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Transforming Music: How the People’s Music School is Changing Lives

By Kevin Beerman / August 27, 2019

COMMUNITY AREA #3: Uptown—People’s Music School

You’ve never heard anything like this before. And that’s what the People’s Music School is counting on.

Founded in a storefront in Uptown in 1976, the People’s Music School was the first school of its kind in the country: 100% graduation rate, 100% free, 100% underserved student-body, more than 90% students of color. For more than 40 years, they’ve taught kids from all over Chicago a range of musical skills and styles.

“We exist to change lives,” Carolyn Sybesma, Director of Artistic Planning and Partnerships, said, “and to build future leaders of our city, of our country, and of our world.”

The school has provided tuition-free education in myriad genres and techniques—including music theory, composition, and performance ensembles—to tens of thousands of students who may otherwise have never had access to erudition of this kind. They work with world-renowned musicians and composers, including Grammy-winner Third Coast Percussion, Yo-Yo Ma, Jimmy Chamberlin of the Smashing Pumpkins, and Emanuel Ax, as well as International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), and the Chicago Symphony. Just to name a few.

Rita Simo, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, founded the school with $625 and a piano more than four decades ago. She came to the the United States to study at Julliard and couldn’t believe that the sort of education she had back home was only available to wealthy families in the U.S. Almost 20 years after the school opened, former Chicago first lady Maggie Daley sold Simo the lot on Eastwood Avenue where the current school stands for $1.

More than just music, though, the program has evolved to give students experiences they might have never had otherwise.

“Coming from a low income family, the People’s Music School has given me the opportunity to travel around the country,” Amy, a member of the string quartet (featured in the video below), said. “It’s really amazing.”

The People’s Music School looks at the world differently and sees possibilities where others may not. They put their unique spin on everything—including classical standards like Brahms’s iconic “Hungarian Dance No. 5“—and energize students (and audiences) in ways they could not have expected year after year. Like when they transition from a classical piece of 19th century music to one of the most iconic pop songs of the 20th century (which you can see below).

Beyond Uptown, they have programs in Back of the Yards, Albany Park, and the Greater Grand Crossing. Every single student who comes through their program graduates high school and ultimately goes on to college.

Some of the students have even performed for the Obamas alongside Chance the Rapper and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

The people’s music school runs on small donations and elbow grease. Parents help to earn their children’s tuition by scrubbing toilets, fixing leaks, responding to phone calls, painting, raising money, repairing outdated wiring. You name it, parents do it.

Help keep the dream of music alive for the next generation of underserved Chicago youth by donating to the People’s Music School.

The 77 Project is a storytelling and media project presented in partnership with Xfinity with additional support from Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to help redefine the narrative of our neighborhoods from the inside out. We’ll spend the remainder of 2019 shining a light on organizations and individuals in each of the 77 community areas of Chicago who are making a positive impact. Know someone we should speak with? Recommend them here.