Merit School of Music

Steven Gooden

Merit Philharmonic Director, Conservatory Symphonic Band Director, Merit Music in Communities Band Director, Clarinet Faculty


Northwestern University, MM, Clarinet Performance and Literature
Georgia State University, BA, Music Education


Inspirational educator * Dynamic musical artist * Passionate equity & inclusion advocate

Steven Gooden’s superpower is his ability to connect deeply – with the young musicians he inspires each day as well as their parents … with creativity in the classical music he’s performed all his life … with audiences through his expressive orchestral leadership … with the advocacy of equity and inclusion in all his endeavors. Fueling his superpower is his unparalleled joy in empowering young people to become their best selves musically and personally. To accomplish this mission, he creates a nurturing and relentlessly engaging atmosphere while setting high standards and delivering clear direction. Prior to being chosen as Conductor of the Merit Philharmonic Orchestra, he was Assistant Conductor of the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra and Symphonic Band Director of the Merit School of Music. Since 2015, he has served both organizations in several roles with enthusiasm and dedication. His success in these roles is reflected in the powerful words and sentiments of parents and students.

“He has the ability to connect with parents and students at all levels. His positive approach has helped young musicians create an incredible mental capability that enables them to grow boundlessly. He always knows how to give the right advice at the right time to spark inspiration in his students.”

“Whether he’s conducting a 60-piece band of incredible teenagers or a motley quintet of elementary kids, Mr. Gooden connects with all of them, reaches all of them, helps them to reach their potential in the most supportive, encouraging way possible.”

“Besides being a teacher, Mr. Gooden is also a conductor who gives 110% of his energy and knowledge to the group each time he takes the podium.”

Along with conducting, his distinguished career as a clarinet soloist, chamber musician and ensemble player has enabled him to recognize and address the needs of the organizations he’s served. As Band Director at the Proviso Math and Science Academy he helped secure a $1 million grant to provide lessons to students in Merit’s Music in Communities Program. The result: student musical growth and successful audition into Merit’s Conservatory grew from 0%to 29%. He continues to work with members of Merit’s Board of Directors, executive leadership and faculty to identify and remedy institutional barriers and practices to provide for a more inclusive, diverse, equitable and anti-racist organization.

Since his graduation with honors from Northwestern University with a Master’s degree in clarinet performance, Steven has received numerous awards and honors during the past decade. Most notably, he has served as a Board member for the genre-bending mixed-chamber ensemble group Latitude 49 and as educational consultant to Grammy Award-winning Third Coast Percussion.

In addition, he received top honors in the 2017 Selmer Clarinet Academy and Solo Competition and the Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition the same year. Moreover, he’s performed with the Illinois Symphony Orchestra, Lakeshore Symphony Orchestra, Evanston Symphony Orchestra and is former principal clarinetist for the North Shore Concert Band In his free time, Steven is a car enthusiast who enjoys racing motorcycles, learning new skills like woodworking and gardening and spending family time with his wife, Jaclyn, and his two rambunctious toddler-aged children Callie and Tadhg. As Conductor of the Merit Philharmonic Orchestra, Maestro Gooden’s vision is invested in Merit’s tradition of excellence where educators’ practices facilitate and promote children’s lifelong love of learning and musical passion.

Through these pedagogical traditions, Maestro Gooden will look to the future and develop the orchestra’s musical and artistic identity with the goal to reflect the people who make up the Merit community. The faculty, staff, students and parents are integral parts of Merit’s success and by promoting creativity, spontaneity and risk taking, Merit will continue to evolve and elevate its traditions of excellence. Maestro Gooden looks forward to growing the artistic level of the ensemble. He also plans to reach across departments and connect for innovative and inspiring collaborations. As the saying goes, “it takes a village” and our village is strong. The future looks bright for Merit under the leadership of Maestro Gooden.


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