Merit School of Music students were overjoyed to leave their iPads and headphones at home this summer to perform with their friends in parks around Chicago.
Throughout the summer, Merit students and faculty visited neighborhoods from Pilsen to Lincoln Park, filling the city with music and laughter through a series of Summer Pop-up Events and Concerts. The outdoor events featured live student performances, instrument petting zoos, free instrument tunings, and musical storytimes for little ones, offering a safe way to come together as a community.
One of the highlights of the summer was our performance with the Chicago Park District’s Movies in the Park! The Bone Rangers, Merit’s trombone chamber ensemble, performed “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” from the movie 10 Things I Hate About You in Mary Bartelme Park. Arranged by Merit alum Tanner Jackson, the cover song turned into a fun sing-along led by RA and the Merit trombones. Timothy Riordan, Merit’s Director of Chamber Music, exclaimed, “It was wonderful for the kids (and for me!) to hear actual real-time applause when they finished. Small children danced to their performance, and visiting families seemed so happy to have a bit of normalcy back.” And ensemble member Calleigh Riordan, really brought the moment home, sharing, “After playing at the outdoor screening, I couldn’t stop smiling. It made me realize the point of why we practice. I had such a great time.” Timothy Riordan, Merit’s Director of Chamber Music, exclaimed, “It was wonderful for the kids (and for me!) to hear actual real-time applause when they finished. Small children danced to their performance, and visiting families seemed so happy to have a bit of normalcy back.” And ensemble member Calleigh Riordan, really brought the moment home, sharing, “After playing at the outdoor screening, I couldn’t stop smiling. It made me realize the point of why we practice. I had such a great time.”
For some students, these events were even their first chance to meet their teachers and fellow students in person. Merit student Chloe Li began studying violin virtually during the pandemic, and, as much as Chloe enjoyed learning violin from the comfort of home, her mom quickly noticed the impact of Chloe’s in-person performance experiences. “I’ve seen Chloe’s commitment to and interest in violin increase. She gained confidence in performing in front of audiences,” her mom proudly explained.
Performing in the park also provided an excellent environment for students to better hone their focus as they dealt with various distractions—from people passing by to music flying off a music stand to barking dogs! Violin and viola faculty Julie Schreiner emphasized the importance of in-person performances for music students: “The more comfortable we are with performing, the easier it is. And having students play in unexpected circumstances, where we can’t predict what will happen, really prepares them for rolling with whatever is in front of them.”
Conservatory pianist and percussionist Luke Magee learned the importance of being able to quickly adapt firsthand when, not only did it rain before his outdoor performance, but he found out the onsite keyboard had 61 keys instead of the traditional 88. “Since then, I tried practicing the pieces as if I only had five octaves and limited myself to one pedal,” Luke reflected. “I’ve practiced giving myself different constraints to prepare myself for unique performance situations. Now I practice so that I can play for all kinds of venues.” This experience is also invaluable as Luke, a senior, prepares for college and Conservatory auditions later this year.
From park to park across the city, we were all delighted to witness young Merit musicians grow as performers and individuals through these fun, outdoor performances. These experiences renewed an energy for in-person music making which had been dormant for too long. As students and faculty return to the Joy Faith Knapp Music Center for a new academic year, they’re bringing this new zest for music with them and filling the halls with new vigor and nonstop music. Get ready for an unforgettable year of music making!