Helena High School choral director Cissy Johnson poses with the school's new baby grand piano.

Helena High School choral director Cissy Johnson poses with the school’s new baby grand piano.

A community comes together to purchase a piano for Helena High School

Story by Grace Thornton

Photos by Eric Starling

Cissy Johnson knew she should be irritated with her husband for scrolling Facebook during her niece’s ballet performance at the Alabama Theatre in May.

“I remember looking over and seeing him on Facebook,” Johnson said with a laugh,  “then leaning over and saying, ‘Dude, can you not just watch the recital?’”

But as it turns out, she’s glad he was distracted. That stolen moment on social media ended with Helena High School getting a brand new baby grand piano.

It all started with a post from Baker Piano and Music Company in Gadsden.

Johnson’s husband leaned over and said he’d seen on Facebook that the music store was liquidating its assets and selling a Kawai baby grand piano for $2,500. A piano of its kind can come with a sticker price of up to $30,000.

“Tell him yes, we’ll take it,” Johnson whispered back.

That step of faith was just the beginning.

The rest is a story of a community coming together around a brand new school in need of a brand new piano.

Johnson, choral director at Helena High School, said the music store replied that it was first come, first serve on that rare deal. They had three days to raise the money.

It was Facebook to the rescue again.

“I just on a whim put something on my Facebook page and said, ‘We’ve come across this gift. If you’re looking for a tax-deductible donation, this would be a great one,’” she said.

Even though the brand-new school, which opened in the fall of 2014, had a brand-new building, that building didn’t come furnished, she explained. “I used a piano app on my iPad at the beginning of the school year last year to lead the choirs.”

Eventually someone kindly donated a piano, and it was better than the app but still not in the kind of shape they needed in the long run, Johnson said.

“It was out of tune, and we didn’t have the money to tune them, so I would transpose the keys in class every day,” she said. “That’s not an easy feat. But we got through. And our ultimate goal was a grand piano.”

So she posted the plea for help on Facebook and waited.

And the community responded.

Johnson’s post was picked up by a local blogger and Helena city councilman – Hal Woodman of No Sleep in Helena – and several Facebook pages run by the city, and within 48 hours, Johnson had the funds not just for the piano but also for a cover and a heavy-duty dolly to move the piano back and forth to the auditorium.

“People were so gracious and generous, and they brought donations by the school,” Johnson said. “The way the community came behind it was so wonderful — we are so excited. It’s a tight-knit community, and they were behind us 100 percent. You hear a lot about the support of athletics, and fine arts don’t usually get the same attention.”

It was refreshing, she said, to see the community get behind fine arts in the same way they came behind the athletics last year when needs came up.

“It’s so awesome to have a community that values well rounded kids and wants to support it all,” Johnson said.

Principal April Brand agreed.

“The piano will be a huge asset to our choral program and its students,” she said. “As a new school, a piano purchase poses a substantial cost. The outpouring of community support for Mrs. Johnson and our choral students made purchasing a piano possible. We are so thankful for the tremendous support the community of Helena provides, and will continue to provide, for our students and teachers.”