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