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By Karen Nikos-Rose on August 21, 2019

Written and compiled by UC Davis News and Media Relations Intern Leigh Houck

In the Key of Davis: Public Pianos Provide Art and Music

Try to find all six this weekend

It’s a balmy summer evening, perfect for taking a stroll through Davis. Whether you’re at the Wyatt Deck in the Arboretum or the Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem Museum of Art Museum on the UC Davis campus, or the Davis Food Co-op downtown, you’re likely to come across a hand-painted piano. Beginners and experts, children and adults alike, tap out melodies on these colorful pianos. But why are they here, and where did they come from?

These unexpected instruments dotting the landscape are part of “In the Key of Davis,” a program that was started by teenage sisters Isabelle and Hailey Shapiro in 2015. The donated pianos are placed throughout the city at beginning of summer — six this year. Now is a great weekend to go see them. Depending on the weather, they are collected again before the rainy season begins, usually around August or September, said Isabelle Shapiro.

Where are the pianos?

Cheerful painted pianos adorn Hunt-Boyer (historic house) patio, Central Park, the Davis Food Co-op, and the Mary L. Stephens Davis branch library in addition to the UC Davis campus locations of the Manetti Shrem Museum of Art and the Wyatt Deck.

Each piano is unique, painted by locals of all ages: from Birch Lane Elementary and Emerson Junior High students to the Davis High School art painting club. The piano in front of the Manetti Shrem Museum is painted with colorful plants and flowers, inspired by the current exhibition inside, “Landscape without Boundaries.” This particular piano was painted by representatives of the UC Davis Cross Cultural Center and the Women’s Resources and Research Center. The piano outside the library is decorated with a quote and images from Homer’s The Odyssey. Artists have free rein in their designs, even though the designs are reviewed by program directors.

Locations of the pianos change each year so that each can be admired and played by different audiences. 

Shapiro — “The goal of the program is to spread music and art around the community, and give people who might not usually have a chance to perform an opportunity to show their skills to the public.”

In past years, the program has placed pianos in other locations. Trial and error taught them, however,  that pianos suffer adverse effects from sitting in the hot sun or becoming covered with tree sap. So pianos are not placed in locations where hazards could damage the instruments, she said.

Piano at library
A piano placed outside the local library quotes The Odyssey. (Leigh Houck/UC Davis)

The pianos must also be tuned. Piano tuner Mark Stivers donates time to tune all the pianos before they return each summer, and he sometimes tunes them up in the middle of summer, Shapiro said.  She and her family, additionally, administer a little tender loving care to these outdoor pianos by wiping them down to keep them clean.

So go out and find a piano before fall rolls around, when the pianos migrate indoors because of the weather. Or better yet, challenge yourself to a scavenger hunt to find all six pianos. And don’t forget to play a melody In the Key of Davis while you are there. 

Thanks to Isabelle Shapiro for contributing information about In the Key of Davis for this piece.

Learn more about the origins of In the Key of Davis here.

Visit the Facebook page for In the Key of Davis. 

Other suggested weekend activities include:

  • “Road Trip” at the Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, Tuesdays through Sundays. (Watch for a special feature on this attraction in next week’s Arts Blog.)
  • Back to School at diRosa Center for Contemporary Art, Saturday Aug. 24, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. 
    • K-12 educators and students get free admission to diRosa this Saturday. Elementary school teachers who are interested in bringing their classes to diRosa can come to an information session from 10:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. Middle and high school teachers can attend a session from 1:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. 
  • Kid Flicks Two, Sunday Aug. 25, 10:30 a.m. 
    • The Verge Center for the Arts, in partnership with the New York International Children’s Film Festival, will screen short films for audiences 8 years and older at 11 a.m. The doors open at 10:30 for crafts and concessions. This event is free for Verge Members with advanced registration. Otherwise, the event costs $9 for general admission, $7 for seniors and students, and $5 for children 12 and under. 
  • Folk Jam Music Session, UC Davis Arboretum, Wyatt Deck near the redwoods, Friday Aug. 23, noon to 1 p.m. 
    • Got a song in your heart? Grab your instrument of choice and head down to Wyatt Deck at the arboretum this Friday. Enjoy the summer weather while playing informally with other local musicians. All are welcome.  
  • Capital Culture List: Catch the latest in performing arts on UC Davis' own Capital Culture List Blog and Podcast, below.