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Pianos For People Brings Donated Instruments To Players Who Need Them

Kayia Baker leads a piano class for beginners at Pianos for People on Cherokee Street.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Kayia Baker leads a piano class for beginners at Pianos for People on Cherokee Street.

There’s music in the air at Al Chappelle Community Center.

The St. Louis Housing Authority facility, which serves residents of the adjacent Clinton-Peabody housing complex, recently received a heavy delivery: a Kawai upright piano. The instrument is only about 13 years old and in excellent condition.

It was a donation, courtesy of Pianos For People.

The St. Louis-based nonprofit has distributed more than 250 pianos to private homes and public spaces since it began taking piano donations in December 2012.

Its mission is to get pianos in the hands of folks who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford one.

It turns out there are more than enough piano owners in the area who want to unload their instruments to keep the supply fresh. Pianos For People receives offers for more free pianos than it can handle.

“We’ve very selective with the pianos we take,” said Hannah Herum, donations coordinator and piano teacher. “We want to make sure that those pianos are going to be something that can be in the home for a long time, that can be used by the family for years and years and years.”

After the nonprofit decides to accept a new piano donation, it refurbishes the instrument and finds a new home for it. Often, the recipients are folks who are already taking free pianos lessons from the group, which it offers at its storefront location on Cherokee Street and a satellite studio at Ferguson First Baptist Church.

On a recent Tuesday morning, Herum displayed the Kawai, which was housed in an annex at the Cherokee Street location where the organization also offers classes on music production, facilitated by iPads.

She was joined by Executive Director Sheena Duncan, who showed off an empty piano case with “NASH” stencilled on its side, a souvenir from the piano donated to the group by Graham Nash, of the folk-rock group Crosby, Stills and Nash. Pianos For People uses that one — a slick-looking baby grand — for piano lessons. (That piano’s legs arrived in a case marked with Jackson Browne’s name; it’s unclear if Nash now owes that musician some piano parts.)

Soon after, St. Louis Pianos arrived with a truck to pick up the instrument and take it to Al Chappelle. Waiting patiently for it in a second floor room were a delegation of St. Louis Housing Authority employees and some representatives from the Arts and Education Council, which connected the community center with Pianos For People.

Duncan and Herum gave them the piano and a certificate for a free tuning. Chris White, chief development officer for the housing authority, was the first to tickle the ivories.

“It’s more than what we hoped for. It’s a beautiful instrument; It seems like it’s been barely used,” White said of the piano. “I think it’ll continue to provide years of service for residents.”

White said the center would develop programming for youths living at Clinton-Peabody who want to play it. One young man, he said, is already an accomplished piano student whose efforts will be enhanced by a nice piano available to practice on next door.

Students follow along as Kayia Baker, director of Pianos for People's piano school, leads a lesson for beginners.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Students follow along as Kayia Baker, director of Pianos for People's piano school, leads a lesson for beginners.

It was a bustling scene about a week later, on a Tuesday evening at Pianos For People’s Cherokee Street space. Kayia Baker, director of the piano school, taught a group lesson for six beginner players, aged eight to 11. She led them as they clapped along to get the right rhythm, and then through extended investigations of “Mary Had A Little Lamb” and “Java Jive,” a 1940 song that proves to be a sturdy learning tool for young players.

She said her efforts are about more than just building her students’ musical proficiency.

“I think they find out things about themselves and what they can do,” Baker said. “I think they find confidence. I think they find friendships. I think they find acceptance and unconditional love.”

She was assisted by Joachim Foxwell, a high-school freshman whose part-time position at Pianos For People is his first job. He’s been taking piano lessons there for a few years.

“I’ve always liked music in general,” Foxwell said, “and being able to play piano, it allows me to put my feelings on the keyboard, so I don’t leave them pent in. It’s like a form of therapy, almost.”

Térèse Webb was in another room, waiting for her 15 year-old son, Gavin Joseph, to finish a private piano lesson. She said their family received a piano about five years ago, and it’s been a big help.

“We’re in such a lost world that music just brings the whole thing to life. It’s just amazing. What it’s done for our family is just a total blessing,” Webb said. “You get drawn into the music and the love for the music.”

Follow Jeremy on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.