Pianos For People

Group puts pianos in hands of those who need them

Joe Jackson (left), founding co-partner, and Tom Townsend, founder of Pianos For People. photo by Diana Linsley (click for larger version)
August 02, 2013
It happens when senior citizens downsize from the large homes where they raised their families into a small apartment, an assisted-living facility or a nursing home. Or when adult children must clear out years of belongings from their deceased parents' homes. Or when an up-and-coming businessperson relocates to a small apartment in another city. A piano is left behind.

Meanwhile, a young child shows great promise in music, but the family can't afford a piano. A disadvantaged learning-disabled teenager could find therapeutic help with a piano.

If only there was a way to connect those pianos with these people. In St. Louis, now there is.

Pianos for People (PFP) is a not-for-profit organization that connects people who need pianos with pianos that need people. The organization seeks used pianos that are currently unused, need work or just need new owners; then the group donates the pianos to needy individuals and families.

"We introduce the Smiths, Johnsons, Taylors, Nelson, Bakers, Martin and Millers to the Baldwins, Kimballs, Steinways, Chickerings, Masons and Hamlins," said Tom Townsend, who founded Pianos for People with Pat Eastman, adjunct professor of piano and musicianship at Webster University.

Townsend, an advertising executive who plays jazz piano on the side in St. Louis clubs, had always wanted to find a way to donate acoustic pianos to people in need. During the 1980s and 1990s, the idea ruminated in his head, where it suffered from over-thought and excessive research. Then, in 2010, Townsend received that phone call that every parent fears: his 21-year-old son, Alex, had been killed in a car accident while attending the Savannah School of Art and Design. Alex Townsend was a gifted illustrator, drummer and pianist who played by ear.

"I decided to stop everything else and do this right now," Townsend said. He and his wife, Jeanne, started that very year by founding a music festival in Savannah to give young musicians a chance to perform and be exposed to audiences.

In 2012, the Townsends decided to "finally do this pianos thing," Townsend said. His first call was to Pat Weeks Eastman, who had been Alex's childhood piano teacher.

"Alex was very creative, a wonderful kid," Eastman said. "Tom came to me and said 'I want to give pianos away to people who can't afford them.'" Her response was: "So do I. I always wanted to do that. Let's do it."

Through his connections at his piano gigs, Townsend heard about Joe Jackson, a piano technician who owns Jackson Pianos, 4354 Olive Blvd., formerly on Cherokee Street. Townsend approached Jackson at the store and presented his idea. He got much the same response: "I always wanted to do that. Let's do it."

So, without over-thinking, without over-planning, they did it. "Bam," Townsend said. "No case to be made, no question of how this is going to work. Just pulled the trigger. We let the other things catch up."

How It Works

Eastman and Townsend describe the organization as a three-legged stool. One leg identifies qualifying candidates. Another identifies qualifying pianos. The third leg transports the pianos from previous owners to new owners with a stop at the piano technician for repairs, tuning and touch-ups.

Eastman and Townsend take care of the first two legs of the three-legged piano stool -- matching old pianos with new owners.

The third leg is supported by Jackson, a founding co-partner. Jackson and his crew do the transporting and repairs, then follow up with tuning after the pianos have settled into their new environment.

Pianos that qualify for the program are solid, wood pianos that need a good tuning and limited repairs. Pianos for People must be able to acquire a piano for under $500, but an outright donation is preferred. One huge source of leads is piano stores, Eastman said. People call piano stores to find out how they can divest themselves of no-longer needed pianos.

Eastman and Townsend visit schools, churches, musical organizations and events such as street fairs to spread the word, seeking likely recipients.

Qualified recipients have limited income, but a genuine desire to put the piano to use. Recent recipients include families, troubled teens, disabled people and senior citizens.

"We give to people who have a real desire," Eastman said. "They have to write down the reason they want one, and some are real tear-jerkers."

The first piano was donated in November 2012, and to date, Pianos for People has donated about a dozen pianos and has a few more in the pipeline.

"People are so excited when they are told they'll get a piano," Eastman said. "It means so much to everybody who gets one."

This spring, Pianos for People won a contest that netted the organization a $20,000 Monsanto Grow St. Louis grant, but additional funds are needed to keep the program going and allow it to expand.

Eventually, Eastman and Townsend hope to expand the program with Pianos for People Pro, giving grand pianos to young, serious pianists trying to start a career. Another idea is to open a space where kids can interact with a piano, take lessons, play, and learn about piano and music in general at no cost, Eastman said.

"We'd like to set up a space somewhere in an underserved area in St. Louis, put some pianos in and have a Saturday afternoon of free piano stuff, and get kids off the streets and playing piano," she said.

Raising Funds Through Music

Pianos for People, an arm of the 501(c)3 Alex Townsend Foundation, will hold a fundraising concert Aug. 25 featuring performances by 10 local pianists.

At press time, the expected participants include Webster University music professors Pat Eastman, Donna Vince, Daniel Schene and Kim Portnoy; piano teacher/accompanists Julie Heck and Ethan Rogers; jazz pianists Pat Joyce, Carole Schmidt, Tom Townsend; and boogie-woogie player Fred Kemp III. The performances will include solos and duets in many styles from classical to jazz as well as singers and small ensembles.

The fundraiser is co-sponsored by the Piano Technicians Guild and Jackson Pianos. Tickets are $35 and include hors d'oeuvres, Schlafly Beer and Purus Vodka cocktails. The event will be held from 6 to 10 p.m. Aug. 25 at the Wine Press, 4436 Olive St. For tickets, contact pat.pianosfp@gmail.com or ttownsend@rodgerstownsend.com.

Pianos for People has a presence on Facebook and Twitter and has posted a nine-minute video on Vimeo documenting the delivery of one of its first beneficiary pianos to a family in Dogtown (http://vimeo.com/58441907). Videographer Jake Torchin has posted other Pianos for People videos on the organization's website at www.pianosforpeople.com.

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