The Ursas

RACHEL BROWN, violin, executive director


I am Rachel and I love bears. I truly believe that I am exceptional in that bears and I would, without question, easily co-habitate without problem. Basically, I’m just like that guy in Grizzly Man. It is simply fate that I play violin with this ensemble that gets its name from the world’s greatest animal. My mom signed me up for violin lessons whilst I was still in-utero. I wrote essays about my violin being my best friend in third grade, and when I was a teenager I bunked in with my siblings because I was convinced that the ghost of Vivaldi wanted to sleep in my room (I didn’t think it was appropriate for me to share a room with an older man).


I am still completely dedicated to music, though I no longer believe in ghosts. I teach an array of courses at Harold Washington College; I have a position in the South Bend Symphony Orchestra; I give recitals regularly with my duo partner, pianist James Barnett; and I teach talented high school students at the Chicago Academy for the Arts. But what I really want to do is conduct. And live with bears. No. I want to conduct an orchestra of bears.


When I was in fourth grade I used to play Animorphs on the playground with my friends and I was always Rachel whose favorite animal to morph into was a grizzly bear, so I basically was born to be in Ursa Ensemble. I also play flutes and sing songs, which is convenient for everyone else in Ursa Ensemble since it gives me something to do. That said, long before they let me play with them I wormed my way into hanging out with Ursa by turning pages for Jonathan and clapping enthusiastically at all their concerts.


I love playing flute so much I do it every day and spent a long time (two whole degrees!) at DePaul learning how to do it better. I now teach a lot of people how to play flute at a bunch of different schools, mostly at the Music Institute of Chicago, Niles West High School, and Musical Chairs Studio, though I have a few students I teach outside of a formal school. And I also dramatically wave my arms and insist on specific vowel formation as a choir director at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Lincoln Park. I got my start as a freelancer in Chicago working as an actor/musician in a few shows, and then did a circuit as a pit musician, which I occasionally jump back into when I have the time and the opportunity arises. In the summers I travel with Trade Winds Ensemble, bringing music and art to underserved communities all over the world. I’m also a certified Musikgarten teacher (a Montessori-based approach to early childhood music education), because I*love* teaching and also why only do one thing when you could do all the things, right?




I have to say right off the bat, it is a very strange and exciting thing for me to write a biography in first person singular.  Not that I would write it in first person plural, despite the fact that I, though occasionally, speak to myself in this manor…


I have been playing the cello since I was nine and though I’ve dabbled with different instruments along the way, my heart always stays true to this “big violin” I love so dearly. My journey began in upstate New York in a public school program that I am eternally grateful for. When I moved to Canada to a school without orchestra, private lessons and city youth orchestras became necessary for me to continue learning (a situation I am eternally grateful for!). Eventually I found my way to the Langely Fine Arts School in British Columbia, graduated Valedictorian of the Music (…there were only 86 students….moving on).


I adore chamber music and cross-genre music, especially world and jazz-fusions. I’ve spent an amazing seven years in the string quartet realm which gave me countless experiences, have been playing in a charanga ensemble that makes me want to dance and I also have the privilege to collaborate, laugh and share music with the fellow Ursas. Life is good.




Let’s see, what should I tell you? My name is listed already, so I got that going for me. I was born in Miami, Fl but raised in the New England area, yet I never picked up a Boston accent. I started playing piano on Oct. 23, 1997. I don’t know remember the exact date, but I suppose that says something about how much it shaped my life. Eventually I picked up composition and graduated from Roosevelt University with a M.M. and DePaul with a B.M. in Composition. Since graduating I now teach piano at Access Contemporary Music, collaborate with amazing musicians and artists, and work as the music director at the Ravenswood Fellowship United Methodist Church, as well as the accompanist for masses at St. Vincent DePaul. A favorite current project is “The Rocking Chair Series” in which I commission composers to write short piano works for me to perform. At the performance, I interview them in a rocking chair in an effort to expose audiences to the thought processes of working composers. 


MY FAVORITE DOG IS A SIBERIAN HUSKY. Oh wait that’s not relevant. Anyway I play piano in the Ursa Ensemble, and I am so happy to be a part of such a passionate group of musicians. It gives me the opportunity to share my love for music and work with people I would never otherwise get a chance to collaborate with! We have a great time and it’s always a rewarding experience when we do concerts. As always our season this year is a stacked one and I am so ready for it. Final note: I’ve seen 4 bears in my life, and my dog (Schubert) and I have had a run-in with a black bear too.

JOE SÁNCHEZ, clarinet


…hello? Is it really you reading this?! THANK GOODNESS! I’ve been trapped in this website for years now and had all but given up hope! Quickly! Using your keypad type: up, up, down down, left, right, left, right, A, B to set me free and be granted a dad-joke of your choice! Hahaha…if only. Regrettably this is just a bio, but let’s be real, normal bios are boring and now you’re way too far into reading mine to stop. You should push on—not unlike those intrepid, 8-bit pioneers fording rivers along the Oregon Trail. Excelsior!


I am the resident no-nonsense clarinetist of the Ursa Ensemble. As you may have already gathered, I have a penchant for dry, unabashed, and often one-sided humor. I grew up in Northwest Indiana in the town of Saint John. It was there that fate, and certainly not my attraction to shiny buttons, drew me to the clarinet. I regularly return to teach private lessons, and band sectionals at my old middle school. I graduated from DePaul University with degrees in both clarinet performance and mathematics, and it was there that I met many of the other Ursas. I’ve since played with many of the region’s orchestras including the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, Chicago Sinfonietta, Kalamazoo Symphony, and Dubuque Symphony. I am also a co-founding member of two other groups: the Lake Effect Clarinet Quartet and the 42nd Parallel Orchestra.


I'm way into playing all kinds of music for all kinds of different audiences. This one time I was a pit musician for a musical at a juvenile girls' incarceration center. This other one time I played in a Beethoven flash mob at Nordstrom's on Michigan Ave. And yet another one time I played an all-Godzilla concert at an old movie theater. Though my first love will always be classical music (my favorite composers are Mozart, Ravel, and Gershwin) I frequently I find myself listening to other music, including Snarky Puppy, Vulfpeck, Youngblood Brass Band, Weird Al, Dream Theater, Biggie Smalls, Roy Hargrove, Stevie Wonder, Terrible Spaceship and Michael Jackson. If you can’t tell I also really love laughing, so I also listen to a lot of stand up and sketch comedy. Thanks for reading! Now aren’t you glad you decided to push through that tedious introduction? Of course you are.