Walkabout: Piano magic made in Braddock

The piano that was played in the film adaptation of August Wilson’s play “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” — filmed here last year, release date pending — sits in a three-sided shed on what was, before last summer, a vacant lot in Braddock.

The Pittsburgh Film Office donated the piano, an upright Shoninger painted yellow. The lot was cleared, graded and recast as a community music space by Gisele Fetterman and Kristen Michaels, founders of the nonprofit For Good Pittsburgh.

It has outdoor furniture and a stage and play area with several weather-durable percussion instruments. Crews from the Braddock Youth Project and the nonprofit Grounded Strategies made all that happen.

Beside the lot, an Ashley Hodder mural of floral patterns and larger-than-life women runs the length of the Hollander building. What’s happening in the former pharmacy is a story in itself, and you can read a little about it here.

As the brains behind For Good Pittsburgh, Gisele and Kristen teamed up in 2018 to raise money to buy the building to provide affordable rents for Mon Valley women-owned businesses. It’s called the Hollander Project.

One of 11 tenants, Cathy Turner owns a cleaning company and keeps some office hours there. That’s how her son, Jullian, knew about the piano in the lot next door.

Jullian, co-founder of New Horizon Care Services, gives assistance to people with disabilities and other needs, and one of his clients is Shailen “Shy” Abram, 22, of East Hills.

I went to Braddock recently to interview Shy. It was too cold to ask him to play the piano, and it was out of tune from months in the elements anyway.

For Good Pittsburgh has been offered replacement pianos as needed. Although it seems wasteful not to protect pianos from the elements, the higher purpose here is to make piano playing accessible to anyone who happens by. People who would be satisfied to play an out-of-tune piano may not be musicians, but having access to one could be inspirational to someone else.

Shy’s use of the piano since last summer has exponentially upped the magic that was imagined when Gisele and Kristen established the music garden.

When Shy sat down to play last summer, the piano was pretty much in tune, but that wasn’t what surprised his audience. When he started playing J.S. Bach’s fast-paced Invention No. 8 in F Major, I promise you that everyone there who didn’t know what to expect had an oh-my-God moment.

With no forewarning and no fanfare, the lucky few who stopped by got the gift of a virtuoso performance.



Shy came to our interview with Jullian walking close behind him. Shy tapped the floor with his white support cane as they made their way back to the kitchen.

Shy said he was born with retinopathy of prematurity. He asked Jullian, “Should I tell her about the other thing?” Jullian said yes, and Shy said, “and I’m a little autistic.”

“On the spectrum,” Jullian said, adjusting Shy’s collar to cover the edge of blue tie that was peeking out in back.

Shy has been playing the piano since before he was able to get onto a bench unassisted. He remembers being a toddler, hearing a recording of “Killing Me Softly” by Roberta Flack and clambering up onto the bench to play it, shocking his mother so much that she called family members and held the phone out so they could listen.

“I play everything, but Imma give you — no, I’m going to give you — my list,” he said. “R&B, gospel, jazz, hip-hop … and I save the best for last. The genre I’m most in love with is classical.”

He proceeded to name composers by their full names, their works in detail and the periods with which they are associated — Renaissance, Baroque, etc.

“Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, G Minor No. 40,” he announced, taking a deep breath before intoning the first measures, pitch-perfect and true to tempo, pumping his fists as he sang, spreading his hands at the end as if conducting.

Shy has played in churches, at public events, schools, libraries and in the group Soul Raydio.

A graduate of Pittsburgh’s CAPA — the High School for Creative and Performing Arts — he took piano lessons at the Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children earlier, but he was by then a veteran of the keyboards, instinctively tapping the island of genius in his brain.

When the conversation drifted toward the treatments he is getting to gain a portion of sight, he said, “Can I finish talking about Beethoven first?

“Beethoven’s Third symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55,” he said. “Oh, no wait, everybody loves this one, the Fifth in C Minor” he said, raising his fists and booming, “Da-da-da-daaah!”

Diana Nelson Jones: djones@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1626. Twitter@dnelsonjones.