Random musical encounters spark community spirit

Herne Hill Piano film to launch Free Film Festival


Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting Maureen Ni Fiann who has directed a new documentary showcasing the Herne Hill Piano.  The Herne Hill Piano Film, is an eight-minute documentary about a public street piano placed in the walkway at Herne Hill Station and its positive impact on the community.  It has been made in collaboration with local film-maker Tom Rochester and with the support of Herne Hill Free Film Festival and is to be launched at the opening night of the Herne Hill Film Festival 2014, Friday May 2, 8pm.  See invite here.

The documentary is a story about the everyday interactions between the piano and those that sit down to play it, dance by it or stop by to listen. It highlights the impact that these interactions have on the local community and how it acts as a catalyst for conversation and changing the dynamics of a space.

Maureen noticed how a simple object, a piano, positioned in the right place could make people behave differently to the point that the stereotype of London as an unfriendly city was far from the truth.

Maureen said: “When I first saw the piano generously placed there in a public place for anyone to play – openly displaying its stream of black and white keys – it seemed like an invitation for contact like no other.

“I noticed that it naturally encouraged a lot of genuine personal interaction, and to see that happening in an urban environment was fascinating. A major city like London is exciting because of its the diversity, the downside though is that it can be anonymous and isolating. What I thought was a valuable story was that such a simple thing like a piano, could make such a difference. It is a natural community maker in the gentlest most unassuming way.”


Around what is referred to locally as The People’s Piano, Maureen witnessed conventional stereotypes disappear, hidden musicians came out of the woodwork to play. Traffic wardens playing gospel music, kids on their way to ballet playing alongside a homeless person, a boy living in care making music, rather than going out on the street, a ‘hoodie’ playing classical music, policemen on the beat pausing to play a tune. People are seen differently, no longer a stereotype face in the crowd. As the woman who lives opposite said, ‘It has renewed my faith in human nature.’

Giles Gibson of Herne Hill Forum said: “I thought it would be a great idea to have a piano in the community. The response has been priceless, every day people come up to me in the street and say thank you, it’s wonderful, and you cannot put a price on that. There are hundreds of talented musicians out there who do not have regular access to a piano, it gives them the opportunity to share their creativity.

“The local community really care for the piano, and that is why that it has survived in the walkway for 2 years, it may even be the longest time that any street piano has been in any one place in London. We look forward to celebrating it’s second birthday this summer.”

The Herne Hill Piano blog, a companion to the film, is an invitation for people to share their piano stories. The blog posts new piano players regularly, with endless stories of musical encounters in the Herne Hill station walkway.

We caught up with Maureen on her favourite things:


Music:  World music, Nina Simone,  Keith Jarrett and Bach.

Film:  Haneke, Herzog, Wenders and HBO

Home:  Kitchen that everyone can fit into and greenery out the window.

Food:  Simple fresh veggies and fish cooked by the sea.  
Art/Design:  Outsider Art, expressionism.



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