Essence Starks waited excitedly for her three children to come home from school recently.
She stood inside their St. Louis living room next to a large object covered with a blanket. After they walked in, Starks whisked off the blanket, revealing a shiny upright piano — a luxury her family had wanted for years.
“Everyone started screaming and jumping up and down, and they told me it was like an early Christmas,” said Starks, 30, a single mother who works as a call center agent in St. Louis.
“It was so cool — we were really excited,” said her daughter Nevaeh Starks, a seventh-grader who plays the clarinet and has been asking to take piano lessons.
Starks said she had hoped to give Nevaeh and her siblings — Malaya, 9, and Sean, 8 — a piano years ago but she didn’t know how she would pay for it.
“It would have been really hard to buy it on my own, even with [monthly] payments,” she said. A new upright piano can start in the range of $3,500 and go way up from there.
Then several months ago, Starks was researching the cost of used pianos online and she came across a nonprofit group in St. Louis called Pianos for People.
The organization pairs donated pianos with families and community centers in need and covers the $100 to $500 cost of delivery by professional movers. Pianos for People also pays to tune the instrument.
“A free piano, I couldn’t believe it,” Starks said. She filled out an application online and learned in two weeks that a Kawai upright could be delivered to her house. She also learned that her children could take free lessons at the Pianos for People music school.
“My kids are still smiling,” she said. “It’s wonderful to hear them sit down at the piano and plunk out a tune.”
Pianos for People is among several organizations around the country that give away free pianos to families that otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford them.
The St. Louis nonprofit group was started in 2012 by Tom and Jeanne Townsend after their oldest child, Alex, a promising musician and artist, died in a car accident when he was in college.
Tom Townsend, a former St. Louis advertising executive, died in 2019 of cancer, but Jeanne Townsend, 63, still serves on the Pianos for People board of directors and said she is touched every day by the impact of her family’s legacy.
“We’ve helped hundreds of families to feel a sense of community and develop a love for music,” she said. “We’re not only giving children a chance to learn music, we’re giving pianos a second chance at life.”
While pianos have long been considered luxury items, Pianos for People receives more requests to pick up unwanted pianos than applications for free instruments, said Matt Brinkmann, the nonprofit organization’s executive director.
Many people are empty-nesters looking to downsize, and families with children often have competing interests, he said.
“People aren’t playing pianos as much as they used to,” Brinkmann, 58, said. “Often, a piano is something that has been in the family for generations, and there is a meaningful attachment to it. But people decide they want the piano to be somewhere where it’s played and appreciated.”
Gary Vaupel is one of those people. Vaupel, 65, and his wife, Barb Vaupel, decided to donate their mahogany Chickering upright in July, rather than watch it take up space in their St. Louis living room.
“We bought the piano 27 years ago for our kids, and they’re now on their own,” Gary Vaupel said. “When you get older, you wonder if you’ve given back enough in your life. We’ve been blessed with what we have, and we felt our piano would be a nice gift for another family.”
Pianos for People delivers 40 pianos a year to families that qualify for the program, Brinkmann said. About 92 percent of recipients have a household income of less than $25,000 a year, he said.
“This isn’t about turning kids into great musicians, but making them happy and better people,” he said. “A piano can be life changing.”
“Research shows that music helps kids to focus and develop social skills,” added Brinkmann, an amateur musician who once played the tuba in a brass band.
“For kids who are struggling, it can really help their self-esteem,” he said. “The most rewarding thing to me is just seeing the kids light up and take to the piano. After a few weeks of lessons, they blossom.”
Gavin-Joseph F. Webb, a high school senior in St. Louis, said the upright piano his mother Tèrré Webb acquired from Pianos for People gave him hope and comfort after the death of his father when he was 13.
“It’s really just completely saved my life,” said Gavin-Joseph, 17, who now volunteers as a teaching assistant for the nonprofit group. “Playing the piano is a stress release that takes me away from all the negative stuff that’s happening out there.”
In Salt Lake City, Ruby Chou has also seen musical success stories at the Mundi Project, a nonprofit group that has paired families with almost 300 free pianos since 2006.
“Having access to the arts certainly helps to create more well-rounded people,” said Chou, 33, the program’s executive director. “This is all about creating access to music and taking down barriers.”
For Roxie Lewis, 16, a baby grand piano donated by the Mundi Project helped her to progress to the next level in her quest to master Rachmaninoff, she said. She hopes to become a concert pianist someday.
“I love how music and playing music makes me feel, and I love being able to express myself through the piano,” said Roxie, who lives in Saratoga Springs, Utah.
“Sometimes, I don’t have words for what I am feeling, but I do have the piano,” she said.
Roxie’s mother, Jessica Lewis, contacted the Mundi Project in January 2020 when it became apparent that her daughter could benefit from a better instrument than the old piano her husband had inherited from his parents.
Three of her other children also play the piano, she said, but buying a concert-worthy grand was out of reach. Even a budget-conscious model can start at $20,000.
“Our piano teacher directed us toward the Mundi Project and we applied and were blessed with a beautiful grand,” she said. “I’m incredibly grateful to the Mundi Project for the gift of music, joy, confidence and more that my children have received through them and the generosity of many who support them.”
Diana Belka, 74, a piano teacher for five decades, is the donor of the mahogany 6-foot grand that ended up with the Lewis family. When she fulfilled her dream of acquiring a Steinway, she said she knew that the Weber grand she had bought in New York in the late 1970s deserved a happy home.
“It’s wonderful to know that somebody else is enjoying it,” she said.