CHICAGO – “Ya’ll ready to jam?”
Outside the Jackson Park field house, children squeeze between an upright piano and its accompanying bench for a chance to unabashedly pound their fingers across the keys and peek into the inner workings of the instrument’s opened top, where the pedals and hammers are exposed to the summer day.
“You got your music juices flowing? Do you feel it in your soul?” asks piano teacher Thaddeus Tukes as he attempts to corral the children from Jackson Park’s summer camp. Before beginning the lesson, he allows the kids to punch the keys, so they can “let it all out.”
By the end of the kids’ 10 minutes with Tukes, he says, “Ya’ll are piano players now.”
Jackson Park is the newest addition to Pianos in the Parks, a program curated by the International Music Foundation’s Make Music Chicago and the Chicago Park District’s Night Out in the Parks initiatives. The partnership, which places pianos in five parks across Chicago, is in its fourth summer. But this is the first year musicians like Tukes have been commissioned to teach piano lessons at the parks once a week.
The initial vision for the program was to build community engagement in local parks and get musicians outdoors to play a piano, an instrument usually relegated to the indoors, says Kuang-Hao Huang, the artistic director for Make Music Chicago.
At Jackson Park, the new piano has been a hit with the more than 175 kids at summer camp. Tukes comes once a week for an hour to teach children from all over Chicago’s South Side.
“A lot of these kids do not have access to pianos, so for a lot of them this is their first time being exposed to the instrument,” says Louise McCurry, president of Jackson Park Advisory Council. “These kids will walk away from their 10-minute lesson calling themselves a piano player.”
McCurry suggested opening the back of the piano to get the kids interested in how a piano functions. After her lesson with Tukes, summer camp student Mykiya Bradley, 9, silently points to the hammers inside the piano when she’s asked her favorite part of the brief lesson.
Tukes, a 24-year-old jazz musician and vibraphone artist, grew up near Jackson Park and wants the neighborhood children to be exposed to music just as he was. When he was 5 years old, Tukes’ grandmother grew tired of him banging on her piano and enrolled him in piano lessons. Tukes went on to study music at Northwestern University, graduating in 2016, and now plays in a local jazz band in addition to teaching private lessons at Kenwood Academy and St. Benedict Preparatory School.
“I don’t like to think of it as giving back to my community because that would mean I took something in the first place, but I do think that I am helping young people here gain cultural access and exposure that they otherwise would not have had,” Tukes says. “I am trying to inspire them in a way that I was inspired at their age by people like me.”
In Chicago, an hourlong piano lesson ranges from $30-$120 depending on the teacher, type of lesson and location. For kids whose families cannot afford lessons, or who attend public schools where music programs have been cut, even 10 minutes at a piano can plant the seeds of music appreciation.
Tukes came into this new job with a list of songs he was hoping the children would be able to play by the end of the summer, but he soon realized the limitations of the program format. Instead he lists three rules for the kids to follow before improvising chords, melodies and baselines, which are:
“Watch where I put my fingers, put your fingers in a similar place, count how many times I play each note.”
“It’s not about teaching them long-term piano technical skills (in a 10-minute lesson), it is more about inspiring them to want to actually learn music,” Tukes says.
When the kids start playing their own renditions, straying from the few chords he teaches, Tukes says “Oh, you got your remixes, I like your remixes,” with a slight smile and raised brow.
To the west of Jackson Park, at McKinley Park, the scene is different.
Children sit around the piano in swim trunks and dripping-wet hair. After an afternoon of swimming, siblings George, 8, and Jordan Ramey, 10, sit on a shared piano bench that is slightly too low, forcing them to lift their arms to reach to the keys.
Kirsten Daulton, a 41-year-old “piano mom” from the neighborhood, teaches Jordan and Ramey to play “Happy Birthday,” calling their fingers spiders and encouraging them to continue after every mistake. Jordan and George’s mother, Andrea Ramey, watches while holding their wet towels.
“They wanted to come to this park to swim at the pool and specifically play this piano,” says Andrea Ramey, adding that the family lives in Hyde Park. “I’ve been looking for places to take them to get lessons, but it’s expensive with three kids. They want to learn piano, but I think they are even more intrigued by the piano being in the park.”
Andrea’s face lights up and she holds her hand at her chest in pride for Jordan and George’s “recital” at the conclusion of their lesson. As her children play a “Happy Birthday” solo, Andrea celebrates likes she’s just watched them take their first steps.
Daulton teaches private piano lessons out of her home in McKinley Park and joined the Make Music Chicago program to give back to her neighborhood.
“Everyone seems to be really drawn to pianos, and so for them to be able to come up and learn something that they can recognize rather than banging on the notes is fulfilling to me,” says Daulton. “I like to see the excitement in their faces and their parents’ that they can be proud of what they’re doing.”
The teachers at each park come for one hour once a week, and the schedule is posted online.
When there is no teacher giving lessons, the pianos are made available at the park’s discretion, and sometimes left all day without being uncovered for people to play. At Washington Square Park in River North and Mozart Park in Logan Square, some passers-by glanced at the covered piano in curiosity while walking their dogs. Without anyone sitting at the piano, many folks seem to walk by without giving it a second thought.
At Buttercup Park in Uptown, piano teacher Matt Griffo sits against a tree in the shade to avoid the heat of the midsummer day while waiting for someone to take interest in the piano. A music director and comedian with Second City and iO Chicago, Griffo, 32, spends his one hour a week sometimes teaching several children, and sometimes playing by himself. The midday time slot could be the reason for the lack of interest, but Griffo says the program could also be better advertised to attract more people.
“This is such an unconventional way to teach piano to people who can’t normally pay for lessons,” Griffo says. “I remember when I was a kid, I wanted lessons but my dad could never afford them, so I taught myself. I would’ve loved to be able to play and practice in a park like this.”
Despite the lull, a park regular comes by to play with Griffo. Carlotta Gill, a 40-year-old artist from Uptown, sits with him to render Club Nouveau’s “Lean on Me,” practicing the chords he taught her the previous week.
When the hour is up, Griffo is supposed to cover the painted piano with a tarp. Instead, he leaves it open for people to play.
For more about Make Music Chicago’s Pianos in the Parks program, visit www.makemusicchicago.org/pianos-in-the-parks.
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