Used pianos strike a chord for Belchertown music programs

  • left in red, James Sanchez, Jimmy Burgoff, owner of Jimmy Burgoff movers, Julian Burgoff and Jua Malik move a piano being donated by Westfield State to Belchertown High school. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • left, Jua Malik , and James Sanchez, move a piano with Jimmy Burgoff, owner of Jimmy Burgoff movers, being donated by Westfield State to Belchertown High school. —GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jimmy Burgoff, owner of Jimmy Burgoff movers, gets a piano ready to be moved. The piano is being donated by Westfield State University to Belchertown High School. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Geoffrey Gould, front, the music teacher at Swift River Elementary in Belchertown, and Andrew Bonacci, the chairman of the music department at Westfield State University, look over a piano which is being donated to the Belchertown schools by Westfield. GAZETTE STAFF/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Friday, January 12, 2018

BELCHERTOWN — An anonymous $1.1 million donation to Westfield State University has resulted in two Belchertown schools receiving six free pianos.

“It really means populating our school system with quality instruments,” said Geoffrey Gould, a Swift River Elementary School music teacher who initiated the exchange. “We’re blessed enough to have a community that values the fine arts and champions music programs.”

In honor of the late Catherine Downer, a longtime chair of the Westfield State music department, the anonymous donor wished for the school to earn the coveted All-Steinway School distinction. This means using exclusively Steinway & Sons pianos on campus, and the music department ridding themselves of all other brands of pianos, many of which are still in good working condition.

“At first we were like, what are we going to do with all these pianos?” said Andrew Bonacci, chairman of Westfield State’s music department. “It’s a cool problem to have.”

Gould, a Belchertown native, taught music for 15 years in Westfield schools before returning to teach at Swift River. When he heard that Westfield State had become an All-Steinway school he decided to ask what they would do with the old pianos.

“It’s a joy to get these pianos to new homes because those folks in Belchertown are really thrilled to have them,” Bonacci said. “Although they’re not brand new and shiny, they have a lot of life left in them and will serve the students well.”

Belchertown High School received two Baldwin grand pianos and two upright pianos from the exchange, while the Chestnut Hill Community School received two upright pianos.

“For me the most exciting part is that I grew up in Belchertown and I got a Belchertown education and I fell in love with music in Belchertown schools,” Gould said. “The fact that I’ve had a pretty big impact bringing quality instruments back to town is a pretty big thing for me.”

For the high school, this means the ability to incorporate piano pieces into regular ensembles without having to transport the school’s existing grand piano to and from the stage. The old grand piano will now stay in the band pit, the gifted ones will live in the rehearsal room and on stage, and the upright pianos will replace two that are broken.

“The Belchertown High School band is a large, well-respected and high achieving program,” said Brian Messier, Belchertown High’s band director. “We have very active and supportive elementary and middle school programs that allow that to happen.”

The band’s booster club agreed to use money from fundraising to hire Jimmy Burgoff Moving and Hauling to move the pianos from Westfield to Belchertown.

“It’s a huge windfall. We’re really thrilled,” Messier said. “This is the type of thing an annual budget would never be able to support.”

Messier has led the high school band to win awards, travel to national competitions and put on over a dozen productions per year in his four years as band director. He estimates that between the chorus and various musical groups, about 150 students are engaged with the high school music department.

“Every student in Belchertown gets a music education,” Gould said.

All-Steinway distinction

The $1.1 million donation was the largest in Westfield State’s 178-year history, surpassing Downer’s 2015 donation of $1 million that established the performing arts center in her name. The university received their All-Steinway School distinction in September, and made the announcement they would give away the old pianos soon after.

“The thought of throwing them away was horrific so I’m really delighted the better pianos can go somewhere where students will continue to use them,” Bonacci said.

The university is giving away about 25 Baldwin, Yamaha, Kawai and other brand name pianos, including 13 grand and seven upright pianos. Bonacci says they want to be fair to all interested parties, giving the pianos away on a first-come, first-served basis. As a public university, Westfield State can only give the pianos to nonprofits or other public institutions.

The university is now the only public university in New England with the Steinway distinction, joining fewer than 140 universities in the U.S. with the title. The 20 new pianos will be used throughout the Catherine Dower Center for Performing and Fine Arts for performances, practice and lessons.

After the old pianos settle into their new home in Belchertown, they will be used by students for decades. With proper care, the pianos will likely outlive the school building.

“The possibilities this will allow for us over the next 20 years are hard to imagine,” Messier said.

Sarah Robertson can be reached at srobertson@gazettenet.com