Paying Music Forward: The People’s Music School and Its Dynamic New Leader

Growing up, Jennifer Kim Matsuzawa’s family didn’t have much money, though her father worked two jobs and her mother worked full-time as well. Nonetheless, her parents always had enough to give her music lessons. “My parents struggled to keep food on the table for us,” the Buffalo Grove native says. “But they never complained about the demands of my music.”

people's-music-school-jenniferMatsuzawa’s musical studies—first at the Music Institute of Chicago and with many top piano teachers in Chicago—transformed Matsuzawa’s life. Not only did Matsuzawa win various competitions and honors, such as a National Foundation for the Advancement of the Arts award, but her training also helped her to develop the discipline, confidence, passion and intellectual capacity to earn an undergraduate scholarship to Northwestern University and a graduate degree from Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Matsuzawa is now the President and Artistic Director of the People’s Music School, a nonprofit organization that provides tuition-free musical training to at-risk Chicago-area youth ages 5-18.

Located in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, People’s Music School provides 3-9 hours per week of free, quality instrumental and voice training to at-risk students with committed parents. Parents are required to volunteer, doing whatever is needed—from stuffing mailings to building maintenance and repair to cleaning bathrooms. As is true with most rigorous music training, students grow musically, socially, intellectually and emotionally. Families benefit from the strong community that develops at People’s, too.

The school was founded in 1976 by Dr. Rita Simó, a Juilliard-trained concert pianist and former nun. Her audacious goal: to provide music lessons for those most at risk.

Twenty years later, with the support of Maggie Daley, the school moved to its current building, which serves several hundred students. A nondescript exterior belies the welcoming spirit and color inside. The curriculum includes mandatory, confidence-building recitals, like this one:

“I accepted my position at the school because I believe in Dr. Rita Simó’s belief that ‘Music is a gift. Pass it on,’” Matsuzawa says. She taught piano at the school for several years after she graduated from Northwestern and before embarking on a career in business that took her to New York, Japan and Korea.

Matsuzawa and her Harvard Business School-trained husband, Takumi, who now commutes to San Francisco for his job at Apple, ultimately returned to Chicago to be near her family. She and Takumi and their two children now live in Wilmette.

It wasn’t long after returning to the area that Matsuzawa felt an emotional tug to return to People’s as a volunteer. When Simó eventually decided to step down from her day-to-day responsibilities, she and the board convinced Matsuzawa that she was the perfect person for the job. And they were right.

Matsuzawa’s strategic focus and innovative initiatives are quickly growing support for People’s. Hundreds of families are on the waiting list for an opportunity to study at—and contribute to—the school.

Take a look at People’s testimonial page and you’ll soon understand how great a gift the school is for every child and family fortunate enough to earn a spot there (enrollment is determined via lottery).

On June 13, the People’s Music School will host a hackathon called Music Hack, which gives the community a chance to participate in the intersection of music, technology, education, business and design. More than 50 coders, developers, designers, makers and musicians will convene for the day to develop applications and technology to serve music and music learners. Prizes will be awarded for the best pitch, best concept, best product design, best technical achievement and more. Judges/advisors include Jimmy Chamberlin (Smashing Pumpkins, LiveOne) and other high-profile leaders in music and tech. Register or learn more here.


Make It Better is proud to be a media sponsor of Music Hack and the People’s Music School. You can help too by simply encouraging others to subscribe to the free Make It Better “Better Letter” email newsletter. Make It Better will donate $5 for every new subscriber who chooses “The People’s Music School” from the dropdown menu on the Subscribe page.

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