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When he saw a sign posted in the window of a shuttered storefront on Custer street that read “Seeking community minded tenants,” Rick Ferguson heard music.
The accomplished pianist and passionate educator saw opportunity. Together with singer and conductor Kirsten Hedegaard, a music teaching cooperative was born. They called it The Musical Offering after a group of compositions by J.S. Bach based on a single theme.
Now in its 15th year, the MO sees over two hundred students a week in its studios. Students range in age from four through adult at any skill level, and boasts of youth accepted into, or on the trajectory to top university music programs. The MO employs a stellar teaching staff of seventeen actively performing professional musicians and their facility has recently expanded to include a simple, but elegant performance space, making a wide variety of musical salon experiences accessible to the community.
A nonprofit since 2000, the MO considers music’s accessibility it’s greater purpose. It is in their mission statement to “meet the needs of a diverse community through music study, outreach, and performance.” It seems they are doing just that. The MO began to reach out to District 65 schools in 2002, offering their services to music departments who were feeling the effects of budget constraints. What began as supporting and supplementing the curriculum needs of district music teachers has achieved an inspiring crescendo – creative confluence. About every other year or so, this collaboration has resulted in dynamic, sometimes multi-disciplinary school events.
Funded by the Evanston Community Foundation and Foundation 65, musical outreach programs have taken place at Oakton, Chute and Bessie Rhodes schools. Frequently student-driven creations, they incorporate original work of composers Mr. Ferguson, and MO’s faculty member and Director of Operations, Kevin Ames. Oakton’s piece, “Together We Grow” was commissioned for the student chorus and piano in commemoration of the school’s centennial.
Increased community support for such programs follows evidence that exposure to music has a positive impact on the brain – particularly in the brain’s development. “There is now hard data that validates what good music teachers have known for decades: Music makes you smarter,” said Mr. Ferguson, grinning.
One of the brightest spots this year has been the birth of a partnership with Beacon Academy, the new Montessori-based high school in Evanston. Beacon students take the el to the MO for their music classes. While benefiting from a specific curriculum, they are also partaking of a cultural resource within their community. “A great model for community partnership,” Mr. Ferguson says.
The MO is passionate about musical literacy. Their teaching philosophy differs from the Suzuki method in that it emphasizes the gaining of notational skills (reading music) as well as aural acuity. They believe the ultimate gift to students is to help them evolve into independent learners and become educated, creative musical risk takers. Looking at their website and calendar illuminates the many opportunities its students have to be inspired.
Student driven productions have been as ambitious as a musical adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet” set in modern day New Orleans. They are currently working on a prequel to “The Great Gatsby.” The Music on Madison concert series recently featured a Japanese guitarist who writes, performs and teaches “cinematic guitar poetry.”
Mr. Ferguson views Evanston as a progressive city open to artistic possibility. It is home to many CSO and Lyric Opera musicians, visual artists, dancers, and arts supporters. Mr. Ferguson says he fully expects to broaden the scope of the MO’s creative explorations and collaborations.
He looks forward to continuing the relationship with Beacon, and with DCE, while dreaming of other cultural collaborations. He is seeking community minded people willing to participate on the MO’s board of directors, and welcomes new students of any age, including those in need of scholarship.
“There are a lot of passionate people in this City,” Rick Ferguson says.
He should know.