The family of young musicians took the Green Line from the West Side to downtown Chicago, lugging their instruments on their backs.
A harp. A cello. Four violins.
They set up their small orchestra at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Randolph Street. And for two hours on a warm weekday evening, the delicate music flowed, barely audible in the bustle of rush-hour traffic.
Most of the songs were improvised, loosely arranged by the eldest in the group, 20-year-old Joseph Kelly, who like most of his siblings began taking music lessons six years ago. He has a natural talent, some say, and when he plays the harp, it is enchanting.
But even with Joseph's harp in the forefront, the performance was not perfect. When 8-year-old Jachin lost his rhythm playing the theme from "Star Wars" on his violin, his 17-year-old sister, La Shone, paused from her cello and swayed her hand to direct him back on track.
Still, their music served as a soothing backdrop against the evening rush of downtown workers scrambling for buses and trains.
Passers-by stopped to listen or to snap a picture, struck by the unfamiliar sight of a group of young African-Americans playing strings.
A CTA bus driver, stopped at a red light, opened his door and leaned from his seat so he could better hear. A panhandler took a dollar bill from his stash and dropped it in an open violin case lined with cash. Occasionally, the musicians broke their intense concentration to offer a courteous smile to the onlookers.
But this wasn't the time for kidding around. Playing music for donations one or two days a week was their summer job.
By the time they joined up with three other siblings, who had been playing guitar on another corner, and boarded the train back home to the West Side, the group had collected $240. The money would come in handy for the family of 17.
There are music lessons to pay for and instruments to maintain.
Violin people and guitar people
Most mornings, some neighbors on West Walnut Street wake up to the sound of violins and acoustic guitars coming from the yellow brick two-flat in the middle of the block.
From 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. is when the Kelly children practice on their instruments. Each finds a private corner of a bathroom, the kitchen or a bedroom, maybe separated only by a chair. Sometimes the "violin people" rehearse in one room while the "guitar people" practice in another.
"It's hard, really hard to get everyone going in the morning," said their father, Jonathan Kelly, 53. "We try to pair them with someone who motivates them."
Jonathan Kelly and his wife, La Shone, didn't set out to have 15 children. But the birth of each of their babies, now ages 8 to 33, brought them joy. (Two of their children are named after them.)
The couple has grown accustomed to disapproving looks and rude comments from strangers with preconceived notions about such a large family.
"I had a career and people thought I was crazy," said La Shone Kelly, 51, a former real estate appraiser whose business dried up during the recession. "But I always wanted a large family. Both of us did."
She now works as a housing specialist for the Garfield Park Community Council. Jonathan Kelly was injured on his job as a telecommunications technician and receives disability payments.
With the oldest six children grown and out of the house, 11 people cram into the three-bedroom, one-and-a-half bath apartment that the family owns in East Garfield Park. The apartment building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1895 was once a jewel on the block. Though listed as a Chicago landmark, the building fell into disrepair as the neighborhood declined.
Inside the Kellys' home, music fills the small rooms, drowning out the noise from the neighborhood.
"Music is our sanity in the madness," said La Shone Kelly. "When we make music, everything is OK."
Jonathan Kelly grew up in the building, in the apartment next-door once owned by his grandmother. It was there that he learned to play the violin, though he didn't keep it up. It was his idea to introduce music to his children, he said, so that they could experience the joy and discipline it can bring.
The most expensive item in their sparsely furnished home is an upright piano that they bought brand-new in 1998. Most of the children know how to play it.
"I know that music is best learned at an early age," Jonathan Kelly said. "Then it becomes something you can do your whole life. When we get together and sing and play, we do it for ourselves. If others enjoy it, that's a good thing."
The children said they were given instruments based on their personality.
"People were given a choice, but Dad guided the choice," said La Shone, the daughter. "I enjoy playing sad songs. I chose the cello because it's deep."
For Joseph, the innovative one, the harp was a natural fit.
"The first time I played the harp, the teacher told me to close my eyes and play whatever I felt. I just started doing it," he said. "It sounded magical to me."
Thirteen-year-old Jeffrey found a soul mate in the bass guitar.
"I channel Jimi Hendrix," he said. "I can't stand classical music. I'd rather play jazz."
Lena, 10, plays the acoustic guitar. "It makes you feel nice and confident when you can play well," she said.
Lynda, a 22-year-old student at Wilbur Wright College, lives in the family's basement. She also plays guitar and plans to work as a music therapist when she graduates next summer. Joseph, the harpist, plans to attend a city college in the fall.
La Shone Kelly admits that she was apprehensive when her husband suggested the children start taking music lessons in 2009. That was a tough year financially. Her husband, who had been used to working 18-hour days, was suddenly without a job. The real estate industry was in a recession, and the family's income was at its lowest.
She went along with it, she said, for the children's sake.
"It was important to us that the children don't feel the brunt of our financial situation," she said. "We wanted to give them some kind of stability, something where they could stay focused. So we got rid of a lot of material things so that we could give them the music."
It was an expensive choice. They spend about $1,300 each month on music lessons and instrument rentals. Some of the adult siblings, including a son in the Navy, help out. But the family has given up a lot of conveniences.
The house is in need of repairs and the walls could use a fresh coat of paint. They shop for clothes at thrift stores. On movie night, DVDs are projected onto a blank wall in the living room. On special occasions, they might order takeout from KFC. They used to have a 15-passenger van; now they take two cars, a Chevrolet Impala owned by their son in the Navy and a Ford minivan.
"We make tremendous sacrifices for their music. We pool our money and do what we have to do," La Shone Kelly said. "The children understand that if we're going to shell out that kind of money, they have to take it seriously. They have to practice."
Quite a routine
The family's morning routine begins at 5 a.m. in a vacant lot across the street. Dressed in T-shirts and shorts, the children line up for a CrossFit exercise session, using kettle bells, old tires and ropes. Their father sits on a wooden box nearby, making sure that everyone takes a turn.
They are back by 6 a.m. for music practice. The family gathers downstairs for a spiritual devotional at 7 a.m., followed by breakfast at 8 a.m. In a typical week, they consume 10 loaves of bread, six dozen eggs and 10 gallons of milk.
Then it's time for chores: taking out the trash, doing the dishes and tidying their rooms.
During the school year, classes start at 9 a.m. The children attend Chicago Virtual Charter School, so the classroom is downstairs in the dining room. They share seven laptops and one desktop computer.
The younger kids are in bed by 8 p.m.; the high school kids by 10.
In the summer, the entire day is devoted to music. The eight youngest participate in a weekday camp at the Chicago West Community Music Center, a program that teaches string instruments, song and dance. After School Matters provides financial assistance.
When school is in session, all the children participate in the center's more intensive Saturday program. The high school kids also attend an after-school program weekdays at the center.
It requires a strong commitment from the parents, but persistence has its benefits.
"We don't hear that screeching noise at 6 a.m. anymore," La Shone Kelly said, referring to the time the kids were just beginning to play. "That was a lot to endure."
Music a priority
On the second floor of the Garfield Park Fieldhouse, in a West Side neighborhood rife with crime and poverty, children as young as 3 years old are learning the art of Suzuki violin.
During the school year, 50 young people from the neighborhood come here six days a week to get an introduction to a spectrum of music they might otherwise never hear — one that includes Bach, Vivaldi and Strauss, but also Motown, jazz and blues.
Howard Sandifer, a former North Lawndale musician, composer and educator, and his wife, Darlene, came up with the idea for the music center in 1999, providing outreach to students in schools, day care centers and churches. In 2003, they formed a partnership with the Chicago Park District to run an arts partners-in-residence program that offers free music classes in exchange for space in the fieldhouse.
On Saturdays, professional instructors come from across the city to teach violin, viola, cello, guitar and harp using Suzuki and traditional methods. For $100 a month, students in this program get a half-hour of private lessons and a half-hour group lesson each week. The majority of the students, including the Kellys, receive scholarships to cover some costs. The only requirement is that parents be present during the sessions.
It is a full-day commitment for La Shone and Jonathan Kelly. But the payoff has been worth it: Their children have developed a love for music.
Music, according to Darlene Sandifer, enhances the quality of life. It was unfortunate for children, she said, when Chicago Public Schools cut music programs because of budget constraints.
"Music changes your heart and mind. It helps you find calm," she said. "I am convinced that if our children had access to these kinds of opportunities, they wouldn't be running around with guns trying to kill each other. These kids on the streets have a gift. They just need someone to channel them in the right direction."
The older students held several performances at public parks across the city. But they drew the biggest crowd — more than 100 relatives and friends — at the final performance on the last day of camp.
The little kids entered the stage first, with violins resting on their shoulders.
Their repertoire consisted of simple nursery rhymes: "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and "See-Saw Margery Daw." Jachin, Lena and Leah were among the more advanced violinists performing solos such as "Gavotte from 'Mignon.' "
The program closed with the older students performing a Motown revue. La Shone showed off her singing voice. The backup band included Jacob and Laura on the violin, and Jeffrey on the bass guitar.
Jonathan and La Shone Kelly cheered them on. This, they said, is what the sacrifice is all about.
"We just want them to see the possibilities," their father said.