Softening sound

On the back of every piano sits its soundboard, the wood face that amplifies the sound of hammers hitting strings inside the body of the instrument. The soundboard of the upright, canary yellow Kurtzmann piano on the west side of the 400 block of N. Higgins Avenue is pressed flush against the plate-glass window of Montana Legal Justice, a law collective that primarily serves those who are disadvantaged and underserved.

“Montana Legal Justice, these guys have been great,” says Christopher Hahn, a music professor at the University of Montana and the founder of the Downtown Piano Project, which provided and maintains the yellow piano and another blue one in the First Interstate Bank building’s courtyard. “They okayed and wanted [the piano]—one of the many green lights that we had—except I don’t think what they counted on was a soundboard against a plate-glass window.”

The problem is that a plate-glass window doesn’t muffle sound, especially when “somebody’s just wailing on” the piano, Hahn says. “It’s loud.”

That’s why the professor spent a recent Friday afternoon working on a possible solution. His idea was to simply stuff soundproof insulation over the soundboard—a quick fix he expected to take a couple minutes. But constant interruptions kept Hahn at the piano for almost an hour.

Quinn Bilodeau stopped to tell Hahn that, with the help of some YouTube lessons, he’s been learning to play on the street pianos. Alex Railsback came over to tell Hahn about all the people he’s seen enjoying the instrument. Adrienne Elise expressed interest in acquiring a piano for an electronic music festival she’s organizing. Hahn says he’s thrilled with the enthusiastic feedback, and he’s sympathetic to Montana Legal Justice’s request for some noise dampening.

A few days later, Julie Brown of Montana Legal Justice confirmed that the loudness had been “mitigated.”

With the one hiccup in an otherwise successful project more or less resolved, organizers of the Downtown Piano Project are now turning their attention to a new issue: where to place a recently donated third piano.

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