In the first weeks of fourth grade, the year after his mom had died, Seth Feare, now an accomplished musician and a senior at Oak Park and River Forest High School, was in the music room, figuring out with his favorite teacher if he should take up an instrument that fall.

Understanding that Feare’s grandmother, Jan Salzman, couldn’t swing the added expense, the music teacher suggested Feare sign up for Providing Instruments for the Next Generation (PING!), the nonprofit group that provides instruments and music enrichment to low-income students in Districts 90, 97 and 200.

“Our core mission is to loan musical instruments to low income kids in grades 4-12 so that they can participate in the excellent band and orchestra programs in the Oak Park and River Forest public schools,” says PING! president Judy Weik. “In addition, we also provide enrichment through workshops for our 4th and 5th graders, mentoring for our middle schoolers, scholarships for summer music camp for middle schoolers, and private music lessons for our high schoolers.”

PING! was formed in 1998 by six forward thinking women with 14 loaner instruments. Now, the nonprofit has over 200 “lightly used” band or orchestra instruments they loan to students for an annual administrative fee of $20.

Initially, Feare veered towards the viola, but in the fifth grade, settled on the sax because he wanted to play an instrument he could put together.

“When I first got it, I took it out of the case, put it together, and didn’t realize that I had the reed backwards,” he laughs, “just because it had gotten delivered to our house, and I opened it up before anyone had had a chance to tell me anything about it, because I was so excited.”

Likewise, at Irving School in Oak Park, Antwon Billups, now a junior at OPRF, had learning the jazz stylings of Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins in his future sights. Thanks to PING! now jazz is jelling for him.

“I couldn’t really pay for a full instrument, so I went to PING! and rented it,” says Billup. “Me and music, in the beginning, it was kind of hard, and I couldn’t really get the rhythms down, but I gradually got better at it and because of PING! in the sixth grade I got a high school mentor, and she really helped me with articulation and rhythms and everything that I needed to play the saxophone, and I had her all the way through middle school.”

During middle school both Feare and Billups received PING! scholarships to attend separate out-of-state summer music camps, and in high school received funding for private lessons.

Looking forward to finishing high school, Feare is fond of the memories and excited about a future where he will probably study music in college.

“With PING there pushing you to play music, it makes you want to be more part of music and do something, rather than just sit there,” Feare says. “Having music in your life can change the way you feel, drastically, and with this organization here to help you along, that could be what will set you on the right foot in life whatever you want to do.”

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Deb Quantock McCarey

Deb Quantock McCarey is an Illinois Press Association (IPA) award-winning freelance writer who has worked with Wednesday Journal Inc. since 1995, writing features and special sections for all its publications....