Rick Ferguson

What started as the study of dystopian literature and story writing at Chute Middle School became something much bigger as the school collaborated with the Evanston organization the Musical Offering. The project culminated in May when the school performed the resulting piece, which involved language arts, orchestra, chorus and art students.

“It became a piece for storywriters, narrators, the orchestra – and then we added percussion,” said Rick Ferguson, Director at the Musical Offering. “Then it became a piece for the storywriters, narrators, orchestra, percussion and chorus . . . Then as the project was developing over the spring, the advanced arts class wanted to get involved.”

Mr. Ferguson explained that he got the idea for the collaboration after hearing what his daughter Molly’s language arts class was studying. “They had been doing a unit on dystopian literature as a means for the kids to learn more about how you structure and write a story,” said Mr. Ferguson. He put together a concept that would bring music to the story writing work that the Chute students were doing. The Musical Offering applied for and received a grant from Foundation 65, which raises funds and supports activities for Evanston-Skokie School District 65. Mr. Ferguson said that from concept to performance in May it was 14 months.

Working with a language arts teacher at Chute, they developed a contest that included teams of students creating dystopian short stories. The plan was that based on the winning story Mr. Ferguson would compose a piece for the Middle School’s honors orchestra and that the story would be woven into sections of the body of music and read aloud. “I was working with orchestra director Alyson Berger, who just turned backflips to make this whole thing happen,” said Mr. Ferguson.

As the project was developing this past spring, the visual arts class wanted to get involved. “These kids with their teacher, Cindy Adler, created a series of illustrations . . . that were projected during the performance,” said Mr. Ferguson. “It just became this huge thing and what made me happy about that was that, obviously, there was something that was resonating far beyond what was initially intended and everyone wanted to be involved.”

The Musical Offering has proposed another collaboration with Chute for the next school year and it has already received a grant. Over the summer, Mr. Ferguson will begin working with Chute social studies classes and the school’s social studies chair, Mike McDermott. Mr. Ferguson said that the students will be exploring equity-based themes through “monologues, stop-action themes or very brief skits. They will be exploring equity issues across a very broad spectrum.”

Working together Mr. McDermott and Mr. Ferguson plan to develop a structure that will allow the students to choose what they want to explore. The students will be able to look at “issues that they have to deal with on a day-to-day basis, that they see their parents dealing with . . . whether it’s gender identification or race-based issues, economic disparity – across the spectrum,” Mr. Ferguson said. “For middle-schoolers, this is such a powerful thing, for them to feel that they have a means to do that kind of thing.”

Ask to talk about his work through the Musical Offering more generally and what it means to him personally, Mr. Ferguson said, “I hope that it’s a tangible reflection of who I am as a teacher, artist and composer . . . all the trial and error, stupid mistakes I’ve made, and all the smart things I’ve done have helped me find myself as an artist. It’s been like a crucible, this place, and I think that’s often the case in nonprofit arts institutions. I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by some pretty amazing people.”

Mr. Ferguson talked about a former teacher, “Deborah Sobel. She really set me on a path. I met Deborah after my sophomore year in college at a music festival in North Carolina and worked with her. We clicked so much that I went to Cambridge the next year to study with her.” Mr. Ferguson then went to the University of Houston for graduate school, and then spent a year and a half in Germany teaching. “I got a letter from Debbie while I was in Germany. She and her husband had moved here [Chicago] . . . she’d started this education outreach program, had adopted this high school in Rogers Park. It was Sullivan High School. She wanted to know if I’d be interested in moving to Chicago to help her with the project,” said Mr. Ferguson. “I did it because I cared so deeply for Debbie . . . that’s what initially brought me here. The educational part of that helped me realize that that’s who I am, that community-based education is really important to me.”

The Musical Offering opened in 2000 as a teaching space shared between four teachers. Mr. Ferguson said that the intention of the Musical Offering has always been to serve the community through community-based education. “We’re sort of, for all intents and purposes, the southern-most located significant cultural institution in the city,” he said. “From a socioeconomic standpoint, there’s incredible diversity here – and so it’s not by happenstance that we are located here . . . We try and do as much as we can with our scholarship fund and so that is a significant focus in terms of fundraising. At this point, that’s the mechanism we use to help families.”

Mr. Ferguson said that the work with Chute Middle School has been an important addition to the work, that during the next school year’s project the thing he’s going to get the most out of is explaining to the students how he’ll arrange the music so that in between the movements there will be dedicated spaces for what they create. “I think that any time you give these kids and opportunity to have a voice and to express themselves, through whatever means they want to, I think it validates their humanity.” The performance of the piece will be given in December and will be open to the community.

Ned Schaub is a feature story writer for the RoundTable. He has served as reporter, content developer and communications manager across his career in the field of nonprofit communications. Ned studied...