When the Jones family lost their home and had to move into a shelter, there was little in their lives that seemed familiar or comforting.
Though the entire family struggled during the two years they spent living in the shelter, it was the three children who had the hardest time adjusting.
During that difficult time, their parents did their best to find comfort for the children, searching for any source of joy and familiarity that would brighten their days.
The children found both at their piano lessons at Pianos for People.
The Jones children had been taking lessons at the Pianos for People school since its inception.
For them, it was a familiar and safe space where they could get lost in their love of music.
“Those three kids had a real sense of routine, and it was somewhere they could come and feel valued and honored on a weekly basis,” said Sheena Duncan, executive director of Pianos for People.
“Their personal situation was very hard, and since then the family has expressed repeatedly how important this place has been to them in giving them a sense of normalcy.”
Pianos for People, a 2017 Spirit of St. Louis Women’s Fund grantee, not only continued to offer lessons to the children, but they stored the family’s piano until they could get back on their feet.
They also provided transportation to and from their piano school when it was needed.
Pianos for People began delivering pianos to families in need in December 2012.
“The organization was founded on the notion that there were a lot of surplus pianos people were trying to find homes for, and there were lots of people in the community who could not afford musical instruments,” Duncan said.
Pianos for People doesn’t accept every piano that is offered to them, mainly because it would be too costly to repair and service all those instruments.
“We only take one in four instruments offered,” Duncan said. “A piano is very expensive to repair and to move.
Even a free piano ends up costing $750 by the time we’ve moved it twice, serviced it, cleaned it and tuned it.
We want to ensure that our families have the best we can possibly source and we have to ensure that it is a sustainable model for us.”
The nonprofit recently delivered their 200th instrument, a milestone for the organization.
“Once we found out that we had tapped into a particular need in St. Louis, we said ‘we have to teach people how to play,” Duncan said.
In November 2014, Pianos for People opened their first piano school on Cherokee Street.
Their goal was to set up their school in an under-served area to offer free lessons to many who otherwise did not have accessibility to musical instruments.
“We quite literally had 40 students registered right away, and we now have tripled our enrollment in three short years,” Duncan said. “Last year we also opened our first satellite studio over in Ferguson.”
The $12,500 grant from SOS supports the nonprofit’s efforts to grow and meet the ever increasing demand for lessons, Duncan said.
“Our newly-hired teacher, enabled by the grant, is fluent in Spanish, which has been a very big asset in this community as 14 percent of our students are Hispanic and many of the parents do not speak English,” Duncan said.
The majority of the students who attend the school live below or close to the poverty line.
Music lessons are a luxury these families could not afford, no matter how interested or talented their children may be.
“The premise is that we’re breaking down financial barriers that prevent a lot of people from accessing the benefits of learning the piano,” Duncan said. “We now have an enrollment of 146 students at Cherokee. The grant allowed us to add another teacher and another 10 hours of teaching per week.”
The seven part-time teachers offer both private and group lessons to classes full of eager students.
While research shows the positive academic impact of learning to play a musical instrument, Duncan says they focus most on other benefits.
“What we are particularly interested in here at the school is the very dramatic impact it can have on self-esteem and providing a sense of belonging,” Duncan said.
The students, teachers and families of Pianos for People are known for developing a deep connection with the school and the nonprofit.
“We see a great sense of community,” Duncan said. “It’s more than just piano lessons. Through our high quality program and instruction, and the teachers who have a real sense of care, there has been a very strong sense of belonging.”
The trust and rapport between teachers and students is evident at recitals, where once shy students blossom on stage, Duncan said.
*Some details may have been changed to protect the idea of the subjects.