“A Night at Orchestra Hall”

2024 Community Involvement Award Recipient

Leyden, Hester, Lincoln, Rhodes, and Rosemont Schools Performing Arts

Franklin Park, IL


Our “A Night at Orchestra Hall’ advocacy initiative is all about:

  • Creating a uniquely powerful “once-in-a-lifetime” performance opportunity
  • Empowering our music students to realize the great things they can do by investing in themselves and using their time and talents for worthwhile causes
  • Building community within our own program, and among our partner school district programs, helping to expedite recovery from devastating post-pandemic attrition
  • Showing resiliency in action through turning a negative into a positive when riots in Chicago forced our initial Symphony Center performance relocation to an alternate suburban site, and our Symphony Center performance date to be rescheduled


The overt objective for our “An Evening at Orchestra Hall” advocacy initiative was celebrating our students’ recent national recognitions by Downbeat (winning the best Vocal Jazz Group Award four consecutive years) and two consecutive Music For All Advocacy in Action Community Engagement Awards earned by our entire Leyden HS Music Department for our Annual Community Veterans Day Ceremony, and Our Tribute to the USO Big Band Show.

The “less overt” objectives driving this project included:

  • Creating a significant and meaningful musical experience to be shared by all our current HS band, choir, and orchestra students
  • Using the gravity and glamour of this event to help drive initiative, work ethic, and standards closer towards our pre-pandemic culture
  • Building our own program’s community. Our two 9-12 high school buildings are fed by 7 different partner schools (and each partner school is in its own unique school district). Building community is a full-time job in our program even when there is not a crisis like a pandemic!
  • Ensuring our own program’s future by rebuilding community and re-energizing our partner school program’s numbers in the wake of devastating post-pandemic > 50% attrition (this isn’t an affront to these programs or fine music educator colleagues, but rather evidence of the extra challenges hardships exert on Title 1 schools/communities like ours, which is outlined in greater detail below)
  • Engaging our music families and alumni to show we’re still making great things happen for our kids
  • Dynamically reinforcing our music program’s capability and relevancy within our community to board/administration decision makers, helping to prevent any additional “knee-jerk” schedule and staffing adjustments being made in response to post-pandemic program numbers
  • And most importantly, ensuring the kids didn’t face yet another disappointment of losing this special experience due to the riots canceling our initial Symphony Center performance date

Target Audience

Our “target” is always pretty much EVERYONE!

Specifically for this project, we especially wanted to focus on our partner school programs’ students, families, and younger siblings because they are the future of our own program. Like everywhere, they have missed so many great formative opportunities and experiences due to the pandemic and are catastrophically behind–not just developmentally, but also in the fun experienced, the successes achieved, and the friendships enjoyed; essentially their enculturation into everything it even means to be a music student.

Like always, poverty exacerbates hardships. We are a Title 1 school, so our communities and programs were hit especially hard by the pandemic. Many of the first jobs lost in the pandemic were the types of jobs performed by many family members of our students. And in a community where the $42.00 a month to rent a tenor saxophone mattered to our families even before the crisis of the pandemic, our partner schools suffered a staggering >50% post-pandemic attrition rate.

We also wanted to maximize our already strong base audience of family and community members for three key reasons:

  1. A huge audience validation empowers our students to realize the meaningful contributions and dramatic impact they can make through their music, and what a wonderful gift this is for others.
  2. When they utilize their time and talents for worthwhile causes, this can make our students see themselves in a new and more powerful way.
  3. We need to pay the many, many, many bills associated with renting Chicago Symphony Center!

Thankfully, we enjoyed widespread support and a robust audience. Amazingly, we were able to cover nearly 90% of the project costs, fill 85% of the hall, and keep the ticket costs at just $10.00 to maximize the opportunities for our students entire families to attend.


Summer 2022:

  • Analyze projected post-pandemic partner/HS music program numbers; vision opportunities for giving students standout positive music experiences to rebuild and reconnect programs

August 2022:

  • Reach out to Chicago Symphony Center, inquire about available rental dates and associated costs
  • Confer with HS colleagues regarding this opportunity, fiscal and scheduling feasibility, extra workload, impact on other priorities
  • Reach out to our 7 different partner school districts (no typo…7), explain the vision/opportunity, what it could mean for their kids, that we would cover their program’s associated costs, ask for their +/- feedback, what it would take for them to participate, and any anticipated roadblocks we would need to clear for their successful participation (and that their directors would get to conduct in Symphony Center to help entice their buy-in!)

September 2022:

  • Based on positive initial feedback from colleagues, reserve the one available date that could possibly work with Symphony Center
  • Modify our 2022-23 HS literature plan to amortize the literature we would like to perform at Symphony Center throughout our concert cycle to minimize student stress and maximize student success

November 2022:

  • Operationalize associated logistics (potential literature, rehearsal schedule, faculty responsibilities, concert attire, etc.)

January 2023:

  • 4 of our 7 partner school districts choose to engage in this program opportunity
  • Partner directors nominate their outstanding 8th, 7th, and 6th graders for our Leyden Area Honor Band and Choir
  • Coordinate combined evening rehearsal schedules, bringing together students from 2 high schools and 4 partner schools districts (5 districts total)

March/April 2023:

  • Combined rehearsals, led by partner school directors!

April 21, 2023:

  • 1:00 PM Chicago riots CANCEL our performance!?!
  • 2:00 PM PIVOT to find an alternative performance site to preserve this experience for our kids/families!
  • 7:30 PM Perform!
  • Seek an alternate Symphony Center date

June 2023:

  • Run two “pick-up and pizza” rehearsals
  • PERFORM at Symphony Center on 6/13!

Overview of Planning and Execution

Our advocacy initiative project principally involved 10 music educators from 5 separate high school and grade school districts that all feed into our high school program. To state that everyone contributed to the success of the project is an understatement! Our colleagues were generous with their time and energies to ensure this was a meaningful and uplifting experience for the kids.

More specifically, the HS music chair served as project lead, coordinating with the Chicago Symphony Center personnel, acting as liaison between the 5 school directors and administrations, and working associated support items including programs, posters, scheduling, and logistics. The HS choir teacher coordinated partner school choir staff, selected combined choir literature, designed the partner school students’ performance polo shirt logos, led the digital media publicity campaign, arranged students’ grab-and-go dinners with school food services, and coordinated alumni. The HS Assistant Band Director led the ticket distribution/sales and student ticket sales incentive program, created the stage set up diagrams for the combined ensembles, and coordinated logistics for the three equipment vans.

Our most experienced partner school director led a collaborative partner school honor band literature selection process. Each partner school instrumental/choral teacher led specific sectional groups during combined evening rehearsals. Likewise, each was responsible for ticket/poster distribution within their school. Each partner school music educator also enjoyed the great professional development opportunity of conducting in Symphony Center.

The HS student teachers assisted with ticket distribution, served as the point of contact for will-call and night-of ticket sales, aided in guest seating, choir robe distribution, student grab-and-go dinner distribution, and even announced portions of the program.

We even involved our previous Director of Bands of 29 years (and only the third in our school’s 100 year history) as guest conductor!

As always, stellar alumni and parents helped make it happen!

Tools and Resources

Human capital was our most utilized resource!

10 HS and partner grade school music staff members collectively took on all artistic and logistic support tasks required to make this advocacy initiative project successful.

We made a conscious effort selecting roles and responsibilities to maximize personnel skill sets and content-expertise. This included shared conversations between the music educators from all 5 districts regarding the philosophy and make-up of the Honor Partner School Band and Choir, appropriate literature selections, manageable combined rehearsal schedules, ticket sales strategy, performance attire, conducting opportunities, etc. Besides raising the overall excellence of this project for the kids, this strategy led to exponentially increasing ownership of all of the music staff stakeholders. The relationships forged and positive experiences shared will also have a residual impact on our future collaborations.

Our next human capital resource was our families. As usual, they were fantastic in helping publicize the performances, personally attending, selling tickets far-and-wide to extended family, friends, co-workers, (strangers!) and even chaperoning.

Our next human capital resource was our alumni. MANY of them proudly attended their alma mater’s performance. Some ultimately performed with us because summer schedules allowed them to attend our rehearsals for the rescheduled Symphony Center performance date. This let us share such an incredible experience with even more of our (albeit former) students, and turning a negative situation into a positive one. Key help with the printed program, posters, and photography were also significant alumni contributions to this project.

Our HS communication team staff provided quality video recording of the initial performance and rescheduled Symphony Center performances, providing our students/families with two really meaningful archival keepsakes from this experience.

Finally, the Chicago Symphony Center staff was a tremendous resource in helping us to reschedule due to the riots, They kept our kids from missing this wonderful opportunity!

Marketing and Promotion

To maximize the impact of this huge collaboration (and the huge associated costs!), we attempted to market and promote across all available school and community modalities.

Our vision was to create a grand event celebrating our music students and programs. Not only did we want our kids to enjoy the emotional experience of performing for a huge and supportive audience in such an historic hall, but we also wanted everybody in our communities to be aware of the great things our music kids are doing, even if they did not actually attend the event.

Additionally, we wanted to help re-energize our partner school programs in the wake of >50% pandemic attrition. Because our schools serve lower socioeconomic status communities (100% free lunch), we set the ticket price at only $10.00. We wanted entire families to be able to attend the event without causing financial stress or hardship. This strategy paid off, resulting in two and three generations from multiple families attending the performance. Likewise, many younger siblings, the very future of our program, were able to envision themselves performing in a Symphony Center someday! We also generously incentivized student ticket sales, resulting in a staggering 1800+ tickets being sold.

Additionally, we:

  • Utilized all school web/social media outlets, and digital marquees from all 5 of the participating school districts
  • Invited all long-term allies in our community like the American Legion, VFW Posts, and other civic partners
  • Placed several hundred large posters in key high-visibility locations throughout our community
  • Continuously posted digital poster announcements in our social media networks
  • Recapitalized our alumni, both as audience members and performers

We also benefited from generous local news and television coverage before, during, and especially and after the event due to the incredible backstory of the riot activity forcing our event to be rescheduled.


As a context, we are a Title 1 program that typically absorbs almost all associated program participation costs for our students/families. Even for a project of this significant financial scope, we still ran our decision process through this disciplined lens to ensure this opportunity would not place any financial strains on our students/families . While the numbers below are BIG (especially for a program like ours), YOU can make this project happen with your program!


  • ZERO budget/instructional dollars were allocated for this huge project!
  • Even at $10.00, our ticket sales covered 90% of the hall rental
  • Student activity funds raised through our groups’ paid performances (parades, corporations, chamber of commerce, etc.) covered the remaining costs

Even at the educational institution rate, renting Chicago Symphony Center is EXPENSIVE (nearly $20,000)! That being stated, I cannot strongly enough state the fantastic professionalism of the Chicago Symphony Center staff. They were absolutely fantastic partners, playing a critical role in our project’s success and the incredible experience our students enjoyed.

We made the commitment to “look as good as we sound” for this special experience. Accordingly, we invested in printing professional programs in addition to our digital program. One of our wonderful loyal alums created a dynamic program design and also “encouraged” the printer he uses in his professional capacity to give us the great deal of 2500 programs for $2000. Our HS Assistant Band Director’s fiancé (an art educator) designed a beautiful poster which served as the icon for branding this project. Utilizing the same printer, costs were just $300 for 500 posters!

While our HS band, choir, and orchestra students have unified concert attire, our partner school districts are all self-contained, autonomous programs. So, we designed performance polo shirts for them, subsidizing $1000 of the costs for our partner school students .


THIS is where the story gets interesting!

It’s performance day, Friday, April 21…

We’ve meticulously worked on this project for 8 months, coordinating seemingly endless logistic details between 5 different high school and partner grade school districts’ music programs to bring this project to fruition. We’re so close to the finish line that our kids are in uniform and about to board the school buses for Symphony Center.

Then (1:00 PM), we get “the call” from the superintendents: they’re not allowing the buses to travel to Chicago due to safety concerns of potential continuing riot activity that evening. At this time, our 10 music teachers are in 6 different school buildings, greatly challenging our communications.

Of course we’re devastated–for about 2 minutes…then it’s back on the clock!

We need to make a performance happen today to honor the kids’ efforts and the family/community support for our event. After all, this endeavor was supposed to be a morale builder, not a morale killer.

So, we just need to find an alternative performance venue that is proximal, has 1800 audience member capacity, and that is available in about two hours…what could possibly go wrong!?!

We’re all speed-calling our professional contact lists from our separate locations for the next 45 minutes. The kids have an itinerary and are likely wondering why we haven’t left yet…

Our stellar choir director, Stacy Cunningham, reaches our friends and colleagues at Oak Park River Forest High School. Their historic theater is available and they are willing to help us! We inform the students why we must change venues– and their Symphony Center performance will be rescheduled! We simultaneously inform the audience via all modalities. The kids give an incredibly emotional performance for the standing-room-only audience… AND THEY GOT TO DO IT AGAIN at Symphony Center, rescheduled to June!

Success/Effectiveness Measurement

Our assessment is that this advocacy initiative was fantastically effective for our high school and partner school students, their families, our music teachers, programs, our alumni, and our communities.

We base this measurement upon deliverables we believe came from, or were enhanced as, a result of experiencing this project:

  • Strengthening the perception of our programs’ impact on students to critical stakeholders like the board members, administrators, and families from each of the participating district programs in attendance
  • Empowering our students to realize the dramatic impact they can make by investing in themselves and utilizing their time and talents for worthwhile causes
  • Helping our students see themselves in a new and more powerful way (e.g., they can perform for huge audiences in historic places like Chicago Symphony Center)
  • Bringing together students from our bands, choirs, and orchestras to combine their talents and passions for a common cause, and to support each other in doing so in a way not otherwise opportunely afforded between independent districts
  • Enhancing the rapport, teamwork, and professional development of our partner school directors by giving them the exciting opportunity to conduct at Orchestra Hall
  • Recapitalizing a number of program alumni, benefitting this program and also having positive ramifications in our future endeavors
  • Introducing many community members to our Leyden Music Department, either through the actual performance or the supporting publicity materials, who would have never otherwise been aware of the great things our kids are doing
  • Reading our music students’ self-reflection assignment and seeing this project was almost universally listed as a standout and memorable music performances
  • Experiencing the best retention enjoyed since prior to the pandemic, and because we made the calculated decision to also include 7th and 6th grade partner students specifically to ignite that spark in the partner schools, we are optimistic this perpetuates

Community Impact

The positive impact from our advocacy initiative has been significant!

At a critical time for our program, we envisioned an exciting and meaningful project in which ALL of our music students could participate, regardless of age, ability, or experience.

Helping the future of our programs, this purposeful collaboration strengthened our relationships with students, teachers, and families from 5 partner school districts.

Likewise, we dynamically reinforced our music program’s relevancy and capability in our community to board/administration decision makers. 1800 family members, faculty, staff and community members exuberantly supporting the event was powerful!

Additionally, we made thousands more community members and alumni aware of our students’ worthwhile endeavors through coordinated publicity efforts and generous media coverage.

And most importantly, when the initial Symphony Center performance had to be canceled just hours before the event due to the riot activity in Chicago, our instantaneous responses of resiliency, ingenuity, unwavering commitment to our students, and human relations were powerful lessons for our students to learn:

  • Resiliency: We’re not going to let “bad kids” be in charge of “good kids” and just give up on this important event for which we worked so hard and long. We are going to find another way!
  • Ingenuity: A victim of our own success, the 1800 audience members waiting to support our kids more-than-doubled any of our schools’ performance space capacity, so we had to reach out to potential proximal allies with such a space to save the day.
  • Unwavering commitment to our students: we were ready to perform NOW! All of our rehearsals were focused to give momentum to this point in time.
  • Human relations: through long professional friendships, our colleagues at Oak Park River Forest High School saved the day and invited us into their huge auditorium on a two-hour notice…generosity and empathy is inspiring!

Advice for others?

YOU can do this kind of project for your kids (maybe minus the riots and having to spontaneously reschedule venues)!

Your kids (and teachers!) will LOVE this project. It will create a standout music memory for them.

The fiscal challenges are manageable.

If you’re not sure, contact me and I’ll help you!

Supporting Materials

An Evening at Orchestra Hall Program

An Evening at Orchestra Hall Poster (revised date)

An Evening at Orchestra Hall Representative Photos

An Evening at Orchestra Hall Video Product

An Evening at Orchestra Hall Announcer’s Script