She Found Her Calling | Culture Club | Chicago Reader

She Found Her Calling 

Years ago, Rita Simo (front) ditched the convent and started the People's Music School Uptown. Now her successors Vincent Cinteno and Mary Ellen McGarry will need to get religion.

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She Found Her Calling

Rita Simo's story smacks of The Sound of Music. There's the irrepressible nun who doesn't fit in the convent system, the implacable mother superior, the life infused with music, and the music as a means of saving people. It's all there, even the postconvent romance. But Simo's tale is more than the story of one woman finding and saving her family. For the founder of Uptown's People's Music School--where CSO members hold master classes, 90 percent of the students are minorities, and no one pays--we are all family.

If she heard this, Simo would object. "I'm not a do-gooder," she'd snort. She retired from the school this month and has been trying to tell us that everything there will be just the same without her. "This is not my school--this is the people's school," she says, hot pink earrings swinging like metronomes. "I was tired of writing proposals and this was my first chance to get out, the first time we were in good enough economic condition to hire someone and pay them more than I was being paid." In fact, after a quarter century as both the foundation-romancing administrator and the nail-spitting, tough-love music director, Simo has been replaced by two full-time hires. Piano instructor Vincent Centeno is now the director of music and programs. Mary Ellen McGarry, former theater chairperson at the Chicago Academy for the Arts, started September 1 as executive director.

Simo, who'll be around as a board member and substitute teacher, will finally have more time for making music herself. Born into a family of musicians in the Dominican Republic, she started taking piano lessons from her cousin at the age of five, practicing on a keyboard her father painted on the family's dining room table, singing the notes as she fingered them. Later she got a free education at the National Conservatory of Music in Santo Domingo, followed by a government scholarship to Juilliard. There, with Van Cliburn in an adjacent room, she practiced eight hours a day and traded her ambition to be a concert pianist for a vow to build a free school. "They sent us out to do concerts in the New York public schools," she says, "and I began to understand that in this country you had to pay for private lessons, and if you didn't have money you wouldn't get them. I didn't think that was fair. I had it for nothing and my country is a lot poorer. I thought this democracy bit doesn't fit when it comes to developing your talents."

Everyone she talked with said she'd have to be connected with an organization. "The only organization I knew was the Catholic Church," she says, "so I became a nun." ("Not a big deal," she adds. "I didn't know the Old Testament from the New." Celibacy? "I just thought I'll deal with that whenever.") She joined the Dominicans in Wisconsin, earned a master's degree and a PhD, and wound up teaching at Rosary College, lobbying for the free school all the while. "Every July and August you'd get your assignment for the next year. Every time I would talk to the mother general about the music school. Eventually it became clear to me that nothing would happen. I thought, well, I don't need to be a nun to be a college teacher. I didn't come here for that. If I'm going to end my life being a college teacher, I'm outta here. I'm getting old and I need to get it going."

In retrospect, Simo says, the years in the convent were necessary, God's way of saying, "Listen, girl, you need to learn a lot more stuff." She left the church in early '75 and took a CETA job at $5.85 an hour that she says taught her the real meaning of a vow of poverty. With two friends as board members she incorporated the music school in the fall of that year, holding the first board meeting on Beethoven's birthday. Then she conned her network of fellow musicians and faculty members into teaching without pay, rented a Sheridan Road storefront, and put a sign in the window: free music lessons. "One hundred and twenty people came to the grand opening," she recalls. Then, as now, the school taught music with a chorus of discipline; the lessons are free, but not without obligation. Students must do their homework and show up for every lesson (three unexplained absences and you're out), and parents (and older students) are required to put in two hours a month of volunteer work. They clean, stuff envelopes, serve as security.

Growth has been deliberately gradual. There were 45 students in March of 1976; ten years later, when the building was sold and the school had to make an abrupt move to a third-floor space a few blocks north on Sheridan, enrollment was 150. After that the board decided to build a facility: the $1.5 million two-story brick building at 931 W. Eastwood (with ten practice rooms and a performance space) was completed in 1995 and paid off the next year. Enrollment is now over 300, with about 60 percent between the ages of 5 and 12, about 30 percent teenagers, and the rest adults. The two dozen part-time teachers are paid, and, with Simo's replacements, there's a full-time staff of four.

Simo isn't shedding any tears over her final bow. "It's time for me to get back to playing the piano and do some traveling with my husband," she explains. About a year after the school opened, she says, a Chilean priest introduced her to Tomas Bissonnette, a multilingual gringo who was teaching at Mundelein College. Bissonnette needed a musician for a workshop he was leading, and Simo agreed to perform, thinking it would be another of her many nonpaying, church-sponsored gigs. When she later got a check for it, she was thrilled. "I called his office and said, 'Anytime,'" she recalls. Married since '78, they make their home in Uptown, where, thanks to her, some of the streets are alive with the sounds of Beethoven.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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