It is 6 PM on a Friday night. As I walk through Utrecht Central Station, I hear a song echo through the hall. On my way to catch my train which will depart in twenty minutes, I stop and watch a group of people of all ages form a circle around a piano. A man is playing “All of Me”, while more and more people join in and sing along. Most of them are on their way back from work or school; their backpacks give that away. I watch the scene for a while before I hurry on so as not to miss my train. The weekend has begun.
All around the Netherlands, there are up to 21 public pianos set up in train stations. It all started in September 2014 when the Dutch Railways were looking for a way to make Amsterdam Central Station more enjoyable while under construction. Inspired by similar initiatives in Lille and London, they installed the country’s first public station piano. In the following years, many pianos were added, all contributing to a space of connectivity, highly valued by many. 
The pianos have received a lot of praise and love. Yet, in Utrecht, for example, they have also been vandalised. For this reason, Utrecht had to take away their piano for a while – but in the end, they decided to put it back because they thought “it is simply worth replacing the piano every year.” 
To understand what these pianos mean to those encountering them, I interviewed people about their own experiences. Their answers give us an insight in the meaning and power of station pianos; the power of music and community.
As a kid, Ella used to play a lot in front of her family. “The idea of them watching me made me nervous and scared,” she tells me. When sitting down at one of the station pianos, however, she feels less pressure to be perfect. The moment does not necessarily evolve around her, she is simply part of everything that goes on in this one space. She also explains how pianos in the station can bring a moment of silence (paradoxical, I know) to a society so involved with hurry.
Lotte was 13 when she decided to play one of the public pianos for the first time. With her friend, they prepared a piece, curious about how the performance would be. People stopped to listen, and conversations and bonding started: a moment of connection was created. “I think that is the power of music; it connects, it simply brings joy.”
As a student, Imke travels quite a lot throughout the Netherlands. Walking through the train stations and hearing someone play the piano makes her smile every time. She has never actually sat down behind the pianos, but loves to hear others taking a spin on it.
Katherine has played the piano from a young age – but there is a difference between playing in your living room and playing in front of a crowd. When she was 16, Katherine played the piano in an airport. One man walked up to her and applauded her; he told her to keep going. Another woman went all the way back to her gate to grab a piece of paper so she could write down the song Katherine was playing so beautifully. Another man came up to her after she messed up and wanted to stop, saying “No! Don’t stop, never stop playing!” This moment inspired her and 6 years later, she still crawls behind one of the pianos every once in a while. “Every time, people start crowding around the piano, sometimes even dancing! It shows how much impact music can have.”
“There is a public piano standing in the train station in Amsterdam where I always go when I am on my way to concerts. I used to hang out there before concerts because the ambience is just so nice. People are playing the piano, mainly playing the music of the artist that I am about to see. It feels like a sneak peek into the concert and puts everyone in a good mood.”
“During layovers, it is the best way to spend your time, I would say.” Jolien loves watching other people play when she is at the station, especially during the cold winter days. It inspired her to do the same. So, even though she is still quite young, she will gladly sit behind the piano during a long layover and play a little song. “It brings me joy when other people smile because of my music.”
The first time Hendrik played the piano in public was for a project called “123-Piano” in Ghent, Belgium. The project’s goal was to create connections through music and art. Pianos were set up in different public spaces. Everyone could play. The result was a dialogue between musicians, inhabitants and passengers. 
Since then, Hendrik plays in public spaces, like train stations, about two times a year. “I never really look for them, I just play when I see one and have the time. If more pianos crossed my path, I would probably play more often. I enjoy it because I can play music, and connect with people and yet it feels incognito. It is exciting to see what it does to the ‘crowd’, and on a personal level, I feel challenged because it is always out of my comfort zone.” Hendrik explains how he noticed the connections music builds. “It’s a moment filled with unexpectedness. All of a sudden, people feel themselves sink away in daydreaming because of the music or they want to figure out what playing the piano would do to them. Everything is allowed, nothing is mandatory.”
Next Friday, when I go home, I will probably stand still across from the piano once again. I will notice the people, the music and the smiles. For me, it is one of the best things about travelling, and I hope you get to enjoy it too.
by Hannah Dupré
📷 – Pix4Profs/ Joris Buijs