Playing Piano At Supportive Housing

Published on February 13, 2024

She had never played the guitar before, but there she was, loudly strumming pseudo-chords and singing improvised lyrics at the top of her lungs. I was chording A minor and E major triads on the piano because they seemed to go best with what I was hearing. And then she blurted out, “Okay, it’s your turn – Sing!”

How did I come to be playing piano at the supportive housing center? For many years, I’ve donated money regularly to a local organization in the fight against long-term homelessness. I decided I wanted to donate my time as well. I started out by volunteering on the team that served breakfasts at the shelter associated with the supportive housing center. And when I discovered one day that there was a piano in the housing common room, I realized I could donate my time in another way as well.

My original plan was to teach impromptu piano lessons to the people coming and going through the common room. I figured I could gather small groups of people into short classes. I thought I could get them started on a hobby that would make their lives happier and maybe even lead to career ideas for their futures. The reality was very different but rewarding in a whole new way.

The people living there were all formerly unhoused adults, each having experienced long-term homelessness involving formidable combinations of difficulties such as physical disability, mental disability, and substance abuse struggles. The common room typically only had a few people in it at a time, sometimes including people napping on the couches and chairs. I discovered that if I came in around noon, there was a bigger crowd as people lined up to get lunch at the building’s kitchen.

I taped up little paper signs saying I was teaching free piano lessons. I would play for a while until someone came near, and then I’d ask them if they wanted me to teach them to play something. That usually scared them away. Oops. So I learned to just play, and if someone hung around for a bit, then I’d start talking with them but not necessarily make them feel like they had to do anything.

I discovered after a while that what people really wanted was individual attention. The best thing I could give them was a friendly interaction that broke the monotony of the day.

I also discovered that a lot of people “used to play the guitar.” I heard that often when I asked, “Have you ever played music before?” I realized how unlikely it was that any of these people had access to a guitar anymore, so I came up with a new idea. I went out and bought a secondhand guitar and had a friend of mine restring it. After that, every time I went to play piano, I not only had my bag of music books in my hand, but I also had that guitar slung across my back. I got a little stand to put it in, and I’d set that guitar up next to the piano. Lo and behold, people came along to play the guitar.

Every other week, I went to the housing center with the guitar. I played the piano, other people played the guitar, and often we just talked. I met several fascinating people, and I got to share musical experiences in ways I would have never thought of on my own.

One woman had grown up in a military family and was very patriotic. She would ask me if I knew how to play “The Star-Spangled Banner” or “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” I was a bit flustered about taking requests, since my music background was steeped in playing classical music from the printed page, but I engaged a combination of playing by ear, preparing some patriotic songs in-between visits, and learning to be okay with playing only part of a song. I would play and she would sing, and even though she rarely smiled, I believe it made her happy to have someone who actively supported her patriotism for a few minutes of the day.

A young man for whom English was a second language loved to come by, sit in a chair next to me, flip through my music books, and tell me to play this page or that page “happy” or “sad” or “like at church” or “like the girl is in the garden” or whatever other innovative ideas he could think of. He laughed a lot as he discovered what each page sounded like and whether or not it fit the idea he had requested. We would go through entire music books like that.

There was a girl, seemed to be about 20 years old, who I met one day because she startled me by suddenly swearing and slamming her fist down on the microwave oven in the common room that apparently was not working correctly. Even though she had the appearance of someone tough and mean and she was clearly not in a good mood right at that moment, I spoke to her and asked her if she wanted to listen to me play the piano or play something with me. She was skeptical and frowned a lot but came over and talked with me for a while. And the upshot was that she turned out to be one of the most upbeat and friendly faces that made me feel welcome every time I came to the building. Whenever she saw me coming up the sidewalk with my guitar and music bag, she ran up as fast as she could with a huge smile and gave me a big hug. Then she would follow me in to where the piano was and help me set up. I even got her to sit down and learn to play some music with me.

There was another man who said he was a musician some time in the past, although it’s hard to be sure, because he spoke so very softly and I often couldn’t understand what he was saying. I think he also had been in the military at some point, and maybe had had some awful experiences there. In any case, he would regularly pull a chair up next to me at the treble side of the piano, and while I played he would improvise. He could easily follow the rhythm and harmonic patterns, and he would create melodies with jazzy embellishments.

One of the most exhilarating experiences I had was on my first day of playing piano at the housing center. I had brought an electric keyboard, so that I could have more keyboard real estate for people to play along with me. After I learned that I wasn’t going to get groups of students and I also learned that lugging that keyboard up the hill from the parking garage was a lot of work, I started leaving the keyboard behind. That first day, though, an elderly lady and I played piano together in the most wonderful, freely improvised manner. After speaking with her, I learned that she had taken a few piano lessons as a kid, but that her piano teacher had become angry at her for some reason and refused to teach her anymore. She never took lessons again, but she nonetheless played all through the years, making up her own improvisations. She could easily glide all over the keyboard with both hands and play lovely patterns, and yet she never played songs written by anyone else. I set up the electric keyboard next to the common room acoustic piano, and we each sat down at one of them to play. She began, and even though I was still not entirely brave about improvising in public, I began to play along with her. I found chords that I thought sounded good with her patterns and I played arpeggios and rhythmic riffs. And we played together without stopping for 15 or 20 minutes. It was some of the most fun I ever had. But I never saw her again. I heard a few months later that she had died. I was glad I’d had at least that one opportunity to make music with her.

And then there was the bold, brave, never-played-guitar-before-but-I’ll-play-and-sing-anything-I-darn-well-please musician who got me to improvise in a way I never had before. Yes, I sang. What did I sing? Crazy stuff. She was slamming out strums on the guitar as loudly as she could, and her lyrics had been full of angst and cynicism about life and peppered with swear words, so I sang mournful lyrics about death and hopelessness. Maybe I added some words about hoping things would get better? Maybe, but I’m not sure. But my guitar-playing friend was proud of me. Craziness. Music together. Improvised fun. It was the best.