A Creative Nonprofit In St. Louis Changing Lives

Nestled in the heart of St. Louis along Cherokee Street lies the unassuming, yet charming blue building that is Pianos for People. Peer into its welcoming store-front window and you will see a glorious grand piano in pristine condition, one of the many instruments here used to both teach music and instill invaluable lessons in the lives of its students. The organization began by donating pianos to those who could not afford them, and now also extends free lessons to children in St. Louis. The idea was born to preserve and celebrate the life of the late Alex Townsend, son of co-founders Tom and Jeanne Townsend, a young musician and prolific piano player.

At the helm of this musical movement is Director Sheena Duncan. The Calgary, Canada native has years of nonprofit experience and knows a thing or two about the keys herself. Propelled by a simple, yet powerful mission, Pianos for People is a community, a haven and an incubator for children to grow and thrive. Duncan makes sure of that.

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What impact do you see Pianos for People having on children and the surrounding community of St. Louis?

When we opened the school, we instantly knew that we had tapped into a strong need in this community. At its core, our mission is about breaking down financial barriers that prevent people from accessing the well-documented benefits of playing the piano. There are so many studies that talk about not only the intellectual benefits of music education but also the social empathy and self-esteem it builds in students. Those are things we see emerge in our students here at the school.

We have a strong sense of commitment, and I think people feel that in this community. We’re more than just a piano school. We’re there for our students. I love that attitude of, “roll up your sleeves and get things done.” That’s what we do here. From watering the garden to putting props together, you’ve got to wear all sorts of hats. Every day, you can see the kind of impact you’re having.

How did you find Pianos for People? How did your love for music and non-profit work lead you to your current position?

I started working for an orchestra back in my native Canada and one thing led to another. I love to see a project in its formative stages and then watch it come to fruition. I think that’s what I really like about my job. Although I’ve worked for some larger organizations, like Sydney Symphony Orchestra and The National Institute for Dramatic Art, I love that sense of growing–whether it’s a department or an organization. I’ve found that quite fortuitously here. It was kind of by accident that I found Pianos for People. It was a serendipitous experience and we found each other, you could say.

When we first moved here after living in Sydney, Australia, I was looking for a piano teacher for my daughter. I found Pat Eastman, one of the founders and I thought, ‘She’s fabulous.’ I didn’t have my green card at the time, but I was looking for something meaningful to do. What they really needed was someone with organizational management skills who could put some structure and discipline around the idea and make sure that it was going to be sustainable. That’s really been my primary role.

What goals do you have for the future?

It’s going to be a year of consolidation for us. We’ve had a trajectory of incredible growth on all fronts, including opening our satellite studio in Ferguson. We just delivered our 200th instrument and we have close to 200 students. We’re proud of those numbers. We celebrate them, but I think what’s more important is the individual lives that we’re reaching. It’s not about spreading wider, but it’s about going deeper into the community. For example, we’ve added a Spanish-speaking teacher this year because of growing Hispanic population in the city.

We get a lot of calls to move elsewhere. “You should be here, you should be there,”—it’s very tempting and very flattering. Maybe in the ten-year plan Pianos for People could go national, but really I think it’s about making sure we’re sustainable and building up our reserves. We’ve had great support from the community, but you’ve got to ensure that you’ve got that organizational capacity.

How does St. Louis compare to other cities you’ve worked in?

St. Louisans love their home. That’s one of the great things about this place, is their unabashed love for this city. I don’t think St. Louisans take anything for granted. There’s this sense of entrepreneurship and a desire to succeed and improve. Everything is always embraced with so much enthusiasm.

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