Alumni couple start nonprofit that gives their community music

Tom and Jeanne Townsend, Class of 1980, started Pianos for People in honor of their son.

On a search for a piano for a friend in the 1980s, Tom Townsend ’80 ended up in a St. Louis warehouse of forgotten ones—uprights, spinets, and baby grands in rows that seemed to go on forever. At the time, the lifelong pianist lamented the thousands of instruments gathering dust. He went home wishing there were a way the pianos could come home, too.

Then in 2010, Townsend’s oldest son, Alex, a twenty-oneyear- old musician and a sophomore at Savannah College of Art and Design, died in a car accident. Looking for a way to honor their music-loving son, Townsend and his wife, Jeanne ’80, acted on that idea of resurrecting forgotten pianos by founding the nonprofit Pianos for People with Alex’s former piano teacher.

They set up shop in a former piano storefront in St. Louis and began offering free pianos and free lessons to beginners in the area.

“In a way, the more responsibility that Pianos for People brings to us on a daily basis, the more we’re still parenting Alex,” Townsend says. “Alex stays in the family.”

But the Townsends also feel a responsibility to give children in St. Louis access to pianos because, as their tagline says on the front of their building: “People need pianos, and pianos need people.”

The Townsends sold the ad agency Tom cofounded in St. Louis more than twenty years ago to begin Pianos for People. They bought the two-story building where children take lessons today—and slowly, they began creating their own warehouse of pianos, filling the first floor with old but durable consoles and placing a shiny baby grand in the storefront window. To date, they’ve given away 200 pianos to area children.

For Tom Townsend, who grew up with a piano in his home, learning the instrument as a child helped him to channel his emotions and develop self-confidence. It also unlocked talent he never knew he had.

When he sees students catch on to playing, when they realize they have abilities they never knew they had, that is gratifying.

“It’s that available. It’s that accessible,” he says.

That was true for students like Royce Martin and Aaliyah Fowler. In three years, Martin went from tinkering with his sister’s keyboard to being accepted to the Berklee College of Music in Boston in December. Fowler had dabbled with violin but had never played the piano before her mother heard about the free lessons.

“I didn’t know I could play,” she says. Two years later, she works as an intern at the nonprofit, where she teaches lessons to children and can often be found effortlessly playing the nonprofit’s baby grand. And Fowler keeps getting better because she now has a piano in her home, too.

As the word about Pianos for People has spread, so have its offerings; it has expanded to include a free piano school, summer camps, and monthly community piano slams. A sister site in a church in nearby Ferguson, Missouri, was particularly needed, Townsend says, as the community began to rebuild itself emotionally after the controversial death of Michael Brown.

Music, Townsend says, can’t heal all wounds, but it certainly can make great strides in helping people grieve, heal, and break down barriers. Banging on, and eventually learning to play, a piano helps children begin a relationship with the instrument and with each other, he says.

That’s the case on an afternoon this past April, where lessons for a gaggle of children were in full swing at the non-profit Pianos for People. Pianos lined the walls, with teachers paired with students on each of the benches. In one exercise, the children got comfortable with the keys by learning to play glissandos, sliding Jerry-Lee-Lewis style from high C to low C.

At the end of the lesson, the children gathered in a circle to form a human metronome, practicing rhythm by passing a ball to music and clapping for one another for a lesson well done.

For Townsend, those moments make it worthwhile.

“I’m anxious to hurry up and give that magic to other kids,” he says. “More and more and more.”

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