Homeless Veteran’s Piano Playing Goes Viral and Transforms His Life in More Ways than One

Emma Smith | Tue May 09 2023

This article was originally published on For What It’s Earth and has been republished to Hype Galore with permission.

It’s easy for us to take life for granted. And while it’s important to appreciate and enjoy the happy moments in life, it’s equally as important to realize that things can change in an instant. That’s exactly why Donald Gould now appreciates every single moment he shares with his loved ones and every single breath he takes. Because he once had it all… and then it all came tumbling down.

Image: Inside Edition

Donald was once a proud military man, a father, and a husband. But when his life changed before he could realize what had happened, the damage he was faced with seemed irreparable. He found himself on the streets and struggling to find a hot meal – and the only solace he could enjoy was his love of music. Little did he know that one decision to play the piano on the street would impact his existence in so many different ways.

In 2015 51-Year-Old Donald Gould Was Living on the Streets, but Life Hadn’t Always Been That Way

Donald Gould’s life changed forever in 2015 when he was living on the streets of Sarasota, Florida. You can see from the picture below that he was not in the best of shape. His hair and beard were unkempt, he was extremely thin and frail, and his clothes were dirty and unwashed.

Image: Inside Edition

Before he became a viral sensation, passers-by would walk past Donald on the street and turn their noses up at him. They assumed that he was unworthy of their charity, and they saw him as a nuisance within their town. But life hadn’t always been so bleak for Donald. He had once had a seemingly perfect life.

Donald Was Once a Keen Music Lover, and He Even Served Served With the Marine Corps

As a child, Donald was a child prodigy when it came to music. He had a natural ear for rhythm and was so passionate that anyone who met him could tell that he was going to be a star. He mastered the clarinet, and while he could have easily become a professional musician after high school, Donald chose to instead serve his country as part of the U.S Marine Corps.

Image: Inside Edition

Thankfully, he was still able to practice music and play within the military band during these tough years – but then his service came to an end. Although Donald was sad to leave, his next move was obvious. Donald decided to head back to school and enroll at Spring Arbor University in his hometown of Michigan in order to become a music teacher and inspire others to love music as much as he did.

He Then Made His Way to College To Become a Music Teacher, but Had To Drop Out When He Could No Longer Afford It

Donald thrived in higher education, and he knew that his path to becoming a music teacher was the right one. He learned everything he could about music and teaching, and he told WWSB that “I took music theory and ear training, and I had to learn how to play every instrument from the piccolo down to the tuba. I can write parts like a handbook.”

Image: Inside Edition

But despite his natural talent, his competency, and his general passion for music, Donald had to make a sacrifice when he realized that his funds were dwindling. With no money to pay for his college tuition, he had to drop out of school with just three semesters left before he completed his course. There was just no way around it.

Donald Found a Job, Got Married and Had a Son, but This Perfect Life Wasn’t Perfect for Long

After dropping out of college, Donald had to put his musical dreams to one side and focus on getting a job that would pay his rent and bills. And he did just that. As he got his life together and lived relatively comfortably he also found love in the form of his wife. They got married, they had a son, and they built a life together during the early 1990s.

Image: Facebook/Donald Gould

But while Donald loved his life and his family, his passion for music was still burning inside of him, waiting for the chance to come out. He always thought that he would be surrounded by music, but life had taken him down a different path – one that allowed him to provide for his family. And although this perfect family unit kept him happy enough for a few years, Donald then went through the unimaginable.

When His Wife Passed Away Out of the Blue, Donald Didn’t Know How He Would Cope Without Her

In 1998, Donald’s life changed in an instant. His wife, who he had loved so much, had passed away suddenly after taking her own life. This came as a heartbreaking blow for Donald, who hadn’t even known that she had been struggling. One minute she was there and the next she wasn’t, and it absolutely broke him.

Image: Inside Edition

Donald has spoken out about this moment in the past, and specifically about the moment the authorities broke the news to him. He noted that “They sat me down, and they told me what had happened, that my wife had passed away, and I just lost it man.” Donald felt as though a piece of him was missing, and he didn’t know how he was going to cope alone. Unfortunately, he didn’t cope very well.

Donald Descended Into Addiction and Lost Custody of His Son, and He Eventually Ended up on the Streets

Struggling with the loss of his wife, Donald turned to alcohol and narcotics to help numb the pain. He was so distraught that he could barely function, and before too long child services were called. Donald ultimately lost custody of his son, and this was the final straw for the heartbroken veteran. He had nothing left.

Image: Inside Edition

Donald didn’t know how to make his existence better, but he decided that a change of scenery could help to put him back on the right path. So, he left his hometown in Michigan to move to Sarasota, Florida. He hoped that this would allow him the chance to make a new life for himself so that he could win back his son. But with no money and addiction problems, he found himself on the streets.

The Homeless Veteran Lived on the Streets for Years, but Was Over the Moon When the City Installed Public Pianos

All in all, Donald lived on the streets for around “six or seven years.” During that time he continued to abuse narcotics and continued on a downward spiral that took a mental and physical toll on the veteran. His life had changed dramatically since his days in the military – and even since his days as a college student.

Images: Inside Edition

Although Donald struggled to get out of his toxic cycle of narcotics and homelessness, he did miss his old life. He missed his wife, he missed his son, and he missed music. That’s why he was over the moon when the Sarasota Keys Piano Project made its way to downtown Sarasota where he often slept. As part of this initiative, public pianos were placed along sidewalks for passers-by to use.

Donald Loved To Play the Pianos, and in 2015 a Passer-By Decided to Film His Amazing Talent

With these public pianos scattered across the downtown area, Donald could pass the time by practicing his musical skills. And while it had been years since he had been able to play a musical instrument, he soon realized that playing the piano was like riding a bike. He hadn’t forgotten a thing, and on one particular day he decided to stretch his fingers by playing one of his favorite songs; Styx’s “Come Sail Away.”

Image: Inside Edition

It was while he was playing this song that he caught the attention of Aurore Henry, a passer-by. She spotted his amazing talent as she left a store, and noted that “We went outside to chat and we saw him playing and it was so phenomenal that I got my phone out to start recording it.”

The Video Was Then Uploaded to Social Media and It Instantly Became a Viral Sensation

Aurore Henry was so captivated by Donald’s piano playing that she knew she had to share it with the world. So, she uploaded it to her Facebook page – and she could tell straight away that she wasn’t the only one who was impressed. Before too long she had countless comments and shares, and then it became a viral sensation.

Images: Inside Edition

In fact, the video amassed over 2.5 million views in just two days! Aurora was overwhelmed by the reaction, but she also knew that it was well deserved. Donald’s video was surprising, as his appearance didn’t match up with his talent or ability. But that’s exactly what made it so special, and exactly why the worldwide media picked up on his story. The video proved that Donald was more than just a nuisance.

The Response to the Video Was Huge, and the Local Community Rallied Around Donald To Help Him Out

While Donald’s video was going viral online, he was none the wiser. He continued living on the streets, not knowing that the whole world was talking about him. But this all changed when Aurora found him once again and showed him the response to the video. What’s more, Donald couldn’t ignore this new attention when the reporters and video cameras started to show up.

Thankfully, the overwhelming response to his video was a positive one, with many confused as to how such a talented veteran had landed himself in such hard times. Because of this, the Sarasota community wanted to help him out. A local store offered him clothes free of charge, and he was also offered the chance to have a shave and a proper haircut. Nobody could quite believe his transformation after this.

Donald Was Also Offered a Full Scholarship To Complete His College Education

With just a haircut and a shave, Donald was like a new man. He looked clean, he looked healthier, and he looked much happier – but his life was going to get even more unbelievable. Donald’s viral video had made its way back to the admissions team at his old college, Spring Arbor University. They could see how talented he was, so they wanted to offer him a full scholarship worth over $30,000 so he could complete his degree.

Images: Inside Edition

Malachi Crame, the vice president for enrollment and marketing at the college, told USA Today that “Offering him the scholarship was an easy decision. We have seen countless students and lives impacted by the transformational education we provide and know that Donald has a unique gift for music that he can use to change lives.” Alongside this, they also wanted to provide him with a Christian life coach to help him stay on the right path.

A GoFundMe Campaign Also Raised Over $40,000 for the Homeless Man, but There Were Conditions Attached to It

Donald was overwhelmed by the generosity of the locals and of his old college, but the support didn’t stop there. A friend who had known Donald for many years decided to set up a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for him. They offered people the chance to donate to the fund so that they could get him off the streets and so he could afford an apartment and a car.

Image: Facebook/Donald Gould

This friend hoped to at least raise a few hundred dollars, but they soon realized that more people were touched by Donald’s story than they had first thought. Within just a few months over $40,000 had been raised for the talented piano player, but that money wasn’t just given to him there and then. In fact, there were conditions attached to the generosity.

Donald Was Only Allowed the Scholarship and Money if He Went to Rehab, so That’s Exactly What He Did

Although those who donated money and the college who offered the scholarship wanted Donald to succeed, they knew that he had some personal problems that could prevent him from really making changes in his life. Donald had been open about the fact that he had become addicted to narcotics, and generous patrons wanted to ensure that he made the most of his opportunities without going back to these vices.

Image: Facebook/Donald Gould

Because of this, it was confirmed that Donald would only receive support if he made his way to rehab and became clean. This was something that Donald had always wanted but had never really had the opportunity to do, so he welcomed the chance and made his way to rehab with a friend from the streets named Paul. But would he clean up his act?

A Stint in Rehab Did Wonders for Donald, and When He Was Clean He Was Offered a Recording Contract

The rehab process was tough for Donald, but he knew he had to stick at it – especially as people had been so generous and been so kind to him since his video went viral. He wanted to be clean for the sake of his fans and his potential new career. But he also couldn’t stop thinking about his son. If he was clean, would he be allowed to see his son again?

Image: Facebook/Donald Gould

When he was finally sober and ready to leave rehab, Donald was like a new man. And he wasn’t the only one who could see the positive changes that he had made in his life. Not only was he offered the scholarship and the money, but he was also offered a recording contract so he could put his musical talent to good use. It was all he had ever wanted, but even more was coming his way.

He Was Even Offered the Chance To Perform the National Anthem in Front of 75,000 Football Fans

As Donald got in the studio and started recording his music, he felt like himself for the first time in decades. His passion for music had never gone away during his time on the streets, but getting to perform and surround himself with music again sparked a fire inside of him. And in September 2015 he got to share this passion with 75,000 people.

Image: Facebook/Donald Gould

While in recovery in rehab, the San Francisco 49ers had reached out to Donald and asked him if he wanted to perform the national anthem before their game against the Minnesota Vikings. He was bowled over by the request, and this pushed him to complete his recovery so he could take them up on the offer. When he performed at Levi’s Stadium, his heart was full.

Donald Felt Like His Whole Life Was Getting Back on Track, but He Couldn’t Stop Thinking About His Son

By the end of 2015, Donald’s life had changed so much that he could barely comprehend what had happened to him. He had an apartment, he had almost completed his degree, and he was making money from his music. It was everything he had ever wanted in life, and he knew that his wife would have been so proud of how far he had come.

Image: Facebook/Donald Gould

Donald wouldn’t have been able to do any of it if it weren’t for a viral video and the help of strangers, and while his life seemed perfect there was still something nagging at the back of his mind. Although he finally felt content after years of living on the streets, he couldn’t help but think about his son who had been taken away from him when he was just three years old.

Whenever Donald Was Interviewed by the Press, He Would Reach Out to His Son in the Hope That He Would Respond

Donald’s son, Donny, was adopted when he was five years old. And while he was also curious about his biological father, he never really thought about reaching out to him. But this all changed in 2015 when he began to hear about a homeless piano player who had taken the world by storm. And during his many interviews, the homeless man would often speak about the son he had lost years ago.

Image: Facebook/Donald Gould

In fact, during an interview with Inside Edition, Donald noted that “Now, maybe my son will get in touch with me.” And when a friend of Donny’s adopted family saw this interview, they reached out to the 18-year-old’s family and shared the news that his father was looking for him. When Donny himself saw the video of his ragged father, he knew he wanted to reach out and he stated that “I want to just help him clean his act up.”

Donald’s Son Decided To Get In Contact With the Musician, and They Had an Emotional Video Call Together

Although Donny and his family were on board with reaching out to Donald, they were feeling tentative about the whole situation. The 18-year-old’s family thought it would be too much for Donny to meet his biological father in the flesh from the get-go, so they decided to test the waters with a video call to start with. So, they dialed into Florida from their home in Michigan.

Images: Inside Edition

Donald was over the moon to be able to talk to his son again after so many years, and the emotional reunion was amazing for him to experience. He noted that the video “was just great. He didn’t seem resentful or anything, which is a great thing.” Donny also found the exchange emotional, stating that “It was very weird for me to see that face for the very first time.”

The Kindness of Strangers Helped Donald Turn His Life Around, and He’s Extremely Thankful To Have His Son Back

While Donny is unlikely to move back with his biological father, they now have a friendly relationship – and Donald is working on making up for the lost time. And he has the kindness of strangers to thank for this incredible life experience. In 2015 he was living on the streets and in the depths of narcotics addiction. Now, he’s a successful musician whose life is back on track.

Image: Facebook/Donald Gould

In fact, Donald is currently living in Germany working on his music career, but he intends to move back to the US at some point. And we have no doubt about the fact that he’ll want to thank all of the people of Sarasota and beyond for giving him the opportunity to transform his life on the streets into one filled with love and success.