Non-profit provides free pianos for underprivileged community

Alex Townsend was, in the words of his father, Tom Townsend, a “round peg in a square hole”.

“Alex was like a lot of young, creative kids,” Townsend told the St. Louis Post Dispatch. “Not being an athlete and not being a straight-A student, his world was creating things.”

Townsend’s life was tragically taken from him in a fatal car crash. He was 21, a student of graphic design and an avid player of the piano and the drums.

Having seen how music allowed his son who was never quite able to fit in to express himself in imaginative ways, Townsend and his wife started the non-profit Pianos for People in their hometown of St. Louis, Missouri as a way to honor their son by continuing his legacy of music and art.

“There are a lot of pianos out there not in use,” Townsend said, “and there are a lot of families without music in the house.”

Established in 2012, Pianos for People collects old pianos, refurbishing and delivering them to reach people who yearn to get their hands on the instrument, but whose circumstances forbid them from doing so. As of late 2016, Pianos for People has donated over 175 pianos to homeless shelters, under-resourced schools and homes of low-income families.

16-year-old Royce Martin attends a school that draws youths with interest in visual and performing arts. He taught himself the basics by watching videos online and was coming to school playing songs he had memorized over the weekend. He wanted a piano at home to practice, but his mother told him they didn’t “have that kind of money”.

It was Martin’s orchestra teacher who found out about Pianos for People and encouraged him to apply. His request was honored, and Martin now has a Janssen piano in his home.

“He is one of the few students here who has a real gift. Prodigy status,” Royce Martin, his orchestra teacher, said.

Pianos for People also provides group and individual group and individual piano lessons at their studio during afterschool hours and on Saturdays. Like the piano donation program, eligibility for lessons is based on household income and is free of charge. To accommodate demand, they opened a second location at a nearby church. Special events like recitals, “Piano Slams” and “Super Theory Saturdays” are also held by the non-profit. To date, over 80 children have benefitted – and continue to benefit – from their program.

According to Townsend, some of the students who are homeless or near-homeless see their regular Pianos for People appointment as something they can count on. The program also keeps students off the streets; instead of turning to other influences, they’re channeling their time and passion into music.

“These instruments can provide discernible effects for children in school settings. “[Music practice] can have a very direct impact on grades, on academics, especially on math scores,” Townsend told the River Front Times.

Sisters Aaliyah and Alisha had a piano delivered to their home courtesy of Pianos for People. Ever since, they’ve been spending their free time playing, mimicking the latest Top 40 hits and mastering classical overtures.

“Both of them absolutely love it,” their mother, Carla, told St. Louis Parent. The piano is always going when they’re home. And what music has done for them is amazing. Alisha’s always been shy, but through piano, she’s gained a lot more confidence – even performing at her school talent show. It’s helped Aaliyah improve her concentration and her self-esteem as well!”

Pianos for People has been well-received in the St. Louis community, and has been selected as Arts Innovator of the Year for the 2017 by the city’s arts and education council.

Townsend, for whom the piano was a large part of his life growing up, continues to be touched by the stories he hears.

“We have one family at the school who is homeless and has to move from location to location. But their three kids are some of our most loyal and dedicated students. Their mom tells us we’re the main constant in their lives. Something like this goes beyond music – it really shows that when people come together, lives can change for the better.”

All images via Pianos for People Facebook page