Merit makes it easy for Chicago kids to be involved in music

The power of music

04/27/2011 10:00 PM


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Aqeelah Malone joins classmates during a beginners’ guitar class at Merit School of Music in Chicago.
J. GEIL/Staff Photographer

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Just off Monroe in the West Loop, children stream in and out of a nondescript concrete building, black cases in hand. It’s a dreary late afternoon in April, but inside this concrete complex at 38 S. Peoria St., 10 children are raptly focused on Robert Sherman and his guitar.

“What’s the most important word when you’re practicing a musical instrument?” Sherman asked a group of students clutching junior-sized guitars. “‘Again.’”

The students were some of hundreds taking part in after-school music lessons at the Merit School of Music, learning how to play everything from guitar and drums to violin and clarinet.

It’s the core of Merit’s operation, a space where they offer group and private lessons, as well as hosting larger band and orchestra groups — the most elite of which is its tuition-free conservatory program.

But Merit’s been far more visible in its efforts outside the West Loop, reaching into the city and suburbs with their “bridges” in-school programs.

Though Merit began in the late 1970s as a purely private music school with the goal of providing discounted music education, in the 1980s several principals at Chicago Public Schools approached the founders to ask for help in their schools’ music programs.

Today, Merit helps out in after-school programs at 56 sites, from elementary and high schools (40 of them in CPS schools) to YMCAs, churches and park district facilities.

The goal, Merit President Duffie Adelson said, is simply to make music education as available as possible.

“The magic of Merit is that we’re able to find so many kids who would never have had the experience otherwise, the opportunity to discover this wonderful world of music,” Adelson said. “Once they discover it and show an interest, they have a real pathway they can follow from beginning to end.”

Adelson said Merit’s goal is to make it as easy as possible for kids to get involved in music — and stay involved. About 90 percent of kids learning music at Merit’s satellite locations don’t pay anything out of pocket, and 65 percent of students taking lessons at Merit’s West Loop complex get some kind of financial aid.

The curriculum tries to make it as easy as possible for students taking lessons at their school to transition into the more intensive, immersive program at Merit.

“The goal is that anyone who’s really motivated to do further study can come here and fit right in to our most advanced programs,” said Judy Beilman, Merit’s director of development.

Adelson agreed. Providing that pathway to Chicago kids could be a way to escape a rougher life, she said.

“The idea is that if you can capture a student’s passion, you won’t have kids hanging out on the street,” Adelson said. “We don’t expect all 4,000 kids to want to spend hours and hours and hours here a week, studying music theory and playing in ensemble and music theory classes and getting lots of homework — but a lot of kids do.”

Paula Zarate, whose 11-year-old son Alex and 9-year old daughter Carly have taken violin lessons at Merit for about four years, said she couldn’t afford music lessons without financial help from Merit.

“I love that they reach out to make it affordable — we couldn’t do it if it wasn’t,” she said. “They do a great job, and they pay a lot of attention to the kids. You can tell the whole staff really cares.”

Merit’s been teaching students in the West Loop since taking over the Total Living Network’s studios in 2005 — moving from Dearborn Station in the South Loop — and Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd) said it’s a huge asset to the neighborhood.

“I think if you were at Monroe and Peoria, you wouldn’t know it was there, but its impact is widespread throughout the city and the suburbs,” he said. “For a quiet little building, it’s got large ramifications for the city.”

Martha Goldstein, executive director of the West Loop Community Organization, said Merit’s arrival was a boon for the burgeoning area. Her organization fought to have TLN’s studios sold to Merit instead of a condo developer.

“We wanted to have their name here and their function. To me, it’s like the Juilliard of the Midwest,” Goldstein said. “I think they brought name recognition to a neighborhood like this that has appreciation for the arts.”

As all nonprofits have in the economic downtown though, Merit has struggled a bit to meet its fundraising goals. More and more schools have been asking for Merit to provide more assistance than it already does in funding their music programs, and it’s provided a strain.

“It’s been very challenging,” Adelson said. “We’re finding that schools are asking us for help more and more in that regard. That’s a big challenge for us, because we already need to raise $3 million a year to subsidize all the programs that are taking place here and taking place off-site.”

On May 25, the school is having its annual “Music Counts” gala at the Four Seasons, 120 E. Delaware Place. The school hopes to get a quarter of its annual $3 million in funds at the event.

It’s a key source of cash that keeps the dream of discounted or free music education alive, Adelson said.

“We really look for people who get excited about or mission and hop on our bandwagon, as we like to say,” Adelson said. “Because without them, what you’re seeing today would not happen.”

Photos by J. GEIL/Staff Photographer

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