Notes for Peace: seeking solace through song in the aftermath of gun violence

Music, like time, is often referred to as a healer, a balm for the soul. Notes for Peace, a program of the Negaunee Music Institute at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, helps to turn these sentiments into reality for Chicago families who have suffered the unimaginable loss of a loved one due to gun violence. Through collaborative songwriting workshops and performances, Notes for Peace empowers people to honor their loved ones, express their emotions and process their grief in their journey to seek healing.

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.

Two former Notes for Peace participants spoke to a focus group in December 2019 to share their experience. 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.”

Archie was a victim.
Police brutality stole him from me,
And though they took him,
They cannot steal my memories, they are strong,
So I’m his voice now,
A voice that’s shouting, screaming to be heard,
I have no choice now,
My weapons are my words.

A recent video produced by Green River Films poignantly captures the transformational process for both the grieving families and the Civic musicians who participate in Notes for Peace. The families see their memories take the form of a meaningful musical tribute as they share deeply personal stories, feelings and reflections with the Civic Fellows. In turn, the musicians develop lyrics and melodies with the families until a complete, orchestrated song is created. These songs are performed by an amazing group of singers and instrumentalists, recorded and made available, along with the songs’ lyrics and photos of those who mourn and their loved ones, on the website

The most recent set of songwriting workshops, held in June 2020, took a different form due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Health and safety precautions required that families and musicians adopt a socially distant, technology-based approach, but the power and emotion of the songs created is certainly still there. While a public performance will have to wait, the songs of Anna Edwards, Lynne Turman and Christina Johnson, composed in honor of their children — respectively, Imario “Chief Rio” Maganda Ballard (1978–2018), Charlesquille E. Ballard (1995–2019) and Christopher Kyle Johnson (1992–2015) — 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.

Three new music videos featuring Notes for Peace songs were showcased during Strides for Peace: The Race Against Gun Violence, presented virtually in September. The race annually raises funds for dozens of Chicago-area community organizations that work to reduce and respond to gun violence. In addition, Christina Johnson, her song “Forever Our Star” and a short video were 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.

Johnson’s song was sung by Meagan McNeal, who was her neighbor nearly 15 years ago, a coincidence that the two women did not discover until their emotional reunion at the recording studio. In “Forever Our Star,” 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.

Reflecting on her experience with Notes for Peace, Johnson said, “I’m very grateful 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.”

The Negaunee Music Institute is committed to serving the families of victims of gun violence through the important work of Notes for Peace, which will continue with another series of virtual workshops in February. As we find ourselves in the wake of a violent year in Chicago, the need for emotional support and advocacy for peace remains. This music gives comfort to those who need to heal and voices to those who need to be heard.