Merit School of Music

Alumni Spotlight: Kamila Muhammad



Kamila after her performance at The JuJu Exchange’s benefit concert for Merit School of Music at City Winery on November 28, 2017. Photo by René Marban.

Year(s) Attended Merit: 2007 – 2012

Program(s): Alice S. Pfaelzer Tuition-free Conservatory (Class of 2012). Kamila received Merit’s 2012 Mary Herron Replogle College Scholarship.

Instrument(s): Clarinet – primary instrument; Saxophone – secondary instrument

Hometown: Chicago, Illinois

Education: Bachelor of Music from Northwestern University (received full scholarship)

Memorable Merit Moment: One of my most memorable Merit moments was receiving a standing ovation after performing two movements of the Ticheli Clarinet Concerto with the Wind Symphony during the Spring Concert of 2012. The moment I finished the piece, my heart was racing. I was sweating and thoroughly exhausted. Hearing the roaring of the crowd, seeing the pride on my conductor’s and teachers’ faces, and FINALLY knowing my hard work paid off was surreal and very beautiful.


Q & A:

1) How do you think your first-hand experience as a Merit student impacts your ability to now teach as a band director in the Merit Music in Communities program? What’s been your experience like so far and what do you love most about teaching?

I make concerted efforts to ensure that all my students know they are capable of anything if they work hard, and use my life experiences as an example of that. I tell them about how I started out playing clarinet in 4th grade at my elementary school on the South Side before coming to Merit the summer before I began 8th grade. I emphasize how music was an avenue for me to succeed and earn a full scholarship to Northwestern University. Most people who come from the neighborhoods I teach in (and grew up in) don’t end up going to school at places like Northwestern. It’s a primary goal of mine to encourage my students to set goals and dream beyond any limitations or others’ perceived expectations. I do my best to serve as a living example that anything is possible through hard work and a solid support system. So far, a few of my students have announced that they want to go to colleges like Northwestern. Hearing that makes me feel like my work has already made an impact on my students’ lives.

I also really love when my students come up to me to talk about how they asked a school staff member to open a room so they could practice after school, or encouraged a younger sibling to take a few toots on their horn. My students who go above and beyond in Merit Music in Communities programs are the next generation of Alice S. Pfaelzer Tuition-free Conservatory students, and I can’t wait to see how far they’ll go!


2) What inspired you to pursue a music degree at Northwestern University?

Though Northwestern is world-renowned for its music conservatory, it wasn’t a place I had seen myself going. I went on a tour there the summer before my junior year of high school and immediately felt at home at Northwestern. The views of Lake Michigan from the practice room were all I needed to convince me, and when I auditioned there, gazing at the lake helped slow my nerves and made me feel confident I would nail my audition. I also had the immense privilege of studying with saxophonist, clarinetist, composer, and educator, Victor Goines* — someone whose musical life looked a lot like what I imagined mine to be, as well as members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and beyond. Northwestern offered the flexibility of studying at an esteemed conservatory with access to some of the country’s best humanities professors, which fulfilled my academic interests. When Northwestern offered me a full scholarship to boot, I knew I couldn’t say no.


Note:* A gifted African-American composer, Victor Goines has more than 100 original works to his credit. In 2000, he was commissioned by Juilliard’s Dance Division to compose a musical work in celebration of their 50th Anniversary. Throughout his career, Goines has been deeply committed to the field of Jazz Education. In November 2007 he was named director of jazz studies and professor of music at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Source:


3) Do you remember how you felt and what you thought when you were announced as the 2012 Mary Herron Replogle College Scholarship Recipient during the 2012 Alice S. Pfaelzer Tuition-free Conservatory graduation ceremony?

I remember feeling incredibly nervous that my name had not been called for an award as I watched most of my friends go up to the stage to be recognized. I kept checking the program to see what else was coming, thinking I was surely next. Yet I kept hearing other names called. When Ms. Adelson began talking about the student who would receive the Replogle Scholarship, I started blushing as I realized the biggest scholarship at Merit was going to me. It felt like all the hours of hard work were culminating in that one moment. I felt blessed, recognized, very humbled, and incredibly grateful, and was determined to make my college career something of which my teachers at Merit would be proud.


Kamila receiving her Replogle College Scholarship award in 2012.

4) As a Merit student, you were deeply involved in the jazz program and played with a variety of jazz ensembles. How did your “Merit experience” help you become the jazz artist that you are today? Who are your jazz musician “heroes”?

My experience with the late Michael McLaughlin was extremely formative in my jazz identity. Mr. McLaughlin did not take any mess and pushed me beyond my expectations for my success. He sent me tunes to check out, told colorful stories about legendary jazz cats, and accommodated the many conflicts I had with my clarinet studies. He didn’t let the fact that I was one of the only young women in the jazz studies department be a deterrent to my success, and didn’t treat me any differently than he did the guys. He opened my ears to Hank Mobley, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson, five of the tenor players who have most shaped my jazz preferences, aesthetic and ethos. He insisted I learn Bird solos and Trane changes even though they were hard. Mr. McLaughlin believed in me even when I didn’t believe in myself, and always encouraged me to be myself above all else. That’s a gift I will cherish and am grateful I got a chance to tell him before he passed away.


5) If you could give a few bits of advice to current junior and seniors in the Conservatory, what would you say to them?

PRACTICE. Now is the time to push. Take notes in theory (college theory will be a piece of cake if you do). Listen to your teachers. Make friends who push you musically. PRACTICE. Go to as many concerts and recitals as possible, and not just those pertinent to your instrument or genre of music. Take a class that makes you uncomfortable. Take a class that affirms something about your identity or interests. Find a community outside of music (in part, so you have friends to come to your gigs). Talk to people who are different from you. PRACTICE. Practice SLOWLY and INTENTIONALLY, so you don’t ever have to practice the same thing twice. Don’t procrastinate on your private lessons. Your teacher will know, and you don’t ever want your teacher to know you aren’t handling your business. (Don’t worry, I already did a trial run for you. Spoiler: it was not a fun lesson!) Find something that addresses your self-care. And then PRACTICE some more.


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