Sydney-based concert pianist Ambre Hammond has launched a new project, which involves taking music to some of the world’s most remote and poorest places. The way it works is straight-forward: she puts a piano in the back of a truck, drives to an orphanage, community centre or slum, and puts on a free performance. The initiative’s name – Girl Piano Truck – reflects its simplicity.
“The idea came to me around the end of 2012,” Ms Hammond said. “I love being a classical pianist and giving concerts in beautiful opera houses and concert halls and theatres. But I’ve always had a real fondness for bringing things to street level and for playing to people in unexpected locations – to people who weren’t intending to attend a classical piano concert. I’ve done a lot of voluntary concerts in retirement villages and schools. So, I decided to organise a project where I could take music to the people, rather than expecting people to come to me.”
The exact form that the project would take arrived in a vision, she said, laughing. “I had this vision, in which I was playing on an old upright piano, in the middle of the Serengeti plains, in Africa. I was playing ‘Clair De Lune’, which is a beautiful, beautiful piece by Debussy. Then a giraffe kind of sailed past, looking at me, and there was a group of children nearby, listening and watching and playing and laughing. And I thought to myself, ‘I just need to make that happen.’”
So, Ms Hammond started contacting institutions that might be interested in hosting a concert. In late 2013, the inaugural Girl Piano Truck tour took her to India, Thailand, East Timor and Belarus. At each destination, she loaded her digital piano into a hire truck and hit the road.
“At an orphanage in Pattaya, Thailand, I played for 200 kids aged between two and eighteen, and the manager told me they’d never seen or heard a live musician before. Living in Sydney, where there’s music everywhere you go, it’s just unimaginable … In Belarus, I played in a mental asylum, to 300 people who are locked inside cells and only allowed out for an hour a day, to pace around a courtyard. The funny thing was, they thought I was crazy, coming all the way from Sydney with my piano to give a concert! At the end, everyone was in tears, hugging me and begging me to come back,” she said.
In between performances, Ms Hammond is working on a Girl Piano Truck documentary, so she can share “incredible moments” from the project that has become her “life ambition and passion”.
The next tour is set for The Philippines in November. “I’ll get to nine orphanages, an island where some Australians are building a church and a home for elderly and abandoned people in Manila. I’m also playing at Payatas, which will probably be the most difficult moment of my life. Payatas is the largest inhabited rubbish dump in the world – thirteen hectares of landfill – and in 2000, a massive landslide killed hundreds of people there. It’s mind blowing, how the Government responded, by adjusting the slope of rubbish, from a 70 degree angle to 40 degrees.”
Future tours are planned for Nepal in December and the Australian outback next year.
Ms Hammond started learning piano at age three and performed in public two years later. At 11, she achieved a world record when she completed the Associate and Licentiate Diplomas within one year. At 16, she took home first prize in an international music competition held in Argentina, returning twelve months later to record Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with the Cordoba Symphony Orchestra. Since then, Ms Hammond has performed all over the world, and collaborated with a variety of renowned musicians, including American composer Lalo Schifrin, Australian jazz trumpeter James Morrison and Indian slide guitarist Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. She is a nominee for 2016 Australian of the Year.