Although I admit it’s currently gathering dust in the corner of my closet, my cello really was a huge part of my grade school experience. Once a day, I headed to the orchestra room and learned to read and play music that sometimes felt like a foreign language. Playing the cello was fun but I also had to have the discipline to practice on my own at night and to keep my cello in good condition. This was a lot of responsibility for an elementary student, which I really liked. It also taught me a lot about the hard work that goes into perfecting an art and the satisfaction that comes from dedicating yourself to something you love.
Over the years, the educational benefits of early exposure to the arts and music education programs have been widely discussed. I was lucky to attend schools with strong music programs—and plenty of instruments available to use. However, not all students have had the chance to experience benefits, like orchestra programs, for themselves. In one area of uptown Chicago, parents are going to great lengths to change that. At the People’s Music School, parents camp out in line for up to 6 days to secure their children a spot at the school, which since 1975 has offered after-school music education, gratis, to low-income families. With only 25 free slots available on a first-come-first-served basis, parents certainly feel the pressure to be the first one in line at the school, which enrolls 200 students each year.
Once admitted to the People’s Music School, students, ages 5 to 18, study music theory and receive private lessons on any of a wide range of instruments. They are also required to maintain a solid attendance record and to demonstrate improvement throughout the course of the year. In exchange for the free tuition, parents must agree to 8 hours of service, per child, to the school.
Though some may view camping out on a sidewalk for nearly a week a bit extreme, these parents perceive it as a fair trade when they think of the wonderful, supplemental education the People’s Music School is providing for their children. Weighed against the potentially staggering costs of private lessons and the limited time that can be spent on music education in some public school systems, spending a few nights in a sleeping bag doesn’t seem so bad at all.
And now I ask this of my own parents—even though those first few years of listening to me practice were likely an assault on their ears—would you have camped out for a few nights to give me the chance to play the cello? I hope your answer is “Yes!”