The piano doesn’t belong here.
That’s why so many people passing by give it the look. Or, a look.
Follow the eyes. How they light up. Or how they glare with that confused tilt. How they can’t help but stare. People might keep walking by or keep their conversation going, but, for a few seconds, their eyes lock in on the piano that was seemingly plopped on the sidewalk in busy Manitou Springs.
Behind the eyes, probably, are questions. What is this piano doing here? Is it garbage? Am I allowed to touch it? Am I allowed to play it? What if I want to play, but I don’t play it well?
Frequent visitors to Manitou Springs, as well as the town’s residents, likely know that the piano is meant to be played by anyone who passes by. And people play. When the weather’s nice, they play at all hours of the day. Some people quickly punch the keys while they walk by. Others sit for hours and collect tips in a jar. Even so, there’s still a hint of mystery.
Rolf Jacobson holds the keys to those questions, just like he holds the keys to the big pink house towering behind the piano. When he put the piano out there two years ago, he didn’t expect much response.
“It was just a random idea I had,” Jacobson, 58, said. “It’s just because it’s Manitou, and we do things like that. We do cute things here.”
It was also a solution to the problem of having two pianos in his house. He decided it was easier to push one piano to the sidewalk rather than trying to get rid of the instrument. There was no money in selling it, anyway.
Jacobson was inspired by painted pianos around Denver’s 16th Street Mall. Unlike Denver’s “Your Keys to the City” program, there’s nothing official about the piano in front of his house.
“No one told me to do it or not to do it,” Jacobson said.
While he hasn’t heard anything from city officials, he did get some negative feedback at first. From his fiancee, Rose Lyda.
“I was against it,” she said.
As a piano player since childhood, Lyda, 45, considered it “instrument abuse” to keep the piano outside at all times, subject to weather and passersby who could damage or steal the piano.
“I changed my perspective on it,” Lyda said. “Because so many people have found an outlet, especially during COVID, playing the piano.”
For her, there was a turning point.
After George Floyd was killed by police in May 2020, Lyda found herself playing the family’s indoor piano, a pretty and pristine thing by a front window on the house’s first floor. Amid so much heaviness, she pulled out the notes for a song with these words: “What the world needs now is love, sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.”
As she played, she stopped herself. For the first time, she wanted to play outside instead. She picked up her songbook and walked down the driveway to play the same song on the piano on the sidewalk.
“I just thought, music can heal,” Lyda said. “If there’s something uplifting I could do, I wanted to do it.”
There are many stories of the piano’s healing powers, even though everyone admits the instrument has lost some of its musical powers after so many days of being outside. It gets tuned occasionally, but no one’s drawn to the piano for its sound quality.
One man came across the piano just days after graduating college, where he studied music composition. He asked Lyda if he could play it for a while and, since it was so sunny outside, if he could borrow some sunscreen. A homeless man used to play the piano for a couple of hours most days for tips. That’s probably how he got enough money for food each day, Lyda and Jacobson guess. The man sometimes stored his belongings inside the piano’s bench. His bike is still locked up nearby, but he hasn’t been around in a few months.
There are smaller moments of joy, such as a child hitting the keys and a mother saying, “Good job!” Such as when a small crowd forms out of nowhere to appreciate a stranger’s song.
On a recent afternoon, 17-year-old Alexis Tabet walked by the piano wearing a flowy, flowery dress and checkered sneakers. She was dressed up early for her high school prom.
She said she hadn’t played a piano in more than a year, but an old competition piece came back naturally. And she smiled the whole time.
“At first, I thought, ‘I wonder why this is here,’” Tabet said. “But I knew I wanted to play it.”
This is the kind of thought a lot of people have while passing the piano, according to Jacobson’s 25-year-old son, Jordan.
“I see people eyeball it and kind of walk by,” he said. “They’re not sure why it’s there or something.”
When people do play, it can be healing for Jordan Jacobson as well as anyone close enough to hear. Even if it’s happening at midnight or 6 a.m.
“It’s usually people who are pretty good at playing the piano since they have the courage to go up and play in front of everybody,” he said. “It brings a lot of positive energy. I can’t complain to hear music that’s played live and right in front of your house.”
Even though visitors are thrown off by the sight, Jordan Jacobson sees the piano as “a very Manitou thing.”
“It just fits in here,” he said. “It’s something you’d expect to see here.”
Others agree. A public piano program has for years been on the to-do list for local organizations such as the Manitou Arts Center and the Manitou Music Foundation.
“A piano on the street, accessible for everyone to use, is a fantastic creative tool for Manitou Springs,” said Kiera Lynn, with the Manitou Music Foundation. “I’ve seen everyone from grade school kids to dressed-up professionals to transients just passing through all using that piano.”
Lynn, who also works for Visit Manitou Springs, says the piano adds to the spirit of the bustling tourist town.
“It allows a public creative outlet without fear of performance,” Lynn said. “It also encourages those, even with no musical training, to try something new.”
It worked out far better than Rolf Jacobson thought.
“I really didn’t think much of it when I did it,” he said. “It just puts a smile on everyone’s face. And that makes me so happy.”
As a self-described “lifer” in Manitou, Jacobson remembers when no one wanted to live here or visit that much. He bought his house, known as the governor’s house, from his parents in 2001.
Built in 1880, the house is known as a historical landmark and for its pink color and for a spooky papier-mache mannequin poking out from the upstairs window. And now, it’s known for being the house with the piano.
“I don’t think it surprised anyone that we’re the house that put the piano out,” Lyda says. “There are worse things to be known for.”
And, Jacobson said, there should be more things like that.
“In our little way, we’re trying to encourage more artistic things,” he said. “I think that’s the future of Manitou. Music. Arts. That’s what we should be known for. Not just the Incline.”
Of course, from their front porch, Jacobson and Lyda see plenty of people headed for the Manitou Incline each day. They see all kinds of people.
It’s the kind of front porch you could sit on all day and be entertained. It’s the kind of front porch you could sit on for long conversations.
Like when Lyda talks about her love for the piano. And inheriting all that sheet music from her grandmother. For the past year or so, she’s played the piano on the sidewalk at least once a week. She plays a mix of classics and familiar tunes, such as “Sweet Caroline.”
“For me, it’s a release of emotions and a way to express (myself) the way people express with words or express with art or maybe even get out their aggression with physical activity,” she said. “It’s a great centering exercise.”
Then Lyda’s train of thought might get interrupted by something on the street.
“I’m sorry,” Lyda says with a laugh. “There’s a dog in that car wearing goggles.”
Just more Manitou things.
Another distraction comes when a group of 20-somethings stop at the piano. Lyda recognizes the look on one of the guy’s face.
“He’s thinking about playing,” Lyda says.
When he does start playing, it’s a song from “White Christmas,” which he says is the only song he can remember.
“Keep playing!” Lyda cheers. “I love that song.”
He keeps playing, and Lyda sings along. The piano player’s friends pull out their cellphones to capture the moment. And then they go on their way.
It brings a smile to Jacobson’s face, as he leans against the porch and sips coffee. It’s the sort of thing he sees all of the time. But each time looks a little bit different.
“We’re just interested in making Manitou a better place,” Jacobson said. “Not that a piano does that… but it’s a start.”