Students of The Musical Offering wrote the musical “Locker Nr. 89” this fall. Photo by Ian Hurd

Rick Ferguson, an Alabama native who is artistic director of The Musical Offering music school, the life of a musician is often “very nomadic – you follow where teaching leads you.”

Mr. Ferguson was led to Evanston three decades ago by the prospect of getting his doctorate from Northwestern University. He did not complete his degree, but he and another colleague eventually opened The Musical Offering on Custer Street in south Evanston, providing private instruction, group classes and concert performances. The school celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.

“You hear a lot of organizations say, ‘We’re a grassroots organization,’ and they’re not,” Mr. Ferguson said, laughing. “We really are a grassroots organization.”

During his time at Northwestern, he recalled, “It became very clear to me that I was not cut out for academia. But I met some really cool people and one [co-founder Kirsten Hedegaard] is still a dear friend. We found that we had a lot of shared ideas about the role of music – music study specifically – in the community and family, and its impact on our culture.”

The school takes its name from the Musical Offering, J.S. Bach’s collection of musical pieces inspired by a theme given to him by Frederick the Great. Mr. Ferguson said the organization initially was “a teaching cooperative.”

“There were four of us” he recalled. “That lasted for a [couple of years], but more of our friends and colleagues started to hear about what was going on, and they wanted to be a part of things from a teaching standpoint. We’ve always done a lot of our faculty-related performance stuff, and we have our Music on Madison concert series that’s primarily a vehicle for our faculty, because they’re awesome. They’re playing in orchestras and bands all over

the State.”

The school became a not-for-profit in about 2005. The Musical Offering won a local root2fruit grant for building organizations. “That was pretty transformative,” Mr. Ferguson said.

Mr. Ferguson is one of two staff members for the school; 15 people are on the faculty.

Mr. Ferguson described how he appreciates music’s capacity to unify audiences, no matter the style of music or the cultures from which the audiences originate. “I also found that that applies from an educational standpoint,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of work in District 65 schools, especially our Title I schools, for a long, long time. For instance – and this is so much fun – right now I’m writing two operas with fourth- and fifth-grade students at Dawes and Oakton elementary schools.”

Those students, he said, are at the point where “they get up in the morning and want to  go to school because they’re going to art class or music class. It’s what gets them in the door and keeps them engaged.”

The Musical Offering is financed largely through tuitions – there are about 215 student registrations – which make up 75% to 80% of the budget. Various grants fill in the rest. But Mr. Ferguson said that, besides The Musical Offering’s educational components, it is important that the school “walk its talk” about community engagement by being a “musical hub” for the community through concerts and competitions.

Mr. Ferguson was especially enthusiastic about the school’s upcoming young women’s composition competition. “I wanted to try to cast a very broad net with this … I think we’re going to get really good responses,” he explained.

Intended for young women ages 12 to17, the competition is open to students throughout the region. Musical composition, Mr. Ferguson noted, is a realm like engineering that has been male-dominated.

“For young women to have a specific opportunity to try to develop their composition skills – and figure out what it entails to both create a piece and submit a finished product – [has] an incredible amount of value,” he added. “We’re opening it to female-identified composers and non-binary composers in that age range, so we’re really trying to open it up to a lot of people who just don’t have those kinds of opportunities.”

Three winning compositions will be chosen in middle and high school categories, and those will be performed at a concert in April. The winners will “have a nice video-recording of the concert that they can use as part of their portfolio. I’m really excited about the school being in the place where we can do that kind of stuff,” he said.

Mr. Ferguson noted that in stakeholder discussions about how non-profits address societal needs, the missions of social-service delivery community organizations seem paramount. But he insisted that arts-based organizations have a role to play as well in meeting those needs.

He explained, “That’s on my mind a lot – just sort of thinking about ‘What are the needs I’m seeing around me? Is there something we can do, or some way that we can go about addressing those?’”

An example stemming from such considerations was The Equity Suite, a piece he composed for Chute Middle School’s concert band last year.

“I was working not just with the band and their director,” Mr. Ferguson recalled. “I was working with all six of the social studies classes. We were talking about equity-related issues and what those mean. So each of the six classes created some kind of brief performance, like performance art pieces. There was spoken word, some dance and some really interesting slam poetry. The kids in the classes were having a conversation about equity and what that means to them…and then they had to agree as a class on what they wanted to put on stage to reflect that.”

He admitted that his role has evolved as the school has grown, and that he and Managing Director Erika Jenko frequently find themselves with varied administrative tasks. He praised Ms. Jenko as being a “force of nature” in helping to build The Musical Offering’s organizational capacity.

“I’m just seeing that, when stuff is running well, we get more students,” Mr. Ferguson said. “Then the students we get are happier because the faculty is being supported well. There’s a lot of communication going on, because everyone’s feeling informed and in the same boat.”

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