On a personal note…

by Betsy Ko

Friday, May 8th marked my final day as Director of Bridges: Partners in Music.  Starting June 1, I will begin a new position as Music Department Head for Chicago High School for the Arts.  As a fervent proponent of Merit’s continuum, it has been my privilege to work towards that goal in the Bridges program where it all begins.  If you are reading this blog, I know that it is because Merit’s mission is close to your heart as well.  Since Merit is one of the community partners for Chicago High School for the Arts, I look forward to remaining in close touch with my Merit colleagues as part of a continuing effort to provide high quality arts training for young people in Chicago.

Thanks and smiles to all of you who have read, commented and contributed posts to this blog.  Your encouragement and appreciation have meant a great deal to me!  If the Bridges blog is something that you feel should be continued, please share this with Merit’s administration.

All the best,



Katherine Lucena’s Big College News

Congratulations to senior Katherine Lucena who has been awarded a full scholarship to the School of Music at DePaul University!!!  Katherine began her musical studies in the Bridges band program at Nixon Elementary School in the Hermosa community (Herman Escobar, Principal).  Although her first instrument was percussion, she soon switched over to French horn.  Katherine’s Merit career has included several years in the Tuition-free Conservatory, as well as membership in Merit’s Honors Brass Quintet.  She was also a featured soloist with the Merit Wind Ensemble for Performathon 2009.  Katherine plans to study music education at DePaul.  We are incredibly proud of you, Katherine!!!

Bridges students fill Symphony Center with music for a second day

by Bridges Director, Betsy Ko

After an exciting day of MeritFest performances on Thursday, Merit and Symphony Center staff woke up on Friday, May 1st and did it all over again.  What a great way to end the week!  Our second day of MeritFest 2009 featured performers from 28 Bridges sites who performed in one of two large string orchestras, Concert Choir, ethnic percussion ensemble and piano ensembles.  We were also delighted to showcase the string ensemble from Kelly High School in the Brighton Park community.  Over the last 18 months, Merit faculty have been providing supplemental coaching to Kelly’s string students through the Fidelity FutureStage Program.

When I wasn’t directing the flow of student traffic, I had a few moments to shoot these videos.  I hope that you enjoy them!

Here is the advanced string orchestra rehearsing the Allegro from Handel’s Water Music under the direction of Merit faculty member Patrick Rustandi:


Under the guidance of Merit instructors Doug Brush, Jean Leroy, Dominique Louis and Taylor, ethnic percussion students from Barton, Pulaski, Salazar and Tarkington each took turns performing rhythms of West Africa and Haiti:


I’d like to close with a big bravo to all of our performers over this wonderful two day event and my huge thanks to the many, many people at Merit, Symphony Center and our sites who helped to make MeritFest 2009 a big success!!!

MeritFest 2009 is off to a great start!

by Betsy Ko, Bridges Director

Despite our worries about how the rain would affect the buses bringing students from 19 of our Bridges sites to Symphony Center this morning, everyone got there safely and with enough time to rehearse together to pull off a fabulous 90′ concert!  Today’s program featured the performances of two large bands, guitar ensemble, marimba ensemble and Concert Choir, as well as a solo performance by this year’s Merit Concerto Competition winner.  

MeritFest is an extraordinary experience for our students for many reasons, but one of the most compelling is the excitement of being able to perform with students from all over the city in combined ensembles.  This is dramatically true for our band and string students, many of whom play in much smaller groups at their Bridges site.  Last week, I visited Garvey Elementary School, a longstanding Bridges site in the Washington Heights community (Michelle Miller, Principal).  The advanced band students were great sports in letting me videotape them as they drilled the MeritFest pieces with Merit instructor Jess Baker.

Four Garvey students joined us at MeritFest today:  Steven Bailey, Dominique Corker, Dominique McGee, and Janiesha Redditt.  They were part of our Grazioso Band which filled Symphony Center’s stage with approximately 200 young musicians.  Here is an excerpt of their performance of Caribbean Delight by Victor Lopez.

If you couldn’t make it to MeritFest today, I hope that you can join us tomorrow!  The concert is from 11 to 12:30 and is free and open to the public.  Friday’s program will feature several large string ensembles, piano ensembles, percussion ensemble and Concert Choir.  If you can take an early and extended lunch break, you will definitely enjoy the music and smiles of our students!

How do you get to Symphony Center?

by Betsy Ko, Bridges Director

At 10 AM on the first day of CPS’s spring break, approximately 40 students were neither sleeping in, nor playing video games.  They were arriving at Merit’s home in the West Loop for a 2 hour rehearsal for MeritFest, our upcoming performance event at Symphony Center on April 30 and May 1.  The students represented 7 of our Bridges sites:  Beasley Academic Center, Jackson Language Academy, Kipling Elementary School, Murray Language Academy, Pershing Elementary Humanities Magnet and St. Sabina Academy.  The students came with their parents, with the exception of our St Sabina students who came in the school van with their general music teacher Brenda Williams.  Six Merit faculty were on hand to greet the students who spent some time playing all together and then split into two groups for the second hour.  

May 1 is the our designated string showcase day for MeritFest and all performers will either play with the intermediate level Expressivo Orchestra (157 performers) or the advanced level Dolce Orchestra (78 performers).  Although the students will have approximately an hour to rehearse at Symphony Center on the day of the concert, Merit string faculty were eager to have this extra earlier rehearsal for any students that could attend.  Each orchestra will perform three selections that the students have been learning at their individual sites over the last few months.  The video clip below (Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn) is a little appetizer of what you will hear if you can make it to Symphony Center at 11 AM on May 1!


Books, Brushes & Bands for Education Visits Merit’s Tuition-free Conservatory

by Betsy Ko, Bridges Director

At 9 AM sharp on March 28th, a bus from Hammond, IN pulled up to the front of Merit.  Its passengers were 19 band students and 8 parents from Books, Brushes & Bands for Education, a Northwest IN organization devoted to providing a variety of arts opportunities for children in the community.  Merit is in its 6th year of partnership with BBB4E, providing both band and choral instruction for its programs.  The students were delighted to see their Merit band instructor, Jessica Baker, waiting along with me to greet them in Merit’s lobby.  After a quick welcome, it was straight off to a band clinic with Bryan Polacek, Director of the Tuition-free Conservatory bands.  Although Saturday is a bustling day at Merit, we were lucky to be able to hold the clinic in Gottlieb Hall.  Bryan worked with the students on the three pieces that they will perform at Symphony Center for MeritFest in just a few short weeks.

After the clinic, the group split up.  Students and their parents had the chance to visit either a small group instrumental class or a musicianship class.  In many cases, our TFC faculty had the BBB4E visitors take out their instruments and jump in with the class.  At the end of the day, I heard more than one student talking excitedly about this part of the morning.  Some got to experience a new style of music such as percussive “skat” with Merit faculty Doug Brush.  Others found that they could do new things on their instrument with the help of a few tips.  This was the case for BBB4E student Bria who wrote, “The best part was when I went to the clarinet class.  I thought it was fun because I learned that I can play the high notes without a problem.”

During the TFC assembly period, BBB4E parents learned more about Merit at an information session presented by Dean of Programs Troy Anderson and Student Services staff member Danny Thomas.  Meanwhile the students attended the TFC assembly which featured an all-flute program with performances by both Merit students and faculty.  At the conclusion of the assembly, the BBB4E students, now rejoined by their parents, moved forward to the front rows in Gottlieb Hall to listen to Bryan Polacek rehearse the TFC AM band.  Although they were now several hours into a morning of intense concentration, the students remained very attentive and interested in watching the more advanced students rehearse.  This part of the morning also came up as a highlight in the comments from the day.  Echoing the thoughts of several students, BBB4E student Macie wrote, “It was very cool to see what I would become and how it would all work out later on.” 

Also getting a favorable review from among the morning’s activities was the pizza lunch that closed out the visit!!  

BBB4E’s field trip to Merit was part of our Bandbuilder Initiative, made possible through funding by NAMM, the National Association of Music Merchants.  NAMM awarded generous funding to three of our Bridges band programs, enabling us to carry out a number of activities to strengthen the quality of these programs.  Instrument sectionals are another key component of Bandbuilders.  Doug Brush and I have been going to Hammond regularly to work with the percussion and flute students respectively.  During our pizza lunch, I told the students that as much as I enjoy going to Hammond to see them, it was a real treat to have them come to visit me at Merit!  Although the drive from Hammond to Merit’s home in the West Loop is a definite time commitment, we hope that some of our Bridges students from BBB4E will keep practicing and be back someday soon as regular students in the Tuition-free Conservatory.

Merit’s band at Talcott becomes a family affair!

Over my years of teaching in Merit’s continuum, I have become convinced of how essential it is for the parents of our students to understand what their children do in music class and how it can make a difference in their lives, both now and for the future.  So I was delighted when Tom Bracy, our band teacher at Talcott Elementary School in West Town, told me about a recent evening when his band parents got a little taste of what it’s like to be a member of the band!  

I’ll let Tom take over the story from here…..

It was not your typical day at Talcott Elementary.  The band students were all a buzz.  “Could we watch?”  “Do you think we’ll be able to hear them from the hallway?”  “Will you please leave the door open, Mr. Bracy?”  Why can’t they see the visiting artists that would attend this very special rehearsal?  After all, it was THEIR parents!  Yep, you read it correctly.  On February 25th, the Bridges program at Talcott Elementary held its first ever Band Parent Night.  Usually Band Parent Nights are those evenings when parents stop in to register their children for instruction.  But not tonight….  Instead it was the parents who would bring their child’s instrument into class and learn a little bit about what their son or daughter does in band class during the week.

We started like every first band class.  After showing the parents how to put their instruments together and describing what an embouchure was, we were on our way.  “Open your books to page 4, please,” I said.  Behind me, I heard another voice, “Abrir sus libros a la pagina 4, por favor.”  Who was that I wondered?  It was Mrs. Aurora Ramos, Talcott’s general music teacher, who not only stayed late to help translate for parents, but who also helped to set up this special class.  We went through the introductions of normal beginning topics–staff, bar lines, clef signs, time signatures–and then got down to playing.  If you’ve been teaching music long enough, you know that even the most unpolished and strenuous efforts from a beginning band sound like a masterpiece once the students get those first three notes down.  You shoot for “Hot Cross Buns” and, if you make it, the rest of the year is all uphill!  Truthfully, it’s not much different with adult students.  However, you do want to spend a few minutes discussing the importance of practice, the excuses their children may come up with for not practicing, and what the band director’s expectations really are.  All in all, it was a great first night!  We played through the first two pages of the book, falling just short of our intended “Hot Cross Buns”.  However, the parents learned the importance of instrument care, how to begin to read music, and how to read a fingering chart so that they could be of help to their children.

One of the highlights of the night was the mentoring that some parents were able to give to others.  This was especially important and something that we wanted to encourage since Talcott has a band mentoring program in which students, parents, some classroom teachers and even Principal Craig Benes participate.  Seeing the same two parents mentor one another just as their children did only one hour before was enlightening.

February 25th was just the beginning of a series of little extras at Talcott and one which we found to be truly beneficial for our students.  Maybe the parents didn’t play “Hot Cross Buns” that evening, but the three flute students who were struggling to do so three weeks ago ARE playing the song today.  What’s our next step?  Getting more parents to come out to these nights and ultimately getting a few parents performance-ready!

By the way, Tom also serves as Merit’s Director of Operations and Human Resources.  Even with his full-time administrative responsibilities, he still makes time to go out three days a week to teach for our Bridges band programs at Talcott and Nixon.  Thanks for the inspiring story, Tom!!  

Merit’s Associate Board Members Go Back to School with Bridges

by James Erwin, Merit Associate Board Chairman

It is just amazing and fantastic to see how the Merit faculty interact with Bridges students.  Today, I joined several members of the Associate Board on a visit to a strings class taught by Dan Golden at the Jackson Language Academy in University Village.  This visit was one of a continuing series of visits by the Associates and part of their commitment to supporting Merit’s mission and the Bridges program.  We had a fabulous time watching several youngsters start their day by working on mastering some difficult violin concepts.

I am always amazed by the level of effort put forth by both our faculty and students.  Every time we visit a Bridges class, we learn something new about music and music education.  Today, it was intriguing to see how Mr. Golden reinforced the rhythm concepts of 16th, 8th and quarter note patterns with common words such as “motorcycle”, “boomchicka” (okay, that’s not so common) and “hot dog”.  I can’t wait to use these with my kids.

Anyone that is interested in learning more about the Associate Board and its interaction with the amazing Bridges program should email Veronica Jaeger, Merit’s Special  Events Manager, at vjaeger@meritmusic.org.  These visits are all you need to see to know why we support Merit.

Alegre Strings in action at Whittier School

“Uno, dos, tres, cuatro……show me a perfect bow hold!!!!” encouraged Merit instructor Daniela Pardo.  From the looks of this photo, you might think that Bridges has added fencing to its program offerings, but I actually snapped this shot as Daniela’s viola students at Whittier Elementary were competing to see which team could complete the most passes of a small cup from one bow tip to another.  And, conveniently for the lesson plan of the day, the best way to pass the cup with speed is to hold your bow with the same grip that is ideal for making music!  The children were completely delighted with the challenge and the room was filled with giggles and yells for a rematch as Daniela announced a winner.

Whittier Elementary, under the leadership of Principal Zoila Garcia, is one of five Bridges sites that are part of the Alegre Strings program founded a decade ago by Merit Artistic Director Shalisa Kline Ugaz.  Alegre Strings students learn through the well-known Suzuki method with a generous helping of Latin American melodies incorporated into the curriculum.  Merit has partnered with Whittier, located in the Pilsen community, for three and a half years now.  Daniela visits the school for several hours every Thursday and brings with her years of playing and teaching in Venezuela’s esteemed youth orchestra program, El Sistema.  Merit and El Sistema both share the vision that music offers a way for young people to access self-esteem, discipline and bigger dreams than they might have started out with.  With generous support from J. P. Morgan Chase, Alegre Strings has embarked upon a new project this year called Comunidad de Alegre: Pilsen.  Through Comunidad, the Alegre curriculum has expanded to include viola and cello, in addition to violin. Comunidad will also involve a summer orchestra based in Pilsen.  Strengthening community through music is at the heart of what Merit does and the summer Comunidad orchestra will draw participants from all of our locations offereing Alegre instruction.  I can’t wait to hear them!

Not your typical Tuesday

by Alicia Poot, Bridges Program Associate and Merit flute faculty member

It’s a Tuesday night, the night of the week I am most drained and exhausted.  I have a 14-hour day on Tuesdays, and Tuesday is sandwiched between a 10-hour Monday day and an 11-hour Wednesday. It’s no wonder I rarely can finish my Italian homework anymore.

Tonight I should be at a party celebrating this historic inauguration day, but rather I am spending a quiet evening at home watching the taped Obama inauguration on PBS. I am tired, but full of energy and full of hope.

I started the day excited about the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States. I left my apartment at 6:30 this morning and drove south on Lake Shore Drive, continuing on 41 past the end of the Drive and through Chicago’s South Shore and South Chicago neighborhoods. I drove past the basketball courts where Obama played with Rahm Emmanuel, and past the South Shore Cultural Center where Barack and Michelle had their wedding reception. I ended my drive about 20 miles southeast of my apartment at Marsh Elementary School at 99th and Exchange. This school sits in the shadow of the Skyway Bridge and the now defunct Wisconsin Steel Works which was, in 1875, the first steel mill in the entire Calumet region. The neighborhood has been in a depression since the plant’s closing, and is about 2.5 miles from the area where Barack Obama spent time as a community organizer early in his career. I come to this school once a week to work with the flute and saxophone students who play in the band.

From here I drove to Merit in the West Loop to do administrative work, but at 10:00 Central Time, the staff members at Merit enjoyed champagne and shared tears in the library while watching Chicago’s own Barack taking the presidential oath. The musical performance immediately preceding the oath featured not only recognizable faces from the classical world, but another of Chicago’s and Merit’s own: Anthony McGill on the clarinet. Not much younger than I am, Anthony is the principal clarinetist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, but he is from Chicago’s South Side and is an alumnus of the Merit School, where I am proud to be a faculty member.

I drove south from Downtown again in the early afternoon, dropping off supplies at 73rd and Stony Island, another site where Merit reaches students in the community – Muhammad University of Islam, the school connected to the national headquarters of the Nation of Islam (Louis Farrakhan). Since I had time to kill between this stop and my 3:00 flute class at the Richard J. Daley Academy (51st & Wolcott) in Chicago’s Back of the Yards Neighborhood, I took the long way and drove north, then west on 51st street near Obama’s house and then through the neighborhood of Fuller Park before arriving at Daley Academy. Back of the Yards is another working class neighborhood, so named because of its proximity to the site of the former Union Stock Yards (read Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle – it’s on my personal to-do list).

After this class I returned to Merit where I taught flute until 8:00pm. In spite of my fatigue, I’m more than inspired because of today’s national events.

In the three-and-a-half short years that I have called myself a resident of this great city, my love and my curiosity about this city and its people, history, and neighborhoods has grown and grown. I am thankful that my parents who met, married, lived in and loved this city brought my brothers and me to the city often enough when we were children that I entertained dreams of growing up and living here. I am thankful to be employed at Merit in the capacity that I am – I get to see corners of the city that most Northsiders never venture out to see, and get to work with the children in these neighborhoods firsthand. Even if my dishes aren’t washed, I have nothing in the fridge but sauerkraut and crackers, the mail is unopened and the laundry still hanging where I left it two days ago and I’m so tired my eyes hurt, I am tired because I have meaningful work.

My Tuesday afternoon crowd at Daley continues to crack me up with questions like “Didn’t they wear weird clothes in the 70s?” and “Did Michael Jackson used to be Black?” Or the day when they kept saying “Awesooooome!” when every time I corrected their hand position it resulted in a giant static electricity shock when my skin touched their finger. Seeing the two 7th graders (both named Luis) in the class gently help the third and fourth graders (Ernesto, Valente, Adrian, and Adriana) while I am giving someone else individual attention makes me happy that they are learning more than how to play the flute, that teaching music is also teaching community and cooperation.

All day my students were talking about the inauguration. I am so proud, hopeful, and excited at what this means to so many young people in Chicago, and hope to see the work that Barack Obama started here continue on the national level so working people all over the country can see higher wages, affordable health care, better education, and above all, hope for a peaceful and prosperous future for everybody.

Thank you for reading my ramblings. I know that not all of you share my political views or maybe you are apprehensive about this regime change, but in Barack’s words, “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth… as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace,” I hear hope that our divided nation can begin healing.