Keys 4/4 Kids nonprofit finds new uses for old pianos

08/24/2014 7:59 PM

08/24/2014 8:17 PM

Ben Suchman identifies many of the pianos in the Keys 4/4 Kids store with a story: the Wurlitzer that was with a couple for their 45-year marriage, the Sauter purchased in Hong Kong in the ’60s and played in the Philippines, the twin of a Sohmer played at a prominent politician’s funeral.

Then, there’s the Steinway donated by an antique shop in Kansas. A car hit a concrete planter, which caused its engine to fly through the store’s front window and topple a heavy display case onto the piano.

All of these pianos and about 90 others will be moved from the current store in the West Bottoms to a new venue at 215 Southwest Blvd. in September, said Suchman, the store’s operations manager. On average, 35 used pianos are donated to the store per month.

Keys 4/4 Kids doesn’t let the pianos sit and collect dust. (Actually, it needs more volunteers to help dust the pianos, so feel free to donate some time.)

The Minneapolis-based nonprofit, which opened its Kansas City branch in 2009, finds uses for these pianos, which often outlive their owners.

“We sell ’em, we donate ’em, we re-purpose ’em, we scrap ’em, we move ’em, we tune ’em,” Suchman said.

Depending on the piano’s value and condition, it will be put up for sale, donated or scrapped. The more expensive pianos are sold to keep the business afloat, while the less expensive, yet quality, pianos are donated to kids in need.

Suchman said the organization would donate more, if more children applied.

“We kind of give (pianos) out like candy every once in a while,” Suchman said. “We want to donate a piano a month.”

The Kansas City store has donated at least 14 pianos since opening.

“With six kids and your husband working as a server at Jack Stack Barbecue, we don’t have money for extra stuff,” said Stephanie Gorman of Kansas City, whose 8-year-old daughter, Israel, received a free piano in July.

“She was jumping up and down, and as soon as (the movers) left, she started playing.”

Before getting the piano, Israel found the keyboard she practiced on to be frustrating, Gorman said.

“She couldn’t play her music the way it was written to play,” Gorman said. “It didn’t have sensitive touch. So if she hit the keys hard, it wouldn’t be louder like a piano.”

Now, Gorman said, Israel practices at least an hour a day. Her favorite song is “Do-Re-Mi” from “The Sound of Music.”

Steve Waters, the Kansas City branch’s site manager, said it’s important for young learners to have good pianos.

“You don’t want to discourage them right at the get-go,” Waters said.

Waters said he restores pianos because it brings happiness to the people who play them. Waters said he knows that happiness is lasting, because acoustic pianos of 100 years ago have excellent workmanship.

“I restored a piano several years back that was made in 1855. And now it will last another 100 years,” Waters said.

Restoring a 100-year-old piano is not a DIY project.

Though, for laughs, Waters keeps a how-to packet printed from the Internet by a foolhardy customer who tried to use it.

Don’t think it’s hard?

Acoustic pianos have at least 4,000 parts.

Distances between parts must be precise. Adjustments are constantly made with new additions.

Waters has been restoring pianos for 25 years. His latest project is an 1893 Kimball. He’s already worked 14 hours on the “action,” which is the complicated system that connects the keys to the strings.

He only has 45 more hours to go.

The Kimball has sentimental value to its owner. It was originally played by the owner’s great-grandmother and passed down in the family.

After restoration comes piano maintenance. Tuning brings the same happiness on a lesser scale.

After tuning Patty Kluding’s piano in Overland Park for two hours, Waters watched Kluding’s daughter, 10-year-old Kim Fairchild, play a ballade.

Tuning “is like trying to duplicate the human voice,” Waters said. “Every human voice has a character and a tone quality to it.”

The piano hadn’t been tuned for years and was flat in pitch when Waters arrived. Kim pronounced the sound much better.

“She’ll take pride in that piano, and she will take care of it now,” Waters said.

Some pianos reach a point they can’t be played. Waters repurposes those. He’s in the middle of turning an upright piano into a headboard and footboard for his daughter’s bed. He has plans for making a 1920s Monarch into a bookshelf.

“We try to use as much of the piano as possible,” Waters said.

Sometimes, pianos are too far gone to restore or repurpose.

In that case, Keys 4/4 Kids hands the piano to a recycling team that picks out the metal and junks the wood. Waters said pianos take up too much space in landfills to trash.

“It’s a shame to throw them away,” Waters said.

Pianos

For more information about receiving a piano or donating a piano, visit keys44kids.com.

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