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Group raises money for charity while reviving old pianos

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Keys 4/4 Kids
People donate their pianos to Keys 4/4 Kids in St. Paul. The group fixes them up and resells them. The profits go to a childrens' charity.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

Taking up the piano is not a decision taken lightly. Brand new pianos demand hefty prices, and used ones, though cheaper, can be an expensive hassle to move. But a St. Paul group is addressing both issues while also raising money for children.

Keys 4/4 Kids is tucked away in a former upholstery warehouse near the corner of Grand and Hamline avenues in St. Paul. It's a place where pianos come, not to die, but to be reborn. 

Founder Newell Hill can sense the history of the instruments when he looks out over rows of spinets, consoles, and uprights with a few baby grand pianos sprinkled in between.

"These are generally around 20 to 50 years old, sometimes even up to a hundred years old," Hill said. "But they still have a lot of life left in them."

All the pianos have been donated to Keys 4/4 Kids and the organization restores and resells them. The proceeds go to the Margaret Conway Foundation, a group Hill created to support arts programs for disadvantaged kids in North Minneapolis. It's named for Hill's old history teacher at Mounds Park Academy.

"She helped me to believe in myself, and I wanted to give that back to others," he said.

Hill started Keys 4/4 Kids in his parents garage about 10 years ago, when he was 19. Back then, he flirted with becoming a full-time pianist, even releasing a CD of original compositions to benefit the foundation. His performer dreams faded as he became a self-taught piano restorer and tuner, and opened his own piano moving business.

Newell Hill
Newell Hill is the founder of Keys 4/4 Kids. He started it when he was 19 in his parents garage, to raise money for kids art programs in North Minneapolis.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

The 80 pianos resting in the Keys 4/4 kids warehouse space come from all over the Twin Cities, even as far away as Mankato. Usually they're from families whose kids are no longer taking lessons or who are looking to free up space in their homes.

"They'll call piano stores and the piano stores will refer them to me because most piano stores don't want to deal with these old uprights," he said.

There's pretty much a continual stream of pianos coming and going at Keys 4/4 Kids. Hill estimates he receives and sells up to six a week, and is constantly fielding inquiries.

For donators, Hill supplies free moving services for pianos valued at more than $300. If the value is less than that, owners have to chip in to defray moving expenses. For the buyers, Keys 4/4 Kids pianos are priced to move. For $500 you can get a really nice upright, but most cost less than that. Some are even free.

"I try to price my pianos pretty much where you'd find prices on Craig's List," he said.

Keith Libby
Keith Libby is a semi-retired piano technician who volunteers at Keys for Kids. His specialty is restoring piano finishes.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

Pianos that are $99 or more come with a one-year warrantee. Hill has enlisted a small crew of technicians who donate their time to whip the rickety Baldwins, Kembles and Schimmels into shape; volunteers such as John McCone.

"Glue joints break, parts dry out, hammers need to be replaced," McCone said. "That's something that's true of any piano as they get older, so we just do what we can to get the ones in here back up to snuff."

The group is run completely by volunteers. Pamela Pevon eagerly offered her time after buying a set of ivories for her 9-year-old son.

"What I love about being here is that when people walk in, they have such a look of hope," Pevon said. "A piano gives people hope."

Hope was in the eyes of Dan Peterson on a recent Saturday as he paused at one piano then another, pressing fingers to keyboards. 

Pamela Pevon
Pamela Pevon is Program Director for Keys 4/4 Kids. She quickly became a volunteer after buying a restored Keys' piano for her son.
MPR Photo/Chris Roberts

"The two key things I look for is how it sounds and also the feedback to the keys," Peterson said. "I actually just bought a new home so I don't have a ton of money to spend, but I've been playing piano since I was maybe, five or six years old. It was my piano teacher who actually referred me to this place."

Word of mouth has been Keys 4/4 Kids primary marketing plan. Working for the group takes volunteer technician Keith Libby, who specializes in restoring piano finishes, back to the old days.

"Years ago, before the malls came in, this was how pianos [were] sold," Libby said. "They were sold this way, and I think this is really the way a piano should be sold."

For Libby, Keys 4/4 Kids has a neighborhood feel and personal touch you don't find at a chain music store; plus lower prices, tax write-off potential for piano contributors and the fact that all the profits go to a children's charity.