What does it take to become a successful musician? In our growing CMPI community of exceptionally talented young musicians and their parents, we are blessed with a plethora of support to answer this top-of-mind question. CMPI faculty and mentors provide one of the main supports to help ensure success and provide real-life examples for young musicians to see and learn from others who have undertaken a similar journey.
Simón Gómez Gallego is one such example. A percussionist, timpanist, and educator, Simón lives his passion for music and community with students in CMPI and other music organizations who share similar values. Most recently accepting the role of Percussion Ensemble conductor with the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras, he also teaches at the Percussion Scholarship Program of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO), the Chicago Academy for the Arts, and the People’s Music School. “They are very demanding and expect excellence, and they have a diverse set of alumni and students,” Simón noted, highlighting the similar drive toward hard work and dedication that he sees in the students who are part of these organizations.
The recommendation of colleagues brought Simón to CMPI. His first assignment as a mentor reconnected him with one of his students that he met while he was working in an El Sistema program. “This particular student showed a lot of promise when I was first working with him,” Simón recalled, “so I encouraged him to apply to the Percussion Scholarship Program of the CSO, which is a program that partners with CMPI. Unsurprisingly, the student was accepted in the program and has done very well. It is very special to be in touch with him and through my role at CMPI, as I can be there to support him along his musical journey.”
A graduate of DePaul University and the University of Miami, the story of Simón’s music journey started in Colombia. “I grew up in Medellin, Colombia, and I was lucky to join a small, but very special performing arts school, the Instituto Musical Diego Echavarria, at an early age,” Simón shared. “Even though my parents were not musicians, they were architects who appreciated the art form. They quickly realized the benefits of having a good music education, so they encouraged me to develop as a musician. Even though I was exposed to music very early on, it was not until my later days in high school when I started really considering going into it and taking it more seriously since I had a competing passion in tennis at the time. During my senior year of high school, I came to the United States to visit a relative for vacation. It was during that trip that I suddenly thought of the possibility of coming to the United States for college. I was very impressed with the music school and the campus at the University of Miami, and I decided then that I wanted to see if I could get into that impressive and fancy school. It was not until my second try applying to the school that I got a good scholarship that allowed me to come to the US and pursue a career in music.”
Simón’s musical accomplishments began from an openness to possibilities, and the necessary perseverance and hard work to accomplish his goal, highlighting a connection with the aim of CMPI. “I really connect with CMPI’s mission because music has clearly opened wonderful doors and opportunities for myself. I think CMPI is doing some great things by illuminating the pathways young musicians can take. The support they are providing is crucial in the effort to offer opportunities for musicians from underrepresented backgrounds.”
As an educator, Simón points to some of his own teachers as inspirations for the kind of teacher and mentor he continues to become. “I have been very lucky to have had not one but a few wonderful teachers and mentors throughout my studies and career. One of them was a teacher that I had during my master’s degree. He was very demanding yet also encouraging, and he had this ability of giving me confidence when I needed it. I not only learned from him in our lessons but also from observing his professionalism. He had a full-time orchestra job but he would always show up to teach prepared, well dressed, and with enthusiasm and high energy. He truly inspired me to have more determination towards pursuing my dreams. Those values of discipline, professionalism and confidence are some values that I aim to instill in my students, whether they end up pursuing a career in music or not.”
Simón reiterates that relationships with teachers or mentors, and learning to become a better musician, do not end after graduation. “To this day, I still have mentors and teachers who I play for and learn from. Even though I am out of school and have some performing jobs, I still check in with my last most influential timpani teacher every now and then. Music is this wonderful career in which we are constantly learning, and having mentors along the way certainly helps have a fulfilling career.”
Having benefited from the example of excellent teachers has inspired Simón’s own style and love of teaching. “I love teaching because I love seeing people grow and seeing what they can achieve. In particular, I like working with CMPI students because they tend to be motivated, and when motivation meets hard work, special results ensue.”
Love of hard work and perpetual learning, Simón believes, are things that are essential in a musician’s life. “Aspiring musicians really must love the process of getting better. Practicing is not always fun, but I do love working hard at something and seeing the improvements later on. Whether it’s a hard musical passage or a specific technique in one of the instruments I play. Aspiring musicians and professional musicians will most likely have periods of time in which they don’t win competitions or auditions, but they must persevere if they want to reach their full potential. It is during those moments when loving the process of improvement will pay dividends in a musician’s career, keeping them going.”
Simón ended our recent interview with these wise words of advice derived from his own journey: “A musician’s career can have many shapes. It would have been hard to imagine when I was 18 what my career would look like right now. I maintain a busy schedule performing with orchestras, chamber music, and teaching wonderful young students. My career is very diverse and fulfilling. There is no one path to follow. I encourage young, aspiring musicians to keep an open mind and to enjoy the process!”
Simón Gómez Gallego head shot, Simón with CMPI fellow Wanye Williams at the El Sistema program, and Simón with students and teachers at The People’s Music School. All photos by Todd Rosenberg.