Transforming Lives Through Music: A Look at the First Five Years of the CSO’s Institute for Learning, Access and Training

In October 2008, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra launched the Institute for Learning, Access and Training with a simple yet ambitious goal: to transform lives through active participation in music. Now, as the Institute celebrates its fifth anniversary, the success of that mission is clearly evident.

Thanks to the visionary leadership of Riccardo Muti, music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and Yo-Yo Ma, the CSO’s Judson and Joyce Green creative consultant, the Institute’s multifaceted programming now engages more than 200,000 people in greater Chicago and around the world each year. This work includes such endeavors as the Citizen Musician Initiative — which has strengthened the CSO’s approach to community engagement — as well as the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, one of the oldest programs of the Institute.

When the CSO established the Institute, it was based on the tradition of performing music across Chicago neighborhoods and furthering the musical education of young people in the city. This tradition started when the CSO was founded in 1891, as the CSO’s founders and leaders sought to create both a great orchestra and a shared culture among a city of immigrants, bringing diverse communities together through the common language of music.

Frederick Stock, the CSO’s second music director, initiated the first such efforts in 1919, with the founding of the Civic Orchestra and the CSO Youth Concerts. In 1922, he added the CSO Youth Auditions, whose winners received the opportunity to perform as soloists with the CSO. These three programs remain active today.

In 1965, the CSO formally designated an education department to run the Youth Concerts and Youth Auditions, and expanded the CSO’s work in this area through the creation of many new programs and strategic partnerships with other music and community organizations. This work increased throughout the years, including the establishment of a formal community relations department in 2001.

And so, in 2008, the CSO launched the Institute to build upon this rich history, organize its slate of education and community programming, and develop new initiatives. The Institute currently offers some twenty programs across the age spectrum — from infancy through early adulthood — that create meaningful learning experiences, provide increased access to music for communities in greater Chicago, foster the next generation of aspiring musicians and promote lifelong musical citizenship.

Here are just a few of the ways the Institute has transformed lives over the past five years.

Riccardo Muti leads the way
Since 2008, when his appointment as the CSO’s tenth music director was announced, Riccardo Muti’s belief that the CSO should extend its connections beyond the concert hall has inspired the CSO’s education and community engagement programs to grow in new directions.

“Performances alone are never enough,” Muti says. “Having in hand a treasure like this orchestra, we must work very hard to make it more available for the spiritual and cultural needs of the city, nation and world.”

At the beginning of each season since 2010, Maestro Muti and the CSO have offered a free concert for the public: two in Millennium Park, one at the Apostolic Church of God in the Woodlawn neighborhood and the most recent in September 2013 at Chodl Auditorium at Morton East High School in Cicero. Tens of thousands of people have been brought together by the CSO to hear music in these community settings.

With one short phrase — “even to prisons” — Muti sparked a new stream of Institute programming, one in which he’s led regular work in two Chicago-area facilities: at the Illinois Youth Center in Warrenville, where Chicago Symphony Chorus members regularly work with young women who are incarcerated, and at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, where CSO members participate in an intense weeklong workshop with young men.

Angelica, one of the participants in Warrenville, where the Institute partners with Storycatchers Theatre, told the Chicago Tribune: “It’s not even like they’re teaching us. They’re sharing it with us. It’s like they really believe in us, too.”

Yo-Yo Ma and Citizen Musician
Such community engagement activities are at the core of the Institute’s Citizen Musician Initiative. Officially launched in 2011, the Citizen Musician Initiative encourages musicians of all skill levels — as well as music lovers, educators, and music and educational organizations — to approach their work with an ever-renewed awareness of the impact it has on the world around them.

“In music, we’re taught to work toward something bigger than ourselves — that’s also a good value for citizenship,” says Yo-Yo Ma, the catalyst behind the initiative. “As citizens and as musicians, we have the opportunity to respond musically to the needs in our communities.”

As a champion for music education, Ma truly embodies the role of a citizen musician, and he has taken the CSO’s longstanding partnership with the Chicago Public Schools to a deeper level of engagement than ever before. The CSO has offered many key resources for CPS students and teachers, including the Music Activity Partnership program, which, for the last 15 years, has provided professional development workshops, classroom instruments, visits from CSO ensembles and free tickets to CSO Youth Concerts to about 10 schools each year. In addition to making frequent visits to Chicago schools, Ma has been instrumental in supporting the successful announcement and launch of the first-ever CPS Arts Education Plan, working closely with CPS, Ingenuity Incorporated, and his fellow arts luminaries Renée Fleming (creative consultant at the Lyric Opera of Chicago) and Damian Woetzel (director of the Aspen Institute Arts Program and Harman-Eisner Artist-in-Residence) to advocate for the necessity of music and the arts as a regular part of the curriculum.

Orchestra Explorers
To introduce young students to classical music and the extraordinary musicians of the CSO, the Institute launched Orchestra Explorers as a pilot program in the fall of 2008. Today, it provides learning materials for K-3 classrooms to more than 200 schools in the Chicagoland area. Resources include lesson plans, a recording of music performed by the CSO, guided listening segments featuring CSO musicians, student worksheets and posters, and additional online resources for teachers.

Music featured in the Orchestra Explorers materials appears on one or more of the annual concerts for students in grades K-3, offering elementary school students the chance to connect what they have learned in class with the experience of hearing the CSO perform live at Symphony Center.

Nancy Ocampo, a kindergarten teacher at Eberhart Elementary School on the Southwest Side, encountered Orchestra Explorers as part of the pilot program and has been singing its praises ever since. Her students have delighted in hearing the stories behind pieces like Stravinsky’s The Firebird, learning about orchestral instruments and having a chance to move around the classroom as the music plays.

“I feel it helps the students grow a lot,” Ocampo says. “It gives kids who might not have success in academic areas a chance to succeed, too, and be proud of themselves. There’s no one who can’t do Orchestra Explorers.”

Dream Out Loud
One of the three new programs launched by the Institute in 2008, Dream Out Loud remains one of the Institute’s most visible programs for middle school and high school students. Dream Out Loud tells the unique stories of Chicago Symphony Orchestra members to inspire young students to remain involved in their school’s music program even during periods of challenge or frustration.

Through posters, print and video profiles, the CSO members featured in these materials share how they started studying music, what is most rewarding about being a musician, and how the ultimate joy of playing and performing helped them get through frustrating experiences in their own lives.

CSO trumpet John Hagstrom has been a part of the program since the beginning, producing short biographical videos of the featured CSO members. Hagstrom grew up in the western Chicago suburbs and credits much of his success to the experiences he had as a young music student in the public schools. He worked closely with local music educators in designing the program.

“More kids than we think just need a little bit of vision to keep going,” says Hagstrom. “For someone — like a CSO member — in a position of accomplishment to show empathy and say, ‘I’m telling you, it’s worth it,’ is a way that we can meet kids where they are and show them that CSO players have been through similar experiences and understand what it’s like.”

Another benefit of Dream Out Loud is the way it reinforces the value of hard work and perseverance. Hagstrom notes that “our culture has inadvertently given the impression that you can get something for nothing, that virtuosity just happens without effort. Music education recalibrates that barometer and teaches that there are great rewards to be had when you are willing to work hard.”

Chicago Youth in Music Festival
The Chicago Youth in Music Festival is a biennial celebration of the achievements of young classical musicians from across Chicago and the world. The program was announced at the Institute launch in 2008, with a planned 2009 festival featuring the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra and a focus on the El Sistema movement, a publicly financed voluntary music education program founded in Venezuela in 1975. This was followed by two fantastically successful festivals: in 2011, featuring the Carlos Chávez Youth Orchestra and Children’s Choir of Morelia (both from Mexico), and in 2013, with the YOA Orchestra of the Americas and its music director, Carlos Miguel Prieto.

The goal of the festival is to bring Chicago youth together with their international counterparts. Members of the Civic Orchestra act as mentors to junior-high and high-school musicians, who receive multiple rehearsal and performance opportunities both throughout the Chicago community and at Orchestra Hall.

The festival also weaves the values of Citizen Musicianship into its programming. “A lot of the people from YOA have really opened up my eyes to a whole new way of thinking that isn’t so centered upon what happens on the stage,” says one 2013 participant from Chicago. “It has a lot to do with interacting with the audience both through the music and with no music, through actually talking to them. It sounds so simple, but it’s such a huge difference in the way I think.”

Civic Orchestra of Chicago
The Civic Orchestra of Chicago is one of the Institute’s marquee programs. When the Civic was founded in 1919, it had a two-part mission: to help train promising young American musicians to join symphony orchestras (which at the time mainly consisted of Europeans) and to create a roster of talented musicians who would be at the ready to back up CSO members.

Over the last 95 years, the Civic has grown into one of the world’s most well-regarded training orchestras and the only one affiliated with a major American symphony orchestra. Each season, Civic Orchestra musicians perform over 20 free concerts at Symphony Center and in neighborhoods across Chicago.

As the CSO’s Judson and Joyce Green creative consultant, Ma works closely with Civic members. At the beginning of this 2013/14 season, Ma and the Civic Orchestra launched the Citizen Musician Fellowship program. Under the guidance of Ma, eight Civic members will participate in this intensive one-year pilot program, working with music programs in the Chicago Public Schools and community organizations, engaging in musical entrepreneurship training with Chicago-based ensembles, and developing their own community activities and projects to expand their identity as musicians and their roles in society.

Civic Orchestra tuba Duncan Spry is one of the new Citizen Musician fellows. A native of Australia, Spry had an active teaching and freelancing career in Sydney and views the fellowship program as an opportunity to learn skills to become an even more creative and innovative musician. “These days, orchestral jobs are so few and far between, especially for the tuba, so it’s great to have workshops with already established ensembles like eighth blackbird and Fifth House Ensemble.”

Only a few weeks into his official fellowship, Spry already describes the experience of working closely with Yo-Yo Ma as “amazing. He is absolutely the most inspirational person.” Spry also says that the pilot program has given him “confidence to take on a lot of projects at once.” Some of Spry’s upcoming projects as a Citizen Musician Fellow include participating in programs with Chicago Public Schools and with Storycatchers Theatre, which works with incarcerated youth. Spry also is undertaking a number of entrepreneurial projects. He is a founding member of the New Chicago Brass Ensemble, which consists of current Civic members and alumni, and he also participated in a performance of Wagner’s complete Ring cycle — arranged for brass and percussion — with his Civic colleagues and select CSO musicians under the direction of CSO principal trombone and Civic coach Jay Friedman on Nov. 24, 2013, at Dominican University in River Forest.

“The program really encourages us to take a concept and use the resources of the CSO to help accomplish it,” Spry said. “I’m excited about the room for experimentation, inspiration and creativity within the fellowship.”

Having accomplished a great deal in its first five years, the Institute continues to develop to further realize its mission with new and evolving programming introduced each season.

For more information about the Institute for Learning, Access and Training, visit