Chorale at the Merit School of music

IMG_3719Last Saturday, Chorale performed for the student body at Chicago’s Merit School of Music, in the west loop. Many music lovers, even in Chicago, don’t know anything about this school; I know I was surprised when I came to their facility and saw what was going on. From the school’s website Alice Pfaelzer and Emma Endres-Kountz founded Merit School of Music in 1979 in response to the elimination of music education from Chicago’s public elementary schools. Alice and Emma devoted themselves to helping young people realize their musical talents; use their musical skills to gain access to college; and become productive, compassionate, and responsible members of society. As personal role models they demonstrated that self-esteem and success comes from hard work and achievement. For more than three decades, Merit has advanced their vision.

Chorale sang for the conservatory students, described elsewhere on the website:

The Alice S. Pfaelzer Tuition-free Conservatory is the culmination of Merit’s instructional continuum and represents the best of Merit’s talented student musicians…For 26 Saturdays during the academic school year, Conservatory students receive instruction from Chicago’s finest music educators in large ensembles, instrumental and vocal technique classes, music theory classes and a variety of elective classes, including chamber music, composition and piano as a second instrument—all tuition free. At noon each week, the entire student body comes together for Live from Gottlieb, a concert series featuring world-class musicians from Chicago and beyond.

That’s us, in that final sentence. The concert occurs right before lunch, and lasts about half an hour. One might expect 350 adolescent-age kids to be restive and disruptive at that particular time of day—but at Merit, one would be pleasantly disappointed. They were completely engaged in our performance—one could have heard the proverbial pin drop, when we weren’t actually singing. We presented music from our Autumn concert, which we refreshed for this particular gig, and the students responded with enthusiastic applause at the end of each piece.   I was very impressed, not only by their behavior, but by their appreciation.

One anticipates an engagement like this with all kinds of trepidation: how will the hall be? Will the acoustics be decent… How will the piano be… in tune at all? Will the kids laugh and interrupt and throw paper airplanes at us? Will the singers tense up, lose confidence and good will, and be unable to perform well? Over the years I have participated in concerts at public and private schools, both, where all of these things, and more, were a part of our regular experience. Administrators can say, or write, anything they want, about the high level of their students and institution; you find out for yourself when you walk on to the stage, and face them. I walked out Saturday noon with my fingers crossed, for sure.

But my trepidation was completely unwarranted. These are clearly very special kids, involved in a very special program. (And the piano was a beautiful Steinway concert grand.) I was able to talk about the music, and the singers, from the stage, without fear that the listeners would immediately start fidgeting and tune me out; they seemed genuinely interested and responsive. And their support for the singers was palpable—resulting in a first rate performance from the group.

Much of what Chorale does, serves as an educational experience for the singers, themselves. Singers learn a lot of music, a lot of poetry, learn to pronounce a variety of languages, learn to sing with better vocal production. Their musical skills are sharpened all the time. And we always hope that our regular audience will appreciate, and be enriched by, our programming. But last Saturday was something special for us, something I hope we get to do again in the future.