Piano Man on a Mission

Kristopher Hull is zeal on wheels.

Having played one day on Lincoln Road, he has decided to try a new location: the boardwalk-like promenade along the beach behind the Delano hotel. As he pushes the black-covered piano up the walkway ramp, accompanied by Staaffe, bathing-suited passersby do double-takes.

Hull comes to a stop at a wide, circular concrete part of the path. He uncovers the piano and stacks a few of his CDs on it. He unfolds his little table and atop it places a placard that reads, "Frederic Chopin CDs, 10 dollars."

He sits down, stretches his arms and fingers, and begins playing Chopin's etude Op. 25, No. 1. It's a bright, rolling, airy piece, instantly recognizable to anyone with a cursory knowledge of classical music. Hull plays with a measured intensity and finesse — eyes closed, head periodically rolling from side to side. Somehow, on this overcast and placid day, it hardly seems incongruous that he's here, as tan young things walk by with their purse dogs.

Serenading the kids at the Skipping Stones activity center.
Victor Staaffe
Serenading the kids at the Skipping Stones activity center.

In fact the only comments he attracts are positive, if sparse. "Awesome, awesome!" yells a woman as she whizzes by on a pink bike. "Whoa, nice!" says another on a stroll. A few people sit down for a while. A rollerblader presses a crumpled, sweaty $20 bill into Hull's hand as he skates by. Even a couple of cops roll by on ATVs, stare for a bit, and move on without a word. Who, they must figure, would be playing a piano on the beach if he weren't technically supposed to be there?

An hour or so later, Hull is up $40 or $50, and he's satisfied with this early, tentative foray. He's unbothered when, while packing up, there's a technical snafu as he pulls the piano up the ramp into the back of the pickup. The winch creaks and groans. "Usually this is a very smooth operation, but the cover keeps flying off. I never had an error with the ramp itself," Hull says as his shaggy, wavy brown hair flies in the wind. In no time, he has the piano successfully packed up. "This is it, Victor!" Hull cries to his Swedish friend. "Yay! We did it!"

Fate, however, wouldn't allow Hull to immediately delve into piano playing. In early 1997, he developed excruciating pain in his fingers whenever he tried to play, and soon couldn't do so for more than half a minute at a time. "I went from cycling eight hours a day to playing piano ten hours a day, and my body just couldn't handle it," he says.

On the advice of a friend, he went to Thailand in search of alternative healing. Thus began a dizzying period of expatriate wanderlust in Hull's life, a cross-continental journey that took him from Bangkok, back to the States, and then to Fiji, Tangiers, and Berlin.

After a couple of months of rigorous, two-hour daily yoga practice in Thailand, he says, he regained use of his hands. During a short trip from Morocco to Spain, he reconnected with an old friend from Deerfield Academy, Tra Bouscarian, who recommended that Hull read Don Quixote. Miguel Cervantes's 17th-century classic, a picaresque tale of a man who reads too many chivalry books and wakes up deciding to be a knight-errant, struck a chord.

"It changed my life," he says. "Don Quixote had these delusions. I was so delusional, convincing myself I was going to be a concert pianist, even though it was, like, totally impossible. Don Quixote just woke up one day and had read so many damn books about chivalry he decided he was a knight. I was so bananas about piano, one day I just said, 'I'm a concert pianist.' And people would ask, 'Well, where do you play?' And I'd say, 'Nowhere. Well, not yet.'"

Thus was born, as Hull came to call himself, the pianist-errant. He would become not only a classical pianist but also a traveling one, playing, literally, in the streets, for the masses. How to do so, then, was just a remaining technical puzzle.

After a couple of years in Morocco, Hull and Bouscarian shuffled off to Berlin, where he met Victor Staaffe at a mutual friend's poker party. Hull had begun devising a mobile piano, and he was itching to take on the United States.

In the fall of 2007, Hull headed to his family's winter home in Dunedin, on Florida's west coast. He acquired an Eighties Chickering upright piano on a lease-to-own payment schedule, not mentioning his travel plans during negotiations with the dealer. With his brother Troy's help, he built a steel brace to go around the bottom, on which he mounted four pneumatic casters that could be refilled using a bicycle pump.

"We stayed up all night, hacking the steel, bolting the thing onto the piano. Then it didn't fit out the door," Troy recalls. "So we had to hack off two inches more steel. You figure he'd measure it before we did all that work."

This past December, Hull launched www.pianisterrant.com, and in January, it was time for him to test his idea. He invited his family to accompany him to the neighboring community of Crystal Beach. A small crowd quickly gathered as he played on an oceanfront promenade. His family looked on, flabbergasted but not entirely shocked. Soon he arranged through the community association to give an official free public concert.

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