Merit School of Music

From Conservatory to Career: Empowering Insights from Merit’s Leadership Institute

A table of panelists talks in front of a room of students

The days may be getting longer and warmer as spring blooms around us, but for high school juniors and seniors, springtime can be overwhelming as they face many daunting decisions. Where should I go to college? Do I want to study music or follow another passion? If I major in a different field, will I still be able to use the skills I’ve developed studying music? 

On Saturday, April 6, Merit School of Music’s Associate Board hosted a special Career Exploration panel to help the students of the Alice S. Pfaelzer Conservatory answer these questions, understand their options, and find peace of mind while navigating this transition. The panel is part of Merit’s Leadership Institute, a free mentorship program supporting Conservatory students as they prepare to transition into life beyond high school. In a discussion moderated by Associate Board member and Merit alum Eduardo Lopez, four successful young professionals in different industries shared how their musical backgrounds prepared them for their careers.

Meet the Panelists

A group of four panelists stand side by side, smiling
The four Leadership Institute panelists stand side by side. From left to right: Annie Mercado, Kamila Muhammad, Tupni, Julian Davis Reid

Annie Mercado 

Perhaps the most straightforward way to use your musical skills in your career is to pursue a music degree and become a professional musician. That was the path initially chosen by Annie Mercado, Merit alum and Associate Board member, who obtained undergraduate and graduate degrees in vocal music before working as a professional singer. But when the pandemic forced her to reevaluate her aspirations, she pivoted into a career in sales and now works for LinkedIn. She credits the versatility she gained through her musical studies as key in allowing her to successfully make this shift. Her biggest advice to the students? Embrace your own agency when making these decisions, rather than adhering to a pre-determined path. 

“You can do whatever you want to do whenever you want to do it. You have freedom, and you have choice. And it’s really empowering to remember that.”

Kamila Muhammad 

Another Merit alum and Associate Board member on the panel studied music at the collegiate level but has since shifted to a career in a different industry. Kamila Muhammad spoke candidly about how her experiences in music school helped her realize her passion for advocating for marginalized communities and fighting systemic injustices. She kept sight of that passion to guide her as she explored different avenues, eventually coming to her current work in philanthropy, where she can affect change more directly. She challenged the students to stay connected to the issues that drive them. 

“Your life's purpose may not be apparent to you, but there's always something within you that really strikes a chord with your spirit. What is your north star? What is your mission? What is your purpose? Only you know that.”

Julian Davis Reid 

And while Annie and Kamila attended school for music and now work in other fields, sometimes the opposite is true. Merit alum Julian Davis Reid studied economics and philosophy. And while he had no intention of pursing music as a career, it remained a constant in his life and provided opportunities for connections and growth. Today, he works as a professional musician and a minister. Julian frequently gives back to the Merit community as a member of our Associate Board, as a guest artist for Live from Gottlieb, and as the headliner for last year’s Play On benefit concert with his band, The JuJu Exchange. For Julian, holding space for different aspects of yourself and integrating your passions and interests is key. 

“There is a way all these different parts of you work together because you’re one person. All these different interests all funnel through you. So how do you listen to the music of your life?"


Of course, there are many careers within the music industry itself beyond performing or teaching. Our final panelist, Tupni, played piano, guitar, and drums and hoped to become a professional musician, but when he got to college, he fell in love with audio engineering. Now working as an audio engineer at the House of Blues, touring with artists, and working with big names like Lil Kim, Tupni emphasized the importance of discipline, hard work, and networking. 

"If you show that you have that passion, you always show up, and you're prepared, someone's going to notice it. It might not be immediately. But when you have that discipline, you make the kind of connections that bring new opportunities."

From the Practice Room to the Workplace

The skills learned in studying music can prepare you for a career in virtually any field. From being goal- and detail-oriented to being a lifelong learner, musicians can be an incredible asset to any workplace.  

Kamila pointed out that she learned many of the soft skills she uses in her job today, like team building and personal accountability, from playing in chamber ensembles. But even the time spent alone in the practice room can be transformative. The self-discipline and work ethic developed by daily practice are hugely valuable in the workforce, and solo practice time creates a habit of reflection, analysis, and close focus.  

For Annie, the structure and discipline in music can impact nearly every aspect of a person’s professional life. “How does this person learn? How do they structure their day? How do they keep themselves organized? How do they keep themselves accountable? How do they take responsibility for mistakes that they made? How do they own up to that? How do they grow? Whatever you do after school, whether it is music or not, people are going to look for that.” 

College & Beyond

Students had the opportunity to submit their questions before the event, and it’s apparent that college was top of mind for most. Between choosing the right school, picking the right major, and succeeding in a competitive conservatory environment, the students had a lot of concerns about the uncertainty ahead of them over the next few years. 

One point the panelists emphasized is that the school you attend doesn’t define your value or your potential for success, and they warned students from putting any schools on a pedestal. Far more important than the school you attend, they argued, is your own personal drive and hunger. “You may not have the same opportunities or exposure,” Julian said, “but if that hunger is there, regardless of where you go to school, that can help steer you through all of the vicissitudes of life.”

A man gestures and talks to a group of students

Kamila echoed this when she shared her experience in a graduate program at Harvard: her classmates who attended community colleges, state colleges, and colleges she’d never heard of were the smartest and most driven in the class. “Where you go to college is not the end of your story,” Kamila said. “It’s the beginning of your story. And whether you go to that community college or you go to Harvard is honestly kind of irrelevant. In a lot of ways, it’s what you make of the opportunities you have in the given environment you’re placed in.” 

This conversation seemed particularly impactful. As the students discussed this topic after the panel, the relief was palpable. “It kind of feels like it’s the end, this is it, now I have to sustain myself and be an adult,” said student Olivia V. “But hearing what they said about how the college or conservatory you go to doesn’t define you, and that it’s just the beginning, really helped reassure me that no matter what, things are going to be okay.” After the panel, many students stuck around to talk to the panelists one-on-one about their experiences and ask for advice. 

Navigating college and career plans can be daunting, but the panelists’ insight seemed to plant seeds of confidence and clarity in the minds of the students at this pivotal juncture. They left the panel armed with the knowledge that their journey is just beginning, and that regardless of the path they choose, they possess the agency and resiliency to shape their futures. 

Add a Little Music to Your Inbox

Get the latest news from Merit delivered to you!

Share This Post

More To Explore

Students playing electric guitar, trumpet and saxophone

Top 6 Moments from Gala 2024

On May 14, Merit School of Music’s annual Gala raised $1.275 million to lower barriers to high-quality music education to children and teens across Chicago. It was a beautiful evening

Read More »
Close this search box.