In 1995, the family of the late Irene Taylor established a U.K.-based charity with the intent to bridge two fields about which she and her husband, Lord Chief Justice Peter Taylor, cared deeply: prison reform and music. Under the leadership of Artistic Director Sara Lee, the Irene Taylor Trust’s inaugural program, Music in Prisons, developed workshops to support prisoners in composing, performing and recording original music.

Over the past 25 years, the trust has expanded with additional songwriting programs for at-risk young people and ex-prisoners, all with the goal of using collaborative music-making to help individuals develop confidence, transferable skills and ambitions for the future.

Irene Taylor Trust Project Leader Nick Hayes works with members of the CSO during a songwriting workshop at Cook County Juvenile Detention Center.

The Irene Taylor Trust became a partner of the Negaunee Music Institute at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 2013, when Sara Lee and Nick Hayes of ITT joined NMI staff and musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for a weeklong songwriting project, modeled on the Music in Prisons program, with youth at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center. In the years since, the partnership between the two organizations has yielded more than 150 original pieces of music, including songs written by teens incarcerated at the Illinois Youth Center-Chicago; pregnant women and young parents through the Lullaby Project, and families who have lost children to gun violence through the Notes for Peace project.

The Negaunee Music Institute’s work with young people in the care of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice helps to fulfill Riccardo Muti’s vision for making music accessible to people throughout the Chicago community. Each season since his tenure as music director of the CSO began in 2010, Maestro Muti has visited an Illinois Youth Center to present an interactive recital alongside CSO musicians and guest singers. The songwriting workshops led by NMI and ITT complement Muti’s efforts by empowering these young people to create their own music.

“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 an 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.”

Over the course of a week, these initial concepts are developed into complete arrangements, with accompaniment from musicians of the CSO and/or the Civic Orchestra of Chicago; the results are showcased at a final performance for family members and guests.

Chicago Symphony Chorus member Sarah Ponder and a young parent record a song composed through the Lullaby Project.

A second initiative that has benefited from the Negaunee Music Institute-Irene Taylor Trust partnership is the Lullaby Project, a program of the Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall, which supports pregnant women and new parents in creating lullabies for their children. From 2014 to 2018, NMI partnered with Thresholds and Chicago Childcare Society to facilitate Lullaby Projects for Chicago teens; then the musicians of the CSO and Civic Orchestra — and often the young parents themselves — performed the newly composed songs. The Irene Taylor Trust joined NMI for several of these workshops, one of which was documented by Green River Films in a short film that won a 2015 Chicago/Midwest Emmy Award.

“My favorite part about the whole thing is that I was able to be myself,” said Tracy, a mother who participated in the Lullaby Project in 2015. “I feel like I accomplished something. It was amazing.” The lyrics to her song, “A Better Me,” address her young son:

Dale, you changed my whole life around.
You make me smile each time I see your face.
I never imagined that this day would come,
when I would have someone looking up to me.

Purpose Over Pain member Kisha Stansberry and her mother Betty Young stand alongside vocalists Keanon Kyles and Meagan McNeal as they perform “The Peacemakers,” written for Ms. Stansberry’s son Isiah Scott and her husband Dean Stansberry II.

While the Lullaby Project’s songs celebrate new life, music offers a creative outlet to express grief in another songwriting project, Notes for Peace,  founded by the Negaunee Music Institute and the Irene Taylor Trust in 2017. Developed in partnership with Purpose Over Pain, a non-profit support and advocacy group for Chicago-area parents who have lost children to gun violence, Notes for Peace empowers bereaved families to honor their loved ones and process their emotions through the act of songwriting.

More than 50 families have participated in Notes for Peace workshops led by Civic Orchestra of Chicago Fellows and alumni, with guidance from Sara Lee and Rex Horan of ITT. The songs composed during these sessions subsequently have been performed by professional singers at live concerts and recorded at Chicago Recording Company.

Two former Notes for Peace participants spoke to a focus group in December 2019 to share their experiences. Diana Pierce said, “The process of writing the song was therapeutic. When [the songwriter] listened to me, he knew Coby,” a father and employee of One Hope United, who was killed in 2012. “I just want people to know him; it’s helped keep him living and breathing.”

Anthanette Marshbanks, whose son Archie Chambers was also killed in 2012, in a police-involved shooting, added, “It was healing for us. I am honored because Archie’s legacy is going to live on through CSO. … I’m not a grieving mother anymore, I’m a healing mother.”

A November 2020 online collaboration between the Irene Taylor Trust and Civic Orchestra of Chicago explores themes around the Black Lives Matter movement.

Although the pandemic has postponed in-person events, the Negaunee Music Institute and the Irene Taylor Trust have adapted to continue new songwriting projects online. Over the course of two weeks in November 2020, teaching artists from ITT and the Civic Fellows met virtually with former prisoners and young people who reside in the United Kingdom. New music composed during these workshops, in response to the lyric-writing prompt of Black Lives Matter, can be heard on SoundCloud.

“The Irene Taylor Trust has shown us the power of collaborative songwriting,” said Jonathan McCormick, director of education and the NMI. “Our work together over the years has enabled the CSOA to engage with and serve communities across Chicago in ways we never could have imagined or implemented on our own. Thank you, ITT, and happy 25th anniversary!”


TOP: Irene Taylor Trust Artistic Director Sara Lee performs with members of the CSO during a songwriting workshop at Cook County Juvenile Detention Center.  | © Todd Rosenberg Photography