It’s easy to find live music around Champaign-Urbana on any given night, but where you’ll find it is always too predictable. It’s not surprising to walk into the Highdive or Mike ’n Molly’s and hear a local act’s set, but you would never expect to sit down at Za’s or come home to your dorm and hear live music playing.
And the sad thing is, these places have pianos that are begging to be played. Unnoticed, neglected, forgotten pianos that have stories to tell and music to be heard can be found all throughout Champaign-Urbana. Many establishments would love to hear their instruments sing, but no one notices that they’re there; the pianos are being used to fill empty spaces and to decorate bland corners.
So we took it upon ourselves to find these pianos and spread the word. Go out, find them and play them if you can. After all, that’s what they’re there for.
Maybe you noticed, maybe you didn’t, but hiding next to a dated lamp and shoved into a back room on the second floor of Mia Za’s on Green Street stands a shining black beauty.
“A student used to come in and play it during lunch time years ago,” said Jesse Melton, an employee at Za’s. “It used to be in the main room, but we pushed it into the back room when he stopped coming.”
People have been known to let their fingers run wild on occasion, but the distractions of garlic bread and paninis have really cast the piano into the shadows.
If you have the urge to get those greasy hands on some keys while at Za’s, the staff said to go for it, and if you want to be a regular, there’s a lonely piano wanting some weekly loving.
A baby grand is a hard thing to miss, but if it’s used as a shelf or side table, it can easily be overlooked. At Bar Giuliani on Green Street, a beautiful baby grand sits snug in a corner of the middle portion of the café, sometimes used as a place to stick an extra book or coffee mug.
“The first owner of the Green Street Coffee House bought it about eight or nine years ago,” recalls Veronica Jacome, employee of Bar Giuliani. “It was bought so that people could come and play classical music on it on random nights. We used to pay people to play, but it slowly died down,” she explained.
The baby currently sits dormant, out of tune and untouched (aside from the stray tea saucer), but there is hope for the forgotten instrument. Jacome claims Bar Giuliani is open to new players, new ideas and new music (just not when there are lots of studying customers, of course). The piano is unfortunately out of tune, and current financial binds do not favor bringing in a professional piano tuner, but if certain individuals were to want to play for tips and put those tips toward the tuning of that gorgeous baby grand … all it will take is a little time.
The Blind Pig
Among the drafts of Dragon’s Breath beer and the dim chandelier-lit rooms of the Blind Pig, an old grand piano sits waiting. It’s easy to get caught up in conversation at the downtown Champaign bar, but have you ever stopped to think what the story is behind that piano?
Apparently, The Blind Pig’s piano is one that has sung fame and fortune. According to bartender Jason Ewing, Blind Pig regular Paul Asaro purchased this piano one and a half years ago.
“He plays ragtime on it every now and then when he’s not touring with Leon Redbone,” said Ewing. “Nobody else can play it [because] it’s so expensive. That’s his love; whatever it took, he got it.”
Why the ivories were chosen for this tavern in particular are unknown to most bar-goers, but Ewing has seen a few sets of keys come and go in his time at the Blind Pig.
“Before this one, we’d had an older one for three years,” reminisced Ewing. “This is how [Asaro] makes his bread and butter.”
Asaro not only gave a home to specialty beer but also adopted a piano, aging in all its grandeur in the parlor of the Blind Pig.
In the South Lounge of the Illini Union, a piano sits tucked away in a corner, its appeal noticed by many but heeded by few. With students studying all around, it’s easy to see why this piano stays shyly in the corner under a thin layer of dust.
“I’ve worked here at the Union for about two years,” said Nelicia Jones, a junior in LAS. “I’ve never seen anyone play it.”
Jones first noticed the piano as she was quietly passing by her freshman year, and throughout the years, the piano has remained even though she has moved on.
“It’s there for the students,” said Jones. “But I think people may just be too shy to use it.”
Next time you pass through the Illini Union, stop in the South Lounge and interrupt a little monotonous studying by warming up those keys of the Illini Union piano.
Dorm Lobbies (Bromley Hall)
Cafeterias, mail rooms and study rooms have long been staples of dorm living. One lesser-known pastime for some students is taking a break from studies to play the dorm pianos, found in many residence halls across campus from Illini Tower to Lincoln Residence Hall. Bromley Hall may sport the nicest piano of them all, a black baby grand in the building’s luxurious lobby next to couches and a 360-degree fireplace.
“People play every day,” said Katie, an RA of Bromley working the front desk. “They play mostly modern music with some classical here and there.”
With the piano as the visual centerpiece of the hall’s front lounge, it’s no wonder it gets a lot of playing time. With such a comfortable room, though, there are sure to be people who just want to relax. Three girls lounging on a couch by the fire added their input about the piano and its many players.
“It’s really annoying when people come by and just tap the keys,” mentioned Lauren, a freshman living at Bromley.
“It depends on if they know what their doing, but it still gets old after 20 minutes,” added Coralie, another freshman.
Communal Houses (Evans Scholars House)
A surprising number of communal houses on-campus also shelter well-kept pianos.
The Evans Scholars house in Champaign found itself the unexpected beneficiary of a baby grand piano. Donated in 2007 by an alumnus who had recently inherited it, the black piano is in beautiful condition and just out of tune. Although most residents are not pianists, the few who are enjoy the chance to play at home.
“Sometimes I will ask someone who is studying if it’s alright if I play,” said sophomore Ed Norris. “I almost expect someone to let me know that my playing will distract them from their work.”
Some students are picky about what is played on the piano. Of course, studies show that classical music has been shown to enhance studying abilities.
“If Ed comes in and plays ‘Moonlight Sonata’ or Mozart’s ‘Requiem,’ I suppose that’s alright,” said sophomore Chris Cornille, “but when he starts to play ‘The Entertainer,’ I’m ready to throw him out the door.”