ST. LOUIS — For years, the piano sat in a Ballwin home without making much of a sound. But on Monday, after traveling about 20 miles to Amani Dugger’s home on Washington Boulevard in St. Louis, the piano sang.
Eleven-year-old Amani studied how pianist Danny Ravensberg opened the top panel of the 2002 Baldwin Hamilton Studio to let the instrument’s sound ring out into the room. Ravensberg asked Amani to hit a key, triggering a small hammer that struck a string and made it vibrate.
Ravensberg stepped on the sustain pedal and ran his fingers across the length of the piano’s 88 keys, hammering a major chord from the lowest to the highest note. The sound filled the air and hung there for a moment.
Ravensberg turned to Amani.
“It’s all yours,” he said.
With that, Amani became the 300th person in the St. Louis area to receive a free, donated piano from Pianos for People, a nonprofit founded in 2012 by Tom Townsend, a local businessman and blues and jazz pianist, to match unused pianos to people who couldn’t otherwise afford them. The group also provides free piano lessons in St. Louis and Ferguson.
Townsend, who died of cancer in 2019, founded Pianos for People in honor of his son, Alex, who died in a car crash in 2010 at age 21. Alex, a student of the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia, had been a creative youth who played piano and drums. Townsend helmed the nonprofit for years, including while recovering from a gunshot wound to the chin during an attempted carjacking in 2018.
On Monday, Tom was looking down on his nonprofit’s 300th delivery “with a huge smile on his face and a lot of pride,” said his widow, Jeanne Townsend.
The milestone delivery capped the nonprofit’s growth from an idea into a community that includes thousands of young musicians, some of whom went on to study music in college, she said.
“Tom thought every single person could benefit from a piano, and he thought he’d be able to save pianos and he’d be able to save kids at the same time,” she said. “It’s just a pleasure to carry on his legacy this way.”
‘She had it in her’
The piano has been a source of solace for Amani in the six years since she and her twin brothers had to leave their father in Ohio and come live with their grandmother, Pamela Dugger, in St. Louis.
“When I’m stressed out or upset, I just play the piano,” Amani said. “And I feel better.”
But it’s also a pathway to a better future, said Amani, a student at Pamoja Preparatory Academy in St. Louis. She wants to become a cardiac sonographer, and hopes music can provide a scholarship to higher education.
“I said, ‘You know honey, I don’t have the money to pay for you to go to school,’” said Amani’s grandmother, Pamela Dugger, 60.
“But I knew that if Amani did this, and she could get good at it, she could get a music scholarship.”
Dugger encouraged Amani to join group piano lessons at the Community of Women Against Hardship, a nonprofit that supports families in disadvantaged backgrounds, where Pianos for People teacher Mike Carosello was leading group lessons.
Though Carosello only taught at the nonprofit every few weeks, he noticed Amani returning time and time again.
“She was the most consistent of all the students, and that was a tip that she had it in her to truly love the instrument,” he said.
When the program was halted during the COVID-19 pandemic, Carosello took Amani on as a private student.
“I said, ‘I can be your teacher and we can get you a piano, a real piano,’” he said.
Carosello, who graduated from a prestigious music program at the University of North Texas, said the opportunities he received as a child were critical to his career.
“Good teachers, having an instrument that my parents bought for me... there are a lot of kids that don’t have the opportunity to experience that,” he said. “For us to be able to provide Amani with that is transformative.”
‘A little Mozart’
In the suburbs of Ballwin on Monday morning, Laurie Bowen shed a few tears as she watched movers load her Baldwin Hamilton piano on to a truck.
Her husband gave her the piano for her 45th birthday, said Bowen, 54, at a time when she had hoped to rekindle her musicianship. Bowen had played the piano from age 5 to 18, playing classical, ragtime and covers of Elvis Presley and Billy Joel for her siblings and friends.
But as an adult, with a full-time job at Enterprise and a young son at home, it was difficult to find the time to practice.
“I always wanted to play again, but with time I realized it wasn’t going to happen,” she said. “I thought, that piano really needs to go somewhere nice.”
Bowen knew what it was like to be a young piano student without an instrument at home. She studied for years before her parents bought one.
“It’s like going to school and learning math — and then not doing math again for another week,” Bowen said. “It’s hard to take the lessons you learned and remember them.”
Bowen wrote a note to Amani that was delivered with the piano, along with a copy of her Billy Joel songbook.
“I’m really happy that someone who truly wants it is getting it,” she said. “I hope I can hear her play someday.”
Outside Amani’s home in St. Louis’ Central West End neighborhood that afternoon, the 12-year-old, her grandmother and Carosello were overjoyed to see a piano in such good condition.
“I didn’t know it would be so beautiful,” Pamela Dugger said.
Four men, wearing masks with colorful music notes, placed a ramp on the stairs to Dugger’s home in the brick duplex, and pushed it into a central spot between the living and dining room, where it could be heard throughout the first floor.
Amani and Carosello sat on the bench together and played a blues duet.
Amani hopes to play as well as her teacher someday, she said, to play gospel classics “Amazing Grace” and “Silent Night” and progress to play jazz and covers of pop stars like Billie Eilish.
“It feels good because I’m learning something,” Amani said. “Sometimes it’s hard, but when it’s hard I practice and practice until I get it.
“When I get it wrong, I get it right the next time.”
Amani has had a small electric organ to practice with at home that her grandmother found for $60 at Salvation Army.
But the unweighted keys and digital sounds are no replacement for a full-sized acoustic instrument, Ravensberg said.
“An acoustic piano is going to teach you much more about touch, dynamics, technique, and telling a story through the music than any keyboard will,” he said. “You hit the keys and then you put on the sustain pedal and the sound just reverberates everywhere … you don’t get that with a keyboard.”
Carosello has Amani’s next year of lessons planned out, he said, with 18th century etudes meant to teach the fundamentals of classical music. And with a piano at home, she can practice what she learns daily, instead of every other week.
“In a matter of months,” he said, “she’ll sound like a little Mozart.”
Royce Martin, a sophomore at Grand Center Arts Academy, learned to play the piano in 2014. Called a prodigy by some, Royce recently received a piano to call his own. Video by Robert Cohen/St. Louis Post-Dispatch