Fun, funds flow freely on school's behalf.

Published November 8, 2004:  Chicago Tribune

Until Thursday night at the People's Music School, I had never attended a benefit that provided free valet parking. But everything is free at the People's Music School in Uptown, which is why it's such a miraculous place -- set smack dab in a tattered neighborhood where miracles are hard to come by.

Founded by classical pianist in 1976, the school gives tuition-free classical music instruction to some 350 students a semester, ages 5 through 83. "I take theory on Mondays; I take drum lessons on Friday - it's really, really fun," said Rya Smith , who mingled at the party in her oversize, plaid school jumper.

It was the 3rd Annual Reach for the Stars benefit -- a night that raised $25,000, served cheese cubes along with champagne in plastic flutes, and held a silent auction with everything from a Styx-autographed guitar to a "Scottish Basket" stuffed with a bottle of 12-year-old whiskey.

"I don't like Scotch," said one browser.

"I do!" Simo answered, implying the woman could buy it for her as a gift. (Hey, you don't build a free music institute without being a little pushy.)

For three magical hours that night, the school transformed into a sort of bohemian coffeehouse, with everyone gathered in the performance hall -- sipping wine at round tables or leaning over the second-story balcony, enjoying a panoply of musical acts. They included folk singer 's haunting ballads and Victory Gardens' artistic director 'srecitation of a Carl Sandburg poem to bass music by .

Simo, who learned piano through state-funded, tuition-free schools in the Dominican Republic, arrived in the U.S. on a scholarship to The Juilliard School. "I learned that here, if [children] didn't have money," she said, "[they] could not get music lessons."

She set out to change that. She began giving free lessons in a church. "People thought I was a little crazy," admitted Simo, who now presides over a sun-filled building at 931 W. Eastwood Ave. and gets funding from private donors and the Illinois Arts Council.

Later in the evening, Simo honored Ravinia Festival, which gives students free tickets and bus service to concerts; and radio station WXRT, which donated $55,000. Said WXRT's sales director, , who lives in the neighborhood: "I see the kids walking with their instruments. I've seen the people taking ownership and pride in the community because of the school."

Other partiers included Ravinia's community programs director , who arrived with , president of Bridgeview Bank Uptown; of the Helen Brach Foundation; Winnetka's , a longtime Women's Board member at Ravinia; and , a retired vice president of Exelon Corp.

Listening to the night's music, Rya Smith sat on a step, entranced. Her brother, Jordan Carter, also takes weekly drum lessons, which I think makes their mother, Rowena Bennett, a very brave woman. "In my house there's a lot of noise," Bennett said, laughing, "And noise is love."
The People's Music School Benefit
Article by: Lucinda Hahn
Chuck's friend, Dylan Rice, is very involved  in the People's Music School in Chicago.  To learn more about Dylan Rice, visit this talented musicians homepage at   More on Dylan Rice can be found throughout Chuck's website as well.  You can visit the the Music School at:

Chuck donated a guitar autographed by Styx to the event.