Bob Otterman

He’s why you sound so good on that painted piano.

If you’ve been in Fort Collins for any stretch of time, you’ve run across a colorfully painted piano sitting improbably outside somewhere, just waiting to be played. The Pianos About Town program is a collaboration between Bohemian Foundation, City of Fort Collins, and the Downtown Development Authority. Since 2010, they’ve scattered these artist-painted instruments throughout town—six in the winter and 20 in the summer. But who keeps them playable year round? That someone is Bob Otterman, piano tuner/musician.

Talk to me about a piano outside. How do they fare?

It really depends on the weather. We try really hard to keep them covered. And we partner up with all of the businesses that kind of keep an eye on them. They’ll send someone out to throw the tarp over if it’s going to get wet. Ten minutes of rain and we’re in big trouble. It could be the end of the piano.

Do you tune by ear?

I do. I’m old school in that regard. I also carry an electronic tuner for the visual. It helps me show people how far off the piano is pitch-wise. It would take me 30 minutes to describe it, and I can show them in ten seconds.

How out of tune do they get?

It really varies. Some of these pianos have held up so well. Other times, the first time they’re outside they just change their entire way of being. I mean they’re old, some of them 100 years old. 

I struggled with the first few to try to keep them at pitch and just so. I found that that would have been a daily job. So, we allow them to settle [after being placed outdoors]. Then at that particular pitch, I try to make everything relative.

Ever find anything inside pianos?

Once in a while. Pennies. Flyers from bands or raves. One time, I found a letter written to someone playing a piano. Somebody came back and dropped off a thank you note and stuck it in the edge of the piano. 

What are your impressions of the program?

I’ve been really pleasantly surprised at how many people play. Moms bring their kids, and that could be their first experience in front of a piano. I’m impressed at how many people have learned how to play something—even if it’s just the knuckle song.

What do you most want the public to know about these pianos?

That they’re here to be enjoyed, whether you’re listening or playing. They’re more than a visual piece. Hopefully they’re inviting enough that folks want to play… whatever their ability might be.  

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