Merit School of Music

Music Masters Lead Workshops for Students

On March 5, the halls of Merit School of Music’s Joy Faith Knapp Music Center here in the West Loop bustled with exciting energy as four talented professional musicians, teachers, and friends of the Merit community joined our students for their “Forum” classes. These classes are weekly opportunities for the Conservatory instrument divisions to come together and host masterclasses, student performances, or other special guests. During this time, our esteemed guests listened to rehearsals, taught, and shared advice and stories with our Conservatory students.

Merit frequently engages top professional musicians and faculty of prestigious programs from across the country. Our friends are moved both by our students’ talent and commitment, and by Merit’s mission to transform the lives of Chicago-area youth through removing barriers to high-quality music education. 

On this particular Saturday, our guest artists were on-site in our Voice, Piano, Strings, and Woodwinds classes! Our workshops and master classes give Conservatory students the valuable chance to receive feedback from new sources, connect with fellow musicians, and build potential relationships for mentorship.  

Read below for some insights these leaders in the industry shared with our students, passing down their own learning, wisdom, and encouragement.

Dr. Derrick Gay

Dr. Derrick Gay, vocalist, Diversity, Equity & Inclusion consultant, and Merit Conservatory alum (’93), opened his session by beautifully singing, If I Loved You from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical, “Carousel.”  His deep, resonant baritone voice filled the rehearsal hall with gorgeous sound and great anticipation for the nuggets of wisdom he would impart to our young singers, eager to learn in this Voice Forum class.  

“The most important thing is the voice. You must produce sound and be heard without affects.”



“You must love your voice so much you have no other choice but to share it with your audience. If you don’t love it, no one else can love it.”



“You are the singer. You set the tempo with the accompanist. Trust your tempo and the accompanist will follow you.”



“The power of music is like no other medium to bring people together. I am constantly reminded of this.”


Peter Slowik

Peter Slowik, Professor of Viola and Director of the Strings Divisions at Oberlin College & Conservatory spent most of the day working with all our strings students.  He gave a practice workshop in our “Forums” class for both Conservatory orchestras, then ran the full rehearsal for String Orchestra and the first hour of Merit Philharmonic. Professor Slowik shared his wisdom with our students and Merit community about the value of truly committing yourself to practicing your instrument. 

“[We must ask], ‘what is [my] problem?’ At any moment in life, we’re dealing with an individual problem and if we can diagnose the problem when it comes to string playing, then, the door is unlocked.”


“Our students must know how to practice and how they are responsible for their own growth. Nobody else in the world is responsible for it.”


“Don’t hide your deficiencies from your teacher. Really commit yourself to trying to learn the parts that are most difficult.”


“The best lesson is when I fix the spots that I have been struggling with or am embarrassed by.” 


Nathalie Joachim

Nathalie Joachim of Spektral Quartet, United States Artist Fellow, and Grammynominated flutist, composer and vocalist shared her experiences and advice with our woodwind students, building their confidence to be stronger musicians and more authentic versions of themselves.


“It’s not about being perfect or the best, but rather being your full self and bringing that to every space. Just be you.”


“I love being an educator because I remember being a student in a space like [Merit]…It was a very long time before I saw somebody who looked like me, and I think that if you see yourself in somebody else, then you can believe that you can do it too. I try to say yes to as many education things as I can because even if it’s just one person who sees me and says ‘Oh wow, that’s a life I could live’ that’s one life changed which is great.”


“Doing interdisciplinary work and creating with other artists is what drives me. I am not concerned with being the best flutist, composer, or singer…Genuine connections with people and being creative with others is a huge driver for my music.”



Winston Choi

Winston Choi, Roosevelt University Associate Professor of Piano and the Head of the Piano Program had much to say to our Conservatory piano students during their “Forum” class, highlighting the importance of merging practice technique with true musicianship and performance. 



“Find a way to channel all the intentions of the music and your performance with you as you play.”



“As you grow your technique, think about your practice in terms of mechanics, like the tension in your hand.”



“One of the most important qualities to have as a musician is being able to think on the fly and adjust our interpretations based on the acoustics, the instrument, the venue, the energy of our fellow musicians.”


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