Fellows Connect in the Classroom

It was a great honor of my time as a fellow to work closely with my friend Kip Riecken to spearhead our CSO-Connect project. The task presented to us: create from scratch a 45-minute, interactive, memorized presentation to introduce children to the music and story of Richard Strauss’s epic tone poem, Don Quixote. Perform this at eight institutions across Chicago, to prepare the children for a field trip to hear the CSO perform the same work at Symphony Center.

What began as an intimidating, seemingly unachievable task in October became a rewarding and memorable accomplishment for all by January.

In the fall, our three-month journey began. Kip and I met over beers to get started, and share our initial thoughts on the project; we both gladly took on this assignment because we each have strong opinions surrounding engaging children and music education, so it was important that we align these ideas early on. We created a list of items we wanted to see in our ideal final presentation, and these became the foundation of all of our work to come. We knew right away that we wanted to see:

  • Every performer speak and show their personality
  • Interactive activities to contextualize every major section of music and its storyline
  • Movement and choreography to bring out melodies from the thick textured music
  • The audience create musical sounds with us
  • Costumes!
  • A high energy beginning that began with music
  • The story always motivate our work, and our work staying true to the story

When we first presented these thoughts to the other fellows, we were relieved that they connected with these ideals and offered further thoughts for the project. Our presentation was coming to life.DQ2

So there were more meetings over beers, and tacos, and coffee after coffee, as Kip and I trudged through the thick score by Strauss, and the epic text by Cervantes. When we found ourselves getting trapped in the complexity of it all, we turned to our Fellow colleagues, our collective list of ideals, and our overall mission of reaching our audience, to provide clarity in our work. Our drafts were refined and polished thanks to expert guidance a diverse group of individuals supporting the CSO-Connect program including Jon Weber and Katy Clusen from the Negaunee Music Institute staff; Kaiser Ahmed of Jackalope Theatre, which works with one of the CSO’s partner schools; Brenda Fineberg, a former CSO teaching artist and program director at Foundations of Music; and Cliff Colnot, the arranger of the music, and all the teachers of the students who would hear our performance. By December we had a final draft!

But while I celebrated this accomplishment, I felt conflicted. I felt bored with the presentation. After so many hours of rehearsal and drafting, it felt stale. I knew it needed to be brought to life by performing it live for real children. And that is exactly what happened. In January, we gave our premiere performance early in the morning at Edwards Elementary School. We quickly found what worked, and what didn’t work, which reinvigorated all of us to give 7 more shows. With every performance, our work got better and better.

But now I was uneasy about something new–were we having an impact? Of course, the students laughed, clapped, and engaged. But what happened after we left? Were they ready to see the CSO? Did they have a deeper understanding of the music and the story?

The answers to these questions came to me much after our 8 performances were over. Just a few weeks ago in February, I was rocking out to the Hamilton soundtrack by myself on the Red Line when a little girl approached me. She tapped me on the shoulder and said “is your name Midori, and you play bassoon, and you came to my school to teach me Don Quixote’s song?”

I was floored.

I didn’t even have my bassoon with me, yet she could pick me out on a crowded train. She could approach me because we were friends from that 45-minutes we spent at her school, and we could sing a phrase of Strauss together. I think we did something right.

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I reflect on our process and these incredibly rewarding moments this March as part of Music in Our Schools Month. I am a musician today only because I had access to performances in my school as a child. The most important thing to me as a professional musician might be that I pay it forward and do the same for a child. So if that little girl on the Red Line is that child, then I am truly living a dream come true.

By Midori Samson