Karen Basrak, like the other featured musicians on the project, performed her piece in a recording studio, playing it four to five times before choosing which one to use and be set with the narration by Chicago's First Lady Amy Eshleman. // Courtesy of Todd Rosenberg

CSO soloist chosen to help meld children’s book with soothing music

Cellist Karen Basrak joined the team making “My Magic Breath,” a project fusing classical music and animation to teach kids about mindful breathing, widely available for children during the pandemic.

At the age of 4, Karen Basrak followed her older sister, Cathy, and started to learn the violin. In less than two years, she would switch to the cello and she hasn’t looked back.

Basrak, who grew up in Arlington Heights, now performs with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, after a 12-year run with the Fort Worth Symphony.

This fall, she was one of five soloists with the CSO chosen for a new production that fuses classical music with animation. Its goal is to help children harness the calming and restorative power of mindful breathing.

“My Magic Breath” is a 15-minute video that was developed as a response to the pandemic. It debuted last month as part of the Chicago Public Library’s “Live at the Library” series, but now is being shared widely at schools and libraries.

At press time, it had drawn more than 46,000 views across three platforms: the CSO’s website, Facebook and YouTube.

The project is meant as a resource for children and families during these uncertain times. It was coproduced as an extension of the partnership between Chicago Children’s Theatre and the Negaunee Music Institute at the CSO.

The video is based on the popular children’s picture book “My Magic Breath” by authors Nick Ortner and Alison Taylor, and illustrated by Michelle Polizzi. Amy Eschelman, Chicago’s first lady, narrates the story. The video, like the book, encourages children to breathe along as they learn how to make angry or sad thoughts disappear.

“It’s a beautiful marriage of the book with music,” says Basrak, who has a 4-year-old daughter.

Each soloist performs a different selection by Bach. The video opens with Basrak playing the familiar Prelude and Gigue from Suite No. 1 in G Major for cello.

“My Magic Breath” is a 15-minute video that was developed as a response to the pandemic. It debuted last month as part of the Chicago Public Library’s “Live at the Library” series. // Courtesy of Liviu Pasare

“It’s a calming piece that is recognizable and happy,” Basrak says. “It’s performed all the time, but it was originally written for cello. I believe the cello is the closest sound to the human voice, so it’s personal.”

Perhaps that relationship to the human voice is one reason why Basrak connected to the cello as a child. She and her sister both began their studies at the Betty Haag Academy of Music, now located in Buffalo Grove.

They learned to play using the Suzuki Method, which is based on language acquisition and sets up the ideal environment by having a parent learn along with their child.

Their first teacher, Betty Haag, still remembers Basrak and her sister, Cathy Basrak, now assistant principal violist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

“Cathy and Karen were both very disciplined and talented children, whose mother set the correct environment for them to reach their highest ability level and establish the building blocks for their future success,” says Haag, who continues to teach stringed instruments.

“It is always heartwarming for teachers,” she adds, “to know they had a part in the training of these talented students.” 

Both sisters would continue their studies at what is now the Music Institute of Chicago, which has locations across the suburbs. After starting her career in Fort Worth, Karen Basrak has performed with the Elmhurst Symphony, Harper Symphony, Northwest Symphony, Skokie Valley Symphony and Winnetka Chamber orchestras.

She also serves on the faculty of the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University.

All of which makes her keenly aware of the importance of the arts in children’s lives. Leading up to the pandemic, one of her favorite roles was to perform in the CSO’s outreach concerts and educational projects in an effort to grow a new generation of classical music fans — and performers.

“I feel sorry for kids who have been removed from the world of the performing arts,” she says. “Hopefully, this video lets them immerse themselves in the arts. After all, the arts and music are the universal language, and everyone needs that culture embedded into our hearts and souls.”

Find the full video at https://youtu.be/o5xiQFiCgys.

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