[ Thumbnail ] Giving Spaces New Meaning #1

Giving Spaces New Meaning

#1 The Transformative Power of Pianos in Train Stations

May 29, 2024

For many people, train stations are places of transit, places you pass through on your way to somewhere else. Whether you're commuting to work, lost in thought about your final destination, or meeting friends for a day out, stations tend to serve as mere waypoints rather than final stops. But what if you add a piano to the mix? Suddenly the scene changes. Someone might sit down and start playing their favorite song. Others might pause to listen, maybe even join in with another instrument or start dancing. Because stations are public spaces, they attract people from all walks of life, creating opportunities for unexpected interactions.

Since 2014, Yamaha has been working with the French National Railway Company (Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français, or SNCF) to install pianos in train stations across France. Known as "Station Pianos," these instruments are open to anyone who wants to play. They don't just bring a touch of music to the stations, they give them new life and meaning, transforming them from mere stops along the way into inviting spaces to spend time in.

It's Your Turn to Play!

The story of the Station Piano project began when Yamaha received a call from an event company. "They wanted to place our pianos on the streets of Paris and allow the public to play them during their event," recalls Eric Valenchon of Yamaha Music Europe, Branch France. "Knowing the challenges of maintaining pianos outdoors, we worked with them to place them in train stations instead."

[ Thumbnail ] Eric Valenchon of the Piano Sales Department at Yamaha Music Europe, Branch France
Eric Valenchon of the Piano Sales Department at Yamaha Music Europe, Branch France

Although the event lasted only 15 days, many were thrilled by the sight of the pianos in the stations, which transformed ordinary spaces into vibrant hubs of music. Valenchon notes, "We received requests from many users and even station managers to keep the pianos in the stations." Encouraged by the overwhelming support, he approached SNCF with the idea of installing pianos in stations across France.

Yamaha certainly wasn't the first to install open-access pianos. Similar initiatives have been temporarily implemented in various places, such as the United Kingdom. However, maintaining such a project over a wide area and for a long period of time presents many challenges. "It was our network of partnerships with dealers throughout France that made it possible," says Valenchon with a hint of pride in his eyes.

After a year of extensive discussions and coordination, the Station Piano project was launched in 2014 with the theme "A vous de jouer (It's your turn to play)". The project received a great response in the first year, immediately attracting media coverage across Europe. The pianos were so popular that whenever one was temporarily removed for repairs, people would call the station and ask, "Where did the piano go?" Starting with about a dozen stations, the program has grown over the years, with around 60 pianos installed throughout France as of March 2024.

Giving the Piano a Home With Spatial Design

Despite the popularity of the Station Pianos, Valenchon notes that there have been challenges in operating the program, especially in terms of the ongoing maintenance.

Although the pianos transformed the train stations, they gradually became a normal part of life for many users. Unfortunately, some people became less careful with the pianos, leading to occasional damage and placing a greater burden on the local dealers responsible for maintenance. "Although the project is a collaboration between SNCF and Yamaha, the operation relies on direct contracts between each station and the dealers. We had to find a solution to ensure that many people could enjoy the pianos for as long as possible," explains Valenchon.

Because the appeal of the Station Pianos is that they can be played casually, the team wanted to avoid imposing strict rules or posting harsh warning signs. Instead, they focused on enhancing the surrounding space, introducing chairs and benches to increase comfort. "By making it feel like a living-room, we created a 'safe space' for the instrument, separate from the rest of the station," Valenchon explains. This change made the pianos special again in people's minds, and greatly improved the way they were treated.

[ Thumbnail ] Chairs and benches arranged around the piano
Chairs and benches arranged around the piano

From Bustle to Comfort

Valenchon continues to hold weekly meetings with SNCF, station officials, and dealers throughout France to oversee the progress of the piano installations and address any issues that arise. What drives his unwavering dedication to sustaining the project? Without hesitation, he answers, "I believe music should be a part of people's everyday lives."

As transit hubs, train stations can often get busy and even stressful. Many rush through, worried about catching the right train, forgetting something, or getting to their destination on time. "But when you hear the sound of the piano, you stop for a moment," says Valenchon. "It gives you a chance to breathe and relax. You might even reflect on your family, friends, and life as you immerse yourself in the music." Although it may not have a profound impact, putting music in stations provides a real sense of comfort to people.

There have been many efforts in the past to make train stations more pleasant places to be. Valenchon explains, "SNCF has tried different things like installing treadmills or machines that print poems. But out of all these, the Station Pianos seemed to resonate with people the most." Music has a special way of touching hearts, and the fact that people still love the Station Pianos after 10 years proves it.

Bringing Music to the People

Valenchon, who has played the piano from a young age, says that music has always been an important part of his life. Creating opportunities for people to feel closer to music has always been a primary focus for him, especially after his years working on the management of Yamaha Music Schools.

For anybody who doesn't feel close to music, going to a concert or trying an instrument can be a transformative experience. However, many people often hesitate to try new things. This is why Valenchon embraces the mindset, "if they are not drawn to the music, why not bring the music to them?" Given his longstanding desire to integrate music into people's lives, he had no doubt that the Station Piano project was something Yamaha needed to pursue.

"A lot of people give up on music. They think it's too difficult for them, or that they're too old to learn," Valenchon explains. "But I believe that everyone has the capacity to enjoy music." Yamaha envisions a world where music is a part of everyone's life, regardless of age or experience level.

In 2024, Yamaha and SNCF will hold a competition featuring the Station Pianos. Similar to the contest held in 2014 when the project was launched, it's a casual competition open to everyone. Participants can simply upload a video of themselves playing a Station Piano online. Valenchon hopes that the event will spark the installation of many more pianos and propel the project forward for the next decade.

As we've seen, Station Pianos bring music to people and transform train stations into pleasant places to spend time in. There are many other projects by Yamaha that bring new meaning to existing spaces. In the next article, we will explore "Active Field Control (AFC)," a game-changing technology in the field of spatial acoustics. Stay tuned!

(Interview: December 2023)

Next Page #2 Turning Venues Into Instruments With Acoustic Design

ERIC VALENCHON

Valenchon works in the Piano Sales Department at Yamaha Music Europe, Branch France. He joined Yamaha in 1994 and has worked in sales, the music school business, and marketing. In 2013, he spearheaded the Station Piano project in partnership with the French National Railway Company (SNCF) and remains actively involved in the project.

*Bio as of the time of the interview

Three-Part Series: Giving Spaces New Meaning

#1 The Transformative Power of Pianos in Train Stations

#2 Turning Venues Into Instruments With Acoustic Design

#3 Bringing Hearts Together Through Space and Sound