San Francisco

‘PianFrancisco' Melts Away the San Francisco Fog With Free Outdoor Concerts

The group that started five years ago in Bernal Heights is holding its biggest event yet at Fort Point, August 23-25

What to Know

  • PianFrancisco began as an experiment five years ago, when Karl Reichstetter hauled his sister's piano up a hill to a park
  • The events feature local musicians, sing-alongs and time for guests to tickle the ivories
  • PianFrancisco will have three pianos throughout Fort Point August 23-25 as part of Art in the Parks

Karl Reichstetter says it all started as a crazy experiment.

"I had access to my sister's piano, and she lived in Bernal (Heights) at the time," he said. "We just decided we would haul it up the hill about 200 feet from her apartment and see what happened."

With no budget, no plan, and only word-of-mouth for a marketing strategy, the very first PianFrancisco event amassed an audience of 40 people. Today, the event can gather a crowd of nearly 300 with the same simple recipe:

PianFrancisco bernal
Courtesy of PianFrancisco
In this photo from the very first PianFrancisco event, Karl Reichstetter and friends carried a piano to the top of Bernal Heights and played it outdoors until sunset.

"I take a piano and put it in a very odd place in San Francisco, and invite people out to watch it," Reichstetter explained. "If you can enjoy music in an awe-inspiring environment, I think that just enhances the music experience."

Central to PianFrancisco are the local musicians who volunteer their time to play music ranging from Beethoven to Stevie Wonder.

"I don't play that well, so I had to find folks who would play well enough for people to stick around and watch," Reichstetter said.

PianFrancisco audience
Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
PianFrancisco can draw crowds in the hundreds, including regulars who come with their picnic blankets.

Local piano player Grace Renaud is a regular performer at PianFrancisco's events and said she believes it's exactly what the doctor ordered for a city that continues to struggle under the weight of a staggering cost of living.

"It's actual musicians playing actual music on an acoustic instrument in public, which is so rare these days, if you think about it," she said. "I think San Francisco desperately needs music that is live. Because of the rent rates hiking up so high, all of the musicians are kind of treading water."

Several musicians at the event lamented the recent closures of performance venues around the city, and said it's especially hard to find places to play music that doesn't fit neatly into a genre like jazz or classical.

"It's not often you can sit down and play a piano in public," composer Greg McDonald said after playing a piece he wrote for his daughter. "Everyone here is so supportive, and they really genuinely want to hear your music."

PianFrancisco bricks
Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
Musicians say the acoustics of the 150-year-old brick building at Fort Point are similar to the experience of playing music inside a church.

McDonald spoke in the echoey halls of Fort Point, the national historic site that sits directly beneath the Golden Gate Bridge. PianFrancisco held its first event there, amid the building's church-like acoustics, on August 3 — a small preview for an even bigger, three-piano extravaganza planned for the weekend of August 23-25. Halfway across the city from its usual digs in Bernal Heights, the Fort Point events are a partnership with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area's "Art in the Parks" program.

"This was actually about two years in the making," Reichstetter said.

The first Fort Point event drew a gathering of PianFrancisco regulars with their picnic blankets, but Reichstetter said about half the spectators were passers-by who heard music echoing through the halls of the Civil War-era building, and decided to stay for a while.

PianFrancisco GGB
Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
Sitting directly under the Golden Gate Bridge, Fort Point has its own microclimate. Fog and sticky piano keys are in the forecast.

Unlike its original home in sunny Bernal Heights, PianFrancisco's Fort Point events have to contend with an additional complication: fog.

"Apparently, it causes the keys to stick. I haven't actually experienced that before," Reichstetter said.

Reichstetter dutifully held down the musicians' sheet music to keep it from blowing away on the coastal breezes and apologized to them for the sticky keys.

"I got the piano for free," he said. "So I get what I pay for."

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