Moving is a pain, but moving a piano is another order of pain altogether. That doesn’t matter, though, to Sebastian Brown – who earned a BA in linguistics in 2014: for the last two summers, the Toronto busker has regularly pushed his upright piano over a two-kilometre stretch to play ragtime tunes near Union Station. This summer, Brown will once again treat startled onlookers to an infectiously happy menu of Scott Joplin songs – played at his very own sidewalk saloon. Cynthia Macdonald caught up with him recently.
Where did you get the idea to do this?
In 2012, in the run-up to the 2015 Pan Am Games, organizers put pianos on the street, each one painted to represent a different country. Nobody would play the one at Union Station because of the heavy construction there. But I found that if I just waited until 5 o’clock the construction workers would go home, and I could play without any interruption. When they took the piano away, I decided I had to do it myself.
Fine, but . . . who moves a piano to work?
I’m not original. There’s another guy in New York who does it with a grand piano. He used to do it with an upright and went through one piano a year, because he’d play in the rain too. I don’t do that, because I’ve only got one piano. And there’s also another guy who’d strap his piano on his back. Well, I wasn’t going to do that! I’m not that crazy – and my friends Billy Kalantzis, Alexandre Piché-Abe and Joel Dalton have all helped me at various times.
And why so far?
I used to store it in a bar close by, but I got kicked out and had to get storage space near the Don Valley Parkway. My friend Billy agreed to help me move it downtown. The first time we tried, we got stuck on a pedestrian walkway with people trying to get around us. It was very embarrassing. I remember one guy yelling: “Holy Moses, it’s called hiring a piano mover!”
Any close calls?
Oh yeah, especially that first week, until we started to use ratchet straps so the piano wouldn’t fall over. But every time you push it you’re nervous; every bump freaks you out. Billy decided it hurt his back too much, so Alex started helping me. It got to the point where he and I didn’t need to communicate, we knew that road so well. I can tell you where every crack, pothole and sewer grate is.
Why did you decide to play ragtime?
I think everybody recognizes it, even if they don’t know from where. It’s deeply embedded in our cultural and historical memory. I was in high school when I first heard it, but it still sounded familiar. Because Scott Joplin died in 1917, his work is in the public domain, so I could go to the United States Library of Congress website and get most of it there. I just started to learn one song after another.
After all the difficulty of pushing a 360-kilogram instrument to work, did you ever think: hmm, maybe I should have taken up the recorder?
No, because you see people busking with small instruments like that all the time. It’s a bit more difficult, but it garners more attention because of how unusual it is. Also, when you get your city permit, you’re not allowed to have an amplifier. So nobody can hear you unless you’re playing an instrument as large as a piano: it’s so big, the sound carries all the way down the street. Overall, the reaction I get is just – wow! A piano? Why? And how?
Watch: Sebastian Brown and friend pushing a piano to Bay and Front