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Giving the Gift of Music

Rita Sumo puts instruments into hands that have little else to hold.


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By Shula Neuman

When Rita Simo opened the People's Music School in 1976 to give free music lessons to Uptown's ethnically diverse, underprivileged residents, she was merely trying to give other people the opportunity she'd once had. Simo had grown up in the Dominican Republic, where she studied piano at the national conservatory, a free public institution. But when she came to the United States on a scholarship to study at the Juilliard in New York, she realized that music education in America is a privilege for those who can afford it. "I thought, this is ridiculous--this country is a lot richer than mine, so why should you have to pay?" At that point Simo resolved to create a school that would allow anyone to learn how to play a musical instrument.

The school opened in a storefront on Sheridan Road and for the next 20 years moved from one makeshift building to another. But Simo has a knack for raising money, and with funds from private donations, government agencies, corporate grants, and grassroots fund-raising her school has thrived. In September 1995 the school moved into its own new building at 931 W. Eastwood. "We have the building paid off," says Cynthia Thomas, the school's general manager. "We're on solid financial footing. Most grassroots organizations are worried about how they are going to get funding for right now. We get to worry about the future. It's an enviable position."

The school, whose main purpose is to teach classical music and theory, now has 21 part-time teachers, including Simo, who teaches piano and music theory and directs the children's choir. "She is a very strong, forceful person," says Linda Carter, mother of three alumni. "She was all business, very little play. So the kids feared her, but they also had a respect for her. They liked her, but they didn't like her. When you decide to do something you have to stick with it. Sometimes you have to put demands on the kids. Simo doesn't do anything she doesn't need to do to help the kids learn."

Maria Valdes took cello and piano lessons at the school from the time she was 9 until she was 18. She now works for the International Music Foundation, an organization that arranges musical performances in public schools. "I thought it was odd with Rita," says Valdes, who's 26. "Everybody was really scared of her, but it was really challenging. Everybody was trying to be the best. When it came time to perform, the performances weren't nearly as nerve-racking as it was to hear Rita's comments."

As soon as Simo completed her degree in music performance, she tracked down a group of Dominican nuns in Wisconsin who seemed receptive to her dream of starting a school. "I wanted to start a music school for poor people, but I thought that I needed to be connected with an organization to do that, because you can't do it by yourself. This was 1961, and the only organization I knew of was the Catholic church." At the Sinsinawa Dominican Convent she studied philosophy, scripture, and logic and in 1963 became a nun. She stayed on to teach music, but a few years later she returned to the Juilliard and got her master's in performance, then went to Boston University to get her doctorate.

After three years of work on her doctorate Simo moved to River Forest to teach music at Rosary College. "That is when I began to have doubts," she says. She felt she wasn't going to have the freedom to start her school if she remained with the nuns. "So I left in 1975."

Simo spent the next year working on her dream, asking local churches to donate musical instruments, entreating her musician friends to donate time, and deciding on a location. "Uptown was one of the few communities in Chicago that had a lot of different kinds of people. I felt that if the school is going to be for the people, then Uptown is the best place. It turned out that it was the best. Over the years the neighborhood hasn't changed that much--although gentrification is also getting to us, but not as rapidly as in other neighborhoods."

Simo laughs at the thought that she sometimes intimidates the students. "I have one kid who wrote me. She said, 'I was ready to kill. I hated you. But now I realize that I could have gone to jail.'" But, she adds, "We are not a social service. We're a school. All the other things the students gain are a result of the discipline they get from learning how to play an instrument."

Two hundred eighty students now attend the school--two-thirds of them children, 89 percent minority. Originally the school's market was the residents of Uptown, but Thomas says the reputation of the school is such that the student body now comes from all over Chicago. The school doesn't advertise, so people find out about it through word of mouth--but the school's population has grown exponentially anyway.

Instead of charging money, the school demands time--two hours of in-house volunteer work per month from each pupil, or from the student's parents if the student is too young. The volunteer work serves two purposes: maintaining the school and engendering a sense of ownership in the students and their parents.

Students can't miss more than two classes without an excuse. If they do they can't return until the next semester--and then only after stern reprimands from the staff. "We don't want to waste our time," Simo explains. "The whole point is that we're here to serve everybody who wants to learn. If you waste our time and don't show up to class you are depriving somebody else of that opportunity."

Simo is just as firm with five-year-olds who want to become students as she is with adults. Before she allows new children to start taking classes, she has a serious discussion with them about the school's expectations. "With the little ones we have a conversation to analyze the name of the school. I ask them what 'people' means. It means that the school is for everyone, all people. 'Music.' The music is what we do here--it is what we come here to learn. And 'school.' School means that they must work, and that includes homework. From the beginning we ask them to practice 20 minutes a day. Ten minutes of practicing, then they can take a break. Then ten more minutes later on."

Nevertheless, guitar student Jose Rodriguez says he didn't enroll his children in the school only to learn music. He also wanted "to stimulate and expand their minds." And former piano and violin student Eboni Carter says, "I definitely gained a greater appreciation for a wide variety of music. The school opened the doors to other aspects of music than just pop. I just love listening to all kinds of music, even if I don't play that much anymore. Beyond that, everybody needs to be around different kinds of people and learn a variety of things in life. It gets you more open to certain experiences. I've noticed that people who don't have that exposure are not as open to change and new ideas. That's not a good way to live."

Victor Marin began taking guitar classes at the People's Music School in 1984, when he was beginning eighth grade. Finding the school and meeting Rita Simo, he says, was "the best thing that I've encountered. She is a kind person--strict, but she makes you feel welcome. She's like a second mother to me." When Marin finished high school he enrolled in a trade school to become a mechanic, but his new schedule made it difficult to take music classes. With Simo's advice, he transferred to Roosevelt University and began studying music, and he's now teaching guitar at the People's Music School.

"Teaching is the best job I've ever had," Marin says. "It's rewarding to see the students grow, to see how students progress and how important music becomes to their lives." During a lesson eight-year-old Alan Barron plucks the strings of a guitar with a pick while Marin strums his own instrument. When Barron finishes playing he casts an expectant eye on Marin.

"That was good," Marin says. "but these eighth notes are still causing some problems. Remember how we counted out loud last time?" Barron nods. "Let's play this again, but this time count along with the song."

Barron's counting is barely audible over the music, and when the troublesome eighth notes appear his tempo slows to accommodate his fingers. Marin's slows down too. When they finish the piece Marin encourages Barron to go through the difficult passage six or seven times slowly until he can play it up to tempo.

After only one year of study Barron's skill and confidence on the guitar are impressive. But he has also found an adult who cares for him, who shows confidence in him and takes the time to patiently teach him a new skill. For many of the children at the People's Music School the half-hour lesson once a week with a caring adult may be the most stable part of their lives. According to Simo, many of the students live in broken homes or have parents or siblings with drug problems.

Students also get to work with some of the best musicians in the United States. When Richard Young, violist with the Vermeer Quartet, isn't touring he teaches chamber music at the school and oversees the panel of teachers that evaluates each student at the end of every semester. Young also enlists the help of musicians from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Lyric Opera, the Chicago Symphonietta, the Civic Orchestra, and the Ravinia Festival, who perform for the students, talk about their music, and listen to the students play. "This community music school can boast about a series of master classes that no other school in the world has," Young says. "Most of the time the musicians are looking for a way to pay back. Regardless of their political leanings, most musicians feel that there are certain social inequities that most of us didn't have to deal with. This school gives us a chance to address some of those inequities."

Young started volunteering at the school five years ago. "I was impressed by the fact that these kids are not given something for nothing. They don't pay monetarily, but responsibility is demanded from everyone, whether it's cleaning the bathroom or licking envelopes. I have found that when people--rich or poor--don't pay for something they value it less."

Violinist Rachel Barton, another frequent volunteer at the school, says, "For any teacher of music the point is not to first make the kids musicians. The main thing is to teach them the life skills and values that are learned through music: discipline, working with others, logical reasoning, and love and appreciation of music. It's not about being good or bad or competitive. That is what often gets lost in the high-stress world of serious precollege music students. At the People's Music School there is an environment where students are praised for their successes and effort, and they are supportive of each other. That's the best attitude to have."

That attitude is apparent at the school's annual "performathon" fund-raiser, which runs all day. At 7 PM a skinny girl who's about 12 climbs the stairs to the stage and timidly looks out at the audience. She takes a deep breath and begins to play a simple Bach sonata on her clarinet. The instrument squeaks, and she frequently stops to gasp for air and look hopefully toward her family. She seems on the verge of tears, but she finishes the piece and curtsies politely. The audience applauds warmly.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photographs by Cynthia Howe.

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