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A mysterious piano spurs music in an Oakland park

When a renowned Oakland musician stumbled upon a mysterious piano this week in the woods, gloriously cast in sunbeams like a scene out of a Disney cartoon, she had a couple of reactions.

First, she was stumped by how it ended up there. Whoever transported it would have needed to lug the hefty instrument down half a mile of trail in Diamond Park in the Northern California city, then over a creek before setting it down in its new home.

“I couldn’t figure it out,” said Vicki Randle, a singer and multi-instrumentalist who became the first permanent female member of the Tonight Show Band for Jay Leno in 1992.

Then, she was hit with memories from a recently bygone time many folks have tried to forget — the early stay-at-home days of the pandemic.

Remember 2020?

Amid the uncertainty and tragedy came “Tiger King “ binge-watching sessions, a lot of sourdough starter — and a burst of backyard summer music when musicians, who had been confined to jamming on Zoom, took their tunes outside.

Noodling with chords on the keys, and surprised by how in tune the notes reverberating into the trees sounded, Randle said, she was reminded of the warm afternoons when she and her band rehearsed on her lawn.

“My neighbors would set up lawn chairs, people would walk by and stop and listen,” she said. “When I was rehearsing, I could hear smatterings of applause from all these different houses. It created this kind of community. Before the pandemic, I didn’t really know my neighbors that much, and after that started happening, it really was a unifying situation for all of us who felt trapped in our households.”

Randle said the whimsical piano had inspired her to revive that early quarantine tradition. She wants to play music for her neighbors again, and on Wednesday, she brought her guitar and a group of fellow musicians together to create music in the woods.

Vicki Randle plays guitar, with Julie Wolf on piano, singing a rendition of ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ in honor of Sinéad O’Connor.

Against a background choir of birdsong and rustling leaves, Randle on guitar and a friend on the keys played a rendition of “Nothing Compares 2 U” in honor of Irish singer-songwriter Sinéad O’Connor, who had died that day. One hiker stopped to sit in the rocky clearing, where another of Randle’s friends performed a dance, incorporating the piano music into her billowing movement.

Randle and her friends are not the only ones perplexed by the piano’s origins. The city of Oakland had no explanation for it, and Oakland Parks and Recreation did not respond to requests for comment. Posts on the app Nextdoor from mid-July have several neighbors chiming in on their discovery.

This isn’t the first time Bay Area residents have reported pianos coexisting with the natural world, away from church basements and living rooms. A similar-sized piano popped up in Claremont Canyon Regional Preserve in Berkeley last year, according to one Nextdoor user.

There was another in 2013, placed atop a hill in Bernal Heights Park — a scenic stage overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge and downtown San Francisco. At one point, the Bernal Heights incident brought together an audience of hundreds for a rousing piano recital. The piano appeared overnight through the labor of six people, one of whom needed the piano out of his office and envisioned it being embraced by the community.

Although the previous owner of the spinet piano in Diamond Park has not come forward, the Bernal Heights incident might tease a possible explanation for the appearance of the mysterious instrument.

What used to be a fixture in homes across the United States is now, often, a dusty piece of furniture that takes up space.

Anne Sajdera, an Oakland pianist who has been teaching since 1992, said she had noticed fewer and fewer families sending their children for piano lessons.

People don’t know what to do with their pianos anymore.

A piano outdoors.

Vicki Randle, who stumbled across the piano this week, said the piano played surprisingly well, save for a couple of sticky hammers, at Diamond Park in Oakland on July 26, 2023.

(Miles Lassi)

At the start of the 20th century, 364,500 acoustic pianos were sold annually. The latest estimates — save for an uptick during the pandemic — were around 30,000.

At Piedmont Piano Co. in Oakland, employee Kevin Parr said he received calls every day from folks hoping to get rid of their pianos. The bulk of those pianos?

Baldwin Acrosonic spinets. The same type of piano that popped up in the woods.

From the mid-century into the 1990s, the Baldwin Acrosonic was one of the most popular spinets, the smallest type of acoustic piano. But these days, they’re a bit of a dinosaur. The typical model won’t sell for much more than the cost to move it, Parr said.

“A lot of them are perfectly functional; there’s just so many out there because a lot of families in the U.S. used to have a piano,” Parr said. “People used to gather around the living room and sing songs for entertainment. That used to be part of the culture, and it is not the trend anymore. We wish we could take every piano, but we have finite resources for what we can house, so we have to be pretty selective.”

Jeremiah Muña at Encore Piano & Organ Moving said the bulk of the pianos people pay him and his co-workers to dispose of are older upright spinets — just like the one in the woods.

A piano and a stool in a wilderness area.

The Baldwin Acrosonic spinet piano seemed to have appeared in Oakland’s Diamond Park sometime mid-July.

(Miles Lassi)

And the one in the woods — saved from gathering dust and not yet battered by rain and dirt — continues to bring daily delight to local residents. Randle says she plans to cover it with a tarp when it rains.

David Rokeach, an Oakland drummer who has played with Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles, said he first saw the piano July 14 when out for a post-breakfast hike.

As he trekked down the path, someone returning from the clearing asked him, “Do you play piano?”

“No, I play the drums,” Rokeach said, wondering if perhaps the hiker had recognized him from an Oakland gig. Then he crossed Sausal Creek and saw the piano.

He sat down on a bench — which has since disappeared, replaced by a stool — and plunked out his favorite jazz standards. “Over the Rainbow,” then “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning.”

He’s not a piano player, but he plans to go back.

“It’s a wonderful spot,” he said.

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