Music in Our Schools Month: Connecting to Compassion

Students from Clinton Elementary perform their courage-themed CSO-Connect project at the 2017 culminating event. The project was a story of student bullying, told through shadow-puppets and scored to live music.

© Todd Rosenberg Photography

The CSO-Connect project is at the very heart of our work as Civic Fellows. This project gives me chills and, fresh off a Winter Olympic-high from watching Chloe Kim and Shaun White represent the USA in the halfpipe, I can’t help but think of the fellows as symphonic representatives for our great City of Chicago. This is where we go for gold!

This project is our largest, most involved project of the season. It began last summer with Cliff Colnot’s arrangement of four prominent orchestral pieces specifically arranged for our fellows’ mixed instrumentation: Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra; Beethoven’s Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, and Smetana’s The Moldau.

With scores in hands, the fellows originally performed the arrangement our first week together, atop a party boat traversing up and down the Chicago River (a fitting scene to play The Moldau!). And we’ve been rehearsing ever since that summer evening.

The Civic Fellows debut the 2017-18 season’s CSO-Connect arrangement afloat the Chicago River on September 12, 2017.

These intense rehearsals focused on memorizing the music and devising an interactive program to accompany the presentation. The group had two workshops that focused on these interactive components: the first was with program director of Foundations of Music and former CSO teaching artist Brenda Fineberg, and the second was with the man who, quite literally, wrote the book on interactive performance, David Wallace.

Two fellows have been assigned to each of our seven Chicago Public Schools partners to work closely with the teachers and students on their own performances based on our Connect theme of “Let’s Explore: curiosity leads to empathy and understanding.” This past Friday marked our first of nine fully realized performances of the project. In addition to our in-school collaborations, next month the fellows will host the partner schools for a CSO concert related to the theme. Finally, in early May, we get to showcase all the students’ hard work at a culminating event with all the participating schools and teachers in attendance.

Now, while the scope of this is quite impressive, that is not what has me head over heels about the project, as I write this article on Valentine’s Day.

We spend a lot of time together … the Civic Fellows, that is. This team becomes your family and I can’t overstate how kind we are towards one another and how much support and respect there is when we are together. Like training for team USA, we have spent tireless, countless hours in the practice room and dedicated so much of the rest of our time to fine-tuning our Civic engagement skills, GoogleDocs, group texts and emails (so many emails) that go with it.

The 2017-18 Civic Fellows enjoy a lunch outing after their first CSO-Connect performance of the spring.

I think most impressive is that everyone comes to rehearsal with a passion for success, an ear for excellence and the heart to put it all out there and enjoy ourselves. As fellows, a project like Connect means not just playing our instruments to inspire, but playing to display a complete and total understanding of musicianship. We aim to engage the audience with our words, our insights on the music and our personal devotion to the craft!

It’s important to note that this is sometimes a scary position to be in — baring our soul to not just one another but to our audiences, as well. The group consistently acknowledges the challenge and rises to meet it with the fervor and tenacity of an Olympic athlete.

March is national Music in Our Schools Month. Young students need music education and the arts now more than ever. The point of education is to prepare students to enter the workplace, be fruitful members of society and think for themselves. We live in an era with constant communication via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and email, to name a few media. “Communication” and “collaboration” are buzz words for many occupations, and virtually every establishment uses at least one of the above mentioned social media tools. Our students need to know how to effectively listen and communicate, and they need to know how to work together in a team. Few things embody those skills so perfectly as making music with one another. Music combines so many disciplines, and it astounds me to hear so many people still consider it unnecessary or not worthwhile in the school curriculum. That is why this project is so special — because we actually get to meet these students and share with them why music is so important.

The attitude and message of the fellows’ mission is one of inclusion, empowerment and compassion. If there is just one takeaway we hope for our audiences to gain from our performances, it is that they walk home with a little more humanity through music. We too can inspire the new generation to go for gold in all aspects of life.

By second year Civic Fellow and trumpet Alex Schwarz