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Chicago Tribune's Chicagoans of the Year

CHICAGOAN OF THE YEAR - CLASSICAL MUSIC

Classical: Mark George Building a model for nation's community music schools 

 

John von Rhein Classical music critic

8:53 p.m. CST, December 25, 2011 

 

Mark George's passion for music, not to mention his unshakeable belief in the power of music to sustain and nourish the human spirit, came directly from his father, a community band leader and classical and jazz musician in the family's hometown of Glassport, Pa. "He was the inspiration for what I do," says George, president and CEO of the widely respected Music Institute of Chicago. "For as long as I can remember, I wanted to emulate my father and be a musician who would make music accessible to everyone in town. "Now my town is Chicago." 

 

Northeastern Illinois does not, of course, lack for dedicated music educators and administrators, but George stands out as a visionary who is making unique and important things happen — and changing untold numbers of young lives in the process.


Since taking over from Sel Kardan as head of MIC in February 2010, the 51-year-old educator, administrator and concert pianist has significantly raised the community music school's profile. This year, to a remarkable degree, he has furthered MIC's mission to make high-quality music education more accessible to everyone.

 

And that means everyone — from toddlers to students to adults to seniors — through a comprehensive range of programs at the institution's network of North Shore campuses, in the Chicago public schools and elsewhere.

 

Thanks to tuition fees, also record contributions that defy the prevailing economic downturn, the institute now is able to provide some $500,000 in scholarship assistance to many hundreds of talented if underprivileged students throughout the city and suburbs. (This year's MIC gala raised roughly $1.3 million in scholarship money, roughly twice as much as any of the school's previous fundraisers.)

 

Even so, half a million dollars isn't nearly enough to meet current needs, the school's chief executive maintains.

"There are so many kids who really want to apply themselves in music," says George. "Whenever I see a child who needs financial aid and we've run out (of readily available funds), it breaks my heart. Essentially that's what motivates our team to keep extending the school's reach. Doing that begins at the board level, and we've had a lot of great people join our board, which now numbers 28."

 

George continues to invest in top-quality faculty and this year expanded the enrollment to some 3,000 students, the highest it's been in four years. The year also brought an expansion of MIC's partnerships with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Chicago West Community Music Center, Apostolic Church of God, Chicago High School for the Arts and other area organizations.

 

He also has been instrumental (pun intended) in making chamber music a key component of the school's extensive series of faculty, student and guest artist concerts at MIC's acoustically superior Nichols Concert Hall and other venues.

 

"We now have more than 200 students playing chamber music, which probably makes ours the largest chamber music program in the country, or one of the largest," George says. "It's important for students to learn how to play their instruments, but we don't want them to do it in isolation. Chamber music is the way they learn to play well with others."

 

Clearly this singularly devoted arts educator is not one to entertain small plans. When asked where he would like to see the Music Institute of Chicago go from here, George declares, "I want our school to be the premier institution for music teaching in the Midwest, and maybe eventually the entire country. Chicago is filled with many stellar cultural institutions, and, in my view, the MIC is one of them."

 

jvonrhein@tribune.com

Twitter @johnvonrhein

Copyright © 2012, Chicago Tribune 

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