Merit School of Music

An Interview with Merit Alum, Peter CottonTale


Merit School of Music alums are everywhere! They’re teaching in schools, working at top companies, finishing their degrees, and more. Many of them are continuing to make music, from jamming with friends or participating in community orchestras, to touring on national stages.


In anticipation of Merit’s Play On benefit concert, we sat down with musician, composer, producer, and Play On 2022 headliner Peter CottonTale, a Merit Music in Communities alum, to talk about why music education matters and what performing in support of Merit means to him.

Tell us a little bit about your relationship with Merit and your “Merit story”: What programs were you part of and how did that impact you?

Merit had a program [at my school] and when I was a “wee lad” from third through seventh grades I was participating in the Merit piano program at my school, Beasley. There was also a scholarship for the summer program. So, my mom of course signed me up for the summer program where I did percussion. It was awesome.

A lot of friends that I’ve met or known went to Merit. It’s like every time I turn around and mention Merit, people say “Oh hey, I went there too!” So my story is just like everybody else’s, and Merit was a vital part of it—not only teaching us the importance of the arts as children, but keeping us busy after school and being vital to helping parents take care of their kids, because my mom was in school and working.

“Every time I turn around and mention Merit people say, ‘Oh hey, I went there too!’ So my story is just like everybody else’s, and Merit was a vital part of it.”

– Peter CottonTale

You talk a lot about how music inspires you and helps people express “who they are and what they believe.” How did your music education help you as a young person grow into the musician you are now?

I actually had the opportunity to teach private piano when I was 19 and 20. I learned more teaching than I did playing. It inspired me to dive deeper into being able to explain [music], or being able to do things like help my friend Chance [the Rapper] with his music, or explain this entry path when talking to kids at a school about why they can have a career in music and not just dream of being just a rapper or just a vocalist or this that and the third. There are a lot of media positions in our field that can be filled with the knowledge that we get from music every day. So, it’s nice to be able to explain that at a community-based level in my position in Chicago, [while] having a studio and having access to people. Music is an ever-evolving and evolving thing, so it’s great to be part of that community.

We love that you support Merit—why is Merit one of the causes that you care about, and why is giving back to Merit so important to you?

Merit gave back to me and gave back to my friends, like [alums] Julian Reid and Nico Segal, and other cats that were part of the program. And, you know the age-old story of arts programs fading in Chicago. I am here as an advocate of stopping that story from happening, because we have a strong foundation of touring musicians, local musicians, national and international musicians. I just don’t want that story [around lack of arts funding] to keep being told. I think Merit is a foundation for that to keep happening in the city, so I want to support it in any way that I can.

[There’s an] age-old story of arts programs fading in Chicago. I am here as an advocate of stopping that story from happening.
– Peter CottonTale

What would you say to your 6th-grade self about what you’re doing now and how learning music supports that?

One thing I would tell my sixth-grade self is, do everything. I was so stuck on playing drums that I forgot about playing piano. I would just say, do everything to the maximum that you can because you’ll never know how it’ll help you in the future.

What is most exciting about performing at City Winery for Merit at Play On?

Some of my best shows and performances have been in front of people who understand music. So, I’m excited to talk about the songwriting process, give a fresh perspective as a musician in the industry, be able to connect with the community, have a fun night, crack some jokes, and help put Merit on the map of what’s happening musically in the world. I just look forward to seeing people and spreading some music.

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