Students, staff use Ryerson pianos on their own time to practise and destress
A Ryerson student walks down Gould Street one evening and hears melodic music drifting out of a window in nearby Kerr Hall. The mysterious sound envelopes them as they wonder whose hands the music comes from.
Students and staff at Ryerson often come across the odd piano in their lecture halls, and have likely wondered about their purpose. What they might not know is that when all classes are finished, usually late after 9 p.m., or on Saturdays, people come out to play. Regular players scout out the piano locations each semester, and have a sense of their availability.
Pianos are not always guaranteed to be accessible when there are no classes. On Sundays, for example, most classrooms are locked. Unfortunately, there is no way for students to know when classrooms are unoccupied and open.
The Ryersonian found eight pianos across Kerr Hall and the Podium buildings that are accessible to Ryerson community members without certain program requirements.
When asked about where the pianos came from, no one seemed to know much except that they were donated and have been around for years; touched by the hands of decades of Ryerson community members.
The people behind the keys
Kareen Kasparian, an industrial engineering student, was taught old Arabic and classical repertoire when she was younger, and says that she plays them every chance she gets so that she doesn’t forget them.
“Whenever I’m studying late, and then on my way home … I stop by and make checks of the different rooms that I know there’s pianos in and if it’s empty, I play a little song. Usually my friend has to sit there and wait for me.”
Kasparian says she stops by a Ryerson piano once or twice a week.
“Whenever there [are] exams it’s probably more [than twice a week] because [playing the piano] is just like a nice stress reliever… I really don’t want to forget the songs that I know because I’m not learning any new ones.”
Tyler Richardson, a fifth-year philosophy student, grew up playing classical music. Having completed all 10 levels of the Royal Conservatory of Music program, Richardson now plays a lot of anime and video game music covers in his spare time.
Away from home, he lives in a small house near campus, where he does not have room for a piano. Richardson doesn’t have the money to buy an electric piano, meaning he has to find alternatives to keep practising.
“Ryerson is that outlet for me,” Richardson said. “I’m able to just explore around school, find certain pianos and practise them whenever I’m able to.”
He has found that there’s a sort of community of pianists at Ryerson.
“I’ve met a couple people … I have their contact information and I’ve just met them here,” Richardson said. “We sometimes convene and share what we learned within two weeks of not seeing each other, et cetera.
“It’s just like a small community of people. It’s kind of nice that we’re able to just see each other sometimes around.”
And it’s not just students who like to play keys in their spare time.
Thomas Dunbar is a Ryerson liaison officer and an arts and contemporary studies graduate from the school. He did the Royal Conservatory of Music up until Grade 4, and since has taught himself rhythmic music like jazz and pop.
Dunbar likes to practise on his lunch breaks at campus. Occasionally he has practised with a bandmate using a Ryerson piano on the weekend, instead of having to play at home or renting a rehearsal space.
To him, playing piano is usually an intimate moment, and usually people leave the room alone when they know someone’s playing piano. But, Dunbar did have one incident where someone stayed to watch.
“Usually, if someone comes in and sees me [playing, they] are more ‘Canadian’ about it, I guess. But like this one guy just like sat really close to me and like watched. It was actually a very awkward situation … it’s a big room and when someone is very close to you in a big room, but you don’t know (them), it’s interesting.”
The players agree that the upright Young Chang piano in KHS 239 is the best piano available, although the lower-end is somewhat heavy and one hammer does not return.
And pianos aren’t just for serious players.
The Ryersonian found Irsah Malik, a student in her final year of business management, and her friend hanging out in POD 367. They had noticed the Heintzman upright piano. For fun, they tried to figure out the notes for “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”
“We saw piano and we thought, ‘OK, that’s kind of cool. What is it about?’ We tried to figure out a few songs… it’s just there to kind of explore.”
First-year dance student Declan Baker likes to stop by KHW 251 for some alone time. He says that it’s not as in demand as other campus pianos and that the room is almost always unlocked.
“When I want to dance, but my body won’t let me, I need to take a break physically,” he told the Ryersonian. “So mentally, I like being artsy fartsy on the piano, making my own stuff.”
Used for music classes
The pianos in the lecture halls aren’t just there for show. In fact, Ryerson offers music courses in those rooms.
The music department manages pianos in POD 368, POD 367, KHS 239, KHE 321A and the two uprights in KHS 251.
Ryerson music professor Sean Bellaviti said that a wide range of students take Ryerson music courses for the music and culture minor or for liberal arts credits. Some students are completely new to music theory, while others have a deeper background.
“These are the students of course, the second the class finishes … they’re going to be crowded around the piano, playing pieces, talking about activities, talking about music, and in some cases trying to apply some of the techniques that they’ve learned in class to the actual instrument.”
Nico Tripodi, a second-year creative industries student, takes Bellaviti’s Architecture of Music class, where Bellaviti will often demonstrate chords on the upright piano in KHE 321A.
Tripodi doesn’t play piano, but finds it’s a welcoming way to learn music theory.
“It’s nice to have an acoustic piano in the room rather than, say, for example, a keyboard or something like that, because it feels more authentic and has a nice warm sound … especially when we’re waking up pretty early for a class,” he said.
Matthew Oliveira, a first-year media production student and a recording artist, also takes Bellaviti’s class and plays Ryerson pianos outside of class.
“The piano is such a global instrument and very integral to the understanding of music theory,” Oliveira said. “When someone’s starting off, it’s the easiest [instrument] to help visualize and help understand everything that you do in courses like this. And it just helps more people. It draws more people into music when they have that tool, being the piano, to help understand and appreciate what it is we’re doing.”
Other pianos with restricted access
Those in the School of Performance have more piano options available for booking.
Nicole Murray, a second-year theatre production student, believes that there are up to 10 pianos managed by the School of Performance. They are spread across campus in acting and dancing studios, including some that have been relocated after the flood in the SLC basement in August.
“Not all of the [pianos] are in great condition, just like everyone else’s,” Murray said. “We are dealing with a lot of digital pianos, that are the main ones we use rather than the acoustic pianos … tuning all the acoustic ones takes a lot of money. Especially the grand piano.”
There is a piano accessible to residence students from Pitman Hall, the International Living/Learning Centre, HOEM and the Daphne Cockwell Complex, on the second floor of Pitman Hall. According to Valerie Bruce, associate director of housing operations and administration, a piano technician determined last year that the piano could no longer be tuned.
In the Rogers Communications Centre, pianos can be found in recording suites for RTA students.
Misuse of pianos, maintenance
Unfortunately, the pianos are in various states of disrepair.
Many players notified the Ryersonian that most pianos are not in tune. Some of the pedals are not working, broken keys pose the risk of splinters, and covers are out of place.
Gillian Turnbull, a Ryerson music professor, is involved with the management of the department of philosophy’s music course’s pianos.
“We tune our pianos every year, and get them repaired to the extent that they’re repairable,” Turnbull wrote in an email. “Unfortunately, because the pianos are donated, they do come to us in various states of heavy use and disrepair and there’s only so much we can do. We’re looking into replacing the pianos in KHS 251 since they are both no longer usable.”
She said that she hopes non-music classes can help with upkeep by being gentle and refraining from setting food and drinks on the instruments.
Two upright pianos at Oakham House have been abused by users and are now closed indefinitely, according to Jennifer Stacey, general manager of the Student Campus Centre. Previously, community members were allowed to access the pianos when events weren’t taking place.
Bellaviti said that old pianos have a lot of factors contributing to their upkeep.
“(A piano) has some weaknesses,” Bellaviti said. “It’s susceptible to the cold, the heat, the dryness, the humidity. As you play it, things get out of tune and the more you tune them, the more repairs they require. It looks sturdy, but then little bits and pieces start falling off. If someone takes off the cover to see the inner workings of the piano, which I sometimes do, then to put it back requires a little bit of skill … once it’s open, things fall inside. And of course there’s a whole history of playing the piano and using in ways such as plucking the strings from the inside, and so forth.
“So in time these pianos get out of tune, even though we tune them as much as we can. Or pedals break, things break — you’ll find that, for the most part, the pianos on on campus are hard to play.”
Want to learn more about Ryerson’s pianos? Check out this map: