'We're not only giving children a chance to learn music, but we're also giving pianos a second chance at life.'
Several organizations across the country are giving away free orphaned pianos to families and community centers in need so as to give children a chance to learn music. One such group is Pianos for People, a St. Louis nonprofit group started by Tom and Jeanne Townsend in 2012 after their oldest child, Alex, a promising musician and artist, passed away in a car accident. Although Tom Townsend died in 2019 of cancer, 63-year-old Jeanne still serves on the Pianos for People board of directors. Speaking to The Washington Post, she shared how touched she is every day by the impact of her family's legacy.
"We've helped hundreds of families to feel a sense of community and develop a love for music," she said. "We're not only giving children a chance to learn music, but we're also giving pianos a second chance at life." Essence Starks' family is among those whose lives have been changed by the initiative. The 30-year-old who works as a call center agent in St. Louis was researching the cost of used pianos online when she came across Pianos for People. She had hoped to give her children—seventh-grader Nevaeh Starks and her siblings Malaya (9), and Sean (8)—a piano years ago but didn't know how she would pay for it.
"It would have been really hard to buy it on my own, even with [monthly] payments," she said. So when she learned how Pianos for People pairs donated pianos with families and community centers in need, covers the $100 to $500 cost of delivery by professional movers, and pays to tune the instrument, Starks could hardly believe it. "A free piano, I couldn't believe it," she said. The single mom filled out an application online and in two weeks, learned that a Kawai upright could be delivered to her house. She was also informed that her children could take free lessons at the Pianos for People music school.
"Everyone started screaming and jumping up and down, and they told me it was like an early Christmas," Starks said of how her kids reacted upon seeing a piano at their house. "My kids are still smiling. It's wonderful to hear them sit down at the piano and plunk out a tune." Matt Brinkmann, the Pianos for People executive director, explained that the organization receives more requests to pick up unwanted pianos than applications for free instruments. "People aren't playing pianos as much as they used to," the 58-year-old said. "Often, a piano is something that has been in the family for generations, and there is a meaningful attachment to it. But people decide they want the piano to be somewhere where it's played and appreciated."
Brinkmann revealed that Pianos for People delivers 40 pianos a year to families that qualify for the program. About 92 percent of recipients reportedly have a household income of less than $25,000 a year. "This isn't about turning kids into great musicians, but making them happy and better people," Brinkmann, an amateur musician who once played the tuba in a brass band, said. "A piano can be life-changing. Research shows that music helps kids to focus and develop social skills. For kids who are struggling, it can really help their self-esteem. The most rewarding thing to me is just seeing the kids light up and take to the piano. After a few weeks of lessons, they blossom."
Mundi Project is another nonprofit group that pairs families with free pianos. Since 2006, the organization has given out almost 300 free pianos to loving families. "Having access to the arts certainly helps to create more well-rounded people," said Ruby Chou, 33, the program's executive director. "This is all about creating access to music and taking down barriers."