Pianos for People: Reverberations of a Lasting Legacy

November 25, 2019

Categories Impact Stories

Pianos for People honors the vision of late founder, Tom Townsend, by expanding its offerings as a provider of pianos and music education

An older man sits at a piano, teaching piano to a young girl.

Tom Townsend, the late founder of Pianos for People, teaches a young student the fundamentals of how to play the piano.

Playing an instrument can have life-changing effects. But the cost of an instrument, especially a piano, can be insurmountable. The nationally recognized nonprofit Pianos for People developed a solution to bring the magic of music to more by collecting, refurbishing, and regifting pianos, free of charge. Seven years after its inception, Pianos for People is expanding its work to further its positive impact in the St. Louis community through musical education.

Under the leadership of the late Tom Townsend, who passed away in October after battling an aggressive and rare form of cancer, Pianos for People has transformed from a piano repair and allocation organization to a community resource that brings music into the lives of the underserved. Townsend co-founded Pianos for People in 2012 to honor his son, Alex, who was killed in a 2010 car crash.

“We provide more than just piano lessons; we use the piano as a gateway to opportunity, empowerment, self-esteem, and community building,” said Matt Brinkmann, executive director of Pianos for People.

Along with refurbishing older pianos for students, families, seniors, disabled veterans, and others, the organization also offers free group and private classes, providing access to the transformative power of music to those who need it most. Throughout the year, it provides programming for hundreds of students in camps across two locations in St. Louis City and Ferguson in North County. Additionally, the organization invites the community to attend special performances hosted by students and professional performers alike.

A group of six students of different ethnicities play music with tiny keyboards and iPads.

Students experiment and play instruments using a digital approach to help them better express their creativity.

Recently, Pianos for People introduced a digital lab to offer students an option to learn on an electric keyboard alongside traditional acoustic piano instruction. This not only provides another outlet for creativity but also solves a major issue for many students: a lack of space for a full-sized piano in their homes. The organization is now delivering keyboards along with traditional pianos and developing innovative new classes to continue to engage students.

Over the past three years, Pianos for People has received a Program Support grant from the Regional Arts Commission of St. Louis (RAC), which has allowed the organization to meet the increasing demand of incoming students. The organization has been able to not only provide students with the tools to succeed but also connect highly experienced professionals as mentors to students, something Pianos for People views as one of its greatest strengths.

A group of young, diverse students pose for a photo.

Students pose after performing in front of their peers and family at Pianos for People.

This year, RAC awarded the organization a General Operating Support grant, a nod to its growth and expanding presence, to continue to push Townsend’s vision forward. New creative and musical programs, including dance and choir, are being added to mold and inspire young minds. Additional classes and private lessons are also being added for students who are enrolled in Pianos for People programs, adding layers to the already robust and diverse class offerings.

Townsend’s vision of connecting people and pianos in need of one another has turned into a legacy that will only continue to grow as the organization deepens its engagement in the St. Louis community.

Tom Townsend, founder of Pianos for People and staunch community advocate, proudly represented the arts community and used the arts to improve the quality of life of individuals and to advance progress in St. Louis. The Regional Arts Commission, along with the greater St. Louis arts community, is saddened by the loss of Mr. Townsend, whose presence will be sorely missed.