Merit School of Music

Alice S. Pfaelzer Conservatory

Merit’s ultimate culmination of pre-collegiate music study. Audition-based and tuition-free.

Chicago's Premier Conservatory for Pre-collegiate Musicians

Named in honor of Merit’s co-founder, the Alice S. Pfaelzer Conservatory represents the full culmination of our instructional continuum. 

Achievable to our most dedicated students, the Conservatory provides highly specialized training and an ensemble chair among Chicagoland’s most promising youth musicians. 

Our graduates have gone on to top colleges and conservatories, becoming professional musicians, artists, engineers, doctors, and civic leaders of all kinds. 

For 26 Saturdays during the school year, students receive classical and/or jazz instruction from Chicago’s finest teaching artists in areas such as technique, music theory, chamber music, large ensembles, and more. 

Conservatory programs are available tuition-free by a process of audition.

 

A piano student playing and singing
Conservatory cello players during a performance

The Experience of a Lifetime for Chicago's Top Youth Musicians

By joining this selective-enrollment program for talented and motivated young musicians (grades 6-12), you join a community of like-minded music-lovers seeking to learn and grow through a mastery of musicianship.

This expert-led program features four main components:

You can choose to audition into one of six instrument divisions:

Students may augment their Conservatory experience with electives and additional opportunities, including masterclasses and rehearsals with world-renowed musicians and college-level professors. Previous guest instructors have included Yo-Yo Ma, Anthony McGill, Marquis Hill, and Enrique Mazzola.

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By the Numbers

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Conservatory Student Commitment

The Converatory program runs concurrent with the school year.

  • Late September through April
  • 26 Saturdays 
  • 4-8 hour commitment per Saturday, occuring between 8:00am – 5:45pm 

Select students also have ensemble rehearsals during the week.

A merit student playing the drum kit

Conservatory FAQs

Most frequent questions and answers about Conservatory
Conservatory Auditions

Merit’s Alice S. Pfaelzer Conservatory is an audition-based program. We hold auditions for the upcoming academic year in May for both classical and jazz programs.

Visit our Conservatory auditions webpage to learn more about auditioning.

Questions? Contact Autumn Selover at aselover@meritmusic.org.

Programs & Ensembles

Band

CONCERT BAND –  The Concert Band is the entry-level band for the Conservatory. It is comprised of up to 80 winds, brass, and percussion students who are generally in 6th – 8th grades.

SYMPHONIC BAND – The Symphonic Band is an advanced wind group. It is comprised of up to 80 wind, brass, and percussion students who are generally in 8th – 10th grades. Programming consists of challenging high-school repertoire.

WIND SYMPHONY – The Wind Symphony is one of Merit’s premier ensembles. The Wind Symphony provides a rigorous experience for talented and motivated young musicians, representing some of the finest wind playing in the country. It is comprised of up to 80 wind, brass, and percussion students who are generally in 10th – 12th grades. Programming consists of modern and traditional repertoire, as well as new commissions. The Wind Symphony rehearses each Saturday, as well as each Tuesday evening.

Orchestra

STRING ORCHESTRA –  The Conservatory String Orchestra is an intermediate level ensemble. It is comprised of up to 50 violin, viola, cello, and bass students who are generally in 5th – 10th grades. Programming consists of modern and traditional string orchestra repertoire.

MERIT PHILHARMONIC – The Merit Philharmonic is Merit’s top orchestral experience for talented young musicians. It is comprised of up to 65 string, wind, brass, and percussion students who are generally in 9th – 12th grades. Programming consists of modern and traditional orchestral repertoire. Woodwind, Brass, and Percussion students interested in auditioning for the Merit Philharmonic must first be accepted into the Wind Symphony. Students who are accepted into the Conservatory at the Wind Symphony level may then audition in the fall for seating placement in Merit Philharmonic.

Piano

Spots in Merit’s Conservatory piano program are limited and highly competitive. Students participate in a variety of activities including piano duets, music theory, weekly recital hour, and studio class. Top pianists may also be required to participate in chamber ensembles. Because spots in the Conservatory piano program are so limited and competitive, pianists must re-audition each year.

Guitar

Guitarists in the Junior or Senior Guitar Division participate in a comprehensive, daylong program consisting of theory, musicianship/instrumental group classes, weekly recital hour, guitar ensemble, and electives. Guitar students are generally in 7th – 12th grades.

Voice

Voice students in the Conservatory are accepted into a comprehensive, daylong program consisting of a large ensemble, theory, musicianship/vocal technique classes, weekly recital hour, and electives. Voice students are generally in 6th – 12th grades.

Jazz

Students in Merit’s Jazz Division participate in a comprehensive, daylong program consisting of theory/improvisation, big band rehearsal (Concert Jazz Ensemble or Merit Jazz Ensemble), combo rehearsal, weekly recital hour, and electives. Jazz students are generally in 8th – 12th grades and have had several years of playing experience. Students in Merit’s Jazz Division have the opportunity to perform in many venues across the city of Chicago including Chicago’s renowned Jazz Showcase.

CONCERT JAZZ ENSEMBLE – The Concert Jazz Ensemble is an intermediate level ensemble for Conservatory students that have a basic understanding of and experience with jazz performance styles and improvisation. It is comprised of saxophone, trumpet, trombone, and rhythm section (piano, guitar, bass, drum-set, and vibraphone). This ensemble is recommended for students who are generally in 8th to 10th grades and have one to two years of jazz ensemble experience. Conservatory students not majoring in Jazz Studies may be eligible to participate in this ensemble pending completion of a seating audition in the fall.

MERIT JAZZ ENSEMBLE –  As the most advanced big band in the Jazz Studies department, the Merit Jazz Ensemble features the Conservatory’s most experienced Jazz Studies majors as well as upper-level Band students with considerable experience in jazz performance and improvisation. It is comprised of saxophone, trumpet, trombone, and rhythm section (piano, guitar, bass, drum-set, and vibraphone). This ensemble is recommended for students who are generally in 10th to 12th grades and have two to four years of jazz ensemble experience. Conservatory students not majoring in Jazz Studies may be eligible to participate in this ensemble pending completion.

Coursework & Curriculum

Through placement auditions, each student is provided a customized schedule resulting in 4 to 8 hours of weekly commitment.

Curriculum

  • Music Theory
  • Instrumental or Vocal Technique Classes
  • Large Ensembles
  • Live from Gottlieb—Weekly performances by world-class professional artists and Merit’s renowned faculty
  • Electives

Large Ensembles

  • Concert Band
  • Symphonic Band
  • Wind Symphony
  • String Orchestra
  • Piano Studio Class
  • Guitar Ensemble
  • Merit Philharmonic
  • Concert Choir
  • Conservatory Choir
  • Merit Jazz Ensemble
  • Concert Jazz Ensemble

Electives

Elective options change from year to year and often include courses such as:

  • Suzuki-Alegre Strings
  • Chamber Music
  • Composers Forum
  • Choir
  • Jazz Ensembles
  • Merit Brass Ensemble
  • Merit Clarinet Ensemble
  • Merit Trombone Choir
  • Percussion Ensemble
  • Trumpet Ensemble

Jazz

Non-Jazz Studies Majors at the Symphonic Band and Wind Symphony levels who would like to participate in a jazz ensemble as an elective will have the opportunity to complete a seating audition in the fall and will be placed based on instrumentation requirements and availability for Concert Jazz Ensemble and Merit Jazz Ensemble. Participation is contingent upon meeting all other core scheduling requirements, including theory classes, instrument technique classes and Live from Gottlieb, as well as the ensemble requirements for each student’s major division.


Competitive Chamber Music

Entrance to the competitive chamber music program is by audition. Learn teamwork and share musical ideas with your peers as you participate in weekly rehearsals and perform throughout the year at Merit concerts, schools and community centers, in chamber music competitions, and on television and radio programs.


Composition

In the Composers Forum elective, students study with renowned composition faculty and guest composers, and twice annually hear their compositions performed by professional musicians.

Take a Behind-the-Scenes Look at Conservatory

Experience the First Day of Conservatory

A Day in the Life of a Conservatory Student

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