Violin player

This year I have chosen the People’s Music School for my Regifting efforts. Founded in 1976 by Dominican immigrant and Julliard graduate Rita Simo, the People’s Music School has a history packed with humble beginnings and amazing achievements. Much of that story can be found in detail in the wonderful book Music Is a Gift: Pass it on: Rita Simo and The People’s Music School.

“Our blessings present us with unique opportunities. While one must be grateful for special gifts, it is important to know that they are given so that they can be shared.” —Rita Simo

The organization came to my attention through a series of coincidences—and I’m happy that it did. Their work is rooted in music education of local youth. The lifelong effect they have on their community is unrivalled. Students range in age from five to eighteen years old and the average tenure of a student is seven years. 100% of the students who stay in the program through high school go on to attend college.

Horn section

Students come to The People’s Music School from fifty zip codes across Chicago. They do not audition for acceptance and there are no prerequisites other than curiosity and willingness to learn. What a young person gets from the experience is so valued that before the current lottery system was put into place parents would wait outside in line for up to six days to submit applications. With funding for the arts all but been eliminated in most public schools, parents are forced to seek different means for the children to gain the values instilled by learning to play. Benefits a child receives from The People’s Music School go well beyond learning an instrument. Through their individual lessons they learn aspects of independence and leadership skills. When they rehearse as a group, they begin to understand the power of collaboration. In performance they gain exposure to cross-cultural communication. And in studying music theory they explore the insightful aspects of “Why?” All of this is very evident when I have the opportunity to sit down and talk with a current student.

Eric is 14 years old. His winter coat is zipped high up to his chin. He just arrived from his regular school day, commuting to The People’s Music School’s Uptown location. He is studying the trumpet and is the third member of his family to take lessons through the organization. His older brothers studied guitar and piano. Being a sibling of a graduate has its benefits, granting you preferred enrollment status. But there is absolutely no sense of entitlement or privilege in Eric. In addition to his lessons at the school (students receive anywhere from four to 12 hours of formal instruction a week), he practices on his own at home for 30 minutes at least three times a week. Today he is especially excited about the upcoming winter concert and is quick to tell me stories about the band’s rehearsals.

“It’s never boring. The teacher is funny. He makes it fun. At Thanksgiving he was asking us about our favorite food and recipes and told us how our instruments are like ingredients in recipes.”

On the two pieces his group is rehearsing for the performance he elaborates. “The trumpet solos come after the flutes, and when everything comes back and begins to harmonize, it’s beautiful.”

When I ask him, “Who’s your favorite trumpet player?” he responds to the horrible question with the best possible answer, “Louis Armstrong.”

I’m very interested in what Eric is learning here—and how it relates to his regular school work. He tells me that learning to read music has helped him with math. And when I mine for thoughts on collaboration and problem solving, what I get is not what I expected.

“This is different from school because I’m not afraid. There’s no bullying…there are so many races, it’s easier to make friends.”

His faced is filled with joy. He continues with something that, on its face, is a statement about collaboration, but also so much more.

“If we listen to each other we won’t get lost.”

Trumpet player

While talking with Eric, another student is unstacking chairs and arranging them for orchestra rehearsal. By himself. Still in his winter coat. One chair at a time. Collectively arranging them in a semi-circle facing the stage. When he completes the work, he moves to where his mother is sitting, near Eric and me. He pulls math homework from his backpack and waits for his bandmates (Eric is one) and instructor. I mention that it was very nice of him to set up the chairs. He quietly replies that he did it so the teacher wouldn’t “have to waste time doing it when he gets here.” Collaboration.

My time with Eric ends so he can join the orchestra lesson. I stay to watch them rehearse the songs for the winter concert. Eric settles in next to a second trumpet student. The variety of attentive pupils is vast. There is a young boy not as tall as the bassoon he is playing and an older student who easily wields their trombone. An array of girls and boys sit poised with clarinets, French horns and oboes. Behind the seated crew stand two young girls and one boy on drums. Eric’s statement about races is apparent. The teacher instructs, conducts and keeps the pace quick. He has them practice and repeat dynamic performance principals. He asks for changes in inflection and volume and reminds them that even when they play quietly, they must sit tall and broad. They respond to his requests for tempo changes. They giggle a little when they know they’ve not played their best. And he asks them for a “fist to five” review of their performance—fist being all fingers closed, a zero, and five means all fingers up, the best. Their individual reviews vary but they are honest when they know they can improve. And without fail they do the next time through.

Student from The People’s Music School have performed for the Obamas and Prince Harry. They have played alongside local heroes like Jimmy Chamberlain and international icons such as Yo-Yo Ma. Alumni have performed alongside Grammy winners and nominees on stages around the world. All of this makes for stories of astonishing musical accomplishments. And what students learn in addition to musical prowess is how to become adults with qualities of tolerance and inclusion and creativity that may be even more impressive.


with Barack and Michelle Obama


Currently the school is seeking financing and additional support to arrange safe transportation for students on the South Side.