The Beat Goes On

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Hill City Keys Launches Third Year of 
Art, Music and Community Advocacy

When Libby Fitzgerald saw beautiful, professionally-painted pianos being played by people of all ages along the streets of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, she knew that this idyllic scene belonged in Lynchburg, Virginia as well. She returned home from her trip in 2013 determined to start a similar project—with one notable difference.

“The new idea I got after returning home was to have student artists in our area schools paint the pianos, rather than using professional artists as they had done in Lancaster,” Fitzgerald says. “My thought was that we could combine music with art to showcase student talent, give them a chance to make a civic contribution, and create pride within those school communities.”

After Fitzgerald received sponsorship from the James River Council for the Arts and Humanities and several donated pianos, Hill City Keys (formerly Keys for the Hill City) made its debut in May 2014.

Two years later, Hill City Keys is still bringing art and music to Lynchburg but on an even larger scale. Five high schools participated in the inaugural event. This year, nine schools are participating: E.C. Glass, Heritage, Altavista, and Brookville high schools; Linkhorne, Dunbar, and Sandusky middle schools; James River Day School; and Liberty University. The pianos made their debut at various businesses downtown at the First Friday event on May 6 and will remain on display until October 31.

New this year, Hill City Keys attained sponsorship from the Academy Center of the Arts. One boon of this relationship is additional staff support. “There are now more staff to help me with ideas, marketing, outreach, billing, planning musical events around the pianos, and so many other details. I am truly grateful for that help, and I think the Academy is the perfect home for Hill City Keys,” Fitzgerald remarks.

She says this new relationship also benefits the community as a whole. “Hill City Keys is part of the exciting new Outreach Initiative at the Academy,” Fitzgerald says. “That means that any funds I raise from the program, beyond my expenses, will help support that effort, which includes over $17,000 in need-based scholarships for Academy classes and camps, free tickets to Academy shows, a Healthy Snacks and Cinema program for local youth, and a partnership with the YMCA Summer Learning Loss Prevention Program, to name just a few components. All of it is geared toward making the arts more accessible to underprivileged parts of our community.”

Evan Smith, director of community outreach at the Academy, believes that the Academy’s sponsorship of Hill City Keys benefits the Academy, Hill City Keys, and the community at large. “Hill City Keys serves the Academy’s new focus of serving our community through arts and culture,” he says. “For this goal to be met, we must have programs like Hill City Keys that are accessible to everyone in Lynchburg. We expect this program to have more exposure and more impact with it being at the Academy.”

Local schools are also making an impact by breathing new life into the pianos donated to Hill City Keys. Mike Bremer, a social studies teacher at Sandusky Middle School and longtime sponsor of student-led Relay for Life teams, saw the project as an opportunity to highlight Sandusky’s efforts to raise money for cancer research. In collaboration with Sandusky art teacher Karen Camden, Bremer proposed that Sandusky’s Relay for Life team, “Spartans for a Cure,” take the lead in designing the artwork for the piano. According to Bremer, the students were thrilled to be involved.

“The students were enthusiastic about the project, particularly through the design phase,” he says. “They expressed excitement to be able to show their commitment to fighting back against cancer in a new, public forum. A core of dedicated students prepared the piano and then a select group performed the more delicate painting tasks.”

The students decided to decorate the piano to go along with this year’s theme for Lynchburg’s Relay for Life, “County Fair—Give Cancer the Boot,” using boots of all sizes to reflect the fact that cancer affects people of all ages. Bremer notes that as the students worked on the piano, other students asked to become part of the project and adults at the school “became curious, donated boots and supplies, and supported students in completing the project on time.” Funds were also donated to “Spartans for a Cure” during this time. Between mid-February and the end of April, students volunteered over 125 hours to complete the project. “Once a student learns the value of volunteerism, it becomes an integral part of a sense of belonging that lingers into adulthood,” Bremer remarks. “These students will continue to enrich our communities and participate in improving our lives in meaningful ways.”

Of course, the most rewarding experiences are also subject to considerable challenges; Heritage High School art teacher Jon Roark can attest to that. After completing their Van Gogh–inspired piano on a Friday, Roark and his art students returned the next Monday morning to a flooded hallway and classroom. “When we walked into school at 6:30 a.m., there were two inches of water in the hall leading into my room and the same two inches of water in my class,” Roark recalls. “Fortunately, the piano bench was up on a table, and there on an apparent high spot in the room sat the piano, as if on some tiny desert island with a circle of water around it. Clearly the floor wasn’t level.”

Aside from this incident, which Roark says is now funny, the process was smooth and inspirational. Roark wanted to do a Van Gogh theme for the piano in part for a personal reason. “I’ve used Van Gogh in class for years as an example for students to aspire to,” he says. “Recently my brother-in-law Mark Lindamood has become a huge fan of the man, sort of pushing me to look deeper. I’ve done several copies of his self-portraits as gifts for Mark, and the kids always see this stuff being done. I think that inspires them to also look deeper.”

The creative process involved several steps including sanding the piano, cleaning it, painting it white, measuring the panels and redrawing them as simple shapes in Adobe Illustrator, transferring the shapes to the piano, and painting the images on those shapes. Seniors who had worked on Heritage’s previous piano took the lead on the project, but Roark was also keen to involve freshmen and other underclassmen.
“I love watching the students take pride and ownership of their work,” he remarks. “Combine that with seeing the new freshman and underclass talent rearing its head for the first time, and you have a teacher’s dream.”

For E.C. Glass art teacher Linda Harding, getting to design a piano for Amazement Square was a dream come true. “I jumped on the opportunity to create something for the children’s environment that many of my students have loved,”
she says. “Amazement Square has taken a new direction in the educational opportunities they are bringing to our community’s children. Their new Make Shop will focus on repurposing and reengineering items to learn and invent through exploration.”

To this end, Harding and students from her painting and advance studio/advance placement classes used parts from the inside of a piano on the outside of another piano. “We disassembled a piano action and explored several boxes of random instrument parts,” Harding remarks.

“Students were given parts to look at and design what they could be. These sketches took on themes of ocean, field, and jungle. We added a sprinkle of Dr. Seuss and our piano began to take shape.”

The piano E.C. Glass created two years ago has taken up permanent residence at the school, marking Hill City Keys as an honored tradition. “The piano we completed two years ago was part of my seniors’ experience, and it now graces our halls at Glass,” Harding says. “Younger students were excited to be a part of this tradition and program themselves. Often you hear lovely music and conversation as students and staff take a moment to express themselves on the keys.”

Music, conversation and self-expression are at the heart of Hill City Keys’ mission as a community art project. Fitzgerald’s favorite memory so far encapsulates all of these things and shows how they can transform a person’s—and possibly an entire community’s—life. “My favorite anecdote is the fellow who used to sit by the Bank of the James, speaking to no one, seemingly lost in his own world,” she recalls. “The first year of the pianos, on the first day they appeared, he proceeded to sit down and play amazing music on one after the other, and ever since he has been a changed person, engaging with everyone.

It’s proof to me of the power of music.”

For more information about Hill City Keys, visit the Academy Center of the Arts’ website: academycenter.org. Use #hillcitykeys with your photos and videos of the pianos on social media.

By Emily Hedrick

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