Leo Park and his students at Northside College Prep.

As a part of Music in Our Schools Month, we are featuring a number of music educators and their work in music advocacy. All of them exemplify the values of Citizen Musicianship through their dedicated teaching and by being enthusiastic champions for the arts.

Leo Park is the orchestra director at Northside College Prep in Chicago, Ill. Over his career at Northside, Park has helped grow his program exponentially, which offers a variety of music classes, including the four orchestras that he teaches. A strong advocate for the arts, and inspired by the Citizen Musician Initiative, Park encourages his students to do more in their community through music. To find out more about his program, please visit NorthsidePrepOrchestras.com.

How has music shaped your life? What inspired you to seek a career in music education?

Music has positively shaped every aspect of my life, from the values I bring to my professional and personal life to the way I engage with the world around me.

I had great teachers in high school and college – both in the classroom and in the private studio.  They were my motivation to explore teaching as a career option.  Honestly, I wasn’t all that certain I’d enjoy or be good at teaching until I began volunteering at the Chicago Public School’s All-City Music Program during my time as an undergraduate music student at DePaul University.  I worked with string players who were mainly from Schurz High School on the city’s northwest side.  I realized early on that I connected well with these students and had much to offer them.  Most importantly, I began to realize they had just as much, if not more, to offer me in terms of their desire to learn about and connect with art.  It was a truly humbling and inspiring experience and revitalized within me why I involved myself in music in the first place.

Can you give a basic overview of your program? How have things changed since you started?

I teach at Northside College Prep in Chicago, Illinois and have been there for 13 years now.  What began as a program with 30 students has grown to over 150. We offer four levels of orchestra, accommodating beginners who have never played a string instrument, to advanced students who are involved in youth orchestras in and around Chicago.  At the start of my career, I also taught Experiences in Music, a non-performance music course rooted in the exploration of traditional and contemporary musical cultures from around the world. But due to the growth of the program, I have transitioned to teaching only orchestral classes.

In 2011, I formed Northside Prep’s chapter of the Tri M Music Honor Society, a group that both honors and challenges students with a strong academic record. The launch of Northside’s Tri M chapter was inspired by Yo-Yo Ma and the CSO’s Citizen Musician Initiative. Members have curated presentations for local elementary schools, volunteered at community centers, churches and nursing homes and raised funds for not-for-profit organizations.  Most recently, our chapter was able to raise over $1,000 to benefit Playing for Change, an organization that builds music schools in poverty-stricken regions of the world. To help promote the idea of Citizen Musicianship and encourage students to join Tri M, each year I share a blog post with my students.

 What has been your favorite memory in teaching?

The most positive teaching memories I have are the ones in which I am witness to my students’ accomplishments.

Recently my students competed in the IHSA Solo and Ensemble Competition, which they worked extremely hard for. The defining moment for me as a teacher in this instance was taking in my students’ elation after they had walked out of their performance rooms.  The looks on their faces, their body language and the comments they were sharing with me and each other encapsulated the positive exhilaration that comes from preparing hard, delivering, and reveling in each other’s accomplishments. For the students to be acknowledged the way they were at this year’s event and the elation and pride they felt after their performance is a memory I will hang onto for years to come.

How do you advocate for the arts, and music in particular?

I am a staunch advocate for the arts.   I believe teaching is a noble calling, a profession I am extremely proud of taking part in.  That said, I wish to do more. That is why I am in the early stages of founding a not-for-profit organization, Chi City Music Makers, whose mission is to support, financially and otherwise, the resources music educators need to sustain and enhance musical experiences and explorations for Chicago youth.  At a time when budgets are shrinking and schools are closing, it is extremely challenging for arts educators to receive the funding necessary to implement robust programming.  As an advocate for the arts, I hope to do everything within my means to ensure Chicago youth are given access to high quality music programming in their schools; in their neighborhoods; in every facet of their lives.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

I love working with high school students and surrounding myself with educators and administrators who are motivated to make the world a better place through their students.

As a music educator, the most rewarding aspect of the job is immersing oneself in the process of choosing and introducing repertoire, working with students to learn from the repertoire and prepare it at a high level, then performing it for an audience or adjudicator.  This cycle of learning and performing is extremely fulfilling and is what I live for professionally.

I live vicariously through my students.  This is why I love teaching.  It’s as simple as that.

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