Merit School of Music

Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Neal R. Abarbanell

Meet Alumnus Dr. Neal Robert Abarbanell

Year(s) Attended Merit: 1980 to 1982

Program(s): Alice S. Pfaelzer Tuition-free Conservatory Class of 1982

Instrument(s): French Horn

Hometown: Chicago, IL

Education: Residency in Emergency Medicine at University of Florida (Jacksonville); Medical Degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago, followed by an Internship at University of Chicago; Bachelors of Science in Biology and Bachelors of Arts in Music Performance (Horn) from Northern Illinois University (DeKalb)

Current Profession: Dr. Abarbanell is a board-certified emergency medicine physician with nearly 30 years of professional experience. He is affiliated with hospitals all over the country, is the founder of First Choice Healthcare, a primary care clinic and emergency room staffing firm, and is involved with numerous charitable causes.

Q & A:

This year marks the 20th Anniversary of Merit awarding The Neal Abarbanell College Scholarship to a graduating Conservatory student. Dr. Abarbanell, what inspired you to start this scholarship?

My time at Merit was one of my most positive and beneficial life experiences. I had the opportunity to learn from many wonderful and dedicated educators, and my interest in music grew into a love that I carry with me still. I learned the value of hard work, determination, and discipline, and the beauty one can make through music. I was fortunate to receive the Merit Becker College Scholarship when I graduated in 1982, without which I could not have attended college or become the physician and researcher that I am today. In 1998, upon completing my Board Certification in Emergency Medicine, I decided that it was time to start giving back to Merit by establishing a college scholarship in hopes of providing other students with opportunities. I have been so blessed to receive, and I cannot overemphasize the importance of giving back to one’s community and helping those in need. The ideals and work ethic instilled in me at Merit serve to this day as the foundation for my career, and most importantly, my life.

Pictured above, left to right: Jennifer Montague, Merit Trustee/Alumna/Parent with Naomi Graham, Conservatory Class of 2018

The 2018 winner of The Neal Abarbanell College Scholarship is Naomi Graham. A voice student at Merit for the past five years, she plans to attend Cornish College of the Arts or Berklee College of Music in the fall. She received this award during the 2018 Alice S. Pfaelzer Tuition-free Conservatory graduation ceremony on April 29. One of her teachers has remarked: “I see tremendous potential and drive in Naomi. Soulful melodies and rich harmonies flow from her mind and are easily organized into song forms.”

You are an extremely busy physician with a demanding schedule, yet you practice your horn every day and play for friends. How do you make this happen? What motivates you?

Well, if I don’t practice every day and maintain my performance skills, then I won’t be ready when the New York Philharmonic calls. (Smile). Joking aside, the deeper truth is that music enriches my life even if I’m not performing professionally. I love music, and I love playing the French horn. Both will always be a major part of my life. Music provides me with an avenue to relieve stress and refocus my thoughts and energy, and I enjoy every minute of playing the horn for friends who get to see a very different, and sometimes surprising, side of me other than in my role as a physician.

Who are the teachers that had the greatest influence on you during your time at Merit? Do you have any special memories of them that you’d like to share?

There were so many great teachers at Merit, however, two educators who really stand out in my memory are Roger Rocco and Ann Monaco. Mr. Rocco taught brass techniques and was probably the single best horn teacher I have ever had. He played the tuba professionally and studied with Arnold Jacobs, principal tubist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1944 until his retirement in 1988. Mr. Rocco had the ability to take complex musical principles and convey them in a manner so that young students who were just beginning their musical studies, could understood them. Even today, I remember his teachings and apply them when I play my horn. Mrs. Monaco taught music theory and conducted the orchestra. She loved music and her students. She made every single student feel special and helped them understand their potential to become the best they could be. I kept in touch with her after graduating from Merit and considered her a true friend. I was devastated by her sudden passing in 2002. She was an amazing teacher, and I am grateful to have known her.

Merit will celebrate its 40th Anniversary next spring (2019). As a member of one of Merit’s first graduating classes, how do you hope to see Merit grow and impact young lives through music education in the next 5 to 10 years?

I studied at Merit when the program was held in three classrooms at Roosevelt University. After a time there, Merit moved to the Fine Arts Center. Now, decades later, Merit makes its home at the Joy Faith Knapp Music Center in the West Loop. I’m proud that the Alice S. Pfaelzer Tuition-free Conservatory has grown to serve more than 350 talented young people each year. It’s been amazing to see Merit’s transition over the years, and to have helped provide a college scholarship for a student each year. Merit has a unique role in providing music education for students from underrepresented backgrounds. Through this cultural enrichment, Merit has helped countless students to not only pursue futures in music, but to achieve better lives regardless of their chosen career. My hope for Merit is that it continues to thrive and help students in need. Merit is truly an amazing organization, and it has been an honor to be a part of its legacy.

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