Fellowship of the Civic: Explaining the duties of a Civic Fellow

As a Civic Orchestra of Chicago Fellow, I often am asked what the fellows do. In response, I answer that we participate in diverse projects that develop our musicianship and creativity with the aim of preparing us for careers as artists in a rapidly-changing field. As fellows, we perform in Symphony Center and in schools and community venues throughout the city, facilitate projects led by Yo-Yo Ma, mentor young musicians, design our own community engagement projects and more.

The primary duty of a fellow is as a member of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, playing in concerts led by various guest conductors, including Marin Alsop, Edwin Outwater, Teddy Abrams, and Rossen Milanov. We also have wonderful opportunities to learn from some of the best musicians in the world through sectionals and coachings with Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians and guest artists. All Civic members, including fellows, participate in these activities. Within our sections, fellows uphold the commitment to excellence for which the orchestra is known. We also represent our colleagues in the orchestra at biweekly meetings with CSO administration, during which we reflect upon past activities and plan upcoming projects with the goal of improving the Civic Experience for all involved.

The majority of fellows’ responsibilities, however, occur away from the orchestra. Throughout the season, we are responsible for curating chamber music performances on the north, south and west sides of the city, including such venues as Indian Boundary Park, the National Museum of Mexican Art, Dorchester Art and Housing Collaborative, and the Zhou B Art Center. For these events, the fellows are charged with selecting and performing the repertoire as well as engaging the audience. Our goal is to create performances that are interesting and relatable. We receive training on audience interaction from some of the biggest names in the field and then apply those lessons to create opportunities for audiences throughout the city to connect through music. Fellows also perform in the Civic Orchestra Composers Project, providing emerging composers from throughout the Midwest with a platform to present and receive feedback on their original compositions from CSO Mead Composer-in-Residence Samuel Adams and conductor Michael Lewanski.

Music education and advocacy are central elements to our work as fellows. In collaboration with The People’s Music School, a community arts organization that provides tuition-free music education, the fellows teach students on the north and south sides of Chicago with the goal of creating positive experiences that allow students to grow as individuals and musicians. The fellows also play a key role in the annual Chicago Youth in Music Festival (CYMF), adjudicating auditions and sitting side-by-side with students in the Festival Orchestra which plays under the baton of Maestro Riccardo Muti. We are also in residency at three community youth orchestra programs, leading beginner students in sectionals and masterclasses in preparation for a massive side-by-side open rehearsal with the Civic Orchestra. In addition, the fellows prepare and memorize a presentation centered around a custom chamber ensemble arrangement of Strauss’ Don Quixote  and performed it for eight schools in the Chicago Public School system.

The goal for all of our activities is community engagement. In addition to presenting chamber concerts, giving masterclasses, teaching and working in Chicago Public Schools, the fellows contribute to planning for Yo-Yo Ma’s various residencies with the Civic Orchestra, including the annual Bach Marathon as well as the Civic in the Schools event in June. Community engagement projects, fully designed and carried out by the fellows with funding from the CSO’s Negaunee Music Institute, enable us to bring music to a variety of populations, including incarcerated and at-risk youth.

Although we participate in many activities, all of us keep in mind the ideas set forth by CSO Judson and Joyce Green Creative Consultant Yo-Yo Ma, who initiated the concept of a Civic Orchestra Fellowship. Yo-Yo established this group within the Civic, whose main purpose is to reach out to diverse communities of Chicago and establish lasting connections to help create positive change through the arts.

Abraham Lincoln, in an 1861 address to a Cincinnati convention, said, “I hold that while man exists, it is his duty to improve not only his own condition, but to assist in ameliorating mankind.” This, in essence, is what being a Civic Orchestra Fellow is all about. Through the performances, presentations, and curricula facilitated by the Program, we fellows are given the opportunity to not only become excellent, civically- minded, and entrepreneurial musicians, but also to improve the world around us.

By Evan Hillis