On the morning of the longest day of the year, keyboards slowly began to arrive on closed off Cornelia Street in Greenwich Village. Volunteers carried in the Yamaha PSR-E243s and placed them in spots that were taped off in the street hours earlier, forming four distinct semi-circular groups. Neighbors, unaware of what was about to transpire, were stunned as they exited their buildings. Passersby milled about, curious about the transformation. Composer Jed Distler paced nervously as he watched would-be keyboardists check in and move to their spots.
Ever since Aaron Friedman spearheaded the effort to bring Make Music to New York City in 2007, the organizers have tried to add something new every year. This year they broke the Guinness World Record for the largest electronic keyboard ensemble. A team from Make Music New York (MMNY), Yamaha, and the National Association of Music Merchants, organized the event. “New York is teeming with musicians,” Friedman says. “It’s the perfect place to set a Guinness World Records title for the music community!”
“Who doesn’t want to take part in a record-breaking event?” says pianist Eleanor Sandresky who, along with Patrick Grant, Stephen Gosling, Tristan Mackay, and Simon Mulligan, was a group leader for the event.
Like the more than 1,000 other free musical events that were part of MMNY’s June 21, 2013 celebration, all were welcome to attend and participate. In this case, that included professional musicians, teachers, students, and even a few passersby.
One piano teacher/mom drove up from Philadelphia with her teenage daughter after seeing the event on Facebook. Raul Richards, a New York bassist, also saw it online and jumped at the chance to take part. One harpist, who had been wheeling her instrument up Cornelia street a couple days earlier, was recruited by one of the owners of the Cornelia Street Café— “center stage” for the event.
World Record for Most Keyboards in a Performance
Distler, musical director for the event, wrote a special 30-minute piece, “Broken Record,” just for the occasion. “I thought: why not write a piece that makes use of the street and dimensions, almost like a piece of sculpture and choreography, rather than a music composition?” he explains. “However, to officially break the record we needed to play a recognizable piece, so that’s why we are first playing Pachelbel’s Canon in D.”
Distler worried that not enough keyboard players would turn up. The record had most recently been set in December, in Sri Lanka, with 160 keyboardists. Snatching a few New Yorkers from the street at the last minute, MMNY smashed that record with 175 participants.
“When Aaron asked me to do this event I quickly gave a resounding ‘yes.’ I was fascinated throughout my youth with Guinness World Records,” says Yamaha Director of Marketing Mark Anderson. “The music was broken down by level of ability from beginner to intermediate to advanced, so everybody was able to keep up with it.” Yamaha provided the keyboards, which were donated afterward to New York City schools through the VH1 Save the Music Program.
Even the official Guinness World Records adjudicator, Johanna Hessling, who oversees many record-breaking events, was particularly enthusiastic about this one. “I’m a huge supporter of music and a huge fan of this world record. I totally wanted to come down here and witness it,” she says.
Though a definite focal point of this year’s celebration, the record-breaking event was just one of many held in the city, in conjunction with celebrations in 450 other cities around the world. This year national Make Music Day happenings took place in Madison, San Francisco, Portland, Philadelphia, Riverside, Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver, Pasadena, Kalamazoo, and dozens of neighborhoods, music stores, and venues across the country.
Mass Appeals Draw Crowds
“It’s amazing to see how much of the city it has taken over for the day,” said Kathy Hughes Assistant Commissioner for the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs. “What started with 560 performances on this same day in 2007 is now 1,065 performances spread over neighborhoods in all five boroughs. Those performances feature every possible instrument and every possible genre.”
“There’s even an event on Riker’s Island with percussionists for people who don’t otherwise have much access to music,” she added. “And, I’m looking forward to hearing 150 singers on boats in Central Park.”
A highlight for New York City’s many recreational musicians, Mass Appeal events gather families of instruments for huge concerts. This year’s Mass Appeals included clarinets gathered in Brooklyn’s Carroll Park, ukuleles at Sheridan Playground in Williamsburg, recorders at Straus Park in the Upper West Side, gongs at Herald Square, saxophones in Little Red Square, double reeds at Bleeker Playground, guitars in Union Square, and harmonicas, flutes, accordions gathered in Central Park, and numerous others.
While most instrument-focused mass appeals are open to players of all levels, several Mass Appeals were open to absolutely anyone, even those who had never picked up an instrument in their lives. For example, the Mass Appeal: Humming event at the ConEd Farragut Substation invited participants to use a power station transformer as a drone, while a Mass Appeal at CultureFix, in the Lower East Side, had them playing circuit bent instruments, noise makers, and smartphones.
Double Reeds Ring Out
Mass Appeal: Double Reeds brought together more oboes in one place than most people have ever seen, plus one harp. When the group of double reed players arrived at Bleeker Playground, they found harpist Russell Patrick Brown busking there. In the true spirit of Make Music Day, the group invited the musician, himself a former oboe player, to play along.
Though Brown was unaware that it was Make Music Day, he was not surprised by the gathering. “That’s kind of why you move to New York City, for things like that. I hadn’t played any classical repertoire in years, so it was fun,” he says. “That’s one of the graces of being an artist. There tends to be a synchronicity to your life. A bunch of oboists playing Handel’s Water Music, and me playing with them, it was the right thing for me to do that day.”
Matt Sullivan, director of double reed studies at NYU, who organized the Double Reed Mass Appeal, has been involved with Make Music New York for several years, ever since he took part in a performance of Terry Riley’s “In C” on Cornelia Street. “There were probably 200 musicians from all around the city, from singers to toy piano players to guitarists to harps, oboes, and bassoons,” he says of that performance from several years ago.
Sullivan wanted to organize the Double Reed Mass Appeal partly to bring public awareness to the instruments, and partly to give some of his NYU students a chance to help produce an event and perform at it. “The students see that they can get out into the public and be appreciated for just who they are,” he says. “Oboe players are sometimes a little shy about public events.”
Double reeds who turned up ranged from high school players to professionals, including Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra principal oboist, Yue Cheng, who was in the city to give a lecture at NYU. “He really loved and was moved by [the event],” says Sullivan, adding that it’s something that would not happen in Cheng’s home country where music is tightly controlled. But there’s hope as Make Music Day and its message of musical freedom continues to spread around the world.
If you like this article, you might be interested in our 2012 “Make Music Day” article