Citizen Musician

Music for life's sake.

Conversion of a Civic Bass


Civic Orchestra bassist Will Riley Robbins was part of Yo-Yo Ma’s “artistic challenge" to the Civic Orchestra during the 2012-13 season: to perform Beethoven 6 without a conductor, from memory.  

There I was, slouching near the front row of Orchestra Hall in one of those plushy red-velvet seats positively fuming as details of the 2013 artistic challenge were presented to members of the Civic Orchestra. Yo-Yo stood there and took questions, sympathetic to our concerns. But I didn’t want to hear it— I was furious. I’m not going to memorize Beethoven 6. And that was that (cue five-year-old temper tantrum).

Why didn’t I want to memorize this symphony? Because I thought it was weak, a placid study in between the scary C minor 5th (bum bum bum bummmmmm!) and the dynamic A Major 7th. For all the countryside flora it tries to evoke, Beethoven 6 itself is a wilted, minimalist piece of bruised lettuce, sandwiched between delicious Schwarzwälder Schinken (Symphony #7) and Blutwurst (Symphony #5); you know, two seriously rockin’ symphonies. (See Beethoven’s Symphonic Sandwich.) #6 is not REAL Beethoven— just old produce. I would have settled for any other Beethoven symphony (except perhaps #9… that really seems impossibly difficult to memorize… or maybe #8, its just kind of an oddball, no?) Ok fine, most other Beethoven symphonies! I wanted to stand up and shout, “Not 6, right guys? This is a no-brainer: give me #3, or the charming #2, let’s all play #7 again… Hell, I’d even play #1— Just not the Pastoral, come on it’s so boring.”

As upset as I was about the choice of piece to be memorized and performed unconducted, I was much more upset about the actual memorization. I distinctly remember feeling as though I, the great Will Robbins, had the time, wherewithal and energy to memorize the piece, but I didn’t want to be the only one. In short— I didn’t trust others in the orchestra to do the work. I was being selfish (flashback to five-year-old tantrum -  I hope no one was seriously hurt?). I allowed this selfishness to consume me for much of the early process of the Artistic Challenge. Sure, I was inspired when we worked with Yo-Yo (it’s literally impossible not to feel this way around him), but these meetings were unfortunately few and far between. Yo-Yo felt like Civic’s cool uncle. We only saw him around holidays or graduations. Sometimes he’d write us encouraging letters or pose for a photo that would receive a kajillion likes on Facebook and several ‘No way man, that’s so awesome!’ or ‘!!!!!!’ comments. Aside from those boosts, we were largely on our own.

In April, I had to miss a Beethoven rehearsal for a tour in Europe. When I returned, I begged to continue to be a part of the orchestra, to stay on with the project. At this point I’d already done a good deal of score study, listened to 17 different recordings all the way through, could play the first three movements from memory, and was now comfortable enough with the rest of the people in the orchestra that I wanted to keep playing. Unfortunately the policy laid out in the beginning of the project was that no person could miss any rehearsal for any reason. Period. I hate the rules. It wasn’t until I was “kicked out” of the project that I really began to identify with and take ownership of this symphony. Tell me I can’t do something and I’ll work twice as hard to outdo your highest expectations. I’m such a little boy.

I begrudgingly agreed to stay on as a pair of ears during the conductor-less rehearsals, and seriously, thank God I didn’t walk away; there I was, again slouched in one of those plushy red-velvet Orchestra Hall audience seats (its impossible to sit up straight in them), this time much further away from the stage, score in hand and about to play my small part in the first unconducted full rehearsal, except this time I wasn’t fuming. It was May now, and it had been several months since my inner tantrum. I was simply excited to see, to hear what would happen. Over the course of the two days before this rehearsal, somewhere around 80 emails were exchanged between the principals, our orchestra manager, Yo-Yo and myself ranging from simple sentence statements to lengthy, multi-page proposals on rehearsal structure, how to phrase, where time is taken and where it is not, overarching general gripes countered with words of encouragement, and whether to crescendo to piano or past it at the most delicate part of the symphony (pretty sure blood was spilled over this last small detail). Everyone was a little nervous at the onset. How to proceed!? Rehearsing a quartet is one thing, an unconducted baroque concerto another— even a chamber-sized orchestra playing a Mozart symphony is tricky but manageable…. a full orchestra rehearsing middle period Beethoven without a real leader? Can you say historically informed performance anxiety?

During the final rehearsals there was no clear point of transcendence, no singular ‘Aha’ moment I could accurately pin down, no instant where I held up my hands announcing I was switching sides, “Everyone, I just wanted to say that I’ve been a fool and I want to go on the record… I am down with Beethoven 6!” Yet as each rehearsal went further and we came closer to the final performance, this became my prevailing mood- there were these episodes where the track in my head aligned exactly with what I heard, what I wanted. But this was a conductorless orchestra; an absolute democracy. On stage some discussions would last much longer than need be, points were repeated, problems would remain unsolved. Every time the orchestra stopped I feared it would never get started again because of an inadvertent tempo-related filibuster. There was no space for me, the individual, to get my way.

Yet I had immense power, I just wasn’t used to it. I could say, “more flutes in bar 12, and here, second violins play out continuing the line the firsts gave you” or, “the time taken in this measure feels inorganic in the strings, decide what you want to do and be unified”. I had the best of both worlds. I was part of the orchestra but I didn’t have to play, a conductor without the worry of cueing anything. It didn’t matter whether a reviewer would call my interpretation garbage and contrived or if my three pattern crescendo made me look constipated, I was invisible! So there I sat, nerding-out with my score in the back of the hall, and I couldn’t have been happier. Beethoven 6 became, if you’ll allow me, a walk in the park.

Sunday afternoon. I get a call from Henry, our principal flutist. He asks me if I’d want to play in the concert tomorrow. I say, “Of course! But I’m sure they won’t let me play— you know how they are.” Henry said that wasn’t true, that if he could garner enough support from the rest of the orchestra, if enough people said they wanted me to play, then our manager would allow it. I was still skeptical, I told him I was really flattered and thanked him all the same. Later that evening I received an email from our manager saying the orchestra wanted me to play tomorrow, asking if I was up to it. YES! I felt so good. I wanted to hug my orchestra— the whole thing at once! I wanted ice cream cake, party poppers, champagne and those things you blow on that unroll quickly making that awesomely annoying noise. I. was. so. happy.

Monday morning. Paavo Jarvi und Die Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie Bremen. For some reason I hadn’t heard this recording yet…

First Movement- Faster than us.

Second Movement- Seems about right, maybe a touch quicker.

Third Movement- Faster than us.

Fourth Movement- Faster than us.

Fifth Movement- About right. They do this super cool lugubrious thing at 37:40, check it out.

#1 Faster does not mean better. #2 For the first time, I found myself comparing professional recordings with celebrity conductors to my orchestra, The Civic Orchestra of Chicago. It’s always the other way around. I cannot seriously recall a time when it wasn’t, comparing whatever orchestra I was playing in to the professionals saying, “We sure ain’t no Vienna Phil or Berlin or Cleveland or Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie or Chicago etc. This was the first time I could say something like, “The DKB is no Civic Orchestra,” and mean it in a positive way.

Monday night. Concert night. I distinctly remember Josh (principal cellist)‘s head go up and down, starting the symphony. I remember smiling with the bass section when we pounded low F natural drones in the first movement. We weren’t where you’d normally find the basses; we’d been swung around behind the violas, and I definitely partied with the back of their section. I danced in the third movement. I had the blood scared out of me when the timpani played FF in the storm… she was literally right behind me. I felt goosebumps as we brought the symphony to a close. I don’t know if we went past piano or if we didn’t. I don’t care. We all connected and looked up and felt it. This was unity. This 1% of the time, this holistic focus, this energy and perfection makes all the rest of the fumbled, disjointed and out-of-tune moments worth it. It’s the best thing ever.

Then it was over. I’ve never been so dehydrated. I staggered backstage, chugging countless shot-glass-sized cups of filtered water—never enough. But something wasn’t right. Usually an amazing musical experience wears me out, I’ll have to go home immediately, I talk to no one, I need to be alone and decompress— to sort out what just happened to my body and mind, to find the rupture in my soul. This concert was different, it blew by so quickly. I felt amnesiac, like we all flashed, burned and cooled together within an instant. Beethoven 6 and the Civic Orchestra. A vacuum-packed supernova— just add water! So much freaking water.

Still dying of thirst as I quickly locked the bathroom door and stumbled out of my tuxedo. I felt different. I wanted to kiss everyone, to tap a 21-keg salute, to dive naked from a cliff into an icy pool, I needed something intense and tactile to mirror what happened to my insides. Somehow I became an extremophile in a volcano. I was BURSTING! I couldn’t wait to get upstairs, stupid penguin suit. Why do we still wear this garbage— we aren’t servants anymore! Once I finally got backstage there weren’t as many people. I grabbed whoever I could and hugged them. Only now I realize I kept saying, “I’m so proud of you. I’m so proud of you. I’m so proud of you.” Its true, I was and still am very proud of all my colleagues in the orchestra. But “I’m so proud of you” sounds much better than— “I was wrong. I was an idiot. Roundly reproach me, corporal punishment, whatever - Beethoven is the best! I’m sorry. Please forgive me!” Most people probably wouldn’t know what I was talking about. But that’s fine, it doesn’t matter.

Maybe that’s what it took. Maybe all of this was some sort of divine plan for me to get on board with this symphony. Any canonical work might have done it for me. But I’m glad my experience happened exactly as it did. Perhaps it really was all for a reason. Maybe Yo-Yo’s megabrain somehow perceived my silent outbursts, or maybe he heard us all, the whole orchestra begging for this challenge. Maybe I just grew up a little, told my ego to shut up for once, and allowed myself to help create the community around me instead of work against it, to be a positive force instead of a barrier. I can’t wait for next year’s big challenge, the summit of Everest or mission to the moon. I know I’ll be readier and more willing. I now have a bunch of friends and the real tools to make it happen… I just hope its not Beethoven 8.


Text and gif by Will Riley Robbins

Updates from Belize: the Progress of the NYOCB

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Civic Orchestra horn Cara Sawyer is currently in Belize City to support the brass section of the new National Youth Orchestra and Choir of Belize.  She’s joined forces with two colleagues from the YOA Orchestra of the Americas’ Global Leaders Program: some Chicagoans may already know Ivan Valbuena (clarinet) and Vania Garcia (cello), musicians who participated in the 2013 Chicago Youth In Music Festival and performed  Ein Heldenleben under the baton of Carlos Miguel Prieto in February. Cara is also working with violinist Maggie Gould, an alumnus of both Northwestern University and the YOA. Maggie teaches violin in Belize, and is helping to develop this orchestra with the YOA and Belize’s National Institute of Culture and History.

If learning has an age limit, they never told me.  They never told the people of Belize, either. Belizeans of all ages have been coming out of the woodwork with their various brass instruments to work with me on brass technique, theory, instrument maintenance and anything else I can pull out of my hat.  Some haven’t played since high school, some are learning for the first time, and some, who already have experience, are thirsting for new ways to advance.  Some are in the orchestra and some are still hoping to join. 

9-year-old Sokoni is the youngest, and very natural at the horn.  Zane, a trumpet player in the orchestra, shows up daily and has extraordinary promise. Then there’s the Seguro family.  Young Ted shows up for lessons each day with his grandma Ruby (pictured above) and their French horns.  Ted and Ms. Ruby are learning the instrument together, and various cousins and uncles play trumpet, clarinet, viola, trombone, and anything else they can get their hands on (they are currently looking for a tuba, but the cost is prohibitive).  There is a total of 23 musicians – yes, 23! – in their family.

Earlier this season, the YOA Orchestra of the Americas partnered with NICH, Belize’s National Institute for Culture and History. As a part of this partnership, YOA violinist Maggie Gould (USA) was brought in for a six-month residency to help the orchestra get on its feet.  The collaboration also brought three members of YOA’s Global Leaders program in for a week. Vania Garcia (cello, Bolivia), Iván Valbuena (clarinet, Colombia) and myself spend weekday afternoons giving semi-private and group lessons either at NYOCB headquarters or at Pallotti School where NYOCB rents space.   Lessons are the most important part of our work here - these students will be the teachers for Belize’s next generation of musicians.

Vania has been concentrating on the NYOCB’s low strings, preparing them to play with the YOA during the orchestra’s launch in August.  She says she is focusing on fundamentals because, although the occasional professional low string player passes through Belize, the local string specialists are violinists. She corrects a bassist’s bow hold, and later encourages cellist Anthony to get a bigger sound by releasing tension. Maggie has been here since January teaching violin and viola, smoothing out rehearsal logistics and helping to procure future funding, among other things. Students have also gotten regular doses of team-building lessons from Maggie to encourage community and an ongoing support network once she leaves at the end of May.  Her hard work will undoubtedly help set the NYOCB up for continued success and growth. 

Meanwhile, Iván has been primarily teaching clarinet and saxophone. He also coaches NYOCB wind sectionals a few times during the week. On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, Iván and I work with Mr. Lucio’s woodwinds and brass students at Pallotti in separate sectionals.  On Tuesday, we visit an elementary school in one of the harsher neighborhoods of Belize City.  Mr. Young’s right-hand man, Mr. John Raeburn, is starting a beginning band here with students aged 4-12. Besides helping the community, this kind of outreach will eventually develop a broader recruitment base for the orchestra. 

 The week goes by incredibly quickly, officially ending on Saturday after an intimate performance the YOA Global Leaders gave for the Belize City music community we worked with this week. The future looks good for the NYOCB. Clarinetist Xunan Novelo (Pronounced “Shu-non,” the name means “princess” in Mayan) is pursuing a music education degree in the States in the fall. Then there is Ms. Courtney Gillett, who will be managing the orchestra once Maggie leaves and will also join the YOA violin section on this summer’s tour, the first Belizean ever to have that honor.  All this and the orchestra has not even officially launched yet! Mr. Young, Mr. Raeburn, Ms. Gillett and the others have a lot of work ahead of them, but the table is set for NYOCB’s success – and I can’t wait for August!

Text and photo by Cara Sawyer

Musicians of the Americas Join to Build a Belizean Orchestra

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Civic Orchestra horn Cara Sawyer is currently in Belize City to support the brass section of the new National Youth Orchestra and Choir of Belize.  She’s joined forces with two colleagues from the YOA Orchestra of the Americas' Global Leaders Program: some Chicagoans may already know Ivan Valbuena (clarinet) and Vania Garcia (cello), musicians who participated in the 2013 Chicago Youth In Music Festival and performed  Ein Heldenleben under the baton of Carlos Miguel Prieto in February. Cara is also working with violinist Maggie Gould, an alumnus of both Northwestern University and the YOA. Maggie teaches violin in Belize, and is helping to develop this orchestra with the YOA and Belize’s National Institute of Culture and History.

Organizing a youth orchestra in Belize presents challenges that music educators in the States do not have to face. The idea of professional classical music is foreign, and since music stores are few and far between, obtaining instruments and other physical resources can be quite challenging. This is, of course, in addition to the tumultuous recent political history in this emerging country, only officially in its mid-forties. Such are the circumstances Mr. Colville Young and his colleagues find themselves in as they work on this project for NICH, The National Institute for Culture and History. As a result, YOA and NICH are partnering to set the project up using members of YOA’s Global Leaders program, namely Vania Garcia (cello, Bolivia), Iván Valbuena (clarinet, Colombia) and myself.

With all this and more in mind, I had no idea what to expect when the cab arrived to bring Vania and me to Pallotti Catholic High School on Saturday. The facilities, however, were more than adequate and we were quickly installed in breezy rooms to begin our work with the NYOCB, or National Youth Orchestra and Choir of Belize.

During each visit to Pallotti, my first hour is a brass coaching session with a mix of horns, trumpets, tuba and trombone, so I teach breathing, tuning and brass technique - the basics are always valuable. Two teachers, also the local brass experts, sit in on the session. Lucio specializes in low brass and John plays trumpet, but both are learning horn this afternoon. As the day progresses, I find out what it is like to teach and learn music in Belize. The internet is an essential tool - John, also an administrator for the NYOCB, has been learning horn via YouTube - quite successfully, in fact - and is happy to confirm some facts and techniques he has picked up. During the coming week I will share what resources I have with the current students with the goal that become the next generation of teachers. After the coaching, I teach a trumpet lesson to one of the regular orchestra members, 20-yr-old Zane, then lead a wind/percussion sectional, after which they let me sit in with the full orchestra, led by Mr. Colville Young.

The NYOCB staff have been working to bring this orchestra into the world since January. Logistical pieces such as consistent rehearsal spaces are beginning to fall into place, and the orchestra’s forces are slowly but surely growing.  Our jobs this week are to ensure that growth curve continue to rise because, ready or not, in August the YOA Orchestra of the Americas finishes its summer tour in Belize City to officially launch the NYOCB, and I have complete and utter confidence that this orchestra will make it happen.


Text by Cara Sawyer

Content, Communication, Reception: Staging an Artistic Challenge with Yo-Yo Ma

Last September when the Civic orchestra met to commence the season, I was a combination of nerves and excitement — not sure just what this year would bring.  The meeting began with a message from Yo-Yo Ma, bringing us all to silence.  His warm voice welcomed us to the season, after which he promptly set out his vision for our year, outlining three components key to a successful performance: content, communication, and reception.  Yo-Yo professed that, in his experience, “only when the three are truly joined does live performance become the gratifying experience we love.”  And with this, he set us on our orchestral journey.  In anticipation of our concert with Yo-Yo on Monday, I’ll use this blog to explore his reflections on these three ideas and how the Civic has put them to use.

1. “Content is your engagement with the composer and the essence of the music.”

Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, the Pastoral, has been our lab this year.  Rich in bird calls, babbling brooks, and thunderclaps, each movement begins with a somewhat narrative title. Respectively these are:

Awakening of cheerful feelings upon arrival in the country

Scene at the brook

Happy gathering of country folk

Thunderstorm; Storm

Shepherds’ song; cheerful and thankful feelings after the storm

In addition to Beethoven’s titles, Yo-Yo and the Civic came up with our own words to describe the music. Pencilled in above the beginning of different movements I have written: “open, expansive, tranquil; Fluidity, warmth, ease; Rustic, frolic, beer; Nervous, sinister, powerful; and calm, reflective, awe-some.”   In one rehearsal Yo-Yo asked us to visualize our parts. Are we a fish in the brook? A bird looking down at the scene? Are we the water itself?  

Depth, as Yo-Yo described it, is “to know a tradition deeply.”  Members of the Civic have studied our craft from a very young age, and each bring a great deal of individual knowledge about the tradition of performing Beethoven’s music. In addition, we have spent this year listening to a slew of recordings while studying our handy mini-scores, practicing the piece in tiny chamber-group settings, and even performing the piece with several different interpretations. All of this has helped shaped our understanding of the content of Beethoven’s Pastoral, but sheer knowledge is not enough.

2. “Communication is your translation of that content as you play.”

When performing a work of solo Bach, score analysis and technical ability are enough to communicate an artist’s interpretation.  An orchestra, however, doesn’t function like a collective of soloists, each bringing his or her own translation to the rehearsals. An orchestra serves the conductor’s translation. In a conductorless orchestra, this is obviously not possible. Up until this last week, Civic have been led by either Maestro Colnot, Yo-Yo Ma, or Sean Kubota, Maestro Muti’s conducting apprentice, but those guides have let go the hand of the orchestra. In our concert next week, the translation will be our own.  

You might be thinking that this sounds really hard.  We are sixty individuals with different ideas about not just a short passage, but a five-movement symphony. Our ability to communicate in a productive and collegial way will determine how successfully we work  - and thus perform - in congress. (Who would have expected instruction in government from a cellist?)

Becoming hyper-aware of physical movement has been key to playing conductorless. Instead of slightly raising our eyes to view a singular figure at the center of the orchestra, we have to look across the entire orchestra and exaggerate our movement.  This seems a simple enough solution, but seldom do we push through the entire symphony without things fraying a bit.

Yo-Yo’s solution to the problem of simultaneously reading the score and each other’s body language: memorize the score. Right. Of course. Playing Beethoven’s 6th Symphony at a high level is never easy.  Playing without a conductor is tricky, but do-able.  Playing without music, however, threatens to stack the odds against us.  At this point, I cannot say for sure where our music will be on Monday — in our instrument cases, on the ground, or on a lowered stand.

Which brings me to flexibility. In his message, Yo-Yo said “flexibility is your ability to assess other’s skills and values, rapidly distilling the essential ingredients to create a successful performance.” Playing standing up, sitting down, cross-legged, inside a hall, outside on a river, with or without music on our stands (pretty much anything besides with our hands tied, please!), we have experimented to see what it is that will help us to communicate this piece as a whole.  

The end-goal of this process is to know the piece more intimately and to bring it to life for our audience.  The point is not to have the piece memorized, but to use the exercise of memorization to help us internalize the piece.  Crazy practice techniques aside, the true test will be to see if the communication we’ve built with each other is just as strong with the audience.

3.“Reception is listening and assessing to see if the original intention has been conveyed.”

Yo-Yo is an icon to us all because of his interest in reception. It’s not his pedigree or his flawless playing, but his empathy that makes us love him. This year he has sought not to teach the Civic better technique, but to show us this empathy, this special relationship that’s possible between both among performers and between the orchestra and its audience.  On Monday, it is more important for the Civic to have a meaningful exchange with our audience than to give a glossy performance. In Yo-Yo’s words, it’s about “passing it on,” which he defines as “the ability to convey all that you treasure —ideas, emotions, and spirit— through music, transferring and inspiring that same spirit in others.”

As I sat listening to this message back in September, I was surrounded by strangers, not knowing what lay ahead. I don’t know what exactly will happen on Monday, but I’ll be sitting with my friends and trusted colleagues, ready for anything.

If I Only Had the Nerve: Mock Trials at the CSO

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Imagine an orchestra hall.  Grand and imposing, it’s lights glare down at you standing on a bare stage. Tier after tier of vacant, ominous seats tower before you. A few bright beams from the canopy above converge, blurring the features of the space, and making its depths seem immeasurable.  One glance is enough to send you reeling back. You see your feet command a measly two feet width of the cavernous stage that is able to swallow you whole. By this time your throat has contracted as if the air has thinned, and always, your hands are ice cold and moist with sweat. Just before you, on the main floor, is a screen.  You try not to imagine what is behind it, but you know, and you wait for an Oz-like voice to guide you through a trial that could determine your fate.

This is not a nightmare.  This is a young musician’s descent into a bad audition.

Musicians who have practiced endlessly to get to this point can find their bow bouncing uncontrollably or their vibrato nervously wobbling out of control.  How can we learn to cope with the detrimental effects of pressure? Luckily, a few things can help. A musician can take as many auditions as possible, for example. The more I put myself in a nerve-wracking situation, the better I can understand how my mind and body will react. The more I can prepare myself for the anxiety, the better I can cope with it in the moment. Just simulating the audition experience works too.  The only thing even scarier than playing an audition in front of a judging panel is playing an audition in front of a bunch of judging colleagues, not to mention a few principal musicians in the CSO.  Which is what happened a few weeks ago in a Civic coaching session.

Many Civic musicians are constantly preparing for different auditions. Much of the audition repertoire is standard, which means that in each excerpt my colleagues and I have a list of specific things we either know to execute or avoid. We’ve heard them and played them a million times.  These bits of music are the most challenging in the whole of the orchestral repertoire, and we cannot help but listen to them with a critical and calculating ear. Although we feel for our colleagues, we’re conditioned to pounce on any possible mistake.

Six of my braver colleagues volunteered as lab rats for these mock auditions with CSO musicians. They took turns playing excerpts behind the screen as our CSO coaches, concertmaster Mr. Chen, principal second violin Mr. Dodge, and cello Mr. Stucka sat with the rest of the Civic musicians listening intently and taking notes. It was my first time on the other side of the screen, and by the time the six candidates had played, I was exhausted and losing focus. Each candidate began to sound more or less the same. Although each player had his or her own strengths and weaknesses, it was hard to say which was “better” or “worse.”

Thankfully we had some time for our CSO coaches to share their wisdom. In order to stand out to a panel of judges, they told us, a candidate needs to distinguish his or her playing.  Just practicing doggedly like everyone else will not win a job.  Mr. Chen even said he could “live with a mistake” from a candidate but only if the playing was with brilliance and passion. He acknowledged the intimidation factor of auditioning, but admonished us from going into an audition with a scared and apologetic attitude; an error isn’t a dealkiller.  What struck me was that the panel wants me to play well, of course, but also play like myself, give a performance of the music that evinces my own unique way of bringing the music to life. No one wants to sit and listen to perfectly anemic renditions of the same five minutes of music all day. All of the CSO coaches were in accord on this account.

So. How does one go about creating an original performance of standard repertoire?  Mr. Dodge’s advice:  to play our Mozart with the most Mozartean flair, our Brahms as rich and brooding as Brahms intended - in short, to explore our own unique understanding of the composition to its logical end, and in so doing give each piece a story and a character of its own.  He went on to encourage us to approach our orchestral music with as much intent as we would solo Bach or a concerto. Like Yo-Yo Ma’s hope for the Civic to “own” the score to Beethoven 6, our challenge in an audition is not just to technically master each excerpt, but to know them intimately and give them life.

Before heading off to a CSO rehearsal, Mr. Chen shared a few more thoughts with the Civic musicians.  He explained how the CSO was his “dream job” and how thankful he was for this because in today’s professional orchestra world, not many dream jobs exist.  Life for many professional musicians across the country consists of hours upon hours of driving from gig to gig, piecing together a living by playing in several different groups, and having to figure out ways to save for retirement, pay for healthcare, and support a family. For young musicians finding our way, the outlook can be bleak.  Though the audition process can be financially stressful and a mental minefield, that’s no reason to cheat ourselves by playing timidly or with pessimism.  Rather, the opposite is true. 

All of our playing, be it for an experienced audition panel or naïve audience, should have an importance and a life of its own.

Music In Prisons In Chicago

From Tuesday, April 9 to Sunday, April 14, musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra collaborated with Music in Prisons, a London-based organization specializing in musical programming for incarcerated youth and adults, to offer an intensive music-making and composition workshop at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center on Chicago’s near West Side. During their stay in Chicago, Music In Prisons posted daily updates of their Cook County work to their facebook page. Those updates are great reading, and we’re glad to be able to re-post them here.


Sunday, April 14th,

Uniformed staff member - “ This project has sent ripples of positivity round the jail. We are so happy that you’ve been here and staff have been really enthusiastic and supportive because something constructive has been happening for the lads. It made it really easy to get things done; people were pleased to help as they saw what you were doing was really positive.”

It was a fabulous end to a wonderful project. 2 gigs today, one to about 60 lads from the jail which, Nick and I decided was one of the most surreal performances we had ever done inside. The lads were silent; teenage lads, silent… They clapped hard enough; it’s just that there was no banter, no clever comments, no laughs; just a respectful silence. It really was quite strange.

The second gig was the polar opposite; by and large it was staff from the jail, CSO representatives and several families and friends of the performers. There were some mums who were overwhelmed, others who stood up to applaud their sons and a fair amount of tears. Even though we have seen it before it was a stark reminder of how far imprisonment spreads.

An unexpected bonus (better described as massive excitement) was that the conductor of CSO, Riccardo Muti, turned up to see our performance this afternoon. He is totally committed to this work and proved it by coming to watch. Not sure we can remember any instance of this kind happening before; support from afar maybe but having one of the world’s greatest conductors turn up to a jail on his only day off in weeks? Hats off.

Big thanks to Dan, Lora, Karen, Ella, Cynthia and Dave from CSO for helping make it a cracker of a project and one we know the lads will remember for a long time. So will we.

And Jonathan? You are a total legend.

Teaching staff – “I just want to say thank you so much for all of this; that was just the best thing I have ever heard.”

Music In Prisons In Chicago

From Tuesday, April 9 to Sunday, April 14, musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra collaborated with Music in Prisons, a London-based organization specializing in musical programming for incarcerated youth and adults, to offer an intensive music-making and composition workshop at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center on Chicago’s near West Side. During their stay in Chicago, Music In Prisons posted daily updates of their Cook County work to their facebook page. Those updates are great reading, and we’re glad to be able to re-post them here.


Saturday, April 13th,


Member of staff – “sorry to interrupt, I just wanted to say thank you so much for what you have done for these lads this week. I have been working with them for a year and have tried to instil in them that the colour of people’s skin is irrelevant and that they mustn’t presume that people who they perceive as ‘different’ think they (the lads) are not worth the time. You have totally proved that to them this week and I am so grateful to you.”

We were pretty nervous today as it was the first time the additional CSO musicians had joined us and the first time Nick’s late night compositions had seen the light of day. True to form there was no need to worry as the musicians were amazing and Nick’s compositions were equally so. The lads seemed quite bemused by it all; new people in the band and new sounds to hear but in a very short time, there were conversations being struck up and unfamiliar instruments being tried out and it seemed a real shame that we had to stop all this to have a rehearsal. The amount of staff that ‘accidentally happened to be passing the church’ went into double figures today and all of them were open-mouthed at what was happening. The goings on in the church seems to have become a bit of a focal point for staff this week.

Stage presence and composure whilst on it are still things that don’t come naturally to the lads but it seems that no matter how many times we mention it and give them guidance that it’ll still be down to chance whether they manage it or not. We need to try and get them to stop having conversations into the mic during the introduction to songs, as to hear about shower gel and how much cheese on a pizza is too much just before a song about ‘hopes and dreams’, seems a little off track. Or maybe not?

Final request from member of staff: -
“Excuse me, I need to listen to your accent. Can you say ‘strawberry’ please?” “Strawberry.” ”If I give you my cellphone number would you say that on a message?”

Music In Prisons In Chicago

From Tuesday, April 9 to Sunday, April 14, musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra collaborated with Music in Prisons, a London-based organization specializing in musical programming for incarcerated youth and adults, to offer an intensive music-making and composition workshop at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center on Chicago’s near West Side. During their stay in Chicago, Music In Prisons posted daily updates of their Cook County work to their facebook page. Those updates are great reading, and we’re glad to be able to re-post them here.


Friday, April 12th,


Young lad - “Are we still going to have pizza on Sunday?”
“Yes, I’m sure that’s the plan. They’re going to have to be large ones (indicating a big circle) to feed us lot aren’t they?”
“…Are they circles? I’ve only ever seen triangle shaped ones.”
(demonstrating) “If you put lots of pizza triangles together you get a circle.”
“Wow, that’ll be the most pizza I’ve ever had.”

The marimba we will be using arrived in several small boxes which took us somewhat by surprise; we have arranged to meet early tomorrow to pool our knowledge of IKEA flat pack assembly.

The lads are getting excited now as tomorrow, the extra CSO musicians will be joining us on the home strait. However, today it was hard to keep the focus. Even though the project team knows there is still a huge amount that can be done to perfect the tracks, to a young lad who has just played all his notes in almost the right order and in almost the right place, it’s a hard thing to understand. It’s a real juggling act to keep things moving and just one person losing concentration and deciding to move away from the rehearsal space can have a profound effect on the whole group. That was a regular occurrence today. We realised that any more rehearsal without something ‘new’ happening was going to have a detrimental effect so decided to change the plan for tomorrow and just do a quick run through with the band before the CSO players arrive rather than the 2 hour rehearsal that was scheduled. As it has done from the start, the jail listened and accommodated.

Slowly, we are getting to know them all a bit better; their personalities are coming out and they are engaging with us more. The language/slang is amusing – as often as we say ‘can you say that again please?’, they say the same to us and then insist we say a random word over and over again as they like the sound of it. Just before the end of the class today the drummer asked, ‘”do you think Americans speak proper English?” The answer to this question will be explored tomorrow.

And, for the record, the B Minor Mass last night was absolutely incredible.

Music In Prisons In Chicago

From Tuesday, April 9 to Sunday, April 14, musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra are collaborating with Music in Prisons, a London-based organization specializing in musical programming for incarcerated youth and adults, to offer an intensive music-making and composition workshop at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center on Chicago’s near West Side. During their stay in Chicago, Music In Prisons is posting daily updates of their Cook County work to their facebook page. Those updates are great reading, and we’re glad to be able to re-post them here.

Thursday, April 11th,

Lady in café - “Oh, your accent! Where do you come from?”
“We’re from London.”
“Do you know what we love? We love watching your Parliament on the news channel and all the loud noises they make when everybody speaks.” (followed by a remarkably accurate impression of the House of Commons)

We now have our 4 tracks and the lads seem extremely enthusiastic about what they have achieved. However, the third track just doesn’t seem to have settled; in the main cos of having a drummer who is better suited to a mic and a lad on the high hat who can’t hold it together for much more than 10 seconds before diverting down some random musical road. It’s a shame as the track is strong but it rocks in a major way. Not quite sure how to sort that one…

After being given listening instructions last night, Nick came up with the start of a groove for the final track which was met with mass excitement and a rush for paper and pencils to write lyrics to it. The part of the show we have arrived at is ‘Hopes and Dreams’ and they all chose to write about love. It was revealing to hear that what they all hoped for was to love and be loved by someone. And all the more poignant since they are only 16 years old.

A bit of a treat for the MiP project team this evening as we have been given comp tickets to hear Riccardo Muti conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass. Not much to say about that asides from O.M.G.