Edmonton's homeless piano man reveals rough life behind his music

After a three-day search, CBC News tracks down and talks to Ryan Arcand, the homeless man whose piano music has made him a sensation on YouTube.

Ryan Arcand's piano playing strikes a chord with millions worldwide after YouTube video posted

RAW: Edmonton's piano man performs again

9 years ago
Duration 1:35
After a three-day search, a CBC News crew finally caught up with Ryan Arcand, whose beautiful music has turned the homeless man into a viral star.

Ryan Arcand has the look of a man many people would avoid on the street. Homeless for the past three decades, his worn jacket and laceless sneakers telegraph to those he encounters that he has lived a hard life.

He might have remained one of the city's largely anonymous homeless panhandlers, if not for a serendipitous encounter with Roslyn Polard, who recorded a video of Arcand playing the piano and posted it on YouTube on Oct. 23.

When Polard happened on him, Arcand was playing an old, battered piano set up in Edmonton’s Sir Winston Churchill square, free for anyone to play.

As Polard passed, the sweet notes drew her closer. She was mesmerized by the beauty of the melody. After he finished playing, Arcand noted that he had written the piece.

Ryan Arcand, who became a viral sensation when a video of his piano playing was posted to YouTube, says he's been banned from using many of the free pianos in Edmonton because of his drinking habits. (Rick Bremness/CBC)
Within days, the video of the man, then known only as "Ryan," had gone viral.

In just 24 hours, it drew almost 800,000 hits. Within a week, almost two million people had watched the video, with many viewers from around the world posting comments on the quality of Ryan’s skill and musicality. Many asked questions about the mysterious melody he played. 

But for more than a week after the video was posted, his story remained a mystery. 

Searching for the unknown musician

Outreach workers at homeless shelters in the city said they knew vaguely of Ryan, but not much about him.

Workers said he’d occasionally appear at shelters or where food was served to the homeless, but remained relatively unknown, in spite of his longevity on the streets.

It took a CBC News crew three days of searching to track him down.

In the end, we found him sitting on the stairs of an Edmonton Church, with some cans of Bow Valley Strong beer in a plastic bag beside him.

As we spoke, he cracked one beer after another. We began before noon.

'Meant for each other'

Ryan Arcand was born on the Alexander Reserve near Edmonton 43 years ago. A family member told us he and his brother were taken away by social workers when he was three or four years old.

Arcand smiles in delight when he's shown the YouTube video Polard posted of him on Oct. 23. (Rick Bremness/CBC)
Arcand says he first encountered a piano in the basement of a foster home when he was eight.

"It was as though we were meant for each other," Arcand explained. "You’re looking at the piano and you’re falling in love with it."

He says he sat down and began to play, first movie and soap opera themes, and then music of his own composition.

"I was in tears with this piano" he says.

How and when Arcand’s life went off the rails is unclear. An aunt who spoke with CBC News says she has tried for years to help him get off the streets.

It’s like you’re playing, but you forget yourself.- Ryan Arcand on performing

"There is hope for him," says Ruth Arcand, "but he is set in his ways on the street."

Over the years, Arcand has had many encounters with the law, often because of drinking.

He was recently banned from playing the piano in Churchill Square because he was caught with an open can of beer, and has been barred from playing a piano in the foyer of Edmonton's city hall.

Arcand said he used to spend many afternoons playing piano at a downtown hospital until he says he was banned from there as well for drinking hand sanitizer.

'This is a dream'

After chatting with Arcand, we took him to the nearest available piano, which happened to be a Steinway Grand located inside a nearby church.

He lit up at the sight of the instrument, immediately sitting down on the bench and murmuring, "This is a dream."

'It was as though we were meant for each other,' Arcand says of the first time he sat at a piano. 'You’re looking at the piano and you’re falling in love with it.' (Rick Bremness/CBC)
Arcand then launched into the same melody that made him famous on YouTube. 

He didn’t stop playing until a priest said he’d have to wrap up, because the church organist had arrived and needed to practise.

Asked how he feels when he plays, Arcand responded, "It’s like you’re playing, but you forget yourself."

He continued: "You know, it’s like truth, life. I love people. Sometimes I don’t even know if people love me, but it doesn’t matter. I love people."