SOUNDS OF SUCCESS: MUSIC PERFORMANCE COORDINATOR NANCY MERRIAM COMBINES SKILLS WITH PERSONAL PASSION
Strange but true—Nancy Merriam, performance coordinator for Haverford’s music department, was not fond of classical music while growing up in Red Deer, Alberta, Canada. But that all changed the day she took hold of her first double bass.
“It’s such a big instrument, and the sound just takes you over,” she says. “The low notes vibrate with you. You become part of the music.”
Merriam, who handles all publicity and logistics for concerts in Haverford’s department of music, is a musician herself, first and foremost. She began playing the bass in seventh grade. At age 15 she met renowned bassist Gary Karr—“He made me wonder why I’d want to do anything but play the double bass”—and went on to earn her undergraduate degree with him at the University of Hartford’s Hartt School of Music. She spent a year working in Prince George, British Columbia before returning to the States to pursue a master’s degree in music performance at Brooklyn College, where she studied with Jon Deak, another widely respected bassist and composer. “Both teachers were magnificent to study with and made the whole creative process exciting.”
After graduating from Brooklyn College she won an orchestra job with the San Antonio Symphony, where she was a member for two years. She remembers this as one of her easier auditions: “It’s a matter of your mental frame of mind. When I did the audition, I felt that I could take or leave the position, and I was confident in the pieces I was performing.” Future auditions would not be so relaxing; one that was particularly nerve-wracking was for a symphony with whom she had already been playing as a substitute. “I really, really wanted the job. My audition wasn’t until nine o’clock at night, and while I was in the shower beforehand I actually hoped for a Psycho moment of being stabbed to death so I wouldn’t have to do it,” she laughs.
Merriam continued playing in groups across the U.S. and Canada, but soon realized that she needed a more regular paycheck and began taking temporary office jobs. “I gained a lot of typing and computer skills I never would have learned otherwise,” she says. She worked for a variety of companies and organizations: Cigna Insurance, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Comcast (“Free cable and Internet!”), an educational consultant, and most recently the Blue Bell Country Club, where she encountered an unexpected drawback. “When you work with menus all day,” she reports, “you’re hungry from nine o’clock in the morning on.”
When she was hired by Haverford in 2003, she found a perfect way to combine her personal passion with her professional experience. “This job utilizes my office skills but also applies everything I love about music,” she says. Presently she works part-time, writing advertising copy and press releases about upcoming concerts, designing posters and postcards, assembling programs, working with Housekeeping to prepare Roberts Hall for the events, and collaborating with her team of ushers at the concerts.
A typical season of music includes concerts by the Haverford-Bryn Mawr College ensembles (Chorale, Orchestra, student chamber music, senior recitals), performers in the Guest Artist series, and special events. Guest Artists are chosen based on the courses being taught that year in the music department. “[Ruth Marshall Magill Professor of Music] Curt Cacioppo will bring in pianists, [Professor of Music] Richard Freedman teaches jazz, early music and baroque, [Professor of Music] Ingrid Arauco will bring in new music groups, [Associate Professor of Music] Tom Lloyd’s voice program supports singers, and string, brass or woodwind ensembles support [Associate Professor of Music] Heidi Jacob’s orchestra and student chamber music program,” says Merriam.
Artists-in-Residence also contribute their talents. This year, Network for New Music is in residence with the department of music courtesy of a grant from the Spencer Foundation, and will perform students’ original compositions in the spring, as well as their concert on April 20. The Baroque Orchestra Tempesta di Mare is in residence with the John B. Hurford ’60 Humanities Center, and, as part of their residency, will perform chamber music with student musicians along with their two formal concerts. “Students have few opportunities to play next to professionals of this caliber, so it is very beneficial to them,” says Merriam. Tempesta’s concert on April 1 will include the Chamber Singers of Haverford and Bryn Mawr.
Haverford’s music faculty, she says, have incredible integrity when it comes to selecting performers for the series. “I’m so grateful for the chance to experience these concerts. Curt [Cacioppo]’s pianists are always outstanding, and when I watch chamber music ensembles like the American String Quartet and the American Brass Quintet, it blows me away, especially when I see them work with the students in pre-concert masterclasses and hear them describe their musical processes.” She was particularly wowed by a December performance of “Selections from Duke Ellington’s Three Sacred Concerts” by the Haverford-Bryn Mawr Chorale, directed by Tom Lloyd. The concert featured six student soloists, soprano DeVonne Gardner, who has sung more of Ellington’s Sacred Concerts than any other singer in the world, the Tyrone Brown Big Band, and a student tap-dancing trio, along with the 170-voice chorale. “It was really something special,” she enthuses.
She’s eagerly anticipating a February 11 concert by the Orlando Consort, a British a cappella group who will perform medieval and Renaissance representations of gardens and horticulture in a program called “The Rose, the Lily, and the Whortleberry.” “These four men create magic with their voices.”
Merriam’s 29-hour-a-week schedule at Haverford leaves her time to play double bass with the Allentown-based Pennsylvania Sinfonia Orchestra and perform solo children’s concerts at area schools. She wants to help children comprehend and appreciate the classical compositions that had eluded her in her own youth. “Classical music, if you’re not brought up with it, can be hard to grasp; it’s more abstract, disciplined,” she says. “My performances involve storytelling and a big instrument—you can just look at a bass and get lost. It gives kids the opportunity to be drawn into the classical music world.”
She also teaches bass to high school students at the Creative Arts Academy in Pennsville, N.J., offering music as a valuable life preserver to kids floundering in the murky waters of adolescence. “Teenager’s emotions can be confusing, and they need a way to honestly express their feelings,” she says. “With music they can work through many emotions—giving their feelings an outlet instead of letting them fester. And by learning to play music – to apply what they’ve learned in a lesson to what they want to say musically – they gain skills in self-sufficiency and self-discipline.”
— Brenna McBride