Opus Ithaca founder Andrea Merrill with two students

On Sept. 6 Opus Ithaca will have opened the doors for its fifth season of music education and enjoyment. Located in the lower level of St Paul’s United Methodist Church, Opus is the brainchild of Andrea Merrill. Merrill is originally from Pennsylvania, and received her bachelor’s degree in music with a focus on piano performance from Ithaca College. After earning a master’s degree in music with a focus on piano accompanying from Arizona State and a doctoral degree in piano accompanying and chamber music from the Eastman School of Music, she moved back to Ithaca with her husband, jazz trumpeter Paul Merrill, as part of the Faculty in Residence program at Cornell University.

Merrill’s minor field of study while she was a doctoral candidate at Eastman was administration with a focus on opening a community school. Upon her return to Ithaca, she realized that she would not be able to teach private lessons in her home. She was then serving as the assistant organist/pianist at the Methodist church. The pastor, at the time, offered her the use of the downstairs rooms. Merrill immediately recognized the potential the large space held, and Opus Ithaca was born.

In 2011, the inaugural year of the school, Opus Ithaca had six teachers and around 40 students, most of which were in Merrill’s studio. Today, Opus Ithaca has 28 teachers and over 200 students. Students of all ages and ability levels are welcome, the youngest student this year is a 4 (almost 5) year-old pianist, and the most senior pianist is 85 years young.

Opus Ithaca’s logo is blue and red with two hands that are clasped together. The negative space between the hands forms a music note. Merrill says that it represents the feeling of interconnectivity she strives to create within the school. The blue and red colors signify Cornell University and Ithaca College, Merrill wanted to create a space that students and faculty from could come and collaborate. I recently had the opportunity to sit down and talk with her about Opus Ithaca.

Ithaca Times: What made you think that we needed another music school in Ithaca? What niche were you trying to fill?

Andrea Merrill: This town is vibrant with teachers and schools and everything, and I am by no means trying to compete with that. That wasn’t my vibe at all. I really feel that one of the areas that we don’t have is a place where it is 100 percent music. So if a child or adult comes to Opus Ithaca, they come to a physical place where there is a community of musicians. We don’t say that if you come take private lessons at Opus Ithaca you have to participate in all of our offerings. However, for those who want it, we do offer theory classes, ear training classes, improvisation classes, drumming classes. I have a few students who are taking lessons with four other teachers at the school, and we can work together and create a really well rounded musician.

IT: How many recitals or concerts do the students give a year?

AM: Performance is a big thing. We never insist that our students perform, but we really do encourage it. Last June we held 10 recitals for all of our students. We also perform regularly at Kendal, Bridges, and Longview so that there is a connection with the community. Our flute ensemble played at the mall. We have gone into the public schools as a faculty to try to talk about chamber music, interaction and listening and what the experience is like when there is no conductor. We are doing a “Carnival of the Animals” production in November. The faculty is going to play, and we are going to have kids come out and talk about how music can sound like different animals

IT: How involved in the learning process are parents at Opus?

AM: Every teacher is very different. One of the important things to realize is that I don’t dictate how to teach to any of my teachers. I hire them because they are good teachers, and I trust them. Some teachers want 100 percent involvement from the parent, and some don’t want the parents there at all. We also do offer sessions for parents of small kids; it also functions as a kind of support group. I think that parents go into it not realizing how much work it is to get a kid to practice. I want to guide them through it, and make them realize that practicing is important and if you are going to spend the money to do lessons you should invest. And I didn’t realize this importance until I had my own children and I realized how hard it was to find the time, and the frustrations. So we offer some tips and some readings and we remind them that it gets better, once a routine is established.

IT: Opus is a 501(c) 3, non profit organization. What lead to that decision?

AM: Scholarships. I wanted the community to feel part of it; I didn’t want it to be my school, I wanted it to be our school, and the teachers’. But I really wanted the ability to access more funding for scholarships and that has been a major thing and something that I want to keep growing. Every year we give away more. Recently an elementary school band director saw this incredible kid coming through the schools, a good practicer, had all this talent, and he really needed some private lessons, but the family can’t afford it. So she sent him to me, and I am so excited because now this child gets to work with some amazing teachers. And I get to pay my teachers. We have been part of the GreenStar bag program; we are part of Amazon Smile; we are part of a lot of little places. We have had a lot of contributions from donors who believe in us. Now that we are in our fifth year, it will be a lot easier for us to look at our record and say, “This is what we are doing.” §

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