NMI’s Notes for Peace joins local and global peace initiatives

Christina Johnson poses with her sons Aaron and Calen and holds a portrait of her son Christopher Kyle Johnson (1992–2015), commemorated in a new song composed through Notes for Peace.

© Todd Rosenberg Photography

As the International Day of Peace is observed on Sept. 21, the Negaunee Music Institute at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra launches a week of programming intended to promote peace in Chicago and around the world. The week’s activities will spotlight Notes for Peace, an NMI program that empowers Chicago families affected by gun violence to express their emotions, honor their loved ones and process their grief through the act of songwriting.

Notes for Peace was developed in partnership with the U.K.-based Irene Taylor Trust and Purpose Over Pain, a non-profit support and advocacy group for Chicago-area parents who have lost children to gun violence. Since 2017, more than 50 families have participated in songwriting workshops led by Civic Orchestra of Chicago Fellows and alumni, with guidance from Sara Lee and Rex Horan of the Irene Taylor Trust. The songs composed during these sessions subsequently have been performed by professional singers at live concerts and recorded at Chicago Recording Company.

Sept. 26, 6 p.m.: Three Notes for Peace music videos featured in a live stream of the Race Against Gun Violence at stridesforpeace.org

Sept. 27: New music videos available on NotesforPeace.org

On Sept. 23, Notes for Peace will be featured in The Peace Studio’s 100 Offerings of Peace, a project that brings together artists from many fields to create artwork in response to both the COVID-19 pandemic and the movement for racial justice. The Peace Studio will premiere a music video of a song titled “Forever Our Star,” composed by Christina Johnson, Roslyn Green and Juan Gabriel Olivares during the most recent Notes for Peace workshops.

Johnson, whose song honors her son Christopher Kyle Johnson (1992-2015), also will participate in a panel discussion about Notes for Peace, along with Purpose Over Pain co-founder Pam Bosley, vocalist Meagan McNeal, The Peace Studio co-founder Todd Shuster and NMI Director of School and Family Programs Jon Weber. The discussion will be moderated by Chicago journalist Lolly Bowean and streamed live.

Civic Orchestra musicians and alumni perform “Forever Our Star” at Chicago Recording Company.

© Todd Rosenberg Photography

In addition, three songs from Notes for Peace will be showcased during Chicago’s Race Against Gun Violence, an annual fund-raiser organized by Strides for Peace to benefit community organizations working to reduce and respond to gun violence in Chicago. The Negaunee Music Institute has invited Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association staff and musicians of the CSO, Civic Orchestra and Chicago Symphony Chorus to participate as runners or donate to the race, held virtually during the week of September 19-26, with the team’s proceeds supporting Purpose Over Pain. The weeklong event will culminate in a live streamed program on Sept. 26 featuring music videos of “Forever Our Star” and two additional songs by Notes for Peace families. “#TNDO” by Annette Flores, Sara Lee and Rex Horan honors Flores’ son, Neftali “Buzzo” Reyes, Jr. (1998-2017). “Prince Among Men” by Evangelist Harriett Holmes, Sara Lee and Rex Horan commemorates Holmes’ grandson, Nahmar “Prince Nemo” Trevell Holmes (1993-2016).

Vocalist Meagan McNeal performs “Forever Our Star” at Chicago Recording Company.

© Todd Rosenberg Photography

“Forever Our Star” was composed under unusual circumstances, as Notes for Peace workshops took place virtually in June 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Both NMI and Purpose Over Pain felt the work was important to continue, so parents and musicians adopted a socially distant, technology-based approach aligned with health and safety precautions. In addition to Johnson’s song, the songs of Anna Edwards and Lynne Turman, which honor their children — respectively Imario “Chief Rio” Maganda Ballard (1978-2018) and Charlesquille E. Ballard (1995-2019) — were composed over Zoom and recorded in person at Chicago Recording Company, where isolation in separate recording booths ensured the comfort and safety of the performers.

Reflecting on her experience with Notes for Peace, Johnson said, “I’m very grateful and thankful for this opportunity to have this platform for Christopher’s voice and legacy to carry on.” She recalls initially feeling nervous to meet over Zoom with musicians Roslyn Green and Juan Gabriel Olivares, both former Civic Orchestra Fellows, but she proceeded to share with them memories and stories about her son’s life. “Roz and Juan helped me to capture that and somehow put it all together to create the most amazing song about Christopher,” said Johnson. “Listening to Christopher’s song brings an instant smile to my heart.”

Johnson’s song was performed by Meagan McNeal, her neighbor nearly 15 years ago — a coincidence that the two women did not discover until their emotional reunion at the recording studio. In the song, McNeal sings Johnson’s moving words:

And I’ll always look to the sky
To find the star shining bright . . .
That’s you, Christopher,
The star.

“Singing this song in honor of Christopher is a huge honor to me,” said McNeal. “I think music is one of the most powerful tools on the planet to process anything. Music reaches us on a soul level. In this particular case, music is used to heal a grieving heart.”

Notes for Peace will continue with another series of virtual songwriting workshops in February. The studio recordings of over 50 songs composed to date can be heard on notesforpeace.org. The website also features family portraits, song lyrics and a video produced by Green River Films that poignantly captures the transformational process for both the families and the Civic Orchestra musicians who participate in Notes for Peace.