The People's Music School expands it's program into Bronzeville Classical School!
People’s Music School is helping shape kids’ futures one note at a time
The school’s after-school programs are free-of-charge and require family volunteer hours, and its intense level of music education is designed to boost children’s creativity, life opportunities and sense of community.
A shy smile lights up 11-year-old Xavier’s face as he explains that he feels calmed by counting music in 4/4 time.
His teacher has noticed his musical prowess, and he likes to hear the crowd’s applause after a performance, said Xavier, who plays a small tuba-like instrument called the euphonium as a student at The People’s Music School’s newly opened South Side space in Bronzeville.
He travels about six miles each way, three times a week for his music lessons, which have contributed to his eclectic musical tastes ranging from Chance the Rapper to “Carol of the Bells” to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.
Another People’s Music School student, Remington, 14, is starting his fifth year playing the saxophone (families asked the students’ last names be omitted for privacy), and he’s excited about one day playing in a marching band.
He and his family travel roughly 10-and-a-half miles from his high school in Roscoe Village to Bronzeville three times a week as soon as the last bell rings — and he’s happy to make the commitment.
He said he appreciates being able to better understand music when he hears it because he can read and play music.
He loves to play the saxophone because of its range — loud or low, blues or jazz.
“You can learn to play another instrument and read that instrument’s music, too,” said Remington, who is working on mastering the keyboard at home via a book his sister gave him.
Even better, Remington wants “to feel that feeling” that music gives him, he said, as he shook his shoulders like he had goose bumps.
“I really like music,” he said.
That kind of excitement underscores the 43-year-old People’s Music School’s mission: Its after-school programs are free-of-charge and require family volunteer hours, and its intense level of music education is designed to boost children’s creativity, life opportunities, critical-thinking skills, desire for excellence, commitment to hard work and sense of community.
“To get to musical excellence, you have to be consistent, resilient, work hard and show up,” said Natalie Butler, the music school’s dean of learning and teaching who acts as band director, team-teacher leader, recruiter and planner for the Greater South Side program.
For the next two to three years, The People’s Music School’s Greater South Side program will operate out of the Bronzeville Classical Elementary School at 8 W. Root St.
The music school’s leaders aim to find a permanent South Side home when their lease is up at Bronzeville Classical, a Chicago Public Schools selective-enrollment school which operates out of a repurposed building that previously served students from Robert Taylor Homes’ north side.
The Bronzeville Classical school’s principal, Nicole Spicer, a South Shore native who trained in the New Leaders for New Schools program, said she “felt an incredible responsibility” to bring the free music lessons to children from South and West Side neighborhoods.
“Across the city, especially in black and brown neighborhoods, enrichment opportunities outside of school can be low,” Spicer said. “The People’s Music School’s average student retention is seven years. Families commit to their children. They serve predominantly children of color. Their high-school graduation rate is 100 percent. That’s a successful outcome.”
It’s an outcome that coincides with Bronzeville Classical School’s mission to be innovative, creative and, as Spicer puts it, “educate the whole child.”
Bronzeville Classical School will let The People’s Music School use its vacant second floor, filled with pristine classrooms and bright blue lockers sporting miniature flags of countries throughout the globe.
Bronzeville Classical, which opened in fall 2018 and now houses grades K-3, will eventually use the empty space upstairs as it builds out a new grade level each year through grade 8.
For now, Bronzeville Classical school’s students may put their names into The People’s Music School lottery for free music theory classes, since band classes start in the fourth grade.
The People’s Music School’s enrollment is based on a lottery system. No student auditions or musical knowledge is required to apply for the available slots, which differ in number based on the children’s age groups and the instruments available and required to fill out the bands and ensembles.
The students attend the music school up to nine hours weekly, getting music theory and private and group instruction. They take juried performance exams.
“The expectation is that they’re going to progress,” Butler said.
The music school requires families to volunteer up to 16 hours each year for each student who’s enrolled. Families provide services such as cleaning, chaperoning, event set-up, roof tuck-pointing or Salesforce software strategy — maintaining a founding principle of the music school.
“Our parents are really invested,” Butler said.
“Most of our parents are low-income and might be working multiple jobs, but they’ll [volunteer to] clean a bathroom at the [music school] and then go home and clean a bathroom there, too,” she said.
Parents and friends often fill concert venues to capacity, packing the students’ performances with standing-room-only audiences.
For the past three years, The People’s Music School’s South Side program operated out of the Gary Comer Youth Center. The after-school enrollment at Comer grew from 20 to 80 students. The growth spurt left Comer overcrowded, with students practicing in closets, hallways and meeting rooms.
With the Bronzeville expansion, The People’s Music School will operate out of a total of four sites, including its home base in Uptown, and in Albany Park and Back of the Yards. The school collectively enrolls 950 students through ages 5-18 – 45 percent of whom are Latinx and 42 percent African American — and aims to grow to 1,000 by 2020.
The school’s founder, Rita Simo, immigrated to the United States from her native Dominican Republic 63 years ago as a Julliard piano scholarship student in New York City.
Since music education was free in much of Latin America, Simo was surprised to learn that it was largely exclusive and expensive in the United States, and she made it her life’s work to correct what she saw as an injustice. Her life story is detailed in the book, “Music is a Gift: Pass It On,” by Cynthia Willis Pinkerton.
Simo, now in her 80s, remains a People’s Music School board member. She chose Uptown as the school’s home base because of the neighborhood’s diversity. She opened the school in 1976 with a donated piano in a rented former beauty salon.
The school, which now owns its headquarters at 931 W. Eastwood Ave., employs 60 “teaching artists” who specialize in instruments ranging from piano to strings to horns to percussion.
The school’s $2.4 million budget reflects a success story. It’s a financial turnaround from a $200,000 deficit just five years ago — a feat overseen by president and artistic director Jennifer Kim Matsuzawa’s fundraising and budget tightening.
The People’s Music School raises more than $2,000 per student per year from foundations (60 percent), individuals (30 percent) and corporate partners (10 percent).
“Instruments are expensive,” Butler said. “Probably 60 percent of our inventory [of all instruments] comes from donations. The rest, we purchase. For example, tubas can cost $3,000.”
Note: The People’s Music School accepts donations from the public. To find out more about the school, or to find out how you can help support its programs, visit www.peoplesmusicschool.org/donate.