Skip to main content

Adrienne Thompson knows a thing or two about tough love. The Chicago-native has made a name for herself by thriving in challenging situations, including working in the banking industry, raising eight children, teaching primary school orchestras, and running the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s acclaimed Talent Development Program. In her current position, as the founding leader and program director of the Chicago Musical Pathways Initiative (CMPI), she is tasked with guiding music students from traditionally marginalized backgrounds into top-notch colleges and conservatories so that they may have a financially successful career in classical music.

“In terms of tough love, it’s a tough profession,” said Thompson, from her Chicago home, during a recent Zoom interview. “I am not trying to protect students from adverse situations, I’m trying to prepare students for them. Often, what happens to our kids are things that, if you stop to think about them long enough, are unfair. But I can’t allow them to dwell on that. Their energy needs to be directed at the things that they can control.”

For Thompson, there is no secret sauce to success; it simply takes determination and perseverance.

“If we want these students to achieve great things, they need to know what’s expected of them. It’s not my job to protect kids from ever getting their feelings hurt. If feelings get hurt, it’s my job to tell them that it’s going to be okay, explore how we can we learn from the situation, and build the strength within them for the challenges they’re going to face in the future. That’s because it is a different environment out there for young musicians of color then it is for kids who are not a minority.”

One environmental double standard that exists is in classical music is the way that something as simple as a mistake can be perceived. “All great musicians make mistakes,” said Thompson, recalling an experience shared by a musician of color from the Atlanta Symphony. “But if a musician of color makes a mistake during a rehearsal, it’s perceived that they’re not competent or only were afforded the spot [in the ensemble] because of affirmative action.

“If there’s a black person in a professional orchestra, usually they ended getting the job because they were just so much better than everybody. If they are only a little better than the other people auditioning, they won’t get it. This is because orchestras get to say they are a meritocracy, which prevents them from having to take a deeper look at themselves.”

Thompson realized at an early age that activism was in her future. Toward the end of her eighth-grade year, while living at 99th and Halsted, she was afforded an opportunity through a new permissive program to attend Morgan Park High School in the Chicago’s Mount Greenwood neighborhood. However, the school was not integrated, and Thompson and six other classmates had to be privately bussed in to the school, through walls of picketers and protesters.

But once at the new school, a counselor took a second look at Thompson’s class schedule and suggested that she be placed in honors classes. “That was my first big moment of realization: because class placement was based on standardized test scores, and mine hadn’t changed from the previous semester. That was when I understood that we (African Americans and students of color) don’t always achieve successes because we’re never given a chance. My parents didn’t know to inquire about honors classes—it was just luck that I wound up in front of a good school counselor. And I knew if it happened to me then it would happen to other people, too.” It’s that epiphany that drives Thompson’s current philosophy with CMPI families.

“Teachers and parents have to start believing that kids of color can do great things. Because when expectations are lowered, a standard is created that reduces possibilities.”

Thompson wants to avoid environments where expectations are lowered for students of color. “It’s not enough to be better than average,” she says, “we need to teach these kids the things they need to know for them to become the best that they can be.”

Make no mistake, though, Thompson does not consider herself a cynic. In fact, she draws much strength and inspiration from what she sees in the young CMPI fellows.

Thompson is proud that the program can boast ethnic diversity amongst the fellowship—as well as diversity within its instruments, ages, and the parts of the city where students reside—but she prefers that CMPI’s success be judged by the graduating seniors. “Everything that we do, even for the sixth graders, it’s all focused on what will lead to outcomes.”

“We’ve graduated all 21 seniors from the program now, and they’ve been accepted at very good schools. They’re ready to succeed and then open the door for the next generation of musicians of color. Our goal is to create this outcome with 100% of the kids in the program, no outliers.”

Not only has CMPI graduated all their seniors during its first two seasons, but these students have collectively received tens of millions of dollars in scholarship offers and financial aid, both of which the program specializes in producing. Landing spots for these students include the Curtis Institute of Music, Northwestern University, University of North Texas, DePaul University, Cleveland Institute of Music, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Indiana University (one of Thompson’s alma maters), and so many more.

Another source of pride for Thompson is CMPI’s upcoming Juneteenth Celebration. The first annual, end-of-season fundraising event will be a virtual celebration of diversity in classical music. Coinciding with Juneteenth, the holiday that commemorates the emancipation of slaves in the United States, this exciting event will feature music written by composers of color and performed by our talented fellows. The evening also will feature appearances and performances by renowned bassist, educator, and entrepreneur Joseph Conyers, as well as soloist and composer Xavier Foley.

“CMPI’s Juneteenth Celebration will feature stories from the fellows, parents, and private teachers in the CMPI community, illustrating the ways that the program has changed their lives. The proceeds from the fundraiser will support life-changing training, mentoring and financial support for some of the most promising young musicians in the greater Chicago area. Saturday, June 19, 7pm. Attendance is free. Register today, and please consider making a donation.

The event, made possible in part by a gift from the Julian Foundation, will “give a broader audience a chance to learn how CMPI’s mission impacts the lives of others,” said Thompson. “In order to really make a change, we need a huge groundswell of support, over an extended period of time, before we can really see a difference.”

Thompson hopes that CMPI events like these, comprised primarily of musicians of color, moves away from an idea of tokenism in orchestras, where it’s “just one person of color here and one person there.” She hopes that CMPI will help create “significant and visible change, where you don’t need a magnifying glass or binoculars in order to see that something different is happening.”

ABOVE: A CMPI string quartet comprised of underclassmen plays Jessie Montgomery’s Strum as part of the upcoming Juneteenth Celebration. According to Thompson, the ethereal, black-and-white style of the film “will give the audience a chance to dream The Dream—a sequence of what is to come.” Another source of pride? The ensemble, comprised of high school underclassmen, learned the piece in only six rehearsals! Attendance is free — register today!

TOP: CMPI Program Director Adrienne Thompson films her remarks for the upcoming Juneteenth Celebration.

Are you interested in joining CMPI’s next cohort?

Apply Today!