Hi, I’m Luke Magee! I’m a 16-year-old high school senior in my sixth year at Merit School of Music. I play piano and percussion and hope to pursue a career in Piano Performance. Here’s an inside view of a day in my life as a Merit Conservatory student.
Merit’s Alice S. Pfaelzer Conservatory meets for 26 Saturdays throughout the school year. Conservatory is tuition-free for the 300+ students who audition and are accepted into the program.
My first class on Saturday is Wind Symphony—one of Merit’s ensembles comprised of up to 80 wind, brass, and percussion students, conducted by Mr. Chip Staley. In Wind Symphony, four percussionists and I play about 20 different instruments. We play for an hour and a half, cycling through a four-piece program that we’ll perform in December. I enjoy getting to play such a variety of instruments, from a Ratchet to a Celesta.
A couple of years ago, we had a piece that required our section to play wine glasses and swing rubber tubes over our heads. It was pretty interesting when the tube broke during a performance and flew off of the stage. I tried my best to play it cool and remain professional.
After Wind Symphony, my fellow percussionists and I head to Percussion Forum where we deep dive into specific topics—sometimes we work on technique for a certain type of percussion instrument, while other times we perform for our peers and get feedback. Sometimes our teachers or guest artists perform too.
Today, Mr. Brandon Podjasek told us about his career as a percussionist. He talked about performing in musicals. For example, he was a substitute for “Wicked” when it was still in Chicago. He describes his gigs as a pit percussionist, and he even shows us some videos of him playing.
Across the hall is my next class, Piano Forum—a dedicated time for all Conservatory pianists to perform for one another, critique performances, offer presentations on composers and repertoire, and enjoy masterclasses from Merit faculty and visiting guest artists.
In today’s class, another Conservatory student gave a great presentation on Mendelssohn’s “Rondo Capriccioso”. Giving these presentations allows us to spend time taking an in-depth look at the composer and interesting facts about the piece. It really helps us appreciate the pieces we learn.
Aside from presentations, we often play for each other and offer constructive criticism. Today, I’m playing “L’isle Joyeuse”, a piece that Debussy composed in the early 1900s. After my performance, I got helpful comments from Ms. Elena Doubovitskaya and from my peers. Getting feedback from others is such an important part of the learning process!
Here’s another piece I’m currently working on, Beethoven’s “Sonata No. 21 Movement 3”. Its nickname is the “Waldstein” sonata.
After Piano Forum, my duet partner Elio and I walk upstairs to Room 208 for duet coaching with our teacher, Ms. Ann Birman. This is my most intense class of the day because there are only two of us. In Wind Symphony, there could be 80 people to manage, but here our teacher is focusing specifically on just the two of us. This means that we’re playing demanding repertoire for the full hour. We’re currently working on an arrangement of “Alborada del Gracioso” by Ravel. It’s a complicated piece to coordinate as a duet, so Ms. Ann helps us play together and teaches us how to synchronize our parts.
After working on my piano duet, I run down to Percussion Ensemble. Because of my packed schedule with my double focus on piano AND percussion, I’m allowed to be thirty minutes late for class, but I can still do a lot with the last half of the period. In Percussion Ensemble, all the Conservatory percussionists rehearse as a group in preparation for Winter Concerts (December 10-11 this year…save the date!). This is a fun and somewhat relaxed class, and I really enjoy the sense of community in the middle of a long day like mine.
Right after Percussion Ensemble ends, I have lunch. This is my first break in the day, so I make the most of my time because I only have a short time to eat. I also make sure I eat a big breakfast since my lunch is so late!
Then, the other percussionists and I move a bunch of instruments into Merit’s performance space, Gottlieb Hall, to prepare for Merit Philharmonic rehearsal—Conservatory’s largest orchestra with up to 65 string, wind, brass, and percussion students. In Philharmonic, our ensemble director Mr. Taichi Fukumura leads us in “Danzon No. 2” by Arturo Márquez.
My Conservatory day is finished, and my parents pick me up. As a reward for my hard work, a cookie is waiting for me in the car.
Tuesday Night: Conservatory Continued…
I also come to Merit’s building on Tuesday nights for my private piano lesson with Ms. Ann. After that, I have my practice for Sticks & Stones, Merit’s percussion quartet. Right now, we’re learning a piece called Cannon Fodder, in which we use chimes, toms, scrap metal, and wooden slats. Students who study percussion in Conservatory have to learn all of the percussion instruments, so it’s fun to be able to use all of them in Sticks & Stones.
Next, I head to my Wind Symphony rehearsal and sectional. For the sectional, I identify sections in the pieces where we have problems, such as timing issues and synchronicity. Because I’m the section leader this year, I conduct the sectionals, evaluate our progress, and make plans for next week. Then, on Saturdays, we apply what we learned on Tuesday and see what the other sections did, as well.
Being in Merit’s Conservatory allows me to have a creative outlet. I look forward to Saturdays and Tuesdays because I get to interact with other musicians. It’s special for me and the other students because meeting musicians at our skill level can be challenging while we’re busy with high school. Conservatory has definitely opened up career opportunities for me in the future!