Feature: Music Institute of Chicago Continues its Mission, Pandemic or Not
One of Chicago’s longest serving music organizations has continued to operate under the trying circumstances posed by a pandemic. While COVID-19 has affected the ways in which the Music Institute of Chicago educates musicians, hosts performances, and serves the public, the MIC has managed to continue its programs, while, at the same time, celebrate its 90th anniversary.
My introduction to the MIC was through the many excellent performances in Nichols Concert Hall, which is at MIC’s Evanston East location. Several concerts have been reviewed here at Third Coast Review. It also has a presence in Chicago, Downtown Evanston, Winnetka, Lake Forest, Downers Grove, and Lincolnshire. From its mainly North Shore base, it has played a valuable role in Chicago’s vibrant art music scene.
MIC’s President and CEO Mark George discussed the Institute’s many activities at the beginning of April last year, just as COVID-19 was taking its toll. “When I describe the mission of the organization,” he explained, “I always describe it as three things, but they’re not the same size. Teaching is certainly one, and it’s the biggest, but we’re also a presenter of music .… The other thing we’re committed to is using music as a tool for community service, which has ramped up quite a bit in the past few years.”
Mark George came to lead the MIC in 2010, and his skill set is perfectly suited for the job. He grew up in Pittsburgh and studied as piano major the Cleveland institute of music. He attended Indiana University for graduate school and returned to Cleveland for a doctorate in piano performance. He spent most of his career in Cleveland, the first 12-13 years as a performer and then as a teacher and administrator.
One of the biggest pandemic-caused changes to affect MIC is live concerts, which have of necessity shifted to virtual settings. In written responses to follow-up questions, George elaborated on how it has adapted to the pandemic. “We host many more recital programs compared to when the recitals were all in-person—they are very popular! They are also great community builders, allowing many friends and extended family members to join in from all around the world.”
Those benefits were on display at the Martin Luther King, Jr, Celebration Concert on January 17. This concert, part of weekend celebration of the life of MLK, offered prerecorded performances by several MIC alumni, faculty, and invited guests. Performers included students from the Chicago Musical Pathways Initiative, which caters to student musicians from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds. That concert can be watched on YouTube.
The benefits of virtual concerts continue in an upcoming concert, How Can I Keep from Singing, where the Music Institute Chorale, conducted by Daniel Wallenberg, will offer a free, virtual performance featuring 40 singers from around the world. The chorale is a community ensemble comprising adult singers with a background in vocal music. To accommodate COVID-19 restrictions, each performer will be recorded separately and mixed together. The concert will include works by many composers and traditional songs from around the world. The highlight is Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy, Op. 80, with Gregory Shifrin on piano. Sunday, March 14, at 2pm CDT.
Going virtual has clearly expanded the MIC’s reach. In a press release, Wallenberg said, “The silver lining of this terrible pandemic is that our Chorale is now accessible to anybody interested in singing with us regardless of where they live.”
When it comes to teaching, MIC has certainly done a lot in its 90-year existence. Prior to the pandemic, “Over 2000 students [were] registered in various years,” said George. Surprisingly, he later wrote, “That number held steady for about six months; as the pandemic stretched toward a year, enrollment (especially for group activities) went down, but not nearly as much as I had feared. In fact, enrollment for private lessons in the summer was actually up!” Of course, most of this education shifted to virtual settings, but more in-person teaching is resuming as the area recovers from the pandemic.
MIC’s music education programs are tailored to just about every type of music student. At the start of the pandemic, over 300 adults enrolled in various programs, “one of the fasted growing segments,” explained George. “Adults, maybe, in the empty nest phase of their lives who played earlier and are coming back.” This program suffered an enrollment drop off as adults seemed less receptive to on-line instruction. MIC programs also cater to parents and their young children. “Musikgarten® group classes are for parents and babies, literally, young children.”
Individual and group instruction in strings, brass, vocals, and percussion for people of all ages are also available, which have shifted to virtual. At the start of the pandemic, there were more than 700 students studying piano. George noted, “MIC also offers one of the largest Suzuki Education programs in the country with 500 students”—a number that has largely held up during the pandemic.
“We try to give people the opportunity to touch base in a lot of areas of applied music, music theory, history, ensembles, and chamber music,” explained George. “The idea is to engage them at many points with the goal that they’ll be enjoying music for the rest of their lives.”
Nearly a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, George wrote that, “The Music Institute currently offers in-person teaching, with reduced capacity, at our three largest campuses: Evanston, Winnetka, and Lake Forest. We have strict protocols regarding screening, masking, distancing, sanitizing, etc., which so far have kept everyone safe.”
MIC recognizes that some types of instruments are different from others. As George explained, “Because COVID-19 spreads primarily through the air, teaching wind instruments and voice is problematic. My expectation is that we will return to mostly in-person piano and string teaching before the end of the spring semester. Wind instrument and voice teaching will also resume to some degree, but with special considerations regarding space and ventilation.”
A program for which the MIC has been gaining a reputation is its music Academy, which was started in 2006. Under the artistic direction of James Setapen, it is for students aged 12 through high school who, as George put it, “know pretty early on they want a career in music. By the time they come, they already mostly have acquired technique.” He described how it offers “intensive education in every aspect of music. Big emphasis on chamber music, improvisation, master classes with visiting artists almost every week.” It is the only part of MIC that requires an audition.
The academy is not a full-time residential school for general education. Rather, it offers an intensive musical training programming spanning 30 Saturdays every year. During the week, students go elsewhere for regular education, which may include lessons from a private music teacher. “Students do their private instruction during the week, go to regular school or are home schooled.” He added, they can “study with private music teacher during the week. Then, on Saturdays, they come to us for 30 weeks out of the year at the Ravinia campus. They come early on Saturday and leave very late on Saturday. That is where they get everything other than their private instruction.”
The Academy has 30 students, and can range from the low 20s and be as high as 40. “We don’t want it to get bigger,” George explained. In dealing with the pandemic, George wrote, “the Academy is a relatively small program … that has had much more in-person instruction, including chamber music ensembles and orchestra.”
Regarding student morale, he noted, “I am struck with the enthusiasm and determination of the students to overcome the pandemic and make great music! Given its small size, considerable in-person Academy instruction has been able to continue, although it has shifted to Evanston East and the Nichols Concert Hall locations … where there are large spaces with superior ventilation.”
In considering the impact of the Academy, George recognized “[l]ots of ways to measure success, but over 13 years about 80% of them are in music as professionals, It’s kind of an astounding percentage and we’re proud of it. It’s a relatively small part of the school, but it gets lots of attention.”
Another measure of success is that, for a program that has only been around since 2006, several Academy alumni have already had significant accomplishments while still very early in their careers. Violist and Chicago-area native Matthew Lipman has performed many times on Chicago stages. An early student at the Academy who graduated in 2010, Lipman has already gathered impressive musical achievements on his curriculum vitae. As a member of the New York based Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, he has graced the stage in their concerts at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance in Millennium Park.
In the art of performing chamber music, the Academy prepared Lipman well. In an interview last April, Lipman recalled, “The emphasis they have on chamber music is so strong, that’s definitely the place I learned how to play chamber music. The coaching is so great.” He recalled “being in this quartet, the Polaris String Quartet we called ourselves, and we were sophomores in high school. We entered Fischoff, a national chamber music competition. We had no expectations, but we ended up winning first prize.”
Lipman was one of several Academy and Institute alumni gathered to celebrate the Academy’s 10th anniversary in 2016. He performed Mozart’s Symphonia Concertante in E-flat major, K. 364, with Institute alumna Rachel Barton Pine on violin. Backing up Lipman and Pine was the Academy Chamber Orchestra, conducted by James Setapen and Roland Vamos. Comprised of Academy students of stringed instruments and backed up by wind, brass, and percussion players affiliated with the Academy, this ensemble was magical in the Concertante, Arvo Paert’s Fratres for string orchestra and percussion, and Beethoven’s Symphony no. 1 in C-major, Op. 21.
In the overall history of the MIC, the Academy’s tenure is relatively brief. However, as George explained, “There has always been a cohort of Music Institute students with exceptional talent and professional aspirations. The Academy was founded to formalize the curriculum and ensure that these students get the experiences and attention they need to flourish.”
Rachel Barton Pine, whose student years predated the Academy, is one of the most successful alumni ever to come out of MIC. A student of longtime faculty members Roland and Almita Vamos, Pine has performed all over the world and released many recordings, on Chicago’s Cedille Records and other labels. She has since gone on to play a major supporting role for the Institute and Academy.
Mark George described Pine as a “superstar, a Life Trustee, ambassador, advisor, a great champion of Black composers, and an all-around great friend to the Music Institute of Chicago. As a student, she took private lessons and participated in chamber music and orchestra alongside a small group of very talented students.”
Jennifer Koh is another MIC student of the Vamoses who has gone on to a successful performance and recording career. Today, “she serves as an ex-officio Trustee and is also a wonderful friend of the institution,” said George. She also has several noteworthy releases on Cedille Records, including the recently released third and final part of her Bach and Beyond series, which paired Johann Sebastian Bach’s six suites and sonatas for solo violin with solo works by modern and contemporary composers.
When asked whether virtual instruction has improved music education, George responded: “I would not say that online instruction in itself has improved music instruction. However, the quality of teaching has remained high, and online teaching has provided access for students who would not otherwise have it. The challenges of online music teaching are related to audio quality and latency, that slight delay you get in a video call. Good equipment, strong connectivity, and use of best practices largely overcome the audio quality issue. Latency is the more difficult thing to mitigate.”
He acknowledged that latency is especially a problem with chamber music instruction. “Teachers have overcome this with various techniques, including practicing in pairs, pre-recording parts, and using certain online platforms that mitigate the latency.”
As in so many other areas where virtual processes have proliferated during the pandemic, some aspects of virtual music instruction will remain afterward. However, George wrote, “At its best, virtual instruction is a complement to in-person instruction.”
One of the three main areas of MIC’s programs is community engagement. “I’ve always believed that, because of what we do as musicians, we have a special responsibility,” said Mark George. “We’re in the communication business, and what we do is we deliver things that move people.”
Necessities imposed by COVID-19 have affected its approach. Prior to the pandemic, MIC students and faculty did community service concerts: at senior centers, VA hospitals, libraries—”any place you imagine to give free concerts,” said George. “Either our faculty or students do that.” During the pandemic, some of these have continued over the phone or online.
Before the pandemic, MIC had also begun to do micro performances, especially with people who are elderly or isolated for one reason or another. “We’ll visit them with one or two students, play informally and chat for a little bit,” explained George. “The more I do this the more I realize that what we’re really doing is combating loneliness. There’s just nothing better than taking a 9-year old violinist to see somebody who’s alone and play for them. The look on their face. It brings so much joy and gives the students excellent experiences.”
Since last spring, George explained, “The micro-performances have continued but are now either online or over the telephone. We call this project Musical Pen Pals, and we are currently collaborating with the Retirement Research Foundation to implement the program and study its impact and efficacy, both on the older adult participants and the participating students. We hope to return to in-person performances in schools and community spaces as soon as safety allows.” He characterizes this “as a core value of our school.”
Other community engagements included ArtsLink, an arts residency and arts integration curriculum that created music tied to the non-music curriculum. MIC would go a to school, in Chicago mostly, and stay for 6 weeks to 9 weeks and create some kind of music that is tied into the school’s non-music curriculum.
MIC also did a Suzuki string program, incidentally called Third Coast Suzuki Strings, down at the McCormick YMCA. This gave neighborhood kids and families an opportunity to participate at almost no cost. Instruments and faculty were donated.
When asked whether these programs would continue after the pandemic, George wrote, “Absolutely! As I mentioned earlier, our mission is to teach and perform and serve our community.” I addition to the programs before the pandemic, the hope is that Music Pen Pals, which started during the pandemic, will continue afterwards.
The Music Institute of Chicago was the brainchild David and Dorothy Dushkin. He was from Brooklyn and she was from Glencoe. They met in Paris in the 1920s when they were studying with Nadia Boulanger. They started the music school mostly in a farmhouse Winnetka in 1931.
Mark George spent time researching the founders’ archives at Smith College, in Northampton, Massachusetts. He admires the approach the Dushkins took. “They were noteworthy because they had the audacity to say they wanted to make music lessons fun.” The records show that many of music’s Illuminati visited the MIC to perform and teach classes, including Igor Stravinsky and Nadia Boulanger.
The Dushkins sold the MIC in the early 1950s and a group of parents purchased the school and made it a non-profit. They built the building on Green Bay Road in Winnetka that is still in use today. Herbert Zipper was brought in to direct the Institute. Zipper survived a Nazi concentration camp, where he had organized music in the camp. He brought this same energy to MIC.
In 2001, MIC purchased the Evanston East facility that includes Nichols Concert Hall from the Church of Christ Scientists. This allowed the Institute to take more of an external facing posture, and they’ve been able to present performances in a superb concert hall.
For an institution with such a robust history as the Music Institute of Chicago, the planned 90th anniversary celebrations were intended to be spectacular. While these plans and other activities had to be modified, the MIC has continued to serve the Chicago area with music performance, music education, and community outreach. By the time the pandemic has passed, MIC will have used virtual approaches to expand its impact to new students and audiences. A big challenge will be to continue this expansion after COVID-19 passes.
Meanwhile, as Mark George promised, virtual performances will continue. Following the How Can I Keep from Singing, on March 14, the MIC will host a “spring concert series to be livestreamed and subsequently broadcast on WFMT,” wrote George, who revealed this previously unannounced series Live from Nichols Concert Hall. “Performers are the Aebersold and Neiweem Piano Duo, Third Coast Percussion, and the Chen String Quartet, featuring CSO Concertmaster Robert Chen and his accomplished family, who are performing the cycle of six Beethoven Op. 18 string quartets.” Chen has performed previously at Nichols Concert Hall, including an excellent performance with pianist Matthew Hagle in October 2019.
George also promised a special bonus at the final concert on May 2. “They will also play a movement from Beethoven’s Op. 132 – Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit, in der lydischen Tonart (“Holy song of thanksgiving of a convalescent to the Deity, in the Lydian mode”).” George added: “… the meaning of the piece is finally in alignment with reality,” a sentiment to which I agree wholeheartedly.
Also, stay on the lookout for the MIC’s 90th Anniversary Virtual Gala on Monday, May 10 at 6 pm, which will celebrate 90 years of innovation, access, and excellence in music education. Highlights of this festive evening include presentation of the Dushkin Award to Maestro Zubin Mehta, the 12th annual Cultural Visionary Award for Chicago to Linda Theis Gantz and Wilbur “Bill” Gantz, and the Colburn Award for Teaching Excellence to Nina Wallenberg and Daniel Wallenberg. Admission is complimentary, with information at musicinst.org/anniversary-gala. To make a donation, visit pjhchicago.com/MIC.
For more information about upcoming concerts and education opportunities, check out MusicInst.org.