- Associated Press - Saturday, October 1, 2016

SWEET HOME, Ore. (AP) - Shrieks and laughter, punctuated by the spin and thwack from the foosball games, ring through the student commons during breaks at Sweet Home Junior High.

Underneath the morning madness, however, a quiet melody unfolds, drifting between the knots of kids trailing backpacks and September sweatshirts on their way to their first class.

Sometimes the music wraps a tendril around a student and draws him near for a moment or two. Sometimes it pulls one right over to the source: a baby grand piano bearing a sign that reads, in large letters: “PLAY ME.”

Mornings start with melodies at Sweet Home Junior High because of that message, reported the Albany Democrat-Herald (http://bit.ly/2dpC0lT). Donated by Will Garrett of Radiator Supply House, the baby grand inspires students to come experience its ivory-keyed inspiration each morning, afternoon and lunchtime.

On this particular day, it’s Pachelbel’s famed Canon in D, followed by snippets of Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack from the movie “Interstellar,” and then a riff or several from the video game series, “The Legend of Zelda.”

Sure, they’re interspersed with some decidedly unmelodic chords - some students can’t resist simply slamming a hand on the keys in passing - but all of it is music to Principal Colleen Henry’s ears.

“It’s amazing to have it here,” she said. “Just putting art out there and seeing how people interact with it - I think that’s one of the great things about education, giving kids the tools and having them make their own meaning with it.”

The piano had belonged to Garrett’s mother and was part of her house in Medford. When Garrett and his siblings decided to join forces to give her a new one, the old baby grand needed a new home.

Garrett was already interested in making sure Sweet Home’s schools had ready access to pianos. He donated an older upright last year to Hawthorne Elementary School, where children can play it during recess. And he set a “Play Me” piano downtown during the Oregon Jamboree this year for anyone in the community to try.

The junior high, which received the baby grand just after school started, happened to be next on his list. But Garrett said he isn’t done. His goal is to get a piano in every school. He’s keeping his eye out for a special one for Sweet Home High School next.

Garrett’s three children, ages 10, 8 and 6, all play the piano. Garrett himself took lessons as a child, although these days he’ll admit only to the occasional noodling around.

But not everyone was so lucky, he said, and you never know what might trigger a new passion in someone’s life. So after seeing online videos of a man who made a hobby out of placing pianos on the sidewalks of various towns in Europe, he decided he could do the same.

He remembers the plan: “I’m going to wait until it’s summertime in Sweet Home and I’m going to throw one out on the street and just see what happens.”

What happened was an act of vandalism that took that first piano out of service shortly after Garrett set it up. He learned about it while he was out of town on business. But before he could even make it home, he said, a church had replaced the instrument, which thrilled him to no end - that meant the community had joined in his vision.

As for the schools, Garrett said, that idea grew partly from a regular safety meeting he holds at Radiator Supply House. He was sitting with several employees and asked them who played an instrument. Drums? Guitar? Anything?

“Not one person raised their hand,” he said. “That’s a bummer. And they’re the younger generation, 20 to 35. And so I got this idea. Hawthorne Elementary, I’m going to put one on the playground in a protected area just so kids can go out there and bang on it. How many kids out there in the elementary don’t even know what a piano is?”

Garrett hears from plenty of people who aren’t sure about putting a piano on a playground, or outside a business, or in the hands of untutored middle-schoolers who might not be, shall we say, particularly gentle with the equipment.

He just tells such commenters that’s not the point. With word about his project getting around, Garrett currently has a surplus of pianos, most of which have been sitting forlornly in a storage unit, unplayed by anyone at all.

“I’d rather see them go out there, six months, eight months, and get ruined than see these people take them to the dump,” he said. “Let the kids use them up.”

And use them they do. At Sweet Home Junior High, seventh-grader Andra Gordon lays out the Hans Zimmer tunes with a practiced hand, though she’s never had a lesson. “I just listen to songs and then play them,” she said.

She works on an electric keyboard at home but prefers the sound of the baby grand. And it’s fun, she said, to see random people get together to try a duet - which they do, from time to time.

“I think it brings students together,” she said. “I actually met a few people just by hanging around and playing the piano.”

Eighth-grader Zach Winney is one of those people. The 14-year-old joined Andra for a few tunes on this particular morning and said he likes the change in atmosphere the piano helps to bring.

“Kids are not, like, fighting much,” he said. And people are encouraging, he said, when a newbie tries the instrument, often saying, “You’re doing great.”

The junior high offers band and choir, but students have to travel to the high school to participate because no music room exists in their building. And the district’s elementary schools have no music program at all.

Increasingly, research is showing that learning music enhances the brain’s ability to process other subjects, such as language and math. So in a way, Sweet Home educators say, the new piano is an important educational tool.

“It’s something for them to look forward to at school. A connection,” said Vice Principal Andy Price.

Added counselor Shelly Roe: “It’s nice just to have an opportunity for kids to play an instrument.”

___

Information from: Albany Democrat-Herald, http://www.dhonline.com

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