Uptown in the News
January 25, 2006
It's been 30 years since Rita Simo, a tiny woman with a giant dream, convinced a North Side church to donate a piano and passed around the hat to friends and supporters who pitched in for rent on a dingy Broadway storefront that became the People's Music School.
And at 71, Simo is living out her lifelong dream by entering a third decade of bringing free music lessons to hundreds of people—mostly kids and some adults.
After learning to play piano for free as a child, even while studying at the National Conservatory in her native country the Dominican Republic, she was shocked, as a Juilliard student in her early-20s, to find that learning to play the piano or cello was considered a luxury in the United States. She saw it as an injustice that she would set out to change. "I said 'One day I'm going to open a school where the music (instruction) is free.'"
A full day before the recent spring semester registration was even set to begin, dozens of people began lining up along the honorary Rita Simo Way, camping out with their grills and sleeping bags, waiting for a shot to enroll in the People's Music School, 931 W. Eastwood.
Competition runs high among students because "Once you're in, you're in," said Executive Director Bob Fiedler. A handful of adults have even been coming to the school for decades.
Aside from a one-time $15 registration fee, the only cost to stay on at the People's Music School is commitment. Attendance is mandatory and two hours of community service around the school—like organizing bake sales or raffle contests—are required.
So when only 42 new students were recently registered, bringing the school up to its capacity of 350, two times as many disappointed people were turned away.
Despite retiring a few years back, and spending more time as a trustee for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Simo is still a permanent fixture around the school, which she calls her "baby" and tends to with a mother's love. During the recent registration, which can be filled with chaos and emotion, Fiedler said she came in and managed the first-timers with a grace all her own.
"She plunked herself down front and center and explained to everyone the process," and didn't get a word of resistance, he said. "Everyone loves her and no one can argue with her," he said. That's a long running joke around the place, "Nobody says no to Rita," he added with a laugh.
Well that wasn't always the case, Simo says.
The road to starting the People's Music School often made for a bumpy ride. After graduating from Juilliard, Simo first spend a decade as a nun, where she taught at Rosary College, now Dominican University, trying to get support for the school through the Catholic Church. After realizing that the church wasn't going to help her, she turned in her habit and resigned.
With $64 in her pocket, a couple of advanced music degrees and "determined" but directionless, she wound up in an unlikely place to get her start. One night in the mid-70's she stumbled upon the Catholic Worker House at Leland and Kenmore avenues to hear a lecture, and that's where she saw her dream take shape.
"That was the first group of people who never said to me "You're crazy," Simo recalls. "They said that's a great idea. Let (us) help you do it."
A local church, St. Peter's Episcopal, where she began running a senior luncheon program, donated the schools' first piano. And she combed through the phone book, calling moving companies throughout the city in search of abandoned equipment. After tracking down a second piano, a group of students from Uptown's Prologue Alternative High School helped her move it. Then a friend she made through the church, a retired piano tuner, got the equipment in shape for her first students.
Around that time, Simo said, she realized, "Uptown is the only place for us."
In the mid-90s she and the schools' board members scraped together the money to finance a then-vacant lot on Eastwood that was owned by the city and to build a $2.5 million school that stands today. The entire school today, with 350 students and 32 teachers, continues to operate on just less than $500,000 a year. And the rest, she says is history.
A music staff on a bright yellow background wraps around the floor of the main concert hall creating a full circle to a chalk board and stage where professionals , including members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra come in to perform from time to time and where Simo stand s before students who crowd into the room for theory lessons.
Jumping between the lines and spaces, students learn the range of notes from their tireless, and strict, teacher. Whether they're learning the violin, cello, viola, flute, clarinet, oboe, sax, trumpet, percussion, voice or guitar offered at the school, they all have to study theory. And most likely that means a class with Simo.
The reason for the strict rules is simple, Simo said. "I set out to give people the opportunity to develop their talent. But there's one thing that goes with that—it's discipline… If you don't have discipline you'll never amount to anything."
Aside from learning to love music, Simo said the school has another vision of success. "For us is a little different than other (music schools). For us it means that kids are not in a gang (it's) that they finish high school and go to college."
And when her students grow up into successful adults the best way that they can give back is simple, she adds, "Music is a gift, 'pass it on.'"
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