St. Louis’ Pianos for People Builds and Heals Communities Through Music
Pianos for People has a simple but powerful motto: “People need pianos. Pianos need people.” The Missouri-based organization, with locations in St. Louis and Ferguson, began its work in 2012, restoring pianos and providing them to underfunded schools and low-income families. According to Sherry Nelson, an instructor and staff member since 2018: “very few organizations rescue pianos—but we do more than that.”
Over the past ten years, the organization has expanded its mission to build community and promote healing through music education, host concerts and events, foster young musicians and serve hundreds of children and families.
The organization has focused on how music can heal, especially in the face of tragedy, since its founding. Tom Townsend, the organization’s late founder, lost his son Alex in 2010. Alex was a musician, which inspired Tom to start the organization. “The entire Townsend family has a robust interest in music,” Nelson explains. “They noticed that there was a need to repurpose pianos. They discovered that there were few resources and places available to assist people when they want to get rid of a piano. In fact, many pianos were simply ending up in landfills.”
The Townsends began to take discarded pianos, refurbish them and donate them. Quality new pianos are expensive; many cost upwards of $10,000. The organization began providing lessons to complement the donations, and then expanded to offer music education and summer music camps to more and more students.
“We create a safe, brave and creative space for a lot of students that have been historically excluded from resources in which they get to be a kid, be a human being and experience the creative outlet of music,” Nelson says.
Music speaks a language that is beyond words and is a vehicle for building bridges. Music connects us in a society that often wants to separate us.
Pianos for People is serious about not only individual empowerment, but community engagement, too. The organization opened a location in Ferguson in the wake of the tragic killing of Mike Brown in 2014. “We see a world in which everyone has access to a piano – not just the people that have privilege. We believe music can help people be their true selves and find creative outlets for the stressors in their lives,” Nelson says, adding, “Music speaks a language that is beyond words and is a vehicle for building bridges. Music connects us in a society that often wants to separate us.”
Lessons and classes at Pianos for People are free and are designed for teaching younger students just beginning with music. With a full-time staff and a roster of 12 teachers, Nelson says that while they are a small team, they provide “a huge educational offering,” serving about hundreds of students and restoring and donating about 40 pianos a year. A majority of Pianos for People’s students are African-American or Hispanic, and nearly all come from households with less than $25,000 annual income.
While music and arts education in school has been tied to everything from increased academic performance to improved mental health, it still tracks with racial and economic inequality and often loses favor in school budgeting processes during periods of economic uncertainty.
Like so many nonprofits, Pianos for People has had challenges throughout the pandemic. “We primarily serve children and want to keep them safe,” Nelson says, “So we shifted our classes online.” While teaching piano remotely is difficult, Nelson says, “the pandemic has forced us to expand regionally and create partnerships and this has been a positive outcome.”
Donor impact has been especially important during the pandemic: “Donor-advised funds are very important to us… [and they] are quite a big part of our budget. I think that our supporters are very savvy and very intentional in their giving. Most of our major funders and long-term supporters choose to make their grants through DAFs,” Nelson notes.
As the organization celebrates its 10th anniversary, Nelson says that while they are proud of their work so far, they are looking ahead and wondering what’s next in terms of growth. “We want to continue what we are doing and build more partners, offer more classes and do more outreach.”
David Alexander Bullock is a graduate of Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia. He has an MA in Philosophy and an MSW from the University of Michigan School of Social Work. He is a storyteller, researcher, and organic intellectual. He recently completed the Oral Histories project celebrating the Centennial Celebration of the University of Michigan School of Social Work. Currently, he is a consultant for the National Philanthropic Trust’s Grant Stories project.
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Photo courtesy of Pianos for People.