By Antonio Zavala
CHICAGO – Dominican immigrant Rita Simo always dreamed of having her own place to teach and convey the joy of learning music to other people – and she achieved it when she opened The People’s Music School in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood.
In a rented place with a piano donated by a church, Simo began giving music lessons in 1976 to a handful of Hispanic, Asian and African-American students.
Today she has 350 students, 33 teachers and a modern building.
But the most important thing is that The People’s Music School is completely free for its students, just as Simo longed for from the time she studied at the prestigious Juillard School in New York.
“In 1960 I began to give concerts but I soon realized that if you have no money in this country, you can’t study music,” Simo, 75, told Efe.
In the Dominican Republic she had studied music free at the Music Conservatory before attending the Juilliard on a scholarship.
As a way of giving back to the community, the Hispanic dreamed of opening a music school. The problem was that she had no backing.
“They told me ‘Rita, you’re crazy’ and I told them ‘you have to take the leap,’” said Simo, who after leaving the Juillard took a doctorate in music at Boston University.
To find support for her idea she entered a Catholic order for 12 years.
“After 12 years I realized they weren’t going to do it,” Simo recalled, adding that some time after leaving the order she was listening to a theologist at the Catholic Worker House and realized that people can achieve any goal they set for themselves.
“I explained my dream to them and that was the first group of people that told me they would help me in everything I needed,” she said.
With a piano donated by St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, The People’s Music School started up in what had been a beauty salon.
In 1996 Simo and the school directors bought a lot and built a modern school with 10 classrooms, a concert hall, a music library and a patio outdoors on the second floor to practice and celebrate the gift of music.
Among the 350 students who receive free instruction in 13 instruments including piano, violin and cello, a third of them are Latinos and the rest are Asian, black and non-Hispanic whites, a diversity that reflects the Uptown neighborhood, Simo said.
Students pay only an initial registration fee of $15 and besides learning to play an instrument are taught music theory.
The school, according to Simo, is supported by donations and subsidies from various foundations that appreciate the effort of teaching music to young people between the ages of 7 and 19.
Applicants must, however, get in line at the end of August each year to be able to obtain one of the 100 sought-after places available.
It’s not at all odd to see families camping there even from the day before.
“I believe that musical education should be part of the human development of all of us,” Simo said, adding that for her the word “democracy” means precisely “all the people.”
“They told me that there is democracy here but those who lack money can’t study music, so I wanted this school to be really democratic so everyone could study whether they had money or not,” the founder said.
Simo stepped down from directing the school in 2003 but her presence is still felt on the school’s board of directors, from where she guides her dream come true.
Bob Fiedler, the new director of the school, follows in the footsteps of this exemplary Hispanic.
“She’s a surprising woman – not many people can achieve what she has,” Fiedler told Efe. “She began this with nothing and has managed to teach music to some 8,000 people.”
People often stop Fiedler in the street to tell him they studied there. EFE