To say the Musical Offering, 743 Custer St., gives music lessons is to miss much of what makes the 8-year-old Evanston non-profit unique.
The MO is dedicated to the belief that “beauty, artistic freedom and self-empowerment” flow from “shared musical experience,” says founder/artistic director Rick Ferguson.
The word “shared” is key to understanding this grassroots organization. The idea of community informs MO programs and plans — from private instruction that segues into public performance to group classes that cultivate collaboration to the fundraising that facilitates outreach into District 65 schools.
“[The Musical Offering] is a community school,” says Mr. Ferguson.
He was a concert pianist and piano teacher when he began talking about music and arts education with Kirsten Hedegaard, a former roommate of his wife, soprano Amy Conn. Like him, Ms. Hedegaard “saw the need for a place where a community of teachers could share space,” Mr. Ferguson says.
About the same time, the church-based Reba Place Development Corporation was seeking “community-minded tenants” for the antique mall they had bought and rehabbed at 743 Custer.
Mr. Ferguson and Ms. Hedegaard must have been the corporation’s dream tenants.
They opened the MO officially in January 2000, with four teachers and 25 students. Eight years later the organization has grown to include 18 teachers and more than 200 students, many of whom can walk from their homes in the neighborhood. “It’s very gratifying,” says Mr. Ferguson.
With its performance spaces and small studios, the MO building accommodates a variety of classes (see www.themusicaloffering.org). Students of all ages, baby through adult, find a niche. The Music Together class, for example, is geared to infants through 5-year-olds and their caregivers. Participants join in instrumental jam sessions and singing, says Mr. Ferguson, in a “very movement- and exploration-based” format. “The best thing,” he adds, “is the parental involvement.”
Ms. Hedegaard specializes in comprehensive music lessons for children 4-8. In the course of a half-hour lesson, participants might increase fine motor skills with technical piano work; practice do-re-mi-style singing; develop rhythm by playing a percussion instrument; and engage in a composition project.
MO students may choose private instruction in piano, voice, string instruments (including classical and jazz guitar), winds (including recorder) and brass. Or they can participate in groups like the Chamber Ensemble, where 13 youth ages 8 to 15 are learning to play together under the tutelage of Mr. Ferguson.
The fiddle, tin whistle, Irish flute, guitar, banjo and concertina are the instruments of choice in the adult Irish music class. “Irish music is taught by rote,” says Mr. Ferguson, so while one teacher, Jesse Langen, “gets them singing the tune,” professional fiddler Sean Cleland regales them with the music’s history.
The Evanston Children’s Choir, now nearly 60 voices strong, began as a MO ensemble of four in 2003 and became its own entity last fall. They still practice in one of the building’s large rooms. Another is the setting for the Musical Offering’s free weekly Coffeehouse Series. Sunday afternoons at 4 p.m. students, faculty and guests perform or present workshops or classes for the public.
But Rick Ferguson’s vision for promoting music does not stop at his door. Just three years after founding the MO, he took it on the road.
Realizing many Evanston families could not afford music lessons to supplement the schools’ waning arts program, he wanted to “interact with kids in a school setting,” he says. Given the small size of his organization, he says, “It made sense to be active in one school.”
So five years ago he approached Oakton School to propose a collaboration that continues to blossom. Each year, in consultation with the Oakton music specialist (for the third year, Monica Blacconeri), the MO creates a series of live, interactive concerts to complement the curriculum.
Half the school attends a program each month. This year they heard an introduction to opera in October, a jazz band in November and in December, a recorder concert of medieval music that anticipated the year’s culminating event.
On May 1 and 2 Oakton School will be premiering an opera, “Le Chanson de Roland.” With a grant from the Evanston Community Foundation, the MO commissioned the opera to celebrate its five-year partnership with Oakton and the restoration of the school’s Depression-era mural depicting the medieval tale of the knight Roland.
Composer James Falzone’s opera “draws in components of traditions from around the world,” says Mr. Ferguson. Based on medieval music forms, the work is a “celebration of diversity and of public art in Evanston,” he continues. Along with parts for some 200 students, Mr. Falzone has written “The Song of Roland” for the whole school to sing together.
Mr. Ferguson’s dream for the future is that the MO could raise enough funds to commission a musical work for one school each year. He says he envisions forging a relationship between composers and schoolteachers that could open “a window into the creative process” for children. “Who knows what it will spark?” he asks.
The spark Mr. Ferguson ignited brought 80 or 90 students to the MO on Feb. 10, the coldest day of the year, for the Music Marathon fundraiser.
In recognition of that sort of community spirit, Mayor Morton will be presenting the Musical Offering with the 2007 Mayor’s Award for the Arts on Feb. 22.