Postcards from Chicago; fourth project with CSO

We have been invited back across the pond this Spring, following three previous successful projects with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) in 2013, 2014 and 2015.

Sara Lee and Nick Hayes are once again working with the CSO to deliver projects in Cook County Juvenile Detention Centre and in the community with young people who are in contact with the Chicago Childcare Society.

The latter project is in collaboration with the Citizen Musician Fellows of the Civic Orchestra, supporting the young people to write lullabies for their children, as part of Carnegie Hall Weill Institute’s Lullaby Project. A beautiful short film documenting last year’s Lullaby Project can be see below:

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

All photos by Sara.

March 12th


“Gosh, you make me feel special.”

We kicked off this year’s trip to Chicago with session one of the Lullaby project. We met 7 teen parents and a number of staff at the Chicago Child Care Society, all of whom, having either heard about or having witnessed last year’s project, were not backward in coming forward to take part. The first 3 hours were extremely productive, we introduced ourselves to the parents and their children, lyrics were written and melodies and styles decided on. It leaves us in great shape for tomorrow, when 8 musicians from Chicago Symphony Orchestra join us to demonstrate their instruments to the young people so they can make decisions about which instruments they’d like featured in their lullabies.

One young parent was the mother of a 16 month old and told me in great detail how things had been for her, the difficulties she had faced along the way yet the complete joy she felt when her daughter was born. Instead of trying to write the song straight away, we decided she should just speak about various special moments, whilst I sat beside her and wrote the key phrases/moments down. She was on a roll and I couldn’t help but say, ‘this is totally amazing, you are writing the song just by talking to me,’ and she stopped, looked me in the eye and said, ‘gosh, you make me feel special.’ I said, ‘well that’s because you are,’ at which point you realise exactly why working with people in situations like this is SO crucial to everyone’s well-being and understanding of the bigger picture.

Today’s photo shows the process of dyeing the Chicago River green, witnessed earlier today in (early) celebration of St Patrick’s Day.

March 13th


Today was the first time the young parents heard the first drafts of their lullabies which was a great moment. Two days ago, they were words hastily scribbled on a page and a few melodic/harmonic/rhythmic ideas and today they’d morphed into first drafts with piano guides and completed vocal lines. Today’s picture shows Nick at the piano with Danny during the first play through of Danny’s lullaby. We asked him if he was happy and if he thought it was OK and he said, ‘it’s more than OK.’ Danny is a poet and the lyrics he’s written are beautiful. Despite saying he couldn’t sing is appears he was being rather modest and Sarah, one of the wonderful vocalists we are working with this week has managed to persuade him to join her on his track.

The aim of today was for the young people to listen to the CSO musicians play their instruments so they could hear what they sounded like and also, how they sounded when played together. The demo included a trip into the ‘percussion office’ in Symphony Center, a room full of every kind of percussion instrument known to man and more besides. It was indeed an Aladdin’s Cave of fabulousness.

From tomorrow, the lullabies will take a back seat until next weekend whilst we encourage a group of 16 young men in Illinois Youth Center to write some new tracks for a gig on Friday and (probably) answer some questions about the Queen.

March 14th


“Why would you eat fish with chips?”

The explanation that chips to me were fries to him and chips to him were crisps to me was a bit much to comprehend after an intense session of song writing, so his parting comment was, ‘can you tell me more of those things that aren’t, tomorrow?’

We had a really great day. It was the only time we’ll see the whole group together – after today they’ll be split into two groups in order we can do some more concentrated work – so we needed to get the opening/closing number for the show written, and thanks to some quick and creative lyricists, ‘Change Me’ was in the bag by the end of the session. It was definitely wild, the irresistible pull of a live mic to a young man who has plenty to say (and wants to do so at great volume) is always something to behold. Plenty of people were up for having a go on the instruments and there was a huge amount of laughter amongst the chaos. At the end of the session, when we asked them what they felt about all that had happened, they mentioned teamwork, learning something new, having fun, not realising they could do it etc. The staff were really supportive; there were offices around us so we went in and introduced ourselves and mentioned it might get a little noisy but no-one was in the slightest bit bothered. They were just pleased we were there.

As we are not allowed to take pictures of the people we work with, today’s photo sums up the feeling in the room today.

March 17th 



“There wouldn’t be any behavioural problems if they had music all the time. Thank you for being here.”

Two days of intense music making is now complete and we have 5 tracks just about in the bag. There have been a couple of drop-offs along the way as for some, what is an incredibly intense process is just too difficult at this time in their lives. It’s totally understandable as a lot is asked of them. Trusting, for one, is something many of them find hard to do. In come strangers, with instruments many of them have never seen or played saying, ‘we’ll have 5 original tracks by the end of the week and we’ll be doing a performance in front of a load of people’. Enough to strike fear into anyone.

Those who have stayed have also found it difficult, but have somehow pushed through to the other side and are reaping the benefits and getting extremely excited about what they have managed. As the end of a song approaches, and the instrumentalists have played their parts in the right place and the singers/rappers have remembered their lyrics, you feel this palpable excitement in everyone, which builds during the last chorus and when the song ends, erupts in cheers.

A few staff witnessed that this afternoon. One mentioned that we have some of the most disaffected young men in IYCC in the group this week and she’s seen them smiling and engaging with us and the project. She said it had been good for her to witness this.

Tomorrow, the CSO musicians are coming in for the first time, to join the 17 piece band and have their minds blown. We are orchestrating them into the pieces the lads have written so it’ll be interesting to see and hear what everyone makes of it.

Finally, there was complete disbelief today when we said we had never heard of ‘baloney’ (asides from ‘that’s a load of old….). We were instructed by one of the lads to go down to the local supermarket and ask to see it, which I just did. It’s left over scraps of meat formed into a big sausage, for those who may be wondering.

March 18th

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“It’s bad being here but doing this makes the days better. Writing and playing is so good so thank you, I appreciate it.” (One of the young musicians).

So much good work was completed today, some intelligent decisions re changing lyrics had been made overnight, which made the project team extremely nervous (fearing lack of time, need for last minute rearranging etc.) but in each case worked really well.

When we rehearsed the tracks, you could tell that practice had been done overnight, but no-one was going to admit it… the show of nonchalance and indifference remained, though when complimented you could see them fighting back the smile, trying not to give the game away that they just loved the praise and acknowledgement.

The massive highlight of the day was the CSO players arriving and the whole group convening for the first time since Monday. It was predictably wild in parts, but the overriding sense that the whole thing had shifted up a gear was undeniable. It was good to see a group of 13 young men aged 14 – 17 sit (moderately) quietly and listen to and ask questions of wonderful musicians. The conversations were perfectly pitched and the young men were answering questions and revealing more about their musical lives than they may have expected they were going to.

One of the group suggested we hear the CSO musicians play one of Nick’s arrangements before we put it together with the band as, ‘it’s gonna get loud soon and we may not be able to hear it properly’. It was such a good call and to see them trying to rein in their vocal and physical enthusiasm in order to remain ‘cool’ but not having much (in fact, any) success, was both endearing and emotional.

In addition, one of the project team had done some homework on words that mean different things in UK and US, some of which were apparently so ‘awesome’ that the piece of paper they were written on was a) fought over then b) taken as a souvenir by the winner. The simple things.

March 19th


Yesterday’s final show was astonishing and looking back at the week, it probably ranks somewhere in the top 10 of amazing prison project experiences. Almost the whole jail turned out to watch, families were invited and staff were there in their droves. The jail wanted to make it a real occasion, and the performers responded by putting on a cracking show. From their comments afterwards, it seemed as though none of them realised it was going to be such a big event and were taken aback by their achievements and the response they received.

There were some last minute nerves, which necessitated a trip to the wing to retrieve one of the performers from the safety of his room, but it wasn’t long before the hall was rocking.

The show had that quality which is hard to describe, that ‘thing’ which brings everything to life and produces such energy which in turn brings the best out of everyone, all at the same time. Such was the enthusiasm, songs which in rehearsal had no backing vocals ended up with 6 extra singers in the gig. There was also some mighty fine dancing. IYCC and its staff did us all proud and were excellent and co-operative hosts, and the 13 young men we had the pleasure of working with trusted us, decided they wanted to come along for the ride and reaped the benefits of their bravery at the end.

Today’s picture shows ‘Peanut’, who heard his very own lullaby for the first time today. Only 5 months old, he managed to sit still for a good 25 minutes as the beautiful lyrics his mum Cerita had written along with the wonderful ideas she’d had for the music which Nick and Sarah the vocalist helped her create, were rehearsed for the first time by CSO musicians.

It was one of 8 lullabies that have been written, each one of them stunning. They will be recorded on Monday and Tuesday next week.

Tonight we’re off to Symphony Center to hear CSO play Stravinsky, Beethoven and Sibelius and tomorrow we’ll be on a boat down the river. A pleasant weekend for sure.

March 22nd

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Stage one of recording the lullabies is now complete. Today, the eight CSO players came to the studio to rehearse and record the pieces ready for the singers and teens to put their vocals over tomorrow. In the afternoon we listened to all the takes and did a small amount of cut and paste whilst enjoying the extensive variety of snacks made available to those who hire the studio.

The process was extremely enjoyable and the lullabies are sounding really beautiful. In addition, we heard today that the recording of Friday’s gig in IYCC is now ready for mixing which is likely to throw up a somewhat different challenge than the lullabies, something more like, ‘how do you make 6 roaring and excitable young men sound homogeneous.’ A challenge if ever there was one, but no-one can deny their passion.

Today’s photos show Nick, Josh and Jonathan in various states of work, rest and play.

March 22nd

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A little bit of additional work took place today when Nick and I travelled to Storycatchers Theatre to ‘borrow’ some of their young women to help us trial a couple of modules of ‘Tuned In’, the new resource we have developed with Helix Arts for women in touch with the criminal justice system. We are big fans of Storycatchers, after meeting and working with the founder and Artistic Director, Meade Palidofsky, on a music and writing project in a prison in UK. Today’s picture shows us with Chey, an impressive and generous young woman who sat with us for a couple of hours to offer her thoughts and opinions about the resource. ‘Tuned In’ was created by a group of women in prison in UK, specifically for other women in prison and others who are in contact with the criminal justice system. We hadn’t necessarily imagined it going further afield than UK but it seems as though the issues faced in UK are very similar to US so there may be some additional possibilities to explore. Thank you everyone for taking the time to talk to us.

March 23rd

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So to the final Chicago 2016 postcard. Yet another incredible two weeks with amazing people. It just gets better. The vocal parts to lullabies were recorded last evening and there were last minute surprises as many of the teens decided they wanted to sing on their tracks and did so with courage. Final mixes will be completed over the next few weeks or so and then they will be available to hear, along with the tracks from IYCC.

It’s hard to describe these trips really. It’s such a privilege to be able to share the work we love with others who feel the same. It’s great to be surrounded by such positivity and it’s just fab to be able to spend time with people who over the years have become friends and who are worth their weight in gold. They all do a brilliant job, whether creatively or by ensuring the day to day logistics run smoothly, leaving us with nothing to think about asides the work.

Josh, Sarah, Joelle, James and Jonathan, if we were wearing hats, we would doff them to you. That’s a quaint British phrase to leave you with! Thank you one and all.

1 Comment on Postcards from Chicago; fourth project with CSO

  1. Fabulous project!

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