meet jennifer: empowering children through music in chicago

Jennifer Kim Matsuzawa, People's Music School, People with Panache

Jennifer is a mother of 2 children: a 7-year-old violinist and a 6-year-old cellist. “This is very strategic because I’m a pianist,” she says, “so now I have my trio.”

First, I have to get this out: CUBS WIN! CUBS WIN! CUBS WIIIIIN!

After 108 years of disappointment, Cubs fans everywhere are overwhelmed with emotion at the World Series win on Wednesday night. I’ve been a Cubs fan for the past 11 years that I’ve been living in Chicago, and the electricity in the last few weeks has been really fun to witness. I’m not the first to say it, but my absolute favorite part of the whole thing is all of the people who got to experience this with or for their grandparents, who have waited MUCH longer than everyone else. Hey Chicago, what do you say? Cubs won the World Series (yester)day!

Now, Alysse and I want to say thank you for your patience. We’re back! After a couple-week hiatus due to grad school and weddings and work, we’re so ready to bring you more stories of women in our cities who are making their passions reality, single-mindedly pursuing their dreams, and paving their paths toward the lives they want to live. We’ve really missed you!

This week I am beyond-World-Series excited to share the story of Jennifer Kim Matsuzawa, President and Artistic Director of the People’s Music School in Chicago. This music school is extra special because it’s the only tuition-free music school in the country. Jennifer’s passion for music and reenergizing the school is truly inspiring. AND their 40th anniversary is on Friday!

Check back next week for a recap of the celebration. A little bit of PWP inception for you: It just so happens that the soirée is at Lacuna Lofts, which is catered and managed by LM Restaurant Group and Nicole Outrequin Quaisser!

People with Panache: How did you originally discover The People’s Music School?

Jennifer Kim Matsuzawa: I grew up as a pianist—I was quite serious from a young age and pursued music through college.

When I was a senior at Northwestern, I was looking for an internship and came across this school. I had never seen anything like it. Growing up around music and being exposed to so many different musical environments, I always felt how universal and connecting music could be. But I also always felt like the pursuit of music was very much exclusive and a little bit elite—it required resources, money, parental involvement, time. When I saw this school, I was amazed at what they were doing and how they were doing it.

PWP: What do you love about The People’s Music School?

The People's Music School, peoplewithpanache.com

I got to interrupt class for a quick pic! “We have 14 instruments and over 25 different ensembles from classical to world music to jazz, blues, spoken word, contemporary band, voice—we run the gamut!” Jennifer says.

JKM: We provide free music education for students in the city of Chicago who couldn’t otherwise afford it, and our team is doing it with such rigor and excellence. There are jury evaluations and a really intensive method of instruction that focuses on immersion and momentum building with the students. I fell in love with that faster way of reaching kids and having impact. It’s different than the traditional way of teaching classical music, which relies too much on perfection from the beginning, versus making sure you’re cultivating the love so you want to fix your technique later.

The heart of the school is obvious—families wait outside for up to 7 days in sleeping bags and tents, sleeping in their cars, for one of the few spots on registration day. There’s also a volunteer requirement—each family volunteers 8 to 12 hours every year per child. You see parents cleaning the bathrooms, monitoring the front door, doing security work, doing roof work; they bring whatever their talents are to our school. I love how this business model works—although we don’t accept money, everyone has skin in the game.

The whole thing is set up for these children to realize their self-worth and their potential through their love of music.

PWP: What do you hope to accomplish at the school?

JKM: One of my priorities was to bring the music back—the programming was strong, but there was a bit of a shift toward music as a social service and, in my opinion, not enough focus on artistry and excellence. I believe kids learn more when they become excellent at something, then they can figure out how to apply that in a different area of life.

The kids and Jennifer, People with Panache

“The students get their instrument through a matching process,” Jennifer says. “If we asked them what instrument they’d like to play on the first day, they would all say drums or piano. So we spend the first couple of weeks doing introductory sessions to all sorts of instruments and find their strengths.”

We set a goal to be on the radar of other arts organizations, so we started reaching out and have attracted the attention of organizations like Live Nation, the International Contemporary Ensemble, composers and festivals. We just performed with Yo-Yo Ma this summer and we’ll be doing so again in the fall.

We’re really surrounding ourselves with people who exemplify not just artistry and excellence, but people who also reflect ingenuity, innovation, compassion, and citizenship. All of these partnerships reflect a mission greater than music.

PWP: Now it’s hard to imagine you working anywhere else. How did you end up at Bain & Co. previously?

JKM: I pursued a career in business because I wanted to learn how to run programs like this more effectively. I was working in Boston in music programs and felt like my peers in other fields had tools I needed: What is this Excel thing? How do you create a strategy? How do you present to a board of directors?

I started desperately auditing classes at the business school and later landed a job at Bain & Co. I expected to stay there a year or two, but I ended up loving the work and thriving on the challenges it presented.

PWP: How does your experience help you with your current role?

JKM: Whether it’s analytics, team building, management or strategy, there are a lot of similarities between what I learned through music and what made me successful in the business world. I began to see those connections pretty quickly.

I realized looking at an orchestral score isn’t really that different than looking at a bunch of data: It’s codes, it’s pattern recognition, it’s breaking down large quantities of information into smaller bits, and it’s mastering those things over and over again. Problem solving is problem solving no matter what the source of information is.

PWP: How did you circle back to The People’s Music School in 2014?

The kids, The People's Music School, peoplewithpanache.com

The kids are hard at work! The People’s Music School serves 600 kids in Chicago—doubled in the last 2 years. 100 percent could not otherwise afford this opportunity, 90 percent are students of color, half of the students represent each gender, and graduates have earned a 100 percent college acceptance rate since the school started tracking.

JKM: I had an opportunity to return to Chicago with Bain & Co. after being away for 15 years. I reconnected with the school when I got here—it was still very close to my heart. The programming was still strong, but the business side needed to be fixed.

PWP: You felt you had to help! What was it like coming back?

JKM: There was a 6-figure deficit when I started that was 25 percent of the operating budget—it was very hairy. If we had maybe a year and a half more of that, we wouldn’t have been able to keep our doors open. I felt like I was inheriting a national treasure with an uncertain future.

I feel honored that I can merge everything I’ve learned since I was 5, music and business, into this role. I’m thrilled to report that my first year, we had a significant turnaround and are still undergoing a great transformation toward the future. It feels great we’re on steady ground as we serve these students who really need this programming.

Along the way, we’re so happy to support the People’s Music School as they grow. Before our 40th anniversary party update, check out Jennifer on Chicago Woman!

[Photos by Kate.]

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