Meet Arne Schmitt, Wrocław Rynek’s Open-air Pianist

It’s common to see musicians play with drums or stringed instruments on the Rynek. So when pianist Arne Schmitt brings his grand piano to the square, it naturally causes a stir.

The German street pianist, who had worked as a mechanic before becoming a street musician at age 25, says music has helped him express his feelings.

To find out more about Arne, his passion for music and his experience of playing in Wrocław, we caught up with the street musician earlier this month:.

Hi there Arne – welcome to Wrocław Uncut! Back in 1997, when you were 25, you decided to hit the road and play the piano as a street musician. You then went on to tour 300 cities worldwide. What was your ambition and what gave you the courage to start such an adventurous undertaking, despite all the challenges?

So as long as I remember, even before I was 25, maybe when I was younger, I always had this imagination to do something different; not a normal job. I wanted to be a rally driver, do some racing, some driving, something like this. I like to challenge myself to do something and to do it very well.

Then in 1997, I just went with my piano into the street. First to start to earning some money for my aim of becoming a rally driver. But then I realized very fast that I was getting old for the sport – maybe even too old. It was then that I said to myself "why not become a musician?" A better musician who travels on the streets with his piano and challenges himself to achieve perfection.

It was then that I decided to go the way of playing the piano in the streets. It started from one city, and then another city, and then the next city and then more and more. And after all these years, I've travelled across the world with my piano.

So this has been my big challenge. My main motivation has stemmed from wanting to do something special, something different and wanting to challenge myself. I was very shy and I wanted to challenge myself to change – to face this all head on and develop myself.

When I started I saw the piano as something unique to push on the streets. I like the freedom to travel and play what I want – I can create my own music and I can improvise.

In the beginning, I did not have so much experience with the piano on the street and I just learned to tune the piano when it got out of tune. But over the years I found out that I could use a different piano with some electronic elements, which turned out to be easier and better.

Another challenge has been the weather – the cold during the winter time made it difficult to earn money. But I just stuck with it and used the experience to help me improve myself. Getting the permission to play, transporting the piano are all challenging too, but again I like to try and embrace these challenges.

As you've said, one of your motives for becoming a street musician was to overcome your shyness playing on the street. In what other ways has your career changed your life?

While taking the piano on tour sometimes I can’t play for many days because of the rain. This grants me a little time to slow down and think about life, people and spirituality. However, for the most part life is rather busy with many days of playing.

But the positive point is that I am self-employed. I have this freedom, I can travel, see the world, and also, after so many years, earn some money. In the beginning, the money was enough for basics. However after a few years I found ways to earn more and then invest that money, for example in a better piano and methods of transport. 

Sometimes I'm away from my family, but the upside is I meet different people. I have been to Poland very often and I've also learned a little bit of Polish here and there too.

How many days have you played here in Wrocław? Have you played in parts of the city other than the Rynek?

Normally I play in the Rynek. I think my first time playing in Wroclaw was in 2008. So I have played many days in Wroclaw – maybe as many as 40 days up to now.

Many street musicians play the violin, guitar, or other small-sized instruments in Wrocław's old town. However, seeing an artist playing the piano on the market square could be a novelty for some people. How have you seen people react to your concerts?

Their reaction is normally very positive when they see a piano on the street, especially a big piano.

People are generally respectful when they talk to me. Nearly every person, young or old, like the music and I can easily speak to them. They sometimes ask: "How do you bring the piano here? How can you bring such a big piano here alone? How do you tune the piano?” Or they say that they like the music.

I've had a lot of interesting experiences. Some people send me special messages on social media, which is really nice. Back in 2001 I even met Paul McCartney when I was playing in the street. I was playing "Winds of Change" and he stopped to say he liked the performance.

I was also in China with a baby grand piano, which is very light. My new plan is to build my next piano so that I can easily take it on the plane. That would obviously allow me to go to different countries in the future.

As you know, the change in climate affects your piano and puts it out of tune rather often. How do you deal with this problem?

Yes, it can get out of tune and I just have to re-tune it. Fortunately over the last few years I have played with a new piano that I don't have to tune. It uses a special electronic system to make the piano sound very good and also loud.

While that solved the problem of my piano getting out of tune, when the rain comes I stilll have to cover the piano or look for shelter.

How does the Baby Grand Piano you used in Hong Kong compare to the full size one?

The baby grand piano is much lighter – I can put it on the plane and in a special taxi or van. It’s not as loud as my piano here, but it's still loud enough. The problem is the noise in Hong Kong itself, as the streets are very loud. For that kind of climate I would ideally need a piano even more powerfull than the one I have in Germany.

My baby grand piano is still in China, so I could fly back and use it again. That said, I have new plans to build a new piano that is even lighter and easier to transport. That would really allow me to travel and play in Asia. 

Building a new piano yourself? That's no mean feat.

Well, I have a couple of friends and sometimes we develop things together, but maybe I am the one who makes more crazy things, who is crazy about sound tests and building pianos.

Naturally we use the help of some other individuals, companies and workshops, but the idea is to make it ourselves. I like to create new things and think about sound systems. I'm considering how to make the instrument lighter, improve the acoumulator and make the piano easier to transport. There are so many aspects to mull over.

Before you leave us Arne, what are your plans for the future?

I think everything is possible in life and music. In the future, I want to sing and compose my own songs. So there are a lot of things to do and a lot more countries and cities to travel to, not to mention a lot of challenges to meet.

Arne frequently makes trips to Poland and has played several times here on Wrocław Rynek. To check out when he's next in town, be sure to follow him on Facebook.

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