When you walk into the main classroom at Pianos for People, you’re greeted by a quote from the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “Music is the universal language of mankind.”
It’s a thought that suits the mission of Pianos for People, an organization that provides free pianos and music lessons to families with limited resources. It also fits Kayia Baker, who, as the organization’s piano school director, wants to change lives and build community connections through music.
“You know, the saying goes, ‘People need pianos, and pianos need people.’ So that’s what we do,” Baker says.
When Baker speaks, she radiates determination and conviction. She knows that what she and the organization are doing matters greatly to St. Louis youth.
Pianos for People was founded in 2012 by Tom and Jeanne Townsend in honor of their son, Alex, a musician and artist who died unexpectedly at the age of 21. The nonprofit opened a free piano school on Cherokee Street in St. Louis in November 2014 where they teach music lessons and workshops. A satellite studio launched in Ferguson in October 2016 and is open three days a week. More than 200 students are served between the two locations.
“The Ferguson location has deepened our reach into the community,” Baker says. “Our goal is to go deeper and widen the relationships and bring them closer into what we’re doing.”
Baker joined Pianos for People in June 2014 after teaching music in the Riverview Gardens School District and operating her own music school. She also has been a church pianist and studied music at Southeast Missouri State University and Florissant Valley Community College.
“It’s a labor of love,” Baker says of her work with Pianos for People. “It’s a neverending journey. We touch so many lives. It’s a work of mission, but it’s also a work of serving the community and I like that. And it also suits my passion for music.”
Baker’s position with Pianos for People gives her the opportunity to help many St. Louis-area children imagine and change their futures. The organization isn’t just about teaching children how to play music, she says, but also showing what is possible through discipline and hard work.
Baker glances over at the attendance sheet she keeps in the classroom. In keeping with her philosophy that hard work makes a difference, she asks students to mark that they were present for their lesson or if their absence had been excused. The ritual reinforces the importance of accountability and practice.
“One of the questions I asked them was what does it mean to come to a piano lesson? And they said things like learning classical music, playing my favorite song,” Baker shares. “And I said, ‘Well, how does it make you feel?’ And they said, joyful, happy, accepted, happy that I can play with a group of people, so they have some very positive vibes from being in piano lessons.”
But Baker and her team of nine teachers are also committed to creating an environment that is inclusive and welcoming.
“We’re about helping our students develop as a person and having a sense of pride about themselves and the community that they live in, knowing that there is a resource here that wants to see them do well,” Baker says.
“Some kids are going to come here and they’re going to pursue music and they’re going to be really good at it,” she adds. “Other kids are going to come here for the experience, but it’s still helping to shape and mold their lives and who they are, exposing them to opportunities, possibilities they may not have seen for themselves otherwise.”
Ask Baker to talk about her students and she beams with pride. She mentions Royce, who became involved after contacting Pianos for People looking for a free piano; he recently finished his first semester at the Berklee College of Music. Another student, Nicholas, had the opportunity to be a foreign exchange student through the connections of a Pianos for People board member.
To support the students as much as possible, Baker welcomes parents at Pianos for People, with several participating in their children’s lessons and sitting in on a regular basis. She values proactive communication with her students and their families, providing progress reports and inviting parents to participate in focus groups so they can give feedback and ask questions.
“The results from those focus findings help us to fine tune our approach and give us a better, broader sense of what it is that the community needs from us,” Baker says.
While Baker sees music as a way to bridge the gaps in our communities, she also knows she can’t do it alone. She is grateful for parents and family members who encourage children to play instruments and would like to see the public attend concerts and offer their financial support to arts and music. She also is hoping that more politicians will support arts and music in public schools. Her future plans include offering music therapy and classes for children with special needs.
“It’s about honoring and caring for people,” she says. “Ultimately, it’s about love, not just music.”