Playing to Win

The Musical Arts Institute brings rigorous music education to the Far South Side

Near the corner of 93rd Street and Lafayette Avenue, nestled between St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church and a row of houses, sits an unremarkable tan brick building. Indistinguishable from its neighbors save for a modest banner hung between the front windows, the exterior of the Musical Arts Institute (MAI) does little to suggest the impressive work taking place inside.  

When I stepped into MAI on the Tuesday afternoon before Thanksgiving, I was met with strains of classical viola, drifting into the living room from an upstairs studio. Despite the looming holiday weekend, the place was humming with activity—students practicing, teachers instructing, folks chatting in the kitchen. Executive Director Michael Manson seemed pleased with the action. “We’re not on break just yet,” he laughed.

For 163 students from Princeton Park, Chatham, and surrounding South Side neighborhoods, MAI, with its highly trained professional musicians and teachers, is an invaluable resource for private music instruction. MAI employs fourteen instructors, and offers lessons in flute, clarinet, soprano, tenor, alto saxophone, trumpet, trombone, tuba, violin, viola, cello, bass, guitar, piano, voice, and percussion. The institute is also home to two string ensembles, and a children’s chorus is in the works. College preparatory music theory courses are also available, as well as twice-weekly piano classes offered free of charge for neighborhood students between ages seven and seventeen.

“By and large, kids in this area don’t have access to high-caliber music instruction,” said Manson, a long-time music educator and Grammy-nominated R&B bassist. “The premise of the Musical Arts Institute is to build up a place in this community where the environment encourages excellence.”

Manson and his partner, Lana Manson, who founded the MAI together in 2010, have several decades of music education experience. Both graduates of Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music, the Mansons understand, firsthand, the disparities in music instruction between the North and South Sides of the city.

“I started my teaching career in Evanston, and I worked there until 1998,” Manson said. “When I started working in CPS schools on the South Side, I had to recognize an extreme divide in the arts between the northern suburbs and the sites where I worked. We want to bridge that gap.”

Bolstered by a generous donation from St. James Church, which previously owned the house on Lafayette and offered the site to MAI for free, the non-profit Institute has been open to young performers on the South Side for four years. Their operation is sustained by independent donations and funding from the UPS Foundation, Springboard for the Arts, the Bank of America Foundation, a City of Chicago Artistry Grant, and a grant from the Illinois Arts Council. Manson emphasized that maintaining this funding is a challenging but necessary task, as about sixty percent of MAI’s students rely on scholarships.

“Those who can pay, do pay,” Manson said. “But we never want cost to prevent talented kids from getting a rigorous music education.”

Expectations are high for all students receiving instruction at MAI. With consistent encouragement and occasional tough love, instructors push students to realize an impressive standard of performance. Studio-wide quarterly recitals held at Chicago State University mean that students are always preparing to perform for an audience.

“Ultimately, our goal is college prep,” said Manson. “We figure if these kids are having lessons with professional musicians and teachers, their chances of being competitive for college music scholarships are going way up.”

When MAI students embark on the college application process, their instructors are heavily involved. Teachers work with students to prepare audition pieces, and Manson is quick to reach out to his contacts at music programs around the country to advocate for MAI applicants. In four years, this significant level of support has helped twenty-two graduating seniors obtain music scholarships at colleges including Fisk University, Central State University in Ohio, and Seton Hall.

Manson is adamant that parents be present for this application process, and stresses that MAI requires a substantial level of involvement from parents in their child’s music education.

“Parents are essential partners in monitoring practice, sitting through lessons, and making sure their kid gets here,” he said. “They have to reinforce [to their child] that if MAI is going to pay for lessons, they have to perform at proficiency level.”

In addition to providing on-site instruction, the Mansons have expanded MAI’s work to reach CPS elementary schools with scant music programs. Pirie Elementary, Lenart Regional Gifted Center, and Bennett Elementary benefit from afterschool guitar, piano, voice, drumline, and choir programs taught by MAI instructors. Manson hopes this programming is just the beginning.

“When I taught in CPS, I ran into so many kids who were talented in music, but weren’t into academics. They needed motivation to keep working, to graduate from high school, and music has the power to push them to do that,” he said.

Back at the tan brick house, nestled in the heart of the Far South Side, Manson took me upstairs to peek into the well-equipped studios. In one, R&B music industry veteran and MAI piano instructor Tim Gant was teaching a lesson. In another, Manson’s high school-age daughter was practicing viola for a Midwest Young Artists program. In the basement, stacks of marching snares, tenor drums, and rows of thigh-height keyboards were evidence of local kids filtering into MAI to learn their craft.

“The only time I try not to come down here is when they’re all practicing the percussion,” Manson said, smiling. “It gets pretty unbelievably loud.”

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