The cheapest music lessons around town

Abbie Vansickle

The unassuming building sits on Eastwood Avenue in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. Sandwiched between a crumbling apartment building and a fenced-in playground, the People’s Music School wouldn’t have caught my eye if it wasn’t for the children.

One by one they appeared, carrying black, lumpy cases that shielded precious cellos, violins and flutes from the spitting snow. I followed a cello and its owner into the lobby.

The scene was a chaotic blend of colors and sounds. A mother drilled her son on his weekly spelling words. Another unbundled her daughter before sending her off to music theory class. A young father changed a diaper while waiting for his son to finish his private percussion lessons.

The theory class began in the main auditorium. As about 40 7- and 8-year-olds squirmed into their seats, pencils ready, their anxious parents sat in folding chairs around the makeshift classroom.

“Okay, boys and girls, what’s one plus two?” the teacher asked, drawing notes on a small chalkboard and waiting for the expected chorus of “three!”

“Very good. Now everyone sing with me, ‘There was a farmer had a dog and Bingo was his name. B-I-N-G-O.'”

“B-I-N-G-O,” the children answered, giggling.

The children may find the simple exercise amusing, but for school Music Director Vincent Centeno, this learning process is no light matter.

“We want the children to take us seriously because we have a serious purpose,” he said. “We’re here for them to learn music.”

In this neighborhood of many colors and origins, the People’s Music School has been teaching people of all ages to make music part of their everyday lives by offering free theory classes and private lessons to Chicagoans for decades.

The school was the brainchild of Dr. Rita Simo, a Julliard-educated classical pianist from the Dominican Republic. When Simo arrived in the United States, she was amazed to discover that, unlike in her homeland, American musical educations aren’t free. She took her savings of $625 and rented an old storefront on Sheridan Road in Uptown. She placed a sign in the window advertising free music lessons and soon had so many people knocking on the door that she had to turn them away.

“She was teaching 200 people a week in one-and-one-half rooms,” said Mary Ellen McGarry, the school’s current executive director.

With the help of Mayor Richard Daley’s wife, Maggie, Simo was able to build a new school just blocks from the old storefront. The City of Chicago picked up the tab for the property, so long as the school maintained its free admittance policy.

Now, 26 years later, the school is still bursting at the seams, McGarry said.

The class quotas fill quickly and many camp outside the school the night before registration to ensure a spot in the program.

“The last time we gave out the first ticket at 6 a.m.,” McGarry said, laughing. “The woman had been waiting all night and she was so worried she wouldn’t get into the school.”

This earnest desire to learn is common in their students, she said. In addition to regularly attending the music theory classes, students are expected to show up on time for their weekly private voice lesson and to volunteer at the school for two hours each month, cleaning and doing odd jobs.

By attending classes and volunteering, the students gain confidence in themselves and learn to take responsibility for their actions, McGarry said.

“I’m always impressed with the fact that we have really good attendance,” she said. “It feels like we’re all family.”

This sense of camaraderie is obvious. The instructors call their students by name, gently reminding them of their lesson next week, and parents talk with each other about their children’s improvement.

This atmosphere of cooperation at the school is contagious, McGarry said. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Genesis Opera Company often do workshops with the students, and the school’s adult and children’s choirs perform with Chicago choral groups, including the a cappella group Bella Voche.

“These partnerships provide role models for the students,” McGarry said. “The students see these incredible musicians and realize they should take this seriously. They also teach students to think like artists. Anybody who wants to study the arts has to think like an artist.”

In addition to continuing the free lessons and music partnerships, McGarry, who has been active in arts education for 30 years, has plans for the school’s future. Along with possibly expanding the current facilities to accommodate more students, she wants to integrate other arts, especially theater, into the school.

She plans to begin this step in the spring, when students will learn to use puppets to connect with characters in the music. But she said the mission of the school – encouraging a love of music – will remain unchanged.

“If you can get a little kid to make a connection between their mind and heart, then you’ve got them for life,” she said.

Ten-year-old Elizabeth Ramirez is one of the kids who made this connection thanks to the People’s Music School. Ramirez said she wanted desperately to learn to play the violin, but her family could not afford lessons.

One afternoon, she heard a radio advertisement for the school and begged her mother to sign her up for classes. Three years later, Ramirez is still taking private lessons and volunteering.

“When I play, I make myself proud and my parents proud,” she said, beaming. “I’ve wanted to be a violinist since I first heard the sound of the instrument. It sounded so beautiful.”

Ramirez’s enthusiasm is common among the school’s students, McGarry said.

“This place humbles you,” she said. “It gives you a lot of hope for the human spirit.” nyou