When Riccardo Muti was named music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2009, he made it clear he wanted his legacy to reach beyond the walls of Orchestra Hall, providing people all over Chicago with access to music. “The example that he cited was that we should go even into the juvenile justice system to engage with people who wouldn’t otherwise participate in what the orchestra does,” says Jonathan McCormick, director of the Negaunee Music Institute.

The mission of the Negaunee Music Institute, the CSO’s educational and community-engagement wing, is to connect people of all ages and diverse backgrounds to participate actively in the life of the CSO.  In 1919, Frederick Stock, the orchestra’s second music director, laid the foundation for the CSO’s educational programming with the formation of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and the CSO’s concert series for children. Now part of the Negaunee Music Institute, these programs commemorate their centennial seasons in 2018-19 under the leadership of Muti, the CSO’s Zell Music Director, and Yo-Yo Ma, Judson and Joyce Green Creative Consultant. In addition, the Institute offers many long-standing programs that engage tens of thousands of children, schools, community partners and young musicians each year. 

Armed with Muti’s request to engage youth within the criminal justice system, McCormick and his staff formed a relationship with Storycatchers Theatre, which helps incarcerated youth tell their stories through musical theater. “We learned from [Storycatchers] that one of the most effective ways to inspire and support young people in these circumstances was actually to engage them in a model that put them front and center and gave voice to their stories, doing so through the creation of something completely new, rather than this older paradigm of going in and explaining to them how important Mozart is,” said McCormick, adding, “Don’t get me wrong — Mozart is incredibly important.” 

Alongside mezzo-soprano Sarah Ponder, a parent participates in a Lullaby Project recording session. | ©Todd Rosenberg Photography

In 2013, the Institute formalized a relationship with Sara Lee, artistic director of the Irene Taylor Trust. Founded 24 years ago in the United Kingdom, the Trust is committed to using collaborative music composition as a tool to improve people’s lives. Lee worked with the Institute to develop a weeklong intensive session at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, modeled after the Trust’s Music in Prisons program, now part of a fast-growing series of songwriting initiatives aimed at empowering youth and adults through creative expression. 

“Much of the initial hours we spend with [the youth] are just showing them that, in fact, anybody can write a song and anybody can play and instrument,” Lee said. “What’s key for us is finding that one person in the room who has a starting point — that could be a poem, some lyrics or a drum beat — because once the bridge between the outside facilitators and the young men has been crossed, it becomes a much easier work space.” 

A year later, Lee came back to spearhead the Institute’s participation in the Lullaby Project, which engages new parents in writing lullabies and is a program of the Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall. With Lee and project leader Rex Horan’s guidance, the Institute partnered with the non-profit support group Purpose Over Pain in 2017 to lead songwriting sessions for families affected by gun violence in Chicago. This relationship led to the first Concert for Peace, a collaboration between Ma and the Rev. Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina Church in the Austin-Gresham neighborhood on Chicago’s Far South Side. The annual concert features Ma with CSO and Civic Orchestra members playing symphonic arrangements of participants’ songs. 

“What we’ve learned over the years is that songwriting is a great tool in almost any environment,” McCormick said. “The vehicle of the song itself is such a powerful tool. At the same time, we’ve been talking about how all of this work is part of an effort in the city to create peace. Of course, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra alone is not solving the gun violence issue or reforming the juvenile justice system, but we are trying to play our part. The resource that we have to make a difference is music.” 

A cornerstone is the involvement of the Institute’s Civic Fellows, a highly selective group of 15 Civic Orchestra members who help administer the programs. “The Fellows serve as ambassadors for the [Civic] Orchestra,” said James Hall, manager of community programs & Civic Orchestra engagement. “Yo-Yo is fond of saying you can’t really develop as a musician or an artist in isolation; you have to embrace yourself and the world around you. That’s the philosophy that guides a lot of the work of the fellowship. …We make the argument that in order to really be a fully developed artist, you need to be out in the world and engaging fully with people.” 

These accomplished musicians are often taken out of their comfort zone, not only to the communities in which they work but by the musical demands of the songwriting initiatives themselves. 

A student from Agassiz Elementary performs a protest song written as part of CSO-Connect. | ©Todd Rosenberg Photography

Lee and Horan encourage their fellows to take the lead, assisting participants with writing lyrics, creating harmonies and melodies, orchestrating the songs and playing new instruments such as drum kit or electric guitar. 

Classical music is powerful for many people, “but I think what’s interesting about these projects is that we don’t go in with the assumption that that’s what people need or want,” Hall said. He notes that many of the songs draw on participants’ cultural backgrounds, influenced by R&B, Latin music, hip-hop and rap. “What makes us uniquely suited to these things is that our musicians are at such a high level musically that we can write songs in a particular idiom that’s not in the classical style, and layer in sounds with classical instruments that you wouldn’t hear with a different group. It’s more about getting people in a room together who represent different perspectives. There’s some thing really special and valuable about that.” 

Another component for the Civic Fellows is their work with CSO-Connect, an arts integration partnership with Chicago Public Schools that blends music education and composition with subjects like history, science and math. CSO-Connect is partnering with 10 schools this year, most of which are fine arts and performing arts magnet schools. Katy Clusen, the Institute’s manager of school and family programs, points out that these schools “were already really primed to do arts-integrated lesson development and teaching.” 

Each year a new curriculum is developed with other arts organizations such as the Field Museum and Chicago Shakespeare Theater. This year, the Institute and the Chicago History Museum shared resources to engage students in exploring their personal cultural heritage within the context of Chicago history through chamber music recitals, musical lectures and CSO School Concerts.

A current partner is Innovations High School, an alternative school for students ages 16 to 21. Students wrote poems exploring the idea of personal transformation, using the repertoire of the CSO School Concert and the text of American scholar Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey as inspiration. With help from a Civic Fellow and a teaching artist, students fine-tuned their poems into song lyrics, selected pre-recorded instruments and beats, and added their own singing, rapping or spoken words to produce their final tracks. 

“Every school is functioning in its own ecosystem,” Clusen said. “What we like to provide to schools is a model and the ability to build leadership capacity among teachers. So for schools that are underresourced or who have not been able to implement arts integration, it’s really important that we identify those schools. …But there also needs to be a willingness on the part of the staff and administration to embrace a very progressive way of developing lessons and teaching students.” 

A Purpose Over Pain participant (right) sings at last year’s Concert for Peace at St. Sabina Church. | ©Todd Rosenberg Photography

Because these programs are primarily funded by individual donors and foundations, data collection and evaluation tactics are markedly different than those required by school boards or other government agencies. According to McCormick, success is measured by client and participant testimonials, program attendance and compliance, and the status of the Institute’s relationships with its partners, as well as survey data from the Fellows and CSO-Connect programs. “Without at least one key ally within that partner organization, there’s no chance of the work being successful,” McCormick said. He cited Assistant Superintendent of Programs Michael Byrd as an example of someone who has been vital to the program at the Illinois Youth Center Chicago, a juvenile justice facility on the Near West Side. 

“On my desk are the CDs of the last four years,” Byrd said. For him, the greatest sign of success is continued growth of the partnership, which now includes bringing IYCC residents on field trips to Symphony Center. “Some of these men would, I’d dare guess, have never gone to the symphony in their entire lives if we hadn’t introduced them to this.” 

The Institute understands that tracking or quantifying the long-term impact of its programs on academic achievement or recidivism, for example, is nearly impossible. “I would never even begin to make the claim that participation in a weeklong musical project in any way makes it less likely to return to the system once you leave it,” McCormick said. “That would be an outlandish claim, but that doesn’t mean the work isn’t extremely valuable.” 

A poem written by Michael at IYCC features the line, “No more dwelling on the past. I’m now in first place when I used to be in last.” In the course of three hours, Michael developed his poem into a melody, assisted by three of his peers, who learned to play bass, drum kit and keyboard. In the same session, he learned an R&B piano riff he and Horan developed, to play alongside a rap by Carl. “My future’s bright; I’m locked up, but it’s time to fly,” Carl recited into a microphone as Michael played. 

“Our young men have such limited experiences of the world beyond their block,” Byrd said. “So we want to put instruments in their hands. Music changes you. Music helps you express.” 

Lauren Warnecke, a Chicago-based free-lancer, writes for the Chicago Tribune, Chicago magazine, Milwaukee magazine, See Chicago Dance and Dance Media publications, among others. she also is an adjunct faculty member at Loyola University Chicago.  This article originally appeared in the spring 2019 issue of the Illinois Music Educator. 

For more information on The Negaunee Music Institute, please visit cso.org/institute. 

TOP: Students from Agassiz Elementary and Civic Fellow Corin Droullard (second from left) perform a protest song written as part of the CSO-Connect partnership program. | ©Todd Rosenberg Photography