BACK OF THE YARDS — Oliver Munoz isn’t just teaching kids how to be musicians. Through violin lessons, students learn to master the instrument — while also learning organization, discipline and other skills needed to succeed in school.
For 45 years, that’s been the mission of the People’s Music School, a citywide after-school program for kids 5-18 who otherwise might not have access to music lessons or the equipment necessary to learn an instrument.
The People’s Music School has a main campus in Uptown that has daily after-school programs, along with partner schools in Back of the Yards, Albany Park and Bronzeville. This allows kids to attend directly without leaving their neighborhood, said Lilly Torres, a senior facilities manager at the People’s Music School.
Despite being a music school, the non-profit isn’t just concerned with pumping out musicians. Rather, its focus is on giving students who otherwise couldn’t afford lessons the opportunity to learn an instrument and the skills that come from that, Torres said.
Torres said she’s had students return and say the program taught them discipline, organization and public speaking, which has helped them in other fields. A handful of students have gone on to study music in college and beyond.
Ariel Garcia, who started as a violin teacher in 2016 and is now the community manager, said he hears a lot of great feedback from parents. One parent told Garcia she attributed her son’s college scholarship to the skills he learned with the People’s Music School.
“She said, ‘Look, as a parent it wasn’t easy, and there were multiple times he wanted to quit, but I really pushed him,’” Garcia said. “And then it came out he’s going to [California Institute of Technology] on a scholarship.”
‘I Don’t Think We Would Be Able To Do This Any Other Way’
Torres has worked at the People’s Music School for more than 20 years, starting as an office manager. A native of Little Village, Torres said nothing like the program was available to her when she was a kid.
“When I was first exposed to any kind of music was when I started working at the school,” she said.
As a working mom of two, Torres said she relates to some of the program’s parents who question how they would be able to give their children access to music lessons and instruments without the People’s Music Program.
“They’re working and they’re shuttling their kids around, and it’s amazing because they always say to me, ‘I don’t think we would be able to do this any other way,’” she said.
Munoz teaches his violin and viola classes for the program at Agustin Lara Academy, 4637 S. Wolcott Ave. in Back of the Yards.
Munoz is from Chile. He said his own experience of struggling to receive quality music education is what prompted him to seek out a teaching program like the People’s Music School after moving to Chicago five years ago.
“I think that people who are exposed to music education and learning an instrument will live richer lives and be happier,” said Munoz, who’s taught with the program for three years.
At Lara, Munoz said he works with a lot of kids from Spanish-speaking, immigrant households. As a Latin American and Spanish speaker, he said he hopes he can be a “familiar presence” to families who might not have experience in music education or equipment care.
‘The Financial Barriers Don’t Just End There’
Garcia, who grew up in Little Village, said he began taking violin lessons as a kid thanks to a program at his school. He continued all the way to a master’s degree in music.
Now, Garcia said he’s finishing his dissertation to receive a doctor of Musical Arts degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison — the highest degree anyone in his family has gotten.
“I was very, very lucky to have had the parents I had, because they were of the mindset of, ‘Do whatever you want, as long as you do it well,’” Garcia said.
But even with supportive parents and a background of musical education, Garcia said “the financial barriers don’t just end there.”
Once he was in college studying music, Garcia saw disparities when it came to resources among students and inclusion in the field, he said. He once played in a recital with a student who was rumored to have an $80,000 violin.
“I’m there playing with this kid whose parents own a mansion out in California, and my instrument was, you know, a good instrument, but it was the best I could afford,” Garcia said.
Garcia said there’s been more discussion within western classical music about addressing pipeline issues and topics of diversity, equity and inclusion, and he hopes to continue that conversation with his work at the People’s Music School.
“Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is, through music, is give kids these lifelong skills so that whether it’s music or medicine or law or whatever they want to do, they’ll be set up,” Garcia said.
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