to play with the Lions Gate Sinfonia.”
For Pacey, the project is a collaboration between the city, the people and the music world, and his pianos are conduits of connection. He drew performers for the opening and closing ceremonies for each instrument from the wide pool of professional piano players. Some of them are his personal friends, others he met through his shop or his several musical charities.
Philanthropy plays an important role in Pacey’s life. He wants to give to the community, so he contributes much to various nonprofits – and not just money or his pianos but his time and energy, too. He sits on the boards of several local organizations, including Lions Gate Sinfonia Orchestra.
His “baby” charity is the Piano Teachers Federation, which he founded in 2009. “I wanted to make it easier for piano teachers and students to find each other, to find the right fit,” he explained.
The database of the federation is extensive and covers many areas of the city. He personally interviewed every teacher member before adding him or her to the database. Some of them played during the opening ceremonies of Support Pianos, and other members will play at the closings.
“Our Facebook page for Support Pianos already has over 1,500 likes,” he said. “And it’s only been since the beginning of July.”
The pianos are going to grace their public locations until the end of September. “We’ll have a closing ceremony for each one,” he said, “before we collect them. If any of the instruments are in good condition, we might reuse them next summer.”
To learn more – and to upload a video submission – check out supportpiano.com.
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].