How The People’s Music School “completely changed my life”

Young Sheila Esquivel plays violin at The People’s Music School

People’s alum Sheila Esquivel is an accomplished musician, educator, and scholar. Her current work as a Program Director of New England Conservatory’s BEAM program is a strong testament to her passion and her brilliance. But she never pictured herself being where she is today. “I probably never would have gone to college, and never would have had a career in classical music. If it had not been for People’s, for that program, I wouldn’t have been able to do all I did. It completely changed my life.”

Early Passion for Music

Sheila’s musical journey began at 10 years old, when she participated in The People’s Music School YOURS program at Hibbard Elementary in Albany Park. Immediately, Sheila was mesmerized by the violin. “I felt like it was just what I needed to do. I needed to somehow get my hands on this instrument.” It was that unshakeable determination that set the stage for her future success.

Building a Musical Foundation

Sheila, far right, stands with other TPMS strings students who were all chosen for a professional gig with The Piano Guys in 2014.

As a young student, Sheila dreamed of becoming a professional musician. “All I wanted to do in my life was become a violinist, audition, and get into a major symphony orchestra.” She worked hard at the violin through middle school and high school, earning herself a spot at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins studying Violin Performance. 

But soon, her music studies led her to a newfound passion. “I fell in love with teaching. I didn’t think that I would.” After graduating from Peabody, Sheila got a teaching fellowship with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, where she not only gave private lessons but also worked on early childhood musicianship programs. With this work, she became increasingly interested in research. “I wanted to find out: Why does music education positively contribute to a person’s life? How can we use that to create programs that have lasting effects?”

Sheila began studying at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, receiving a research fellowship for early childhood musicianship. “I had this feeling that I had to bridge my knowledge gap between early childhood and access programming. I decided to take on a higher education concentration at Harvard. That’s how I ended up at the New England Conservatory. I wanted to work with Pathways programming, and I started working as a Student Manager. Then I had the opportunity to become the Program Director. It’s probably one of the most neat things to have happened and having a full circle moment.”

The BEAM Program

Sheila’s dedication to music education and her commitment to diversity and equity in classical music led her to the BEAM (Bridging Equity and Achievement in Music) Program at the New England Conservatory. BEAM serves students who are traditionally marginalized by the field of classical music, creating opportunities for students in order to make classical music a main component of their post-secondary studies. 

“Classical music is a really hard space to exist in if you’re traditionally marginalized by the field,” says Sheila. “Being Black or Brown in that field – it’s really tough and it takes a lot of vulnerability to actually voice that.” But if there’s one thing that cuts through that adversity, it’s the community that is created through music. “For me, the best part of the job is building that trust, building community, and getting to know families. You know, having students come back after they’ve gotten into the conservatory or gotten into programs.

“I always tell my students, ‘You don’t have to go to the top school to create lasting impact in the field of arts or music. You can always positively contribute no matter what your career ends up being.’ But of course, that can only happen if we build a safe environment for people.”

Forever a People's Person

Throughout her journey, Sheila has never forgotten her roots at The People’s Music School.  In fact, she has had more than one full circle moment in her young adulthood. The first time she ever traveled outside of the state was with People’s. The destination? The Harvard School of Education: her future graduate school.

“When I came to Harvard, I realized that my first violin teacher at People’s, Deborah dos Santos, had actually just finished up the program there that I was going into. And after over 10 years of not seeing each other, we sat down and had coffee. It was crazy to think, ‘we both are here. You taught me when I was little, and now we’re both professional violinists.’” 

The People’s impact extends to her personal life, too. “My best friendships are with people that I met in this program,” says Sheila. The quartet she formed with TPMS students Eva, Melanie, and Kelly still gets together every year. “Some of us don’t play at all, some of us have degrees in it. But it was that sense of community that really drove us.”

For Sheila, the work she does to provide accessible, rigorous music education “feels so right. My career is completely shaped by my experience at People’s. And there’s no bigger thanks than to just do the work that I’m meant to be doing –  helping students like myself get careers in this field, knowing that they can be successful in it despite all the adversity.”