What in the world can you do with a music degree?
It was the question Alton Merrell asked Tony Leonardi when he met the renowned YSU Jazz Studies director for the first time.
“He pulled me into his office, pointed to the photos of about 20 Dana alumni and started naming them off,” remembers Merrell. “‘This one is in the U.S. Army Band. He’s a well-known conductor. She’s a music educator.’”
It made music click as a career for Merrell. “Then he asked me what I wanted to do with music. I said, ‘I want to do what you’re doing.’”
This fall, Merrell will join the Dana School of Music faculty as an Assistant Professor of Jazz Piano and Jazz Studies – in the same Bliss Hall office once occupied by his great mentor, Leonardi.
Coincidence? Maybe. But Merrell sees it as something bigger.
From Day 1, Merrell’s musical passion has been strongly connected to his personal mission in life to serve God through his talent. In fact, his introduction to music started in church with Merrell, just five years old, playing drums at services. By age 12, he switched to piano and organ, and at 16 he was directing an ensemble and band of more than 60 church members.
By the time Merrell started YSU as a freshman, he had developed his musical talent and was studying music formally on his own. But he hadn’t yet considered it as a career.
“I didn’t even know there was a music school at YSU,” Merrell admitted. “I was an engineering major. I had an internship at Delphi in Warren, Ohio, and a guaranteed engineering job after graduation.”
Then he stumbled into the Dana School of Music.
Hearing the buzz of instruments, the rehearsals in practice rooms, the music theory instructions by professors, Merrell knew music was meant to be more than just a hobby for him. “It was in my heart; I was called to it. I wanted to give everything to music at that point,” he said.
Merrell was introduced to Leonardi the next week, the first of many doors that opened for him. He was awarded a scholarship that saw him through undergrad; earned a teaching assistantship that paid for his Master of Music degree in jazz piano performance, also from YSU; then he found a job as music director at Covenant Church of Pittsburgh.
“I had been at Covenant for three years and felt a new season coming on,” recounts Merrell. “I wanted to get my doctorate because I missed learning and teaching. I remember writing down what I was looking for: to study jazz, to find a program close to Pittsburgh, to find some way to afford it. I wrote it all out, and I prayed.”
Two weeks later, Merrell got a call from a stranger, Dr. Nathan Davis, the jazz program director at the University of Pittsburgh. “He told me they had a brand new jazz Ph.D. program and would love to have me.”
Merrell was offered a fellowship to cover the cost and was asked to teach in the program, the only one of its kind in the country. “It was another opportunity that just fell in my lap,” Merrell said.
Throw in performance and composition awards, spots on the nationally televised Bobby Jones Gospel Show, and opportunities to perform with famous gospel and jazz artists and orchestras, and it looks like a life full of musical accomplishment for Merrell. But he’ll be the first to pass on the credit.
“For me, it’s not so much about what I’ve achieved, but how much I’ve been blessed,” he said. “I give full credit to God who has given me the gift, and I’m happy to use my musical and teaching gifts to help others, just like Tony Leonardi helped me.”
Merrell starts back at YSU this fall, and he looks forward to being on the other side of the desk this time.
He and his wife, Kimberly, have two children – a son, Jaden, and a daughter, Zion.
(Previously published in YSU Magazine, Summer 2013)