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Conducting a priceless human symphony

It's a first-come, first-serve basis to enroll at one Chicago music school. NBC News correspondent Bob Dotson reports.

Chicago is home to one of the only free music schools in the country — a place that thrives while others struggle. NBC News correspondent Bob Dotson has the story.

The People’s Music School is a human symphony.  Young, old, and every color, conducted by a woman who first learned music pounding a piano keyboard painted on her dining room table.

Rita Simo was good enough to get a scholarship, study at Julliard, and become a concert pianist.  But she wanted to share her love of music with others.  “Music is a gift,” she says, “Pass it on!”

Simo dreamed of starting a school for music lovers who are not gifted or rich, and she figured she would need a big organization to build such a place. So Rita Simo traded the concert stage for a convent and made her pitch for church support.

“If I got all my music education for free, the least I can do is pass it on,” Simo says.  But the priest told her that would take a pile of paperwork. She wanted results, not writer's cramp.  So after 12 years, Simo quit the convent and opened the first People's Music School in an old beauty salon. She signed the papers on Beethoven's birthday.

The former nun with a PhD played in bars to pay the rent, but offered free music lessons to delivery man Marino Parenti and dozens of others who helped her clean up the school. “Not everybody has the same amount of money,” Simo says, “but everybody has the same amount of time — 24 hours a day.”

One of the biggest challenges for Simo was finding the instruments. “The most difficult thing was the piano. I called all the moving companies in the city of Chicago and asked if somebody had left a piano behind."

Dorian Morningstar brought a piccolo, flute, clarinet, oboe and sax. He had once been homeless. After his mother died, Morningstar sold his instruments. "I took my horns, all of them, and pawned them for booze and cigarettes."  But today, the People’s school has helped to turn his life around. "It gives me incentive and initiative, and gives me ambition and inspiration," he says. 

Morningstar’s story mirrors Rita Simo’s own successful turn. She started 30 years ago with 45 students.  Now she has nearly that many teachers, some of whom are moonlighting from the Chicago Symphony. She has traded the old beauty parlor for a $2 million building, much of it donated.  But donors don't get preference. The first 300 or so who show up each semester get in.  Simo says her reasoning for the first-come, first-serve policy is “because nobody’s better than anybody else. You want it? Get here! And that's it. The pope can come and he's not making it unless he's in line.”

Patte Bennett showed up at three in the morning to enroll her daughter, Cassidy. Cassidy says her favorite music is the violin.  “I haven't ever heard violin music before, but I know I like the violin!”This is only Cassidy’s first year at the People’s school. It is Dorian Morningstar’s 20th. Together, they will find the notes they need in their lives.  “Music in a vacuum is nothing.  It’s a solo.  It’s not a symphony. And this is a symphony,” Patte Bennett says.

Indeed, it is a human symphony composed by a woman who believes that music is priceless.