A mu­si­cal jour­ney

Un­wanted pi­anos find new lives in hands of those who yearn to play.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - LIVING - By DOUG MOORE

TWO men with big arms and sweat­stained shirts wheeled the pi­ano into the liv­ing room of Yvette Martin’s home.

She had cleared a space along the far wall, where a con­sole ta­ble used to sit.

The pi­ano was barely recog­nis­able, its ap­pear­ance greatly en­hanced from just a few weeks ear­lier. The 65- year- old pi­ano had fallen on hard times. Its fu­ture did not look promis­ing.

But on this warm Satur­day in Fe­bru­ary, it emerged from un­der mov­ing blan­kets look­ing like new. And the pi­ano’s sound? “Mel­low and warm,” said Royce, Martin’s 16- year- old son, as he played Scott Jo­plin’s Elite Syn­co­pa­tions.

His mother sat on the couch, shak­ing her head.

“From noth­ing to this,” Yvette Martin said of her son’s play­ing, which started just un­der two years ago. “I can’t even ex­plain it. It’s such an amaz­ing story to me.”

The pi­ano that had seemed headed for the land­fill 18 months ago was now in the hands of a promis­ing young mu­si­cian who wanted to ad­vance what his teach­ers have called through- the- roof tal­ent. But buy­ing a pi­ano was out of reach for the Mar­tins.

“I re­ally want to play,” Royce told his mum time and again.

“OK, Royce, but we don’t have that kind of money for that. We just don’t have that money. If God wants you to have it, it will hap­pen for you.”

In need of at­ten­tion

The Janssen con­sole pi­ano, built in 1950, sat in the Gran­ite City, Ill., home of Suzanne and Michael Hal­brook for about 12 years. It was given to them by a friend who knew that Michael was mu­sic di­rec­tor at his church and thought it could be of value to him.

The Hal­brooks didn’t want to turn away a free pi­ano, but as soon as they got it they re­alised it was in need of some at­ten­tion.

“The keys didn’t work that great; it wasn’t tuned the best,” Suzanne Hal­brook said. “It did its job when it had to, but it was not the best.”

Less than a year ago, the Hal­brooks got a dig­i­tal pi­ano, leav­ing the fate of the old Janssen un­cer­tain, es­pe­cially with their mu­si­cally in­clined sons, 10 and 8, more in­ter­ested in the flute and vi­olin.

Michael Hal­brook used to work at Rodgers Townsend, an ad­ver­tis­ing agency in down­town St. Louis. He knew that agency co- founder Tom Townsend had started a pro­gram pair­ing un­wanted pi­anos with those who would like one but for whom the cost was out of reach.

The Hal­brook pi­ano made its way into the Pi­anos for Peo­ple pro­gram in Oc­to­ber 2014. It was in such poor shape that it was rel­e­gated to a back room of­ten re­ferred to as the morgue.

‘ I could do that’

The de­sire to play pi­ano erupted in Royce Martin.

In March 2014, the teen was watch­ing mu­sic videos with his sis­ter. John Leg­end was at the pi­ano play­ing his hit All Of Me.

“I could do that,” Royce told his sis­ter, Rachelle.

Rachelle, now 17, had an elec­tric key­board she re­quested for Christ­mas, “but I didn’t con­nect at all,” she said. Royce be­gan peck­ing. It wasn’t pro­vid­ing the sound that Leg­end made in the pi­ano- cen­tric bal­lad that has be­come a wed­ding sta­ple.

But it didn’t stop Royce from try­ing.

Royce at­tends Grand Cen­ter Arts Academy, a char­ter school in mid­town St. Louis that draws youths with in­ter­est in vis­ual and per­form­ing arts. The sopho­more lives dur­ing the week with rel­a­tives in the city, al­low­ing him to at­tend the school.

At the academy, across the street from Pow­ell Hall, home to the St. Louis Sym­phony Or­ches­tra, Royce was play­ing per­cus­sion in­stru­ments in band but asked if he could start play­ing pi­ano. Soon, he was com­ing into school on Mon­days play­ing songs he had mem­o­rised from the ra­dio over the week­end.

He watched YouTube videos fo­cus­ing on the hand move­ments of pi­ano play­ers. He be­gan writ­ing his own mu­sic.

“When he prac­tices, it is for hours at a time,” said Da­men Martin, Royce’s or­ches­tra teacher and no re­la­tion to the teen. “Any time I walk down the hall and I hear the pi­ano and it’s sub­stan­tially good, I say: ‘ It’s ei­ther Royce or a teacher.’ He is one of the few stu­dents here who has a real gift. Prodigy sta­tus.”

Change in pri­or­i­ties

The non­profit Pi­anos for Peo­ple, on Chero­kee Street, was formed in De­cem­ber 2012 to honor an­other young tal­ent.

Two years ear­lier, Alex Townsend, a stu­dent at the Sa­van­nah Col­lege of Art and De­sign, was killed in a car crash. He was 21. His father, Tom Townsend, who had

May­nard Scott helps his grand­son Zacharia Scott, 8, as he takes a les­son at Pi­anos for Peo­ple.

Kayia Smith, gen­eral man­ager of Pi­anos for Peo­ple, helps Abay­omi Smith with a les­son at the chero­kee Street cen­tre.

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