Postcards from Chicago – fifth CSO project

4/14/13 3:22:36 PM Chicago Symphony Orchestra Riccardo Muti Music Director Chicago Symphony Orchestra members perform at Cook County Juvenile Detention Center as part of the CSO's ongoing Citizen Musician program. © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2013

Following four successful projects in 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016, we have been invited back to the Windy City for a fifth project with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO).

This time round, our Artistic Director Sara Lee and Project Leader Rex Horan are working with the CSO and Civic Fellows from the Civic Orchestra of Chicago to deliver a project with the young men at the Illinois Youth Center Chicago.

As in previous years, Sara will be posting update ‘postcards’ on our Facebook page – compiled below.

Photos by Sara-

March 13th

After a trip to an incredible art collective (Zhou brothers) and a fabulous concert at Symphony Center yesterday, Chicago 2017 officially began this morning with three prep training sessions with the Civic Fellows and the CSO musicians, ready for the start of the project in IYCC tomorrow. The plan is a bit different this year in that CSO musicians and Fellows will be working with us during the project so today we had to cover a lot of bases and introduce new people to the work whilst beginning the compositional process for some of the additional pieces of music we are creating for the gig next Saturday. Everyone dived in and as a result we have a head start for tomorrow, which, bearing in mind we might be working with around 12 lads is distinctly necessary, as we could be talking about a total band of 27. Which is the first time I have worked it out and which I won’t tell Rex Horan or he may not show up…

March 14th

“You’re helping us do great stuff for the youth. Thank you so much for that.”

Why settle for a band of 27 when you can have a band of 31? That was the scenario we were presented with today meaning it was definitely time to split them into 2 groups. We saw each group for an hour and a half this afternoon and began writing the first songs which got a lot further than we thought. One lad told us he used to play trombone, another had played flute, and a couple had taken piano lessons in 6th grade but left it behind soon after. The Civic musicians come in for the first time tomorrow so the lads will get the chance to meet people who still play those instruments and maybe even get the chance to play them again. The Superintendent (aka Governor) in IYCC has decided he wants to take part this year so found himself being taught a marimba part by one of the percussionists from the CSO. It was great day when the lads rose to the challenge, the snow came, we watched a man build a marimba in less than 7 minutes and the daytime temperature still didn’t rise above zero degrees.

March 15th

‘We think you two are like James Bond and M.’

A compliment (we think) but how it relates to running a music project, we’re still not quite sure. For the first time today, each group of Civic musicians met their respective group of lads and began the process of co-creating tracks. The results were pretty amazing and by the end of today we had the best part of 4 new songs in the bag. This was all completed in tropical temperatures only a prison can muster whilst outside it was still struggling to get close to zero degrees. There is so much to do to get a show of this complexity on the road, mainly an enormous amount of organisation from the host organisation (in this case, James at CSO) and some tricky logistics navigated by IYCC. The whole thing has run like clockwork so far, with the right lads being brought to the right place at the right time. In a few hours, the Civic musicians will present the piece they wrote on Sunday for the lads in group 1 to potentially sing/rap over and we are hoping for a ‘yeahhh, we can work with that’, rather than long pause followed by a ‘naahh’…

March 16th


It was relief all round when the lads said a massive ‘yeahhh’ to the piece written on Sunday. Cue some great excitement as they decided on the topic and got started on writing the lyrics. This is one of the fastest groups of lyric writers we’ve worked with in ages, always questioning what is appropriate and how far they can push the boundaries without overstepping the mark with inappropriate content. This kind of self-censoring makes it so much easier for us as we don’t have to constantly stop them and ask that they change phrases/words to make it ‘family friendly’. Today I worked with a young lad who hasn’t smiled since the start of the project and looks as though he carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. We were working on a part he could play on the keyboard and when we had finalised something I asked if it was OK for him and whether he liked what we’d written together. With the faintest hint of a smile he replied, ‘Miss Sara, I don’t like it, I love it.’ It’s the little things that mean the most.

March 17th


So, all 6 tracks are now just about complete and in a few hours all the CSO players, the Fellows, 16 lads and the project team will try and start piecing it all together. It’s going to be one mammoth job. We also have to take into account the recording and how on earth we try and organise that, but that may be tomorrow’s conundrum. In the meantime, we hope the lads have filled in the gaps in some of their lyrics, changed a few of the phrases they thought they might be able to squeeze in without anyone noticing (we didn’t – the slang used here is quite different…) and remembered all the parts they have written. The group was told yesterday that all their parents/guardians have been invited to the show and many of them started to get really excited. However, we’ve been at this point before and seen the joy for some when the audience walk in and the disappointment for others; hopefully it’ll be a full house on Saturday and everyone will have the chance to show off what they have achieved to those who matter to them.

March 18th


‘I feel like a superstar!’

It was a big day for the lads today as all the additional musicians turned up and, even more nerve-wracking, each group had to perform their tracks to the other group for the first time. All week we have been asked by group 1, ‘are we the best group?’ and then by group 2, ‘have we got better songs than they have?’ The truth is we have 6 amazing songs and what was great today was the massive amount of respect in the room for all the hard work each person had put in. It can be a vulnerable time, especially for the rappers, and it did make us a bit nervous beforehand as if something goes a bit awry and someone forgets their lyrics for example, confidence can be seriously dented. That didn’t happen at all which bodes well for the other lads, staff and visitors who will be there listening tomorrow afternoon.

March 19th


‘This was an amazing opportunity. Thank you.’

It was a full-on day as we moved all the equipment from a hot room to an even hotter gymnasium ready for the performance. It was all very tightly scheduled as some of the CSO players were on another project in the morning but we managed to get it all rehearsed with about 10 minutes to spare. As we thought, despite invitations being sent to all 16 lads’ families, only 4 responded to the invitation and in the end, only one family turned up. It was hard to see if the lads were disappointed with this as they still gave it their all, as they have done all week, and the rest of the prison and the outside visitors from CSO (about 70 in total) absolutely loved what they had achieved. The songs were tight, the performances brilliant and the smiles huge. There was a massive stampede to the pizza table following the show but that was the least they deserved after their part in a really fantastic week.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: