For families, the return to school this fall comes with more challenges than usual, whether students are learning remotely or attending classes in person. In response to the social and emotional effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on young people, as well as their parents, caregivers and teachers, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association is partnering with Chicago Children’s Theatre to premiere My Magic Breath, a video co-production that helps young children learn to harness the calming and restorative power of mindful breathing.

The video pairs the popular children’s picture book My Magic Breath by New York Times best-selling author Nick Ortner and Alison Taylor, illustrated by Michelle Polizzi, with solo performances by CSO musicians of works by J.S. Bach and narration by Amy Eshleman, first lady of Chicago, a learning specialist and a former Chicago Public Library commissioner. Animation by Liviu Pasare, a local animator, video artist and one of Chicago Children’s Theatre’s longtime artistic collaborators, brings the book’s whimsical illustrations to life.

The book My Magic Breath has inspired a video by Chicago Children’s Theatre and the CSO’s Negaunee Music Institute.

My Magic Breath is an extension of the ongoing partnership between Chicago Children’s Theatre and the Negaunee Music Institute at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on the Once Upon a Symphony programs, developed to introduce young children to music and the arts through storytelling. It is the first in a series of video projects that the two organizations expect to release during the 2020-21 season, with the Chicago Public Library participating as a presenting partner for these special projects.

The 15-minute video, for children ages 4 to 8, will premiere Thursday, Sept. 10 at 10 a.m. CDT as part of the Chicago Public Library’s daily “Live at the Library” series. The digital world premiere will be streamed on the CSO’s Facebook page and cross-posted on the Facebook pages of Chicago Children’s Theatre and the Chicago Public Library. The video also will be available to watch on YouTube through the CSO’s channel and on CCTv: Virtual Theatre and Learning from Chicago Children’s Theatre. Following the premiere, My Magic Breath will be posted on each organization’s website for free, on-demand online streaming.

“This spring, since we were not able to present live performances at Symphony Center, CCT Artistic Director Jacqueline Russell and I began discussing how we might collaborate on content that responds to emotional challenges and anxieties that children and adults are experiencing during these uncertain times,” said CSOA Director of School and Family Programs Jon Weber.

Liviu Pasare, a longtime artistic collaborator with Chicago Children’s Theatre, brings the book’s whimsical illustrations to life. | Photo courtesy of the subject

“We all can benefit from a few calming, ‘magic breaths’ on a daily basis,” added Jacqueline Russell, co-founder and artistic director of Chicago Children’s Theatre. “We are thrilled that this collaboration gives us an opportunity to demonstrate how the arts can help address the pressing needs of children in our city.”

The choice to feature solo repertoire by J.S. Bach was based on the composer’s capacity to express a wide range of human emotions, as well as the practical need to record performances in a socially distanced setting. The video includes five musical vignettes, each performed by a different Chicago Symphony Orchestra musician: Robert Chen, concertmaster; Karen Basrak, cello; David Griffin, horn; Jennifer M. Gunn, flute, and Lawrence Neuman, viola. Videographer Todd Rosenberg recorded these performances during individual studio sessions, with Charlie Post as audio engineer.

“Being a part of the My Magic Breath video was a no-brainer for me,” said CSO cello Karen Basrak. “As a parent to a young daughter, I understand the importance of teaching her how to acknowledge and understand her emotions. Giving her the tools to navigate her feelings will empower her sense of self and give her techniques she will use throughout her lifetime.”

Amy Eshleman, a learning specialist and first lady of Chicago, narrates the video. | ©Todd Rosenberg Photography 2020

CSO flute Jennifer Gunn added, “Playing concert programs for young people and their families is always rewarding but being a part of the My Magic Breath project is particularly special. At this difficult time when we are all trying to find our way, the connection of breathing and music can be a way to help everyone, especially children, be better in touch with their emotions.”

“The Center for Childhood Resilience has recently partnered with Chicago Children’s Theatre to enhance their programs focused on teaching strategies for coping with stress and trauma in young children. We are so excited for them to share this wonderful tool for young kids and their parents to learn and practice mindfulness,“ said Colleen Cicchetti, PhD, and Executive Director of Lurie Children’s Hospital’s Center for Childhood Resiliency.

“I didn’t grasp the beauty of the My Magic Breath video until I saw the stunning final result,” said CSO horn David Griffin. Featuring Bach’s evergreen music and clever original animations, the video will draw in children both visually and aurally, he believes. “There are numerous, calming benefits to the breathing exercises demonstrated in the video that are shared with practitioners of prayer, yoga or meditation, so this video should have very wide appeal. Children need calming moments in their day now more than ever!”

The video series for kids will continue this fall with The Music in George’s Head, which explores the making of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and features Kurt Elling, a frequent guest artist on the Symphony Center Presents Jazz series. Additional titles, to be announced, will be released throughout the 2020-21 season.

TOP: David Griffin is one of several CSO musicians featured in the video My Magic Breath, inspired by the children’s book of the same name. The video is a joint project of the CSO’s Negaunee Music Institute and Chicago Children’s Theatre.