Intonation Music: Year-Round Music Education in Chicago's Bronzeville | Reverb Gives

Reverb Gives provides students, teachers, and leaders of music programs with the instruments that they need, directly from the Reverb marketplace. Since its launch, Reverb Gives has had the opportunity to help support a variety of remarkable organizations committed to making the world a more musical place.

With so many unique missions, all revolving around music and music education, we wanted to take the opportunity to spotlight some of these organizations, detailing their cause and highlighting the great work that they’re doing with music.

Mike Simons

Today we’re speaking with the Founder and Executive Director of Intonation Music, Mike Simons. Based in Chicago’s mid-South Side neighborhood of Bronzeville, Intonation Music is a year-round music education program that works to help young people discover and amplify their voices, identities, and creativity through learning to play instruments, forming their own bands, and playing shows for their community.

How did Intonation Music get started?

Intonation began out of the trunk of my car, with a handful of instruments and a hunch that a band program that truly meets kids where they are would have a unique and powerful draw. I put up a flyer at a Humboldt Park community center in 2006, and our pilot program grew quickly from six to 36 students in the first year. We now serve around 600 kids annually through programs at parks, schools, and community organizations.

As we’ve grown, we’ve seen that the program is providing much more than just a safe and fun activity. Playing in their own band gives kids a unique way to develop skills, express themselves creatively, become part of a team, and connect to the greater community, all on their own terms and in a way that matters to them.

Our programs are student-driven, and everything we do is designed to amplify student voice. Intonation students make all of the key decisions for their band, from selecting its name to choosing the song that becomes the template for their learning. We have built from that core and also work to impart skills that students can take beyond the band room.

What kinds of programs does Intonation have?

We offer in-school, after-school, weekend, and summer camp programs, as well as specialized clinics and workshops for deeper dives into music exploration. We work to make music accessible to kids by providing them with instruments, instruction, mentorship, and the chance to perform on stages across the city. Reverb Gives is helping to put those instruments in the hands of the next generation of musicians, many of whom might not have the chance to play music.

All core programs build toward a concert, giving students a concrete, tangible goal to work towards. Sometimes it’s in a school gymnasium, sometimes it’s at Lollapalooza. Each year, we host a one day youth arts festival and all of our student bands perform for their friends, family, and community at Kennicott Park, where we are an Arts Partner In Residence. It’s my favorite day of the year, when everyone in the program is in the same space, and students from across our sites get to see each other perform.

Can you talk a bit about your instructors? What are some of their backgrounds, and how did they get involved?

Our instructor team is made up of music professionals, which gives kids in our programs instruction, support, and mentorship from working musicians. Many are from the community we serve and got involved through word of mouth.

Three of our instructors are alumni from our program and grew from being students themselves to teaching a next generation of instructors! We just started a new series on our website spotlighting our instructors so that folks can learn more about the incredible people and role models we have teaching our students.

How about your students? Do they generally have music experience before getting involved or are there lots of beginners?

Many students join our programs with no previous experience, and over the course of the year, they learn the basics on each core rock band instrument: drums, bass, guitar, piano, and voice. Learning to play each instrument gives them a well-rounded introduction, breeds empathy for their bandmates, and helps them make an informed decision around which instrument(s) they really want to focus on longer term.

We also have an All Star program for students who have been with Intonation for many years and are fiercely passionate about their craft. They meet other young musicians from different parts of the city and play in a year-round show band that takes on more complex material and bigger stages.

One of our All Star bands, T.I.O.T.E. (Time Is Of The Essence), wrote and recorded an EP of their own original compositions entitled Nine Lives. They just booked their own show at the House of Blues in May, which is a huge achievement for professional musicians. That type of journey, of taking on bigger shows and putting in the work to get them, that’s a cornerstone of our program. It is incredible to see them becoming a part of the community and working in it to achieve their goals.

Are there any upcoming events you'd like to promote? How can people get involved in supporting Intonation Music?

Our annual Back to School Ball Benefit Show at Sleeping Village is coming up this Friday, August 31! We’ve got a couple of killer dance bands—The Daytonics and The Columbines—plus a DJ and, of course, some sweet raffle prizes. For other events and to learn more about or donate to Intonation Music, you can visit our website.

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