Merit School of Music

Alumni Spotlight: Siblings Emily & Samuel Alvelo

Emily and Samuel Alvelo stand next to each other, smiling
  • Year(s) Attended Merit:
    • Emily: 1991 to 2001
    • Samuel: 1991 to 1996
  • Program(s):
    • Emily: Private Lessons Program and Alice S. Pfaelzer Conservatory Class of 2001
    • Samuel: Merit Music in Communities (formerly Bridges) and Alice S. Pfaelzer Conservatory
  • Instrument(s):
    • Emily: Cello and Voice (I also played the flute in grade school and high school)
    • Samuel: Violin
  • Hometown: Chicago, IL
  • Education:
    • Emily: Ed.S. in Social Justice Education from University of Massachusetts, Amherst; M.Ed, Higher Education Administration from Loyola University of Chicago; and BA in Theatre and Psychology from Smith College
    • Samuel: Bachelors Degree in Radio/TV Production from Drake University
  • Current Profession:
    • Emily has worked as a student affairs professional for more than 12 years at academic institutions such as School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC); University of Miami, Florida; and University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She is currently exploring new career opportunities and ways to live out her passion for social justice.
    • Samuel has worked in the world of film since 2003, living in California for several years where he made lots of connections before coming back to Chicago and engaging in the city’s growing film industry. He currently works in film production mainly for the TV shows Chicago PD and Chicago Med.

Q & A

What inspired each of you to pursue your chosen career paths? How did your time at Merit specifically prepare you to be the successful professionals that you are today? What life skills did you learn/develop?

Emily: My time at Merit was a transformative and liberating experience for me. Passionate music teachers and staff filled the school and constantly supported youth in finding their voice while encouraging them in learning how to be responsible, resilient, and proud. Through a scholarship, Merit supported me in attending my first-ever summer music camp, which also happened to be out of state. I later returned to the camp as a counselor. My development as a leader continued, and Merit taught me to be brave and embrace new experiences. This helped to fuel my passion for programs and resources that focus on access and retention, especially for students of color and students from underserved communities. Merit also taught me how to be in harmony with my peers and how to work together, with a common purpose, to convey our love for music with others.

Samuel: As a child, I remember being introduced to all kinds of Broadway musicals and, later on, films like Star Wars and Indiana Jones that fueled my love and appreciation for the movies. After high school, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, but through Gordon Tech High School (now known as DePaul College Prep), I participated in a closed-circuit TV station’s training program. My TV teacher, Mrs. Jackson, encouraged me to apply to her alma mater, Drake University. With her pushing me, I applied and eventually got a full-ride scholarship to the Drake University School of Journalism where I majored in Radio/TV Production.

My time at Merit prepared me for so much more than film, but life in general. When I finally made it into the Alice S. Pfaelzer Conservatory, Mrs. Bernice Ransley was my teacher. She didn’t mess around and expected excellence. She knew if I hadn’t been practicing and pushed me to a place that would surprise myself. She really made me believe in myself and my abilities when I wasn’t as confident.

When you don’t go to one of the leading film schools in the country, breaking into the film industry can be tough. Hard work, perseverance, and confidence are tools that you must have to make it. There will be constant rejection and people telling you that you’re not good enough. Those sessions with Mrs. Ransley prepared me to reach for my dreams.

Knowing what you know now, if you could travel back in time to when you were age 16, what advice would you give yourself about life in general, career pursuits, etc.?

Emily: If I could go back to the age of 16, I would encourage my younger self to always listen to my heart, and I would shut out the voices of self-doubt. Growing up, I was extremely self-conscious and struggled with low self-esteem. Many people would not have guessed it because I was so active and energetic. I’m so glad that Merit became a community in my life that helped me to push beyond what I even thought was possible.

Because music has always filled my heart and soul, I would encourage my younger self to pursue music in college beyond private lessons, possibly a minor or double major in music. It’s crucial that you don’t let fear turn you away from enjoying and exploring what you love, and remember—education doesn’t need to be difficult in order to mean something. Allowing your gifts to flourish and be nurtured is a good thing. Focus on your goals, develop your potential, and stop comparing yourself to others.

Samuel: If I could talk to my 16-year-old self, I would say that you can do sports and play the violin. Career-wise, I would say that the sooner you know what you want, the better, but don’t be afraid to take chances, and if you have the opportunity to study abroad in college—go for it.

What role does music play in your life today? What are your favorite musical genres?

Emily: Music and the arts bring such joy, adventure, and possibility into my life. Our mother studied opera at Clarke College and was a music teacher. She sang to us as children and taught us how to harmonize. Some of my fondest memories are of Mom, Samuel, and me singing three-part harmonies in the car together. To this day, I continue to appreciate all forms of artistic practice as I believe the arts create space for hope, knowledge, awareness, and inspiration for communities, for humanity, and for the future. This year I joined the Windy City Treble Quire, and it has been such a joy to be part of such an amazing group. I look forward to singing in our holiday concert in December.

Samuel: It’s been about 20 years since I picked up a violin. I think it would be fun to take lessons again and see how much I remember. I’m pretty open to all styles of music and enjoy going to festivals and watching live shows. I worked for a radio station in college and went to countless shows; it was quite an experience! My children are now starting their music experiences at Merit, and I hope they find the same joy that I had when I studied there.

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