Piano Girl
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Piano Girl

Painting an instrument, inspiring the elderly

Keren Straus of Teaneck, a junior at the University of Maryland, shows her custom-painted piano, which will be donated to the Jewish Home Assisted Living.
Keren Straus of Teaneck, a junior at the University of Maryland, shows her custom-painted piano, which will be donated to the Jewish Home Assisted Living.

 

Right now, Jewish Home Assisted Living has two pianos, its longtime executive director, Lauren Levant, says.

But when the facility’s planned expansion is complete, there will be a third, a brightly colored piano in its new community room, courtesy of 22-year-old University of Maryland junior Keren Straus.

“It will give us an opportunity to incorporate more music into our day-to-day living,” Ms. Levant said. “We have residents who play, and our music program is highly attended. It brings back memories from the past and keeps you current.” One of her favorite things is the sight of residents’ feet tapping away as they listen to music, she added.

Ms. Straus’ grandmother, Bess Herman, was a longtime resident of the Jewish Home and Rehabilitation Center in River Vale before it became the assisted living facility. She is thrilled to donate the piano in her grandmother’s memory.

The story of the painted piano begins with a project called “Play Me, I’m Yours.” The website streetpianos.com reports that since its inception in 2008, the venture — or “art project,” as they describe it — has reached more than 10 million people worldwide.

“More than 1,500 pianos have already been installed in 50 cities across the globe,” says the website, “from New York to London, bearing the simple instruction, ‘Play Me, I’m Yours.’ Located on streets, in public parks, markets and train stations and even on ferries, the pianos are available for everyone to play and enjoy.” Each piano is decorated by local artists and community groups.

Ms. Straus, who grew up in Teaneck and graduated from the Yavneh Academy and the Frisch School, both in Paramus, recalled that about a year ago, “I was hanging out with friends, and one of them said he wanted to bring pianos to campus, have artists paint them, and put them outside. The pianos would then be auctioned off.” But to his dismay, the student, Nachmi Kott, learned that it would be too expensive to bring the pianos to campus. So he had to come up with an alternate plan.

He started a group, “Pianos for Play,” to get the project off the ground. Recruiting other interested people — including a creative director and someone with financial experience, Ms. Straus said — “they decided he’d post online that he was looking for pianos.” When the pianos came — and come they did, one after the other — he put them in his apartment.

“He kept posting, and started collecting them,” Ms. Straus said. “After he got all the pianos, he posted for paint and got that too.”

Next, Ms. Straus — a studio art major concentrating in graphic design — was picked as one of the five artists charged with decorating a piano.

She didn’t have much time to work on it — she got the piano at the end of February, began the project in March, and was interrupted by spring break. Nevertheless, she completed the project. “I like to draw with Sharpies and paint with watercolors,” she said. “I made a piece that looked like rings and flowers interlocking. I wanted it to be colorful and bright.”

Each artist chose his or her own look. “One did a nautical scene with a ship and octopus. Another did an abstract piece with wiggly dancing figures.” Money for the project was not an issue, since the pianos and paint were free. The group also got some money from the school, as well as from a Hillel event.

All the finished pianos are being donated. But all of them except the one that Ms. Straus painted will remain in Maryland. “One went to the Fame Foundation, one to the College Park Community Center,” she said. The third went to a local preschool. “The last piano we’re still figuring out,” she added

The idea behind the project was that “we wanted more music and art on campus,” which Ms. Straus described as “too science-oriented. We wanted people to sit down and play, and for others to join in. That’s what happened. Someone was playing my piano and a girl started singing. It brings people together.”

She feels a sense of ownership over the piano she painted, Ms. Straus added. “I worked really hard. Once we put it out, people came over to see it, and it was a great feeling. It made people feel good. I wanted mine to go to the Jewish Home. I remember my grandmother was there for many years when I was young. Music was important to her. My mother said if she hummed a song, my grandmother would react.”

While she didn’t paint the piano with a New Jersey venue in mind, “once I got the idea, I thought it would be really cool to bring it back to Jersey.” Her parents, Robin and Justin Straus, are footing the bill to bring it home. “They found some Maryland movers to take it,” Ms. Straus said. “It will be at the Jewish Home in its own room, as a focal point. It’s really cool.”

For her part, Ms. Levant thinks the idea is “fabulous.

“It’s a way of connecting youth with the older generation. It’s really showing what volunteerism is about — getting involved. I wish more youth would think creatively like this on how to impact the day-to-day life of seniors. What Keren has done is a true mitzvah. I hope it will inspire others.”

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