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Jack Knox: On Salt Spring, a piano for playing — and listening

Just down the hill from the Salt Spring Island library, his back to the passing traffic, Kenny Slater is playing a bouncy tune.
Kenny Slater.jpg
Kenny Slater plays a piano at the "I have something to say/I will listen" bench in Ganges.

Jack Knox mugshot genericJust down the hill from the Salt Spring Island library, his back to the passing traffic, Kenny Slater is playing a bouncy tune.

He has 20 years as a percussionist under his belt — from the Reynolds Secondary marching band, to gypsy groups, to Norwegian folk (really) — but the piano is relatively new.

“I’m only playing the white keys still,” he says, apologetically.

Sounds good to the untrained ear, though. Who wrote that?

“I did,” he says.

Noteworthy (as it were) on its own, but what’s really remarkable isn’t what he’s playing, but where.

It’s at an outdoor piano, open to anyone who wants to sit down and give it a go.

OK, you say, other cities, including Oak Bay, have those, too.

Yes, but above the bench by this one are posted two signs.

“I have something to say,” reads the first.

“I will listen,” says the other.

For this isn’t just a public piano. It’s an invitation for strangers to engage. Think of an old-fashioned Speakers Corner, but with a twist. The idea isn’t just to offer a soapbox for those with an opinion to express, but to provide a place for those keen on hearing others’ perspectives. All the latter have to do is plunk themselves down as a declaration of willingness to pay attention to another passerby’s thoughts.

“They’re both equally important to me,” says Bryan Dubien. “Communication is a two-way street.”

Dubien is the one who erected the signs, and the one who began placing community pianos around Salt Spring three years ago. He posted a message on Facebook asking if anyone had one to spare, somebody said yes, and away he went.

So on this day, before going to work at Ruckle Park, Slater was able to spend a few minutes at the keyboard.

As soon as he slid off the bench, a young woman slid on. One street over, at a piano outside the Green grocery store, another young woman was playing something particularly complicated.

Across the road in Centennial Park, another instrument looks out over Ganges Harbour. Another sits on the dock by the Fulford Harbour ferry terminal. In all, eight donated pianos are dotted around Salt Spring.

“People offer me pianos all the time,” Dubien says.

Residents volunteer to house them for the winter, then shift them back outside when the weather warms.

There’s no money in this. In fact, Dubien had to dip into his own pocket to pay the liability insurance required before he was allowed to place pianos in local parks. (Getting permission from landowners is one of the more complicated aspects of this initiative.)

Funny thing, though: Dubien doesn’t play the pianos — but he does have this philosophy about bringing people together to be present in one another’s lives. It’s why strangers are playing board games at his Foxes At Play games shop in Ganges, why he erected an “I’d love a hug” sign outside the visitors’ centre, and why he once crafted signs that told drivers where on Salt Spring hitchhikers were headed.

Hence the bench with the “I have something to say/I will listen” signs. Too often people are reluctant to pipe up for fear of being instantly slapped down, Dubien says. This place encourages people to both speak and listen — really listen — which fosters true, empowering communication, he says.

What a concept in the Digital Age, in which we’re all terrific at posting half-informed opinion and knee-jerk judgment, but not so hot about quietly considering others’ views. If much of what passes for face-to-face conversation actually involves little more than impatiently waiting for the other guy to shut up so that you can make your point, social media is even worse.

“With social media, you don’t even have to wait your turn,” Slater notes.

We don’t have to listen at all, in fact. With so many sources of information, so many news sites, we tend to put ourselves in silos, picking only the ones that match our own world view. Too often all we hear are our own voices echoing back.

As your grandmother would say, the Good Lord gave you one mouth and two ears for a reason. Open the latter and you might hear a new tune.