Postcards from Chicago – third CSO project

Sara Lee working with CSO

Following two very successful projects with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) in 2013 and 2014, Sara Lee and Nick Hayes were invited back again this year.

This time round they will not only work with the CSO in Cook County Juvenile Detention Centre, but also deliver a community project with young people who are in contact with the Chicago Childcare Society, supporting them to write lullabies for their children, collaborating with the Citizen Musician Fellows of the Civic Orchestra.

As with the previous two projects, Sara is posting daily update ‘postcards’ on our Facebook page – compiled below.

Photos by Sara.

25th March 2015

“I’m afraid that Cook County won’t accept any international visitors unless they have completed the relevant paperwork. It’s a new rule.”

This definitely wasn’t the news we wanted to receive just before we left to bid a Prosecco-fuelled farewell to Koestler boss, Tim Robertson, last evening. There was no way round it unfortunately; a 14-page document had to be completed, scanned and sent as soon as possible and so it was, from London and Brussels, page by page, the task being completed just before midnight.

They say you need less sleep as you get older but 4 hours feels a bit too ‘less sleep’, to be honest. 9 hours on a plane should be ample time to catch up but maybe not, as the excitement of what the next 2 weeks has in store has kicked in so sleep will more than likely take a back seat for a little while…

26th March 2015


“Madam, we are going to have to ask you to board, please.”
“I’m just waiting for a friend who is in transit from Brussels.”
“Ah. (pause…) Is your friend a fast runner, madam?”
“Why do you ask?”
“That particular flight landed late; there are 10 people on it who should be connecting with this one. I very much doubt they will make it.”

I boarded the plane and just as the crew announced the doors were closing, Nick came into view down the aisle, the only one of the 10 who made the flight. However, it took another 9 hours before we realised that despite Nick making it, his luggage hadn’t. Hopefully man and luggage will be reunited sometime soon.

27th March 2015


We worked with the Fellows for 3 hours this morning, introducing them to our work and giving them a crash course in useful compositional ideas which will easily transfer to their other creative projects. One of the aims of the session was to compose a lullaby, which will be added to those we’re going to compose with teen parents, all of which will be recorded next week.

In the afternoon/evening we met the group of teen parents for the first time; Tracy, Tallandra, Aaliyah, Brittany, Brianna, Ebony and Dale. Supported by an inspirational staff team from the Chicago Childcare Society, we began the process of supporting each of them to write a lullaby for their child/children. They were invited to write the words they wished their children to hear and the words they wanted to say. Any visitor to the room would have wondered what on earth was going on as the sounds of a cello, ukulele and piano were heard accompanying groups of writers and singers, excitedly discussing possibilities for verses, choruses and bridges. Quite remarkably, by the end of the session we had the beginnings of 9 songs which will be worked on over the coming days, ready for recording in a week or so.

28th March 2015


Today was all about lullabies. 9 of them, to be precise. The young parents turned up at Symphony Center armed with their lullaby books and were eager to hear what Nick and Josh had come up with overnight. This was the chance for each of them to make changes to the melodies, come up with ideas of how they wanted their pieces to sound and to make the decision as to whether or not they would sing all or part of it, or leave the vocals to Sarah and Joelle.

Happily, many of them have decided to sing at least one part of their own song which is a complete turnaround from yesterday when almost no-one was up for doing it. It’s no surprise that when you work with people and give them time, encouragement and support, they invest.

Each one of the young people had grown in confidence since yesterday due to people taking time with them. They have great relationships with the staff that care for them, who are getting just as much out of the project as the young people are. One came up and said that she was overjoyed at the way it had turned out. One of the young people said she was so overcome with nerves yesterday and didn’t think she could do it. Seeing her today you wouldn’t have believed she was the same person.

It’s a wonderful activity, so immensely personal and, without a doubt, when they hear their arrangements played by the real instruments on Sunday, they are going to be really proud of their achievements.

29th March 2015


Today’s picture was taken a few hours ago from the window of the 8th floor of Symphony Center, looking out across the Art Institute of Chicago towards Lake Michigan. Despite the clear blue sky, the temperature only made it to 1 degree above freezing today. It would be ideal, since it’s a Saturday, to hit the streets of Chicago later for a good night out, but that won’t be happening. We’re here in the apartment, arranging a series of lullabies ready for the first ‘unveiling’ tomorrow and it looks like the process may go on for many hours. It’ll be well worth it though; tomorrow will be the first time the young people hear the live instruments (full strings, clarinet, oboe and vibes) so it’ll be exciting to see and hear what they make of the lullabies they have written.

This morning, the team had to go into Cook County for a 3 hour PREA training session, compulsory for all people who wish to work there. At the start of the session we had to take the 25 question test for the first time, have it marked, listen to a long and quite detailed presentation and then retake the test. Anything below 80% in the second test is a fail, though it was never made clear whether we’d need to take the test repeatedly until we passed or if we’d be on the next plane home/sightseeing for a week if we didn’t. Thankfully we all passed, at least 3 of the combined CSO/ITT team with full marks. 50% of the ITT team achieved the dizzy heights and 50% didn’t but then Nick has always had that underlying competitive edge.

30th March 2015


It would be fair to say that it was a massive step for the young people today. They were in Symphony Center for the first time ever, had a tour round the building and the concert hall, and then heard the lullabies they had created, played by a group of classical musicians. It’s impossible to imagine how daunting the scenario might have been but they all cruised through it with a quiet confidence. One of the best things to witness was that those who thought they might leave the singing to someone else but have now decided they want a piece of the action and are going to sing it either by themselves or with the support of Sarah and Joelle. We are going to get them some audio guide tracks sorted so they can practice between now and the recording on Saturday.

In between now and then, there is of course the small matter of a project at Cook County. That starts tomorrow when we have to cram huge amounts of equipment into miniscule lifts and be ready for the arrival of a group of 14 young lads who will (in all likelihood) have no idea why they have been summoned to a room full of instruments and extremely enthusiastic musicians. They’ll soon find out.

31st March 2015


“Oh! You’re back again! I’m so excited to see you, last year was just awesome.”

Following the late arrival of a crucial ‘we will meet you at x time at x place’ e mail and subsequent taxi frenzy, we made it to the jail to see the first van already unloaded. We should try that more often. It was a pretty simple process getting the equipment in, though we had forgotten quite how rickety the trolleys were and how little you can get in the lift in one go but a succession of familiar staff faces stopping to welcome us back and saying how pleased they were to see us again, made the many journeys very pleasurable.

All the equipment had been set up by the time the lads arrived at 12.30pm so we did a round of introductions, during which we managed to work out a grand total of no names at all. Hopefully this will improve as the week progresses. We introduced all the instruments; Baird, Patsy and James demonstrating the orchestral instruments they had with them and offering the lads the chance to come and have a go. You only need one person to be brave enough to do it and luckily there was one, who then wanted to have a go on absolutely everything and, because he had done it, the others followed suit.

As it was the only time we will see the whole group together, we decided to write a piece which includes everyone which can be played at the start/end of the gig on Friday. It was ear-splittingly loud due to there being 5 or 6 lads on various kinds of marching drums, making it almost impossible to hear anything over the other side of the band. Hence the keyboard and guitar players did a lot of smiling and nodding, not really sure what on earth was happening or whether they were anywhere close to being in the right place. The lads’ concentration was pretty good and they seemed quite excited by the whole thing which should bode well for the rest of the week. As from tomorrow we will see them in 2 groups so there will be the chance to really build our relationships, teach them the instruments and write new tracks.

1st April 2015


“Thanks so much for giving us such a good day.”

As planned, the group has been split into two today. Having fewer people in the group allowed for relationships to form and conversations to be started which, of course, included questions about the Queen. Smaller groups mean we can spend quality time with each person; they get to play the instrument of their choice without having to battle for it. They also feel braver in the sense that yesterday, no-one wanted to do any lyrics, yet today you could barely stop them. There is a sense that they want to practice and practice as they know they are going to be watched and listened to on Friday. There were ‘lyric issues’ that were dealt with in an understanding and mature fashion by both the lads and the staff; the latter have been extremely supportive of us and what we are aiming to accomplish.

A buzz has clearly been created on the pod and it became apparent that at least one of the lads in the afternoon group had been given a blow by blow account of all that had happened during the morning session. It was clear that on the basis of what his mate had recounted, he had absolutely decided that despite yesterday’s reticence, he was going to have a go with some lyrics and couldn’t wait to get started.

Both sessions flew past; the lads don’t get a break in the middle of the 3 hours but it didn’t seem to matter to them. They were keen to involve themselves in playing and chatting, usually in equal measure. By the end of the day we had the majority of 5 tracks in place, which is usually where we are after around 3 or 4 days. There is still a huge amount to do, but it’ll get done as the lads have already invested in it. It’s yet another stark reminder of how these kinds of projects should be a non-negotiable part of the regime; it’s so much more than just creating music with people, which anyone who has seen the process or who witnesses the performances on Friday, will clearly see.

2nd April 2015


“I wish you could be here every day. It would bring behaviours down and self-esteem up.”

Ahh, the midweek quagmire. The morning group was a little less ‘up’ than yesterday and the afternoon group turned out to be half the morning group as well… It took as a while to chivvy on the lads this morning, saying that though some great work was done and all the required lyrics have been written, practice was needed.

There was an addition to the group this morning, a very enthusiastic lad who speedily wrote some lyrics and jumped straight on one of the songs, which saved us having to think how we might pad the song out. Another of the lads left; we’re not sure if he’ll return. We also lost one to court, but he may be back tomorrow.

In the afternoon, at first we thought the morning group hadn’t been taken back as when we arrived we saw many of the same faces. It turned out that a couple of the afternoon lads had decided it wasn’t for them, so staff replaced them with the enthusiastic ones from the morning. This necessitated having to rework the songs and find parts for people who didn’t yet know them. Nothing insurmountable, but it sometimes affects the flow of the work. One of the lads who left was a key vocalist on the first song, so we tried to get another to see if he could write something, but the beat wasn’t right for him.

What do you do? Keep the track that people had worked hard to perfect, or ditch it and start again? We decided on the former. By the end of the afternoon, the tracks had started to merge into each other even for us and it all got a bit confusing. Trying to give people relevant cues to help them when you are tired and confused yourself is a challenge, but the lads found it amusing and helped us through it.

This evening Nick and I came back, laid out all the parts on the table and went through them with a fine tooth comb to see; a) what we were missing; b) what we needed to write for the sessions tomorrow; and c) if there were things we thought just wouldn’t work. It was good to talk it through as we now know what’s left to be done… Which is quite a lot, but nothing a couple of bottles of beer can’t help sort out.

3rd April 2015


“I thank God that you are all here, doing such a wonderful job. Some of these young men won’t even have seen a real musical instrument close up, let alone played one. I have been a probation officer for nearly 30 years and things like this are very rare but absolutely necessary.”

We have turned yesterday’s tricky corner and all seems to be falling into place. The groups are still a bit hit and miss though, with people turning up for the whole day and others turning up for sessions which they are not meant to be on. We had to write a few new parts today so as not to leave people out. The tracks are beginning to sound really strong and by and large people know where they have to be and when.

When we were explaining to one of the groups that other musicians were coming in to play as well, we had to allay his fears when he told us he was worried that they wouldn’t know the music. “Will they get it right? How will they know what we are doing?” Perfectly valid questions of course, so we assured him that they were professionals who definitely knew what they were doing and would make things sound even better; at which point he relaxed and got back to learning his synth part.

There are two performances tomorrow, one for other lads and staff, followed by one for families and invited guests. It would be so amazing to see each lad have at least one family member present to witness what they have achieved during the week. We can only keep our fingers crossed.

There will be a pleasant diversion away from rap/hip hop this evening as we have tickets to listen to Mitsuko Uchida play Mozart and Schumann in the Symphony Center. I wonder what the lads at Cook County would think if they heard something like this? Hopefully one day they may get chance to do so. They now have a strong reference point and have met the people that play these previously unknown instruments and have also had a go on them. Hopefully this project has helped start to break down the barriers between the different ‘types’ of music and shown everyone that making music is just that; making music. If you want to do it, you can do it with anyone, no matter what your starting point is.

4th April 2015


Performance day at Cook County; the lads really rose to the occasion.

It was an intense day for everyone; we had only one rehearsal with the additional players (the wonderful Tim, Bruno and Gen) for about 45 minutes before the lads arrived, giving us a chance to hear the arrangements Nick had been working on all week. We then went into the final rehearsal, which must have taken the lads by surprise as the stage was now even more crammed and there were other people playing on their tunes. They went with the flow; mistakes were made, which bothered them, but we reassured them that it didn’t matter if things went a bit differently; people were there to support them and hear what they had achieved. To be fair, they totally accepted it and it didn’t faze them. Many of them repeatedly checked that we were going to tell them where they had to come in and what they had to play and we detected a small sense of pride coming into the equation…

When it came to the shows, they all performed brilliantly. They were focused, professional and committed.

There were around 40 people at the first gig, and about 30 at the second, a mix of lads, staff, some family members and outside guests. Cook County holds a small number of young women as well as men and it was surprising yet brilliant to see some of them at the gig. It seemed quite strange at first, mainly because in UK this wouldn’t happen, but the girls were very excited to be there and, surprise surprise, totally smitten by our accents. “Oh, you speak different! Talk to us! I love it!” That small matter aside though, there were two burning questions they needed answers to. The first was, “you drive on the other side of the road, don’t you? What’s that like? How do you know where you’re going?” and “who are those people who stand up in front of the Queen’s house and aren’t allowed to say anything?” It was great to have the brief chance to speak to them and a little sad to hear them say, “thanks for taking the time to come over to talk to us.”

So, another Cook County extravaganza over and another raging success. It was fantastic to work with Baird again and Patsy for the first time, ‘Mr Mike’ and his fantastic array of things that make loud noises, and the dark horse that is James.

Tomorrow brings the final recording session for the Lullaby project, at a serene and restrained volume that we have definitely not witnessed this week at Cook County. Not once. Not even close.

5th  April 2015


What a totally amazing day. It was the culmination of the Lullaby project and the teen parents had the first opportunity to listen to the arrangements that Nick and Josh had completed and then sing and record their lullabies, supported by the wonderful Fellows.

Unsurprisingly, it was extremely emotional and equally unsurprisingly, it was of such quality that we were left open mouthed. In a really short space of time, the young people had written lyrics, suggested melodies, styles and instrumentations, and within less than 12 hours, had them rehearsed and recorded.

The whole process was filmed and in a little while we will be able to share the film as well as the lullabies.

A massive thanks to Brianna, Tallandra, Aaliyah, Brittany, Tracy, Heshima, Ebony, Dale, Valerie, Marcus and CCCS staff who wrote, sang and read so beautifully. It was a wonderful end to a brilliant trip and we can’t wait to hear the final mix. Be happy and lucky, each and every one of you.

7th April 2015


This was our almost final view of Chicago before we left to travel back to London and Brussels after an amazing trip. Now safely back and looking out of the office window in Brixton, the sky is the same colour but we’re missing the water and the skyline. For those who know our office, you’ll appreciate that whoever’s kitchen/bedroom/bathroom we overlook is not quite so easy on the eye.

Can’t wait to see the short film and listen to the music we all created; we will post everything on here for those who wish to hear what got up to.

Thanks everyone for making our time with you so much fun, especially Jonathan and James. You rock!

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