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Pianos For People's New Director Carries On Founder's Mission

November 6, 2019 Pianos for People
Emily Woodbury | St. Louis Public Radio

Last month, Tom Townsend died at 60, just two weeks after being diagnosed with a rare, aggressive form of cancer. Just one year before, Townsend had survived being shot in an attempted carjacking. He was a much-loved figure in St. Louis.

One big reason for that was the organization he founded: Pianos for People. A retired advertising executive, Townsend had devoted the final seven years of his life to helping underprivileged students access both free pianos and free lessons in playing them. 

But Pianos for People continues its work. And on Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, executive director Matt Brinkmann explained how he’s helping to carry on without Townsend.  

Brinkmann replaces Sheena Duncan, who led the organization for five years. He said he only met Townsend at his job interview. At the time, Townsend didn’t know he was sick. “I was really looking forward to working with Tom as part of the job,” Brinkmann said. “Obviously, that’s not part of the job anymore, but it’s something that we’re all dealing with, and we’re going to carry on.” 

Brinkmann is a lifelong St. Louisan and a founding member of another local music institution: the Funky Butt Brass Band. He played the sousaphone in that band but is a self-taught piano player and said he enjoys playing daily. 

“Once you have heard how powerful and expressive the piano can be — the fact that you can play both the bass part and the treble part at the same time, so you’re sort of a band all in one,” he said, explaining the piano’s appeal.

Hadassah Stone said she finds piano therapeutic. The 18-year-old has taken lessons from Pianos for People for two years and now hopes to become a composer of film scores. She said she uses the piano to calm a household that includes eight siblings and a host of animals. 

“The house gets really rowdy sometimes, and noisy,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll just sit down at the piano and start playing something to try to calm everybody down. And at least with the animals, it almost always works.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Tonina Saputo. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.

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