A sweet, soft melody flies through the air. The source? The iconic Sproul Plaza piano that sits by the stairs of the ASUC MLK Student Union.
After being destroyed earlier this year, the piano was replaced in October by the BIA at Berkeley club, with help from the DC Piano Company.
Established in 2017, the piano has been destroyed and replaced by students many times, the last time being in 2020. Now, it is one of the most beloved institutions on campus and it is played almost constantly by students and members of the community.
“We’re a really diverse campus and we welcome the professors, students … maybe now you’re homeless, but you can come here and play the piano and share music, share your experience with others and make friends,” said sophomore Rui Chen.
Chen, who founded BIA at Berkeley said he founded it because he wanted to help ease the transition into campus for international students.
Chen, who’s originally from China but moved to Los Angeles during high school, said he wanted to help impart his knowledge on the international students entering the United States for the first time.
He noted that the Sproul Plaza piano became an important part of his experience on campus and wanted to share it with the incoming students.
“Over the summer the piano was broken and I saw that part of the campus experience was lost,” Chen said. “I was hoping somebody would replace the piano, but a few months passed. I saw nobody doing it. I talked to our members and said ‘Hey, we should probably do that.’ ”
Chen recalled a night during dead week at 1 a.m. his freshman year when he walked by the student union and heard piano playing and saw people dancing. He said they invited him to join and he danced with them.
He added that this memory is one he looks back on fondly and is part of his motivation for replacing the piano.
“Seeing the new Sproul piano filled me with a sense of both fear and joy,” said junior Micheal Mendizabal in an email. “I had felt joy knowing that people would be able to express themselves musically again as they pass through their classes.”
Mendizabal noted his fear of the piano being destroyed again.
He added that he loved the old Sproul Plaza piano and plans to repurpose it with a “steampunk aesthetic” and create a prosthetic glove and mechanism that will play the strings of the broken piano.
“Music shows up everywhere in my life,” Mendizabal said in the email. “Music came into my life at a time where I didn’t understand myself, it spoke for me when I didn’t know what to say.”
Mendizabal said music is the driving motivation behind rebuilding the old piano. He further added that the piano is inspiring his pursuit of a career in mechanical engineering.
Chen noted that BIA at Berkeley club used the funds they raised to replace the piano.
He said that he visited the DC Piano Company near the Berkeley Marina and after the store owner heard about the piano and its story, they delivered the piano to campus free of charge.
“The new Sproul piano represents opportunity to me,” Mendizabal said in the email. “Throughout my time playing the piano I’ve met several students who have expanded my music taste and inspired me with their stories of their musical journey.”
Chen added that he often spends time standing next to the piano listening and making friends with those who play and noted one community member who replaced the last piano, according to Chen.
“It’s been three or four months,” Chen said. “He hasn’t touched the piano, he hasn’t played it since that piano was broken. He was so glad to see that piano brought back so he and other members in the community could play the piano again.”
Chen said it’s important to him that everyone can enjoy the piano.
He added that another member of the community he met while at the piano recently became houseless and continues to spend time playing the piano.
“We wanted to bring the piano back to give to Berkeley, it’s a place that we all love so much,” Chen said.