Piano Man Keeps Fort Collins' Outdoor Pianos In Tune

Jan 19, 2017

Bob Otterman isn’t a fan of the cold.

“I’m not sure I’m built to be out in the weather,” Otterman said. “That’s why I learned to tune pianos in the first place. It’s nice indoor work, usually.”

Usually, his job keeps him inside, working in homes and concert halls. Then he started working with Pianos About Town.

The donated, upright pianos are decorated by local artists and then placed throughout Fort Collins for the public to enjoy. The program is a collaboration between the nonprofit Bohemian Foundation, the Downtown Development Authority and the City of Fort Collins.

On a January afternoon, Otterman is checking on three outdoor pianos. It’s a brisk 32 degrees out and about to snow.  Not ideal if you’re a piano.

“Yeah, the cold weather can definitely affect how the pianos play and the tuning, obviously,” he said. “But so does the hot weather, so does the wet weather.”

Broken keytops are a common problem for the outdoor pianos
Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC

Their only protection is a plastic tarp and the willingness of passers-by and business owners to cover them up when the weather turns inhospitable. The instruments stay outside for at least a year and a half. That’s if they survive.

“Regretfully we’ve had a couple that got so wet from rain because they weren’t covered,” Otterman said. “One of them was newly painted, newly decorated, and within a week it was unusable. Because the strings rust if they get wet and the keys swell and the glues just aren’t made to withstand any kind of moisture. Things just start falling apart.”

The public is asked to help keep the pianos safe by tarping them when it rains or snows.
Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC

When that happens, some of the pianos are recycled, with parts being used to repair instruments still out in the field.

One of the more popular and protected pianos sits under the canopy of the Lyric Cinema Café’s patio. After Otterman tests out the keys, he unscrews the top and cleans out debris that has found it’s way into the piano.

When asked about some of the stranger things he’s found in the pianos, he laughed.

“It’s all weird,” Otterman said. “None of it is stuff you’d find in someone’s home - inside the piano... Change, the occasional penny or nickel. I’ve had notes that were left for folks who, maybe, someone else saw play the piano at some point here outside, and then as a passerby they enjoyed it, so they came by at another time, maybe when they weren’t here, and left the note, and it ends up inside the piano somehow.”

Pianos tuner Bob Otterman checks the keys on a piano outside the Lyric Cinema Cafe.
Credit Stacy Nick / KUNC

Maybe one of those notes was for Del Hayes.

The local musician doesn’t have a piano at home, but he likes to leave a little early to his day job at a nearby restaurant so that he can practice on the outdoor pianos. The one in the Old Town Parking Garage is his favorite — it’s the loudest. The one he’s at on this day — sitting between a fountain and a temporary ice skating rink — “plays easier,” he said.

All of them are great, though.

“This is the only way I can play piano, is out here in town,” Hayes said. “It’s like a very rare gift that the town has these wonderful pianos.”

Otterman agreed.

“Most of the instruments aren’t being used any longer and they would end up very likely in the dump somewhere,” he said. “And I feel like they are getting one more shot at being enjoyed.”