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Pianos restored in memory of a son and musician who died young

Alex and Tom Townsend
Courtesy of Tom Townsend
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This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 22, 2013: I recently watched footage of a grand piano being shoved off the back of a truck. It had barely hit the ground when a giant claw swooped in, clamping down on the beautiful instrument and tearing through it, splintered wood and keys spilling from the sides. As the camera pulled out, it revealed the claw had its prey dangling over a huge mound of shattered pianos.

It was horrible to watch this happen to something that had been built for beauty and had the capacity to engage and inspire anyone who paused to touch its keys. But even worse was the knowledge that in every city and town around the country, there are homes, schools, churches that would have LOVED to have had that piano.

St. Louis musician Tom Townsend had seen electronic keyboards come to dominate in many homes and studios over the years as well as the landfills brimming with acoustic pianos silenced before their time. He was also aware of the piano-shaped void that existed in many low-income families who had musically inclined/curious children. The idea of giving away pianos to families who could never afford one grew in his mind.

Then, on St. Valentine’s Day 2010, Tom received a call in the early hours of the morning, telling him that his eldest son, Alex, had died in a car accident. Alex had been studying graphic design at Savannah College of Art and Design and was an accomplished musician – starting to learn piano at the age of 5. Within days of the news, Tom turned grief into action; revealing that the way we deal with loss many times says just as much about the one who is gone as it does about us. His son had also had a tremendous capacity to inspire and engage others. He knew that all of Alex’s potential shouldn’t – couldn’t – just be discarded with his passing.

Tom began planning a music festival in Alex’s honor where “accomplished musicians and visual artists perform for aspiring ones, aspiring ones perform for accomplished ones, resulting in mutual inspiration, greater self-esteem and greater confidence for youth in their own future.” Alex’s girlfriend suggested it be called the A-Town (Alex’s nickname) Get Down; and it is held every spring in Savannah, Ga.

How does Pianos for People work?

“Alex loved Savannah and SCAD – I wanted to honor that,” said Tom, who taught advertising at the school for a year following the accident. “It was a way to connect with Alex – he was always encouraging me to come down and teach.”

Even with all of this in motion, the abandoned pianos with all of their unlimited yet unrealized potential still haunted Tom. Back in St. Louis, he contacted Joe Jackson, owner of Jackson Pianos.

“I had a whole powerpoint drawn up to convince him. But I didn’t even need it. Joe said “Yes” as soon as I asked if he wanted to help me give away pianos.”

Pat Eastman, an educator and Townsend family friend, had the exact same reaction when Tom approached her with the plan. She had been Alex’s first piano teacher.

Repairing pianos

They named their venture Pianos for People and began to rescue and rehab unwanted instruments – delivering them to families all over St. Louis.

For free.

Joe Jackson
Credit St. Louis Beacon | 2013
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Joe Jackson

“Pianos used to be part of the furniture,” Tom said. “Exposure to music was automatic.”

Joe Jackson’s passion for the instrument and his belief that music should be accessible to everyone drives him and his committed staff to work long hours getting neglected pianos back to good working order – in addition to their daily business. He affectionately refers to pianos as beasts and to their organic nature saying, “They are trees and, through technology, we’ve figured out how to make them sing.”

“A piano has a soul just waiting to be activated by a player. Any player,” Tom said. “Pianos don’t judge. They don’t care if you are concert level or a 12 year old.”

Pat Eastman brings her knowledge and experience of just how important music is to a child’s life as it fosters discipline, self-sufficiency and creativity. She is organizing volunteer piano teachers to give free lessons to neighborhood kids in the Pianos for People Cherokee Street storefront. 

Three years ago, Tom Townsend had every reason to withdraw and grieve. Instead, he turned his focus outward, honoring his son’s passion for creativity and his gift for encouraging it in others. In the process, he and a team of like-minded people are changing young lives all over our city.

Next year, the A-Town Get Down will come to St. Louis.

ninenet.org/archives/15887 | Kara Vaninger | Living St. Louis, Nine Network

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