Sara’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra blog

This month Sara and Nick returned to Chicago for a second project with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Cook County Juvenile Detention Centre. The trip also included a stop-off in New York to talk at Carnegie Hall and to visit Sing Sing prison.

During the trip, Sara posted updates to our Facebook page. Here they are compiled below (all photos by Sara):

March 6th 2014

After journeys of 4,200 and 4,000 miles respectively, Nick and I arrived at O’Hare within 5 minutes of each other. We met in the customs queue and were greeted by a friendly official who had all his questions ready, including asking how long I planned to stay. For some reason I told him it was 2 years. Not a good answer bearing in mind the US law and, of course, rather far from the truth. We got a cab to the apartment where we were met by Jonathan from CSO who thanked us for raising the temperature from minus 20 degrees to a positively baking minus 5. The rest of the day was spent settling in and taking a trip to the local supermarket for supplies where, quite incredibly, I was asked for ID. Nick looked on in total disbelief, managed to stifle a massive laugh and said to the woman, ‘she’s actually quite a lot older than 21’. I showed her my UK driver’s licence and directed her towards line 3, at which point she realised that I was probably old enough to be her (grand)mother and that buying alcohol was in fact OK and quite possibly, necessary.

Today we are off to Symphony Hall to fill in some prison clearance forms (…) and then to a meeting with the Vice President. We’ve got some session planning to do for an information/training session tomorrow, updates of which will follow. We’re extremely happy to be back here and very excited about what the next 2 weeks has to offer. Chicago is fabulous.

March 7th 2014

C 07.03.14

Chicago conversations:

“Good morning mam.”
Me: “Good morning.”
“I like your head.”
Me: “You like my head?”
“Yes mam.”
Me: “Thank you.”
“Do you have any money mam?”
Me: “I’m sorry, no.”
“I no longer like your head.”

“Hi mam, do you have a few moments?”
Me: “I do. Are you collecting?”
“Yes mam, it’s a charity.”
Me: “Oh, I work for a charity, we work in prisons.”
“We save babies.”
Me: “That’s great.”
“You’re amazing.”

March 8th 2014

C 08.03.14

A wonderful, creative afternoon with the 8 Civic ‘Fellows’. The Civic Orchestra is the only training orchestra affiliated with a major American orchestra and the fellowship is designed to train 8 Civic musicians in four key areas: artistic development; citizen musicianship; entrepreneurship and professional development. The Fellows work closely together, collaborating with Yo-Yo Ma, members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and ensembles/projects throughout the Chicagoland area.

It was an off-the-wall instrumental combo of bassoon, cello, viola, horn, double bass x 2, violin and tuba and we spent the afternoon creating music together, the start points being a couple of bass lines which had been written on recent Music in Prisons projects. Although we focused the session around the work we do in prisons, we explained how the techniques we were describing were transferrable to any situation and that once you had your start point and a bit of creative spirit, something exciting would come from it.

We began by showing them how you can create a piece from a one bar riff, how that riff can be developed into something more substantial, how to add harmony, rhythm, changes of texture and additional sections etc., then split the group into 2, asking them to come up with their own pieces, once again from a short bass line start point. It was great to watch the creative process and the way each group dived out of their comfort zones to experiment, create, modify and hone. The final pieces were extremely imaginative and vastly different, and Jonathan has found himself a profitable side-line should anyone ever require a comedy percussion act with no instruments.

Thanks, Josh, Genevieve, Helen, Amy, Brett, Susan, Will and Duncan; we look forward to seeing you at the final show next week!

March 9th 2014

C 09.03.14

Today was a real musical smorgasbord of musical excitement. For all those who have ever played in a wind band, you’ll appreciate why Nick and I were eager to go to the lunchtime performance at Symphony Hall, a programme which comprised some of Percy Grainger’s finest offerings. In addition, the evening concert was the wonderful CSO performing Dukas, Connesson and Saint-Saens. We also met Dan, Baird and Michael, our 3 CSO colleagues for the upcoming project. The first session is now only a few hours away so we took the opportunity to discuss possible themes and directions for the week. We also ate some extremely nice vegetarian food. Add all the above to the football scores, and we had ourselves a pretty much perfect day.

March 10th 2014

C 10.03.14

Man in Symphony Centre: “Are you Australian?”
Me: “No, I’m from England.”
Man (sounding disappointed): “Oh.”

The initial exuberance had not waned and quite remarkably, lasted for almost the whole day at Cook County. The tell-tale sign the lads were flagging a bit came at the end of the afternoon session when they all collapsed on chairs and waited in virtual silence, waiting for staff to take them back to the pods. Many had their eyes shut, some were quite possibly asleep. Most of the project team was heading that way too. An enormous amount was accomplished today, writing lyrics and learning new instruments, working together to get sounds and bass lines they wanted and liked the sound of. The number in the group has not settled yet; we had 12 at one point today, then 10, then 11. It is a large number bearing in mind we have only a certain amount of equipment and 2 shows to do on Saturday, but it seems manageable at this stage. Baird and Dan were called upon to give violin and cello lessons to some of the lads and did so whilst accompanied by the rest of the band rehearsing the second track at an astonishing volume.

A large number of staff have been taking ‘detours’ past the chapel to come and see what’s occurring; whether they heard the sounds or merely heard we were there, we’re not sure. At one point today, there were around 15 of them, most of whom were ’just passing by’. What is for certain is that they are thrilled and amazed, watching lads they know well embrace something new and feel what it’s like to do it well. We saw some more familiar faces in various parts of the jail today and it really felt they were happy to have us back.

March 12th 2014

“Thanks so much for doing what you’re doing. They may not know what a privilege it is working with you now, but I hope that one day they will remember it, remember you, remember the opportunity and remember what they’ve done.”

The energy levels dropped a bit today. People were visibly tired (us included) and it took an absolute age to get some of the simpler tasks done. There are still things that appear to be ‘lost in translation’ and often this is genuinely the case, but at times it is a useful get-out clause, particularly if you are being asked to leave the safety of your warm comfortable chair and come to the mic to do some work. The group is large and at times unwieldy and just one person losing focus can throw the whole thing off course. Having to re-engage them takes more time, by which point a couple of others have left the party, and so the pattern continues. That said, we are asking them to do some quite sophisticated things over long periods of time, so some drop-off in concentration is totally understandable.

Earlier in the week, the possibility of writing a reggae track was suggested. At the time it certainly wasn’t dismissed but today, after we had been working on it for about 10 minutes, our guitarist turned to Nick and said, “I think we’ve become a band with no singers”… Although there was enthusiasm and commitment from those on instruments, the vocalists were not ‘feeling it’ and refused point blank to have a go. Added to this, every time each of us looked round, the person we had been teaching a part to had disappeared to another part of the band and someone else had taken their place, looking expectant. So we taught them the same part. And they left. And so it went on.

We ended on a high, starting on the 4th track, which turned into something that could easily be titled, ‘The Loudest Track in the World. Ever.’

March 13th 2014

C 11.03.14

What a difference a day makes…

Two steps forward and then one step back. We found ourselves with spare time after completing 4 tracks but with not really enough time to complete a 5th without it being rushed. In an ideal world we would have settled on 4 and spent today’s session honing what we have. However, young lads are not well versed the finer points of rehearsal etiquette, let alone the subtle nuances of experimenting with octave displacement in melodies. Similar to many other groups of young people we have worked with, they think that if they can get through it from start to finish, then it’s perfect.

Getting the 5th track was a long uphill struggle and it went through several incarnations before we settled on something they felt they could write to. Unfortunately, this took most of the session so we had to pause mid-song in order to run the first 4 tracks, ready for the arrival of the other CSO musicians tomorrow. Whether the 5th song makes the gig, we’re not sure. There hasn’t been any ‘evening creativity’, as in the lads writing overnight and bringing back lyrics the next day, so it’s unlikely we will have anything more than we had today. It’s left delicately balanced between pushing to get it finished and risking a collapse in the gig due to unfamiliarity, or saying “thanks lads, we really appreciate you starting the track but we feel we don’t have the time to do it, or you, justice, with the time we have left.”

What to do?

March 14th 2014

C 12.03.14

What a day!

It was brilliant. For the first time, the whole band was together and there are 21 of us… bit of a tricky stage to set and when the sound man arrived to do a recce, he just wandered around in silence. It was suggested that we do an almost total reset ,which we did, so we’ll keep our fingers crossed for the recording tomorrow.

Hermine, John and Dan A from CSO joined Baird and Dan K today, and Nick’s fabulous late-night compositions were given their first airing in front of the lads and an ever-increasing number of dancing staff. The lads were as quiet as we’ve seen them, listening and watching the string quintet play. They definitely knew the bar had just been raised.

When we rehearsed with them towards the end of the morning, they were totally on it, lyrics and individual parts were solid and concentration levels were the best yet. It seems they are excited about the 2 gigs tomorrow, though of course, being teenage lads, they’d never tell us that. Their families have been invited to the second performance, which is really great and as far as we can tell everyone has at least one person coming to hear them.

And finally, we discussed what to do with Track 5 and it has made it to the finishing line as an instrumental.

March 16th

We spent this afternoon with a group of fellow musicians/other creative artists who work out of Carnegie Hall, many in correctional settings, others on programmes in the community. We thought we might be talking to about 30/40 people but over 70 showed up. As everyone knows, plans are fashioned in order to have something to deviate from and deviate we did, in a quite majestic fashion, deciding to abandon our original idea in order to listen and respond to the large number of thoughtful, interesting and provocative questions that were raised. It was interesting to find out that, similar to our work in UK, the goals, challenges and struggles seemed to be remarkably similar in US. We talked about creative practice, institutional bureaucracy, how to engage those who aren’t keen to be engaged and so much more besides. It was a group conversation that could have easily filled 2 days, quite possibly still not having enough time to cover everything. It was wonderful to be able to share what we do and also to hear just a little bit about what others do and how they work. It showed the immense value of getting like-minded people together in a room just to talk, as it offered alternative ideas, valuable support and networking opportunities.

Tomorrow is our final day here, and we will be visiting Sing Sing, a maximum security prison housing around 1600 prisoners. We are due to have a tour of the prison and then meet with a group
of men who work on a regular basis with one of the musicians we met today. Can’t wait.

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