In the key of joy: Pianos for People gives instruments to St. Louis children

Nose pressed to the window, 2-year-old Mary Pluma is excited, her smile so big it’s visible even from the street. Her four older siblings lean in behind her. Eyes wide, they track the movers outside.

But the separation of the glass pane is too much. They rush to open the door, squeezing out one by one to get a closer view: Today is the day the Pluma family receives their first piano. 

The moment the upright is nestled in the corner, three of them beeline for the bench meant for one and tap on the black and white keys. Sometimes the notes sync in harmony, more often they do not, but the room is alive with music and joy. 

Why We Wrote This

Plinking out a tune on a family piano has, for generations, been a middle-class luxury for children. Now a St. Louis nonprofit brings unwanted pianos – and music education – to low-income families.

The piano was delivered by Pianos for People, a St. Louis nonprofit that reduces financial barriers to music education by providing donated pianos and free lessons to low-income families. The organization is transforming what was historically a luxury item and symbol of financial success into a tool for growth – accessible beyond the American middle-class family.

“Our philosophy is that a piano is more than just a piano,” says Matt Brinkmann, the executive director. “We use the piano as a gateway to self-esteem and connection and community.” 

Tom Townsend, a St. Louis advertising executive, and his wife, Jeanne Townsend, an attorney, founded Pianos for People in 2012 in memory of their son, Alex. A pianist and artist, Alex died in a car accident while attending college. Music was a shared family passion, and by spreading it in the community where they raised their son, the Townsends were able to cope with their loss. 

Their focus on saving pianos – connecting unwanted instruments with recipients who can’t afford their own – expanded to music education more broadly. They opened a piano school, in 2014, at their Cherokee Street headquarters and have since delivered more than 300 donated pianos, opened a second school, and grown lesson enrollment to 129 this past spring.

Of the families served, 92% have annual income below $25,000. While many recognize the benefits of music education – confidence, discipline, focus – paying the grocery bill takes priority. A good upright used piano can cost upward of $1,000; a new one close to $10,000; and lessons here average $50 an hour. By cutting the costs that make learning an instrument untenable, Pianos for People creates space for self-expression that, for many, wouldn’t exist otherwise. 

By closing the piano supply-and-demand gap, Pianos for People provides a service for both donors and recipients. There are far more pianos available for donation than the organization can accept, says Danny Ravensberg, piano donations coordinator. This allows Pianos for People to reject pianos in poor condition and protects recipients from repair costs. 

Every piano has a history, and donors care where their piano, often a treasured part of family memories, ends up. 

Jackie Wennemann’s five children enjoyed playing piano when they were growing up in the 1960s – so much so the family bought two, and she’d conduct from the basement door giving cues between the instruments. “Sometimes we would have duets and one would get on this piano,” she says gesturing to one in the entryway, “and one on the one downstairs. I would say, ‘Ready, set, go,’ and they’d both play the same song.”

With her children grown, Ms. Wennemann wanted the pianos to be used again. She donated the one in the best condition to Pianos for People. The organization matched it with the Pluma family, three of whom had been taking free lessons for four years. 

For most of that time, the family lived in a small third-floor apartment that wouldn’t accommodate a piano. This past spring, the Plumas moved into a house where there is finally room.

“When they come [home] from school, they are stressed,” says their mother Patricia Pluma, adding that the kids speak Spanish at home, which means in school they are having to learn in their second language. But sitting at the piano bench translating the music on the page into sounds on the keys is different. It’s freeing, she says. “They start playing the piano and they start smiling.”

Indeed, the peaceful power of pianos is emblazoned on Pianos for People staff T-shirts: “A free piano inspires peace in a child. A peaceful child becomes a peaceful adult. Peaceful adults make a peaceful world.”

Even during the pandemic, online lessons provided a stabilizing sense of normalcy and an element of healing, say parents and teachers.

Sasha Young’s great-grandmother started teaching her piano when she was 6 years old. With her great-grandmother’s recent death, the family struggled to find a teacher. Sasha, now 14, started lessons with Pianos for People over Zoom during the pandemic. The return to music helped her grieving process, say her parents. 

Pianos for People delivers the healing power of music to adults as well. 

Anthony Wilkins says taking lessons helped restore his cognitive functions after an illness and fulfilled a long-held wish: “I’ve always wanted to play the piano, and [when I was] growing up, my mother couldn’t afford it. When I get frustrated, I go to the piano and I start playing, and it calms me down.” He now gives lessons on the fundamentals to his grandchildren. 

While not every student experiences something radically life-changing,
the idea is to give students a place where they belong – where they can take center stage and be celebrated.

Virtual during the pandemic, this place of belonging returned to an in-person experience at the Cherokee Street school in June. 

Situated in the middle of a community improvement district, the school is easily accessible to those it serves. A group lesson in full swing, Kayia Baker, the school director, sits at a grand piano on a small stage elevated a foot off the ground. Hands dancing across the keys, she plays and sings “coffee and tea, coffee and tea.” Six students, playing on six pianos, join in, while their teachers, one for every student, peer over shoulders and sing the lyrics.

A piano community

This studio, complete with artwork, snack time, and even some dancing, is a home for the kids. For those whose home life may be less than stable, “a safe place and a happy place” can change the trajectory of lives, says Ms. Baker. Some got college music scholarships, she adds. “They’re going to be breaking generational curses of lack.”

Royce Martin, now a rising senior at Berklee College of Music in Boston, started lessons with Pianos for People in high school. Five years later, he still recalls the exact day the organization delivered his piano: “Feb. 20, 2016. It was a great day. It was a sunny day.”

The discipline of piano practice, he says, provided structure that forced him to focus: “Everybody wants to feel a part of a community. Kids, I think especially, might need to feel like they have a place where they belong … a place to go after school as opposed to other places kids can go after school,” says Mr. Martin.

Music remains an integral part of his life. Last fall he composed the score for the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Reunion” on HBO Max. And he plans to continue work for actor Will Smith’s production company in Los Angeles after graduation.  

“I had a lot of passion that I think could have manifested into anything. I think it just happened to be piano, and that’s because of the communal support that I felt and this social network that I had set up through Pianos [for People],” says Mr. Martin. “So in a lot of ways, it was providing me an antidote for chaos.”

Research for this report was contributed by Principia College students Lotti Bollattino, Dana Cadey, Peter Hagenlocher, Lily Oyer, Emme Schaefer, Hannah Sipe, and Marc Trinidad.


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