In 2013, Merit sent 18 students from its Suzuki-Alegre Strings Program to Japan for the 16th Suzuki Method World Convention. There they joined more than 2,100 young musicians from all over the globe to showcase their talent; perform for their peers; and participate in lectures, lessons, and master classes taught by the world’s leading Suzuki instructors.
Over the past 15 years, the Suzuki-Alegre Strings Program has brought a unique element to the traditional Suzuki method of string instruction by incorporating Latin folk songs as part of the standard repertoire. The Program—originally established in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood by Shalisa Kline Ugaz—has developed a teaching model that provides musical excellence while emphasizing parental and community involvement.
In 2012, with the support of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, Merit created the Conservatory Feeder Program at its Bridges site at Rachel Carson Elementary School. This pilot program prepares low-income students for entry into the Alice S. Pfaelzer Tuition-free Conservatory by expanding programming through sectionals, private lessons, and the availability of quality instruments.
In 2011, through a partnership with the Renée Fleming Initiative at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Merit introduced a new Solo Voice program in the Senior Division of the Alice S. Pfaelzer Tuition-free Conservatory. Students learn proper vocal technique through literature for solo voice and take classes in language, diction, theory, acting, and movement. Advanced students even have the opportunity to participate in master classes with Renée Fleming.
Alice Pfaelzer and Emma Endres-Kountz founded Merit School of Music in 1979 in response to the elimination of music education from Chicago’s public elementary schools. Alice and Emma devoted themselves to helping young people realize their musical talents; use their musical skills to gain access to college; and become productive, compassionate, and responsible members of society. As personal role models they demonstrated that self-esteem and success comes from hard work and achievement. For more than three decades, Merit has advanced their vision.
Merit first opened its doors at Roosevelt University with the establishment of its cornerstone program, the Alice S. Pfaelzer Tuition-free Conservatory. The Conservatory provides advanced music instruction free of charge to Chicago’s most dedicated and deserving students. In 1983, Merit produced its first “Performathon” event—an all-day classical and jazz concert featuring Merit’s Conservatory students. The event has grown to feature hundreds of students and almost 18 hours of performances.
In 1984, Merit responded to requests from Chicago Public Schools to create an in-school music education program with the introduction of its Bridges: Partners in Music Program. Bridges furthers Merit’s mission of accessibility—reaching deep into the community to identify and support children with a desire to grow through music. Today, Bridges serves more than 2,000 students annually. In 1990, Merit instituted the Regenstein Scholarship Program to provide children living in Chicago public housing with instruments, full scholarships to Merit programs, transportation to and from classes, and mentoring opportunities.
Throughout its history, Merit has strived to perfect a comprehensive continuum of programming that provides a clear path to musical achievement. This includes a curriculum for early childhood, beginning, and intermediate level group instruction as well as access to private lessons and performance ensembles. A robust evaluation process tracks student progress and program and instructor effectiveness, and ensures that Merit’s students and their teachers have consistent goals in terms of achievement and learning.
In June 2005, Merit moved into its own building to accommodate its growing programs, staff, and student body: the Joy Faith Knapp Music Center in Chicago’s West Loop. With more than 40,000 square feet of classroom, performance, and office space, Merit is truly a home away from home for thousands of Merit students.
In 2014, Merit celebrated its 35th anniversary. Now home to nearly 5,000 students on-site and off, Merit continues to provide vital access to music training, while deepening and broadening instructional offerings, and increasing financial support so that more motivated students can transform their lives through the Merit experience.