The People’s Music School Passes On Baton-- Preview–-Renewing the Treasure Rita Simó Gave Chicago


On December 12 The People’s Music School will give a concert at the Merchandise Mart in honor of founder Rita Simó’s 80th birthday.  Perhaps the greater present to Rita has been the recent appointment of a new Director for the school that has the skillset to both safeguard Rita’s legacy and put The People’s Music School on track to be a dynamic model for non-profit community arts organizations across the country. 



Consider this abbreviated history of the school and Rita Simó’s role in Chicago history…


Unsettling to ponder, but if brutal dictator Trujillo had not been so murderous, thousands of Chicago’s children would likely never have been introduced to the wonders of classical music.



It was the fear of Trujillo, so well described in the somewhat fictionalized account “In the Time of Butterflies”, that had in large part compelled Rita Simó’s protective parents to make the difficult decision to send their only daughter, just 16, far away from the family home in the Dominican Republic to New York’s Julliard to study.   Years later one looks back and can see this as a first of many big steps on a long winding road leading Rita to found The People’s Music School of Chicago in 1976.



The decision to send Rita abroad was not the first time that her parents had to think outside-their-box to accommodate Rita’s musical talents.  She was only four and visiting a cousin’s home when her perfect pitch was accidentally discovered.  That was where Rita had encountered her first piano and within a short time and on her own had taught herself how to play “La Cucaracha”.  Her amazed cousin, a piano teacher, did some probing and quickly determined that little Rita had the gift of perfect pitch in need of grooming with piano lessons.  With no piano to be found in their small town of San Francisco de Marcorís her father improvised, much to her mother’s initial dismay, by carving up their large mahogany table to create a facsimile of a piano keyboard that little Rita could practice on until a real piano, albeit termite ridden, was found a year and half later.


Those stories and others are recounted by Rita Simó and The People’s Music School in a recent book, “Music is a Gift:  Pass it On”.    There you can read of Rita’s extended family of musical greats (e.g. a cousin who put merengue on the map), her accomplishments as a concert pianist, her former career as a nun, and many very fun factoids like Rita Simó’s childhood penchant for dressing up like Carmen Miranda.



Yet it’s the title of this book that best summarizes the driving force in the plot line of how Rita’s story became The People’s Music School.  Rita had and has talent that could have taken her in many directions, especially on the stages of world concert halls.  First and foremost however, Rita has wanted to use her musical talents as a vehicle to help children.  Her mission became the school’s mission, summarized on their website “We believe music is transformative and empowers the lives of youth, families and communities.”



Rita didn’t have much more than this vision when she started The People’s Music School in 1976.  She supported herself by working part-time in a church.  Money had to be raised for rent.  Instruments had to be found via donation, or in the case of percussion instruments, made from big containers.



With more pluck than luck Simó was able to get donations, and eventually some six-figure ones that would allow the school to expand and eventually erect its own building.



From Daniel Barenboim to Richard Young (violist of The Vermeer Quartet) and more, big names in the music scene came through the years to help The People’s Music School flower.  Some gave master classes, some gave recitals, some gave money—all gave. 



Through the years and to this day The People’s Music School mission of “transforming lives through music” has included free private lessons in both music theory and one or another instrument.   Since 2008 the school’s YOURS Project, modeled on the internationally renowned El Sistema program, provides free, orchestral, after-school music education to children in various Chicago Public Schools



As successful as The People’s Music School is, it is always operating below the demand for its services.  Years ago the lines to enroll in the school began to form as much as six days before class registration began.  When the police expressed concern for the safety of parents camping out on the street the school turned to a lottery system to choose each new semester’s enrollees.  Still, more are turned away than are enrolled, because supplies of instruments, classrooms and teachers are finite.



Consider this and you can begin to understand Rita Simó’s overflowing elation that a former piano teacher at the school, Jennifer Kim Matsuzawa, has just accepted the position of President and Artistic Director for The People’s Music School.  Talk to Matsuzawa for just a few minutes and you realize that she is Simó’s kindred spirit who embraces the school’s mission en toto.  Probe a bit more and you realize that Matsuzawa’s pedigree not only paves the way for The People’s Music School in the future, but also promises to chart creative solutions for many resource-challenged arts and community organizations in the nation.



Jennifer Kim Matsuzawa goes way back with The People’s Music School.  In 1996 she was an intern at the school during her undergraduate studies at Northwestern University.  Upon graduating in 1997 she joined the faculty as a piano instructor. 

She had first played the piano at age 4 and began formal lessons at age 5.  Her mother in particular instilled a love of music and structure in young Jennifer’s life to practice and pursue musical studies.  The People’s Music School was a natural fit for someone with this upbringing.


Matsuzawa later decided to pursue graduate studies at Harvard University, with a concentration on arts education and arts cognition.  This was at the time when the so-called “Mozart effect” was suggesting that children simply exposed to classical music would somehow grow up smarter.  Matsuzawa’s point of view was that music exposure alone didn’t mean much.  Rather, she thought that engagement in music made the difference and the more engaged the better the outcome. 


While studying at Harvard Jennifer worked with a mini-People’s Music School type organization in Boston and realized she needed extra skills to be more effective.  For those skills she looked to Harvard Business School for training in critical thinking needed in the arts world.  That led to her job at world-class consulting company Bain & Co. in 2001 as a management consultant. 


Matsuzawa says, “In management consulting we solve problems that could be strategic or marketing or any number of challenges.  We use a broadbase analytical toolkit to handle crises in various industries.  I always knew that at some point I’d like to bring this back to the arts.”


While a management consultant Matsuzawa lived in Asia and then New York City.  During this entire time her widowed mother, an immigrant to Chicago who had owned a dry cleaning business, was ill with frequent need for hospitalization. 


Matsuzawa had been her mother’s sole support for this decade but felt that she needed to return to Chicago to better assist her mother, while also balancing work and being the mother of two young children.   On the very day that the Matsuzawa family was set to move back to Chicago, Jennifer received a phone call that her mother had passed away. 


She recounts how that shifted her focus saying “I came back to Chicago where I hadn’t lived for 10 years.  I love the city and it is my hometown.  When my mother passed the equation had changed.  I began to think about how I could honor my mother and it started me thinking about a career shift and starting a new phase.


“There had been many challenges in my life and when I thought of what really made my survival toolkit it was music—not Harvard or a fancy job at Bain.  Music had given me a discipline and focus.  Even managing a team of consultants is not that different from playing chamber music.  Looking at a big data set requires a similar skill as mastering a major score.


“My foundation in music is what was helping me and is helping me now.  I don’t think music training is just about getting more kids into college but rather is about creating full-hearted individuals in their 30’s, 40’s and 50’s and beyond.  I started to feel that now that I was back in my hometown it was time to give back.  I knew that increasing access to music’s benefits was what I wanted to do.”


It was The People’s Music School’s luck that the position of President and Artistic Director became available just when Jennifer Kim Matsuzawa decided to make this her mission.  She explains, “My path and The People’s Music School path intersected.  Fulfilling Rita’s mission and breathing new life into that mission is a cause I feel so personally wedded to.”



Jennifer Kim Matsuzawa enjoys quoting Rita Simó’s moxie words, “You’re a people—this is your school too!”  when she solicits help for the school.  Donations are needed and accepted and will make tuition-free music education and all the lifelong benefits that comes from that available to hundreds of children each year. 


If you make a donation now you can get a preview copy of the book “Music is a Gift:  Pass it On”.


Also, spaces are limited (but free) to attend the Merchandise Mart Performance on December 12 honoring Rita Simó’. 


For  more information contact [email protected] 




Photos courtesy of Rita Simó’ and Jennifer Kim Matsuzawa












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