The Power of Music Education at Merit School of Music

Learn why making music at Merit School of Music is so special for kids of all ages — and their parents, too

The research is indisputable: introducing your kids to music is one of the best things you can ever do. Students who study music are 24% percent more likely than peers to graduate high school, and on average perform a year ahead of their peers academically.

Kurtis Gildow, Merit School of Music’s Dean and Vice President for Educational Affairs, sees the faces behind these facts every day as students of all ages not only learn how to sing or play an instrument through classes, lessons and ensembles, but learn how to focus and commit to learning something long term — despite today’s instant gratification bias — and how to persevere when things get tough. Music students also develop enhanced spatial-temporal skills, priming them for STEM careers requiring advanced problem-solving skills. In fact, on average, 100% of Merit’s graduating seniors go to college and 35% pursue STEM-related majors.

“Then there’s music for music’s sake,” says Gildow, adding that after extended remote learning due to COVID, students had to find their way back to interacting with people again. Kids and teens are able to better understand and convey their emotions through making music. It nurtures their creativity and helps them manage anxiety.

A diverse and welcoming community

There are many good reasons to get your child involved in music, but there’s a special reason Merit stands out: the community of staff and teachers committed to making the building at 38 S. Peoria St., Chicago, welcoming and inclusive for every child and family.

Gildow says students come to Merit from more than 135 ZIP codes in Chicagoland, southern Wisconsin and Northwest Indiana. “The bonds that they make are really special; it’s not a drop-in, drop-out kind of experience. Families make long-term bonds with each other, the teachers, the Merit community,” he says.

Music making for all ages and experience levels

And they keep coming because Merit’s curriculum and music educators are the best in the region, catering the experience as a child’s interest grows, he says. The Early Childhood program, 6 months to age 7, is all about parents meeting other parents and kids learning to sing and explore the building blocks of music. By age 4, students can begin to play an instrument. Over time, students join group classes and ensembles, take private lessons, and may even audition into Merit’s tuition-free Conservatory for advanced youth musicians.

“We have a way of packaging rigor and fun based on the level of the kid, based on the level and dosage the families want,” he says, adding that it’s common for students to study there for up to 13 years. One recent graduate who started as a baby studied at Merit for 18 years.

Removing barriers to music education

Merit also is deeply invested in the Chicago Musical Pathways Initiative which makes a high-level, rigorous music education accessible to students from backgrounds traditionally underrepresented in classical music.

“Merit is about breaking down the barriers, whatever those might be,” he says, adding the school spends a large percentage of its annual budget on scholarships and low-cost instrument rentals. “We want to make it accessible for everybody.”

What if a parent isn’t sure they have a music kid? Gildow says you don’t know until they give it a try. The benefits of studying music compound over time, but many benefits are immediate — so it’s worth exploring even if your child only sticks with it for a short time. That’s why he and the 90 active faculty members are on a mission to help more families get their child started learning music and an instrument this year.

And if they end up loving it, he says, Merit is the place they will find their people.

Learn more about Merit School of Music at meritmusic.org.

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