Very Inspiring Person: Mike Simons of Intonation Music Workshop

Mike Simons = Pizza

And there you have it, Friends.  Math according to my kids.

If you are as puzzled by New Math as I am, you give your kids the link to Khan Academy and then announce that you are going out for the evening.  My kids both realized halfway through second grade that Poor Old Mom has the math skills of a caveman scratching out tally marks on a stone tablet and that, sadly, they are on their own where fractions and formulas are concerned.  They have tried and tried to explain basic common core numbers concepts to me to no avail.  Then, recently, my daughter looked up from her math assignment and said, “Mom, here’s all you need to know…Pizza equals Awesome.”

Apparently she gets her brains from me.

My son confirmed this dubious assertion.  “Anything that is awesome equals pizza,” he said, mumbling something under his breath that sounded a little like, “Duh.”

Therefore, in simple algebraic terms, Mike Simons = Pizza.

And the music program that Mike founded, Intonation Music Workshop (IMW), equals a sublime slice of Chicago-style deep dish served up with a satisfying pint of locally crafted microbrew.

In other words, IMW = Pizza ²


IMW high fiveHere are some other numbers for you:  In 2006, Mike launched the IMW pilot program with eight students at one local community center.  Today, the program reaches 661 students in 15 Chicago school, park, and community sites and provides over 13,000 hours of direct music instruction.  Since its inception, the students of IMW have formed over 100 rock and pop bands, playing shows ranging from local arts nights to Lollapalooza.

This year marks the 10th Anniversary of Intonation Music Workshop  and Mike’s important mission as Executive Director of the program to “empower children to become rock stars on every stage of life through innovative music education.”

I met Mike seven years ago when he and his band, Hayward Bluegrass, played for the first time in my backyard for a group of guests that were in town for my son’s bar mitzvah.  Since then, my husband and I have attended the IMW annual gala fundraiser and have had the pleasure of seeing firsthand the incredible impact of this music program as demonstrated in the electrifying student performances.

So as you have gathered, I don’t know much about trigonometry.  But, perhaps as Sam Cooke (and Lou Adler) intended, I do know what a wonderful world this would be if more people followed this simple equation:

Do what you love +  Work hard + Give back + Empower Others =  A Life Well-lived

kid with guitarTurns out, Mike figured this out ten years ago when IMW was conceived.  He shares his approach to living with purpose in this very inspiring interview below:

Q:  What is Intonation Music Workshop?  A: Intonation is a pathway to empowerment through music for kids in primarily underserved Chicago neighborhoods. Through our school and community based music education programs, our students spark an interest and explore their potential by learning to play the instruments used in rock and pop music, forming their own bands, and playing shows for the community.

Q:  What was the impetus for creating IMW?  A:  When I became an adult and started volunteering to give back to the community, I found myself working with city kids who’d gotten on the wrong track in life.  I was involved with Community Panels for Youth through Northwestern’s Family and Justice Center, and our job was to work with first -time youth offenders to keep them out of the criminal justice system, because once a child goes in, it’s very hard to get out. These were kids who’d made a wrong turn and we wanted to steer them back towards leading a fulfilling and productive life. 

As a lead panel member, part of my job was to find engaging activities for after-school hours, when many children were left unsupervised, and when 99% of these offenses were taking place. 

I looked for music programs and found choir and African Drumming, but nothing centered around rock music and performing in your own band.

Q:  How has your background shaped your vision for IMW?  A: I grew up playing drums in bands and it was a huge part of my identity in my formative years, much more than sports was. I was also lucky enough to spend 13 summers at overnight camp, where I learned the true meaning of camaraderie. These two forces combined to ignite the spark that became Intonation.

Q:  At what point did this become more than a pastime for you?  A:  We were lucky enough to get a student band on the bill at Lollapalooza very early in in 2007. Just before the kids took the stage, the guitar player Yuriel, who was normally emotionally impenetrable behind his long hair and shades turned to me, lifted his shades, and said “Mike, I feel like I’m getting closer to my dreams”, then went out there and blew the roof off the place. That was a turning point for me and I resolved to turn the pilot program into a reality. It took me a few years to make it my full time job.

11163_10151249356936437_531195118_nQ:  Does IMW reflect your original vision, or has it evolved differently than you envisioned?  A: Both! My original vision was for tons of kids across Chicago to be rocking out on stages big and small in their own bands. That came to fruition, but…I underestimated the impact. When we started, it was a safe haven mission;a safe place for kids to do something productive and fun. What we found over the years, though, is a much deeper impact: Playing in a band is a way to learn how to take ownership of your direction, forge your own path,  and become an active participant in your life. It teaches teamwork and persistence, builds confidence, and gives a sense of belonging and purpose.

I also didn’t understand initially what a powerful and positive force music is in building community… between band members, parents, school staff,  our instructors, and the music loving public.

Q:  Describe a day in the life at IMW.  A: For a typical class, students begin with a warm up activity to get everyone on the same page, then take part in a music skills building activity before they break into groups to work on the parts of whatever song they’ve chosen to be the template for their learning that term. Then they practice as a group, bring it together for a band cheer, and heading home for the day. As Executive Director, one of the most fun parts of my day is heading out in the afternoon to one of our classrooms to guest teach with any number on Intonation bands.

Q:  Describe your most rewarding moment with IMW.  A: See Yuriel story above!

Q:  What is your biggest challenge with IMW?  A: Well, Funding is and always will be a main challenge, but beyond that, we’re up against a lot of environmental forces in the neighborhoods we serve which can affect student attendance and retention. Our solution is to work very hard at engaging parents and families in the program through relentless outreach.

Q:  Describe the typical student at IMW.  A:  Our students typically have a lot going on in their lives and in their environments, and may not have had the opportunity to discover their talent or spark a special interest. That’s our goal, to use music as a way to help kids find something uniquely theirs that they can call their own and take ownership of.

Q:  What kind of impact has IMW had on its participants?  A: Self-Activation is our highest level goal for the students. We have one student who started with us when he was 6 years old and took every musical opportunity that came his way. Last year he sought out our instructors to help him with his audition for Chicago High School for the Arts, a highly selective school, and he was accepted! We have a lot of stories like this, which is a sign of the impact we’re making.

Q:  Describe your most emotional or pivotable moment with IMW.  A:   See Yuriel story above! The student concerts are always emotional for me because I get to witness THE MOMENT when band members make the connection between their hard work and the wave of joy and appreciation that the audience sends their way. You can see it on their faces like a flip of the switch, which is why we have a lightbulb for our logo.IMW drums

Q:  Besides music, what role does IMW play in the life of the student/the community at large?  A: We’re present in the lives of our students. families and community beyond music. For instance, instructors and staff have attended school functions and life events to support our students and families. Perhaps it’s a happy event like school garden planting on a Saturday morning or something with more gravitas…Just last week three Intonation staff went to a funeral of the grandpa of two IMW students.

Q:  Who is your mentor/hero/role model?  A:  Lou Rosenblum and Robert Lebby, both camp directors at the camp I attended for so many years are role models to me.

Q:  Who has been your biggest champion/cheerleader for this endeavor?  A: The band Wilco both as a group and through individual members have been incredibly supportive and generous in supporting Intonation. They have volunteered their personal time to work with our students, but have also raised well over $100,000 through auction items for our annual gala.

Q:  What is your ultimate goal for IMW?  Have you met your goal?  A:  My ultimate goal for Intonation is for it to become a self-perpetuating musical resource for children across Chicago and perhaps someday the nation…for it to  live on to serve generations of kids when I’m gone. We’re working towards that and time will tell!

Q:  Do you have any concerns/regrets about the program or your mission?  A: Mission drift and chasing opportunity have been real and recurring challenges as Intonation has grown. It requires vigilance and fortitude to sometimes say no to a program opportunity to benefit the long game. Though they’ve worked out by and large, looking back there are a few decisions on this front that I’d change, and it’s a lesson I’m still learning every day. We’re blessed with a supremely talented and dedicated board and staff, so I do also think about insuring Intonation’s longevity when we’re gone, which requires lots of planning.

IMW teamwork10590497_10152223675271437_9044047117406152529_n



Q:  Have you had to make any sacrifices/compromises because of, or on behalf of, IMW?  A:  Sure, but they pale in comparison to the joy of seeing our mission and impact realized. There is tremendous nuance and variability in the world we work in, so I suppose I could have chosen a less stressful path, but it wouldn’t be as fulfilling either.

Q:  Where does your drive to help others come from?  A:   The realization that I’ve been very lucky in life and that I owe it to world to give back. These are values that were instilled in me by my parents and at camp.

Q:  What instruments do you play?  A:   Primarily drums and bass, but a little bit of everything.

Q:  What are your other hobbies/talents?  A:  Travel, record collecting, playing with my kids, and being near, on, or in water.

Q:  What is your purpose in life?  A:  To be a conduit… matching need with opportunity, and to be a good dad.

Q:  What inspires you?  A:  Travel!  Being placed into a new context which shows me other ways of living while forcing me to examine my own always inspires me.

Q:  What’s your favorite song or album (or Top 10)?  A: Depends on the time of day, week, month year. Some faves are The Velvet Underground and Nico,  Blood on the Tracks  by Bob Dylan. After the Gold Rush  by Neil Young,  Side 2 of Abbey Road  (Beatles), Beautiful Vision  by Van Morrison,  Tusk  by Fleetwood Mask etc. I’m pretty much a populist though, and a vinyl freak too, so it’s a tough question to answer.

Q:  How do you define success?  A:  Being able to step back, hopefully having created a self-perpetuating culture of community through music.

Q:  How do you define happiness?  A:  Unselfconsciously breathing easy.

Q:  How can we help?  A:  Get involved at any level in a way that is the most meaningful and rewarding for you! Spread the word about Intonation to people who our work will resonate with.

Thanks, Mike!

I encourage you to learn more about IMW at and find out how you can help.


1 reply

  1. Kelly, I found this article so interesting. It made me very grateful that my children are no longer of the age that this new math comes into play for them. Guess that is one good thing about having adult kids, especially adult kids without children. I too come from that era of chicken scratch and stone tablets. Well that is if you ask my kids. Thanks for sharing your blogs I truly enjoy reading them.

    Liked by 1 person

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