Founded in 1979, the Merit School of Music aimed to give Chicago Public School students access to music education after it was eliminated from the curriculums that year. After starting out in borrowed space at Roosevelt University, it eventually ended up at the West Loop’s Joy Faith Knapp Music Center, where it now offers space for everything from meetings to rehearsals as well as instruction to adults and children of all ages and skill levels.
President Duffie Adelson says the nearly three-million-dollar annual budget allows them to support over six-thousand interested students a year “regardless of financial circumstance.” The faculty covers ensembles, brass, woodwinds, guitar, percussion, piano, strings, voice and composition—so, everything, basically—and holds more than five-hundred group classes and six-hundred private lessons each week, which continue throughout the summer for children still in school. These classes and lessons take place at the Joy Faith Center and over ninety other locations throughout Chicago and Northwest Indiana, including schools and community and homeless centers.
The instruction from Merit teachers is beneficial to the students and helps as they also “gain inspiration and encouragement from a motivated and diverse peer group,” says Adelson. As their technical proficiency grows, students progress through a continuum to more advanced classes and ensembles, leading up to the Alice S. Pfaelzer Tuition-free Conservatory, which performs around the city and competes in various competitions. No matter what their level is, however, “All students have opportunities to perform and to attend performances throughout the year,” Adelson says.
One alumnus, Anthony McGill, is the principal clarinetist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, one of the few African Americans to ever hold such a position in a major orchestra. He also played at a little ceremony last January with renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma for some guy named Barack Obama.
With alumni like McGill, it’s easy to believe Merit’s mission of “making music…building lives,” something Adelson considers a gift. “We hold [our students] to high standards so our teachers are demanding, but at the same time very nurturing,” she says. “We feel it is a privilege to share our love of music with our students and a sacred duty to help each develop his or her full potential as a musician and a human being.” (Kelley Hecker)
For more information visit meritmusic.org