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story.lead_photo.caption Emberly Hutto, 6, plays a pop-up piano at Sixth and Main streets in Little Rock. Her mother, Cristy Hutto, thinks she inherited musical ability from her father. - Photo by Celia Storey

Everything about these pianos whispers of whimsy -- the colorful patterns painted on their wood, the mystery of when they will be available and the people who stop, taking an interlude in their days to play them.

When the sun is shining and there is no danger of water damage the pianos are rolled out of stores to the sidewalks at the intersection of Sixth and Main streets in downtown Little Rock, in front of the parking garage on Second Street and outside of David's Burgers in the Little Rock River Market.

They came from Piano Kraft as a donation to add art to downtown Little Rock. Carol Worley, a lawyer who works next to Midtown Billiards, organized the project. She likes public art.

She "can't carry a tune in a bucket," but loves walking by the pianos on her way to meetings.

Little Rock students at eSTEM charter schools, Horace Mann Arts & Sciences Magnet Middle School and Episcopal Collegiate School painted the instruments all the colors of the rainbow, excitedly planning the patterns and sending Worley pictures as they sanded them and started to paint.

April 28, the first day the pianos were out, the students came and played them, Worley said.

Now, most of the time they sit, benches empty, keys untouched, while people hurry by -- talking on their phones, tugging toddlers along, rushing back to work.

They're waiting for a musician.

AN AIRMAN

Lionel Alford approaches the piano with a purpose that comes from having done this before, plops a white paper bag down on top and flexes his fingers over the ivory keys.

His hair is cut short and he is clean-shaven. Sunglasses protect his eyes, which are trained on the keys.

The notes he plays are soft, hard to hear over the whir of the air conditioner and chatter of people rushing by, on their way back to work at the end of lunch hour.

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It's a lullaby, the gentle chords a juxtaposition to the loud colors of the piano. It's crisscrossed with triangles. Greens fade into yellows, oranges and reds.

People marching by slow down, unconsciously adjusting their footsteps to match the lullaby's beat. A few glance at him, but no one stops to listen for the first few runs through the song.

After about 15 minutes, a man carrying a brown briefcase pauses on his way down the street, taking a few half-steps backward to listen.

"Sounds like some Billy Joel there. Is that what it is?"

"Yeah."

"Keep playing. It sounds great."

He keeps playing for a while, switching back and forth from Joel to Five for Fighting's "100 Years," trying to remember the notes.

He ends on Joel, growing increasingly frustrated at what he can't remember until he stands to leave, straightening his blue collared shirt.

Joel is one of Alford's favorite artists. He said this song in particular, "Goodnight, My Angel," is a real expression of emotion.

"It's about the questions that his daughter had that he just couldn't answer -- questions about life and death," Alford said, pausing for a moment to wait for the crosswalk light to favor him.

Alford works odd days for the Air Force. Sept. 14, a Thursday, was his day off and his birthday. He turned 28 and celebrated with a Shiner Bock at the Draught Emporium and playing the piano, a pastime he misses while he is away from his home, away from his keyboard.

Music paid for his college. He played the trumpet in the marching band, on a scholarship. He began playing at 6. His parents, who live in Wichita, Kan., always kept instruments around the house.

"Dad would play guitar for us all the time," he said.

Alford will only be in Little Rock until November, when he heads back to Japan.

He is waiting to be deployed.

A GENEALOGIST

The growl of street traffic is interrupted by the clear sounds of classical music as Steven Speirs plays, hands splayed out wide, stretching to reach the keys.

Speirs, 65, can't read music but has the uncanny ability to play songs nearly perfectly after he has heard them. Six women approach to ask if he can play some gospel songs for them -- "Hallelujah" and "You Raise Me Up."

He obliges, and they start to sing, a few harmonies popping up here and there.

When troubles come, and my heart burdened be

Then, I am still and wait here in the silence

Until you come and sit awhile with me.

They're strangers who become a band for a fleeting moment, a moment that ends when the women have to leave. When they leave, Speirs does too.

He is retired but spends most of his time at home, researching his geneaology. He always felt that he didn't quite fit in with his family.

"My family told me as early as I can remember that I was adopted," he said. "They always said that my birth family loved me very much, but couldn't take care of me, and that I was more special because they got to choose me."

He started meeting members of his birth family when he joined the Catholic Church. His quest to figure out his ancestry started there.

Speirs doesn't trust traditional genealogy websites, although he pays nearly $200 a month for memberships to eight of them. In 2012, he and some of his family members started their own project, which has grown to include thousands of people from nearly every continent.

"This whole thing [the project] is so large and so huge and so complex," he said. "How do you begin to explain such inclusivity?"

He scrolls through the database the family shares to track the results of each DNA test. His one-bedroom apartment is dominated by the TV screen linked to his computer, where he tries to match each person who sends in a request to their family.

That's how he spends his days -- listening to Mozart and trying to piece together every branch of his family tree.

He is waiting for answers.

A SINGER

Abigail Green, 9, runs up to the piano, leans over, not bothering to sit on the bench, and starts to play.

It's the quick rise and fall of the first few notes of Beethoven's Fur Elise.

She looks up at the street in front of her to see if anyone is watching, giggles and darts around a tree, across the brick patio and back to her mother, who is punching in numbers at an ATM a few yards away.

The two are spending the day together in Little Rock. Abigail's four siblings are sick, so she and her mother, Kathryn Green, took a "home-school field trip" to the Historic Arkansas Museum. They rode the trolley and ate lunch at the River Market.

Abigail caught a glimpse of the piano through the window of David's Burgers.

"She saw that piano out there and said 'Can I play it?'" Kathryn Green said. The two have the same wide smile, the same brown hair.

Abigail has been taking piano lessons for two years. She loves the arts, and said her favorite hobby is drawing.

"I draw everything," she said, her eyes lighting up.

The pair walks away, Abigail bouncing next to her mother, on their way to Kilwins.

Abigail is waiting for ice cream.

They get their cones and sit outside, Abigail licking at the ice cream that soon starts dripping down her cone, making its way between her fingers and falling onto the table in front of her. She has to run back inside the shop to grab more napkins to sop up the chocolate mess.

"My dream is to be a famous singer one day, but I probably won't be," she said with a shrug.

She isn't sure what her backup plan is, but it doesn't matter.

She's focused on her ice cream.

Photo by Ginny Monk
Lionel Alford plays a Billy Joel tune on a pop-up piano in the Little Rock River Market.
Photo by Ginny Monk
Steven Speirs brings some gospel music to the intersection of Sixth and Main streets in downtown Little Rock.

ActiveStyle on 10/02/2017

Print Headline: Keys to the city; Part art project, part music appreciation, public pianos offer downtown Little Rock a midday musical interlude

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