While the light, delicate sound of the flute is frequently associated with birdsong, it’s instead the hippo who serves as the unlikely mascot of our longstanding flute ensemble! At Merit School of Music, some of our most advanced students from the Alice S. Pfaelzer Conservatory have the opportunity to shine on the national stage in our competitive chamber ensembles. These small groups rehearse together in the months leading up to competition season then travel across the country to play in the most prestigious music competitions for young people. The Purple Hippopotami is one of Merit’s premier ensembles and a mainstay of our competitive chamber division.
Their first competition isn’t until February, but the 2023-2024 Hippos—senior Sofia Villanueva, junior Jacob Cornejo, and sophomore Kaylee Johnson—have already begun rehearsals with their coach, Betsy Ko. “Although competition season feels far away, it’s a tremendous advantage to have some rehearsals during the summer when there are fewer distractions,” she says. The group maintains a busy schedule that starts locally in Chicago and then progresses to national competitions.
Flute chamber ensembles have a long history at Merit, with dozens of students participating over the past 20 years. It all began with the Honors Flute Quartet as early as 2003. Also taught by Ko, the group didn’t compete, functioning instead like a traditional Conservatory class. In the fall of 2013, Maddy Deane, a former member, officially christened the group with its new, unique name: the Purple Hippopotami Flute Quartet. “The name came from the trick of using the phrase ‘Purple Hippopotami’ to pace out septuplets,” Ko explains. “Count the syllables!” They have been featured on national platforms, including NPR’s From the Top, as well as locally on WFMT. The group shifts between a trio and a quartet from year to year, depending on the flutists in Conservatory at any given time.
Membership in the ensemble requires that players perform at a very advanced level and commit to the rigorous rehearsal and coaching schedule. “With the delicate group dynamics required for chamber music at its highest level, there is simply no substitute for putting in the hours playing with fellow ensemble members,” says Ko. Establishing this collaborative dynamic is key to the success of the group, and it’s something that the students cherish. “It’s nice to play with the same group of people for such a long period of time,” says Sofia, who is in her third year in the ensemble. “We get to build our sound together.”
As they prepare for the 2023-2024 competition season, the Purple Hippopotami focus on musical excellence and variety, exploring repertoire that showcases different members of the flute family (like piccolo and alto flute) and an eclectic range of musical styles. Looking ahead at all the opportunities to come, the Hippos are most excited about the Fischoff Competition in May. “There’s so much prestige associated with this event, and those who’ve already had a chance to compete at Fischoff know what a musically inspiring experience it is,” according to Ko. This certainly seems to be the case for Sofia and Jacob, who both cite the competition as one of their best memories of their time with the Hippos.
“With the delicate group dynamics required for chamber music at its highest level, there is simply no substitute for putting in the hours playing with fellow ensemble members.”
– Betsy Ko, flute faculty
The ensemble is a beloved mainstay of the Merit community. “Beyond approaching their work with a high level of polish and zeal, the group has a wonderful welcoming spirit and a charming sense of fun in their playing,” says Brian Beach, Strings and Orchestra Program Director & Interim Director of Chamber Music. “They are a joy to watch perform and an incredible group of young artists.” We are thrilled to watch this year’s three young musicians continue to grow together as an ensemble and continue to build upon the group’s legacy for the Hippos yet to come.
Best of luck to the Purple Hippopotami and all our competitive chamber ensembles!