$10K Baby Grand Donation Has Pianos for People Playing a Happy Tune


Piano's for People student Hadassah Stone tickles the new ivories. - DANIEL HILL
  • Piano's for People student Hadassah Stone tickles the new ivories.

When Terry Hammer first got his hands on a Henry F. Miller baby grand piano valued at $10,000 from an estate sale two weeks ago, the St. Louis resident already knew that he wanted to donate it to a worthy local cause.

His first choice was Confluence Academy, which is near his south city home. Alderwoman Cara Spencer helped connect him to the Cherokee Street-based non-profit Pianos for People, which frequently refurbishes donated pianos and delivers them to new owners. Pianos for People, they thought, could help get the baby grand to its new home.

There was only one problem: Confluence had no need for the pristine instrument. That's when Sheena Duncan, executive director for Pianos for People, had an idea of her own.

"Why don't you come look at the school and see what we've got?" she said to Hammer. "And we could give it away. Or, you could consider giving it to us."

The piano was taken to a refurbished, detached garage that Pianos for People calls the "Piannex" (piano + annex), where pianos are brought back to life before being sent back out into the world. When Hammer came to check out the operation, he immediately knew it had already found its new home.

"This was actually better, because it's a not-for-profit and it just helps out so many underprivileged kids," Hammer explains. "I stepped in here, seen the kids playing on the day that we were here, and met Sheena — Sheena's just a wonderful person — and I thought, yeah, this is the perfect place for the piano."

His reaction makes sense: Pianos for People is an impressive operation. The organization was founded to collect unused pianos and deliver to them to those in need. It delivered its first piano in December 2012. After a year and a half of fixing and redistributing pianos throughout the community, its board decided to get a piano school going to teach kids to play. That opened in November 2014, with 60 students signed up by the end of the year.

Fast forward to today, and the operation has taken over the entire first floor of its Cherokee Street storefront, with a dozen or so pianos filling the first room you see when you walk in — this is the "group lesson" area, where up to eight kids at a time can learn in a class-like setting.

Further back are two private teaching studios, akin to small offices, where more advanced students can hone their skills in a one-on-one environment.

Then there's the basement, which has recently been remodeled. "I was scared to come down here," Duncan explains while giving a tour. "There was a doll's head nailed to a column." Now, instead of decapitated heads, the basement houses a waiting area with mid-century furnishings, where siblings or parents of students can wait for their family members to complete lessons. There are also a handful more pianos to play on and a library of donated sheet music that students can borrow or keep.

Pianos for People has grown so much that it even opened a satellite location in Ferguson in October. The school currently teaches 130 students, with teachers paid in part thanks to a grant, and has delivered 220 pianos.

One of those students is sixteen-year-old Hadassah Stone. She's only been taking lessons for six months, but Duncan has her pegged as a budding piano prodigy. Stone lives only a couple of blocks away on South Compton Avenue; her family was the recipient of one of the organization's donated instruments. Stone signed up for lessons soon after.

A home-schooled kid who lives with her parents, eight siblings, two dogs, a cat and a rabbit, Stone likes to come up to the shop to practice — not that it's necessarily quieter here, what with the multiple musical instruments and all.

"At least it's a different kind of noise," Stone laughs. "At my house it's just a bunch of talking and lots of just chaotic noise. Here it's music, so it's different."

In the Piannex, where that new baby grand sits in a corner, five smaller pianos are in the process of being refurbished. They're joined by six or seven more that are already in a fully playable state.

L to R: Pianos for People Executive Director Sheena Stone, piano donor Terry Hammer and 20th Ward Alderwoman Cara Spencer - DANIEL HILL
  • L to R: Pianos for People Executive Director Sheena Stone, piano donor Terry Hammer and 20th Ward Alderwoman Cara Spencer

Keen to show off one of her rising star students, Duncan encourages Stone to play something. Stone sits down at the piano and opts to play a composition of her own that she'd come up with just last night. Her performance leaves all the adults in the room wide-eyed.

Some of that is the instrument itself, capable of richer tones and greater dynamics than a lesser piano could provide. But it's mostly Stone.

Hammer, for his part, is beaming as Stone's performance goes on — it is plain to him that he made the right move.

"I just wanted to do something good for the community," he says.

As Stone's fingers dance across the keys, filling the room with beautiful music, it is clear that he did.

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