CPS Students and CSO Bring Music and Mettle to Center Stage

Yo-Yo Ma joined students of several Chicago Public Schools and their CSO mentors in a program tackling the theme courage in its many forms.


“Who are we?’” violist and Civic Orchestra fellow Kip Riecken asked a crowd of students. “What makes you, ‘you’?” Bassoonist Midori Samson invited the audience to share their answers together, all at once. 

“I…” she began, “Am…” 

The hall erupted into noise as the students shouted their responses while brass sounded from the back of the room. Fourteen fellows from the Civic Orchestra of Chicago stepped forward to kick off the event. In a bright and resounding major key, the piece they played captured the jovial spirit of last Tuesday morning at the Walt Disney Magnet School. 

The performance celebrated the Curriculum Program, the three-year-long partnership between the Negaunee Music Institute at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) and five Chicago Public Schools (CPS). This year, musicians from the Civic Orchestra of Chicago mentored CPS students as they created written work, visual art, and performances based on courage, a theme drawn from Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote and the tone poem by Richard Strauss it inspired. 

Tuesday’s audience included 350 CPS students and their teachers, members of the Civic Orchestra, and world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Ma, who serves as the Judson and Joyce Green Creative Consultant to the CSO, works closely with the Negaunee Music Institute’s outreach programs and mentors the Civic Fellows.  

We were told at the beginning that the performances would explore mature themes, and this was no exaggeration. The students handled such topics with remarkable maturity. 

Clinton Elementary School opened the student showcase with a shadow puppet show about a transgender high school girl. Students played keyboard and percussion, interspersed with short violin and cello solos from the fellows. Menacing melodies channeled the gravity of themes such as transphobia and suicide. 

Edwards Elementary School students followed with a protest song titled, “Ugly Man, Uglier Heart,” led by their music teacher Christopher Dixon and accompanied by the Civic Fellows. Dixon explained that his students—who mostly identify as Latinx—belonged to a community targeted by the current president's administration. The performers encouraged audience participation, inviting us to shout, “Don’t let them do it!” to convey the fighting spirit of the song. 

The Negaunee-CPS partnership also included a professional development program for teachers. Not all schools presented group showcases, illustrating the different ways in which teachers chose to channel student creativity after participating in these workshops.   

Four students from the Walt Disney Magnet School took the stage to individually express their “main themes.” The students described their various moods—happy, confused, and even “feeling as excited as a flower in bloom”—and translated these feelings into music performed by the fellows.  

The students of Swift Elementary Specialty School performed two pieces in separate ensembles; the first was an original composition based on The Circuit, a novel about a family of undocumented Mexican immigrants. The more dissonant second piece was inspired by the war hero Desmond Thomas Doss, who refused to use violence on the battlefield. 

Finally, Agassiz Elementary School performed six astonishing slam poems, tackling themes like legacy, family, and, most memorably, feminism. The students, who also incorporated musical elements such as percussion into their performance, had their pieces completely memorized. Delivered in sequence with passion and purpose, the poems were a powerful conclusion to the displays of student expression and innovation. 

“It can be kind of scary to put that stuff out there and talk about it in front of a lot of people,” violinist and fellow Tara Lynn Ramsey said. 

Ma, an artist whom Samson described as “the embodiment of courage, identity, and incredible musicianship,” echoed Ramsey’s sentiment. “It’s really hard sometimes to say things that are very personal,” Ma said. “This is where the art form can protect the vulnerability that we sometimes feel. We will have a better conclusion to the stories we make about ourselves.” Ma then played “Song of the Birds,” a short but moving Catalan folk song arranged by Pablo Casals.  

“As you go through life, you find out that […music] affects people,” Ma explained afterwards. “It is a service that people have invented because it serves a certain need in society.” He pointed out, for example, that he knows a violinist who works as an artist-in-residence with the Boston Police Department. 

“I think what’s missing in our society is this middle ground…to get people together in a neutral space that’s not charged,” he continued. A concert hall, for instance, can provide a more neutral space than that offered in a politician’s office. But creating such spaces takes work. 

“It takes…administration, teachers, and people like Jonathan McCormick [head of The Negaunee Music Institute] to come together,” Ma said, referring to the Curriculum Program. But the power of each individual performer should not be underestimated. 

“Even though we are children…we do have a voice and know what’s happening,” said one of the students that Riecken and Samson interviewed in between performances.  

Ma agreed. “I think every musician has that power, as well as every individual.” The talent and maturity the young students demonstrated onstage created moving and memorable performances, showing that they are not only precious, but also precocious and powerful.