For the past year, the Thyvefil home in South St. Louis has been filled with the sound of music. Aaliyah, age 15, and her sister Alisha, 11, spend their free time around the family piano, mimicking the latest Top 40 hits and mastering classical overtures.
“Both of them absolutely love it,” said their mother Carla. “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!”
A year ago, a piano was out of reach for the two songbirds and their family. But that’s when their dad discovered a flyer for Pianos for People, a St. Louis nonprofit that connects people who need pianos with pianos who need people.
Once the family was approved, Aaliyah and Alisha not only received their own piano, they received access to free lessons once a week at the organization’s Piano School on Cherokee Street.
Remarked Carla, “Pianos for People is just incredible – it was the first thing we saw when we moved back to the city that grabbed us and made us want to venture out more. Music is such a positive activity that keeps kids out of trouble and keeps them motivated. It’s amazing how something as ordinary as a musical instrument can make a difference in so many people’s lives!”
Honoring a son, changing hundreds of lives
For Tom Townsend, Pianos for People president, music was his passion and his sanctuary growing up.
“The piano made a difference in my life – it gave me my own identity, my own place to go in my house. Every kid needs something that activates their emotions and builds their self-esteem – for some it’s sports, for others it’s writing, but for me, that spark was sitting in the living room of my home.”
Townsend passed his love down to his son, Alex, who found his own success as a pianist, drummer and visual artist. When Alex passed away at age 21, his family wanted to do something special in his honor – to provide any child – or anyone in need – with the gift of music.
Since Pianos for People began in 2012, more than 140 pianos have found homes with local families, schools and nonprofit organizations. In fact, 65% of the recipients are young kids and teens who now have the opportunity to unleash their inner musicians.
For the majority of families, buying a piano is cost-prohibitive – new models start at $2,000 and lessons only add to the cost. But according to Townsend, there are hundreds of pianos across the region that, with a little love, can be restored and delivered to deserving music lovers. While most recipients are facing financial hardships, Pianos for People also assists those with PTSD, emotional needs and other unique circumstances.
Expanding beyond the keyboard
Providing families with the instrument is just the beginning. Pianos for People also offers free piano lessons for anyone who qualifies at its location at 3138 Cherokee Street. Younger kids participate in group classes while older children and adults have access to individual classes. Currently, more than 80 students are enrolled.
In addition to traditional recitals, one of the most unique aspects of the Piano School is its Piano Slam, where students as young as six years old get the chance to play with a house blues band, made up of some of St. Louis’ most renowned musicians.
“The kids have the chance to step back from sheet music and just jam with the band,” said Townsend. “Once they sit down at the piano, this trigger goes off – if I put in the hard work and keep practicing, I can hold my own with these amazing performers. They get that boost that they really are legit musicians, even if they’re just starting piano. They play a song, hop down and get right back in line because they want to do it again and again.”
The free Piano School has proven to be so popular that Pianos for People hosts summer music camps for youth and in the near future, plans to open its second School in Ferguson to serve students in the county.
Townsend continues to be touched by the stories he hears from the recipients who have been helped by Pianos for People’s generous volunteers and donors.
“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.”
A worthy organization is recognized
The work of Pianos for People has been so empowering that the organization has been selected as Arts Innovator of the Year for the 2017 St. Louis Arts Awards by the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis. The awards honor individuals, organizations and businesses that achieve a legacy of artistic excellence and enrich St. Louis’ arts and cultural community.
“In just four short years, Pianos for People has become a shining example of how an arts organization can quickly evolve and grow in new, interesting and inspirational ways,” remarked Kate Francis, Vice President of Development for the Arts and Education Council. “Studies continue to show that participation and access to the arts benefit students' lives in many other ways, including academic performance, self-confidence, discipline, school attendance rates, and standardized test scores.”
She added, “By providing the majority of their programs at no cost, Pianos for People eliminates barriers to participation in the arts, ensuring the students that participate in their programs reap those additional benefits and in turn contribute much more to our community than just music.”
If you are interested in helping Pianos for People by donating a piano, making a contribution or volunteering – or if you know of a music lover in need of a piano – visit the organization’s website, pianosforpeople.org, or call them at 314-285-5852.
Photo: Pianos for People
Metro East mom Nicole Plegge has written for STL Parent for more than 12 years. Besides working as a freelance writer & public relations specialist, and raising two daughters and a husband, Nicole's greatest achievements are finding her misplaced car keys each day and managing to leave the house in a stain-free shirt. Her biggest regret is never being accepted to the Eastland School for Girls. Follow Nicole on Twitter @STLWriterinIL
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