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Educator Profile: Chris Merkley

Chris MerkleySQ
Chris Merkley

This week CNY Arts is celebrating National Arts in Education Week.

We believe that the arts are essential to the quality of life and community in Central New York. Our mission to promote, support and celebrate arts and culture is the heart of all our programs and services.

We strive to engage with students at every level of education, from elementary to college and with educators and administrators to build a culturally engaged community. Arts education is a key component of several of our programs: Dasher's Magical GiftMichael Harms Theatre Festival,DeFrancisco Young Artists Scholarship Program,STAR Training Program (Support for Teaching Artist Regional Training), and the AiHE Consortium (Arts in Higher Education). These programs, help ensure that arts education is given full support it deserves in central New York.

So in celebrating Arts Education Week, we would like to recognize some of the many people in our community who are dedicated to enriching the lives of students at all stages of their education.

Thank you to Americans for the Arts for hosting this national celebration of arts education, and thank you to all the educators who impact lives every day through the arts. We hope you enjoy learning about a few of our local educators and reflect on how teachers have impacted your own life. #BecauseOfArtsEd #ArtsEdWeek.

Follow us on FACEBOOK as we celebrate Arts and Education Week and SHARE your stories with us.


Today, CNY Arts recognizes Chris Merkley, founder of the independent American Roots label, Old Boy Records.

1. Can you tell us a little about yourself and your current role in arts education?

1.  My name is Chris Merkley and I'm a full-time musician and founder of the independent American Roots label, Old Boy Records.  I'm also the creator of a bus conversion project dubbed the After School Special, a transit-style school bus I'm converting into an environmentally-minded tour bus and mobile recording studio.  The bus will be used to facilitate Old Boy Records activity and create a living model for environmental education through the arts.  At the Elementary level, I have visited CNY-area schools to demonstrate how we can live in better harmony with the environment, using the bus conversion process as an example.  At the high school level, I have conducted workshops to demonstrate the creative process of music production through hands-on sessions in songwriting and recording.  I'm also in the early stages of developing a semester-long series of workshops with a local high school to teach students comprehensive understanding and competence in key areas of the music industry.  The workshops will guide students through an A to Z process of writing and recording original music and then ultimately releasing that music to the public with a live performance.  

2. What drew you to education?

I was drawn to education by a strong desire to inspire younger generations with the belief that our path as a society and race is shaped by the values we instill in people during the formidable years of schooling.  I have always looked at my career in music as a vehicle for a larger life experience that not only attempts to spread positive change through the creation and performance of art, but to also inspire myself and others through the experiences that are inherent in that process

3. How do you think arts education can help students address current issues in our society?

 On that same line of thought, I believe positive changes in our world and society must take place at a core level and art is one of the best ways to achieve that in an educational setting.  By nature, music performance physically brings people together and creates harmony within that group.  At a subconscious level, people may feel long-term benefits from that experience and its ability to bring a greater sense of unity to a community and society as a whole.  At a conscious level, art can directly engage an audience in a conversation or experience that raises awareness and understanding of nearly any issue currently facing our society.  Not only can it relate that information, but art can do so in a highly interactive and engaging manner that instills a much deeper level of understanding through observation and/or participation.  When we experience something at an emotional level, I believe that process holds a far greater energy and power than any number of more basic exchanges of information.  By engaging students through arts education, I believe we are equipping them with the tools necessary to relate to one another at a much higher level and subsequently address the current issues in our society with a much greater sense of perspective and compassion.

4. What is one way in which you keep your personal artistic practice fresh outside of the classroom?

One of the ways I keep my personal artistic practice fresh outside of the classroom is to constantly seek new collaborations with different artists, whether it's through a recording project, live performance or songwriting project.  Different people inspire different ideas and I am constantly inspired by the people in my local and global community.  Travel is a necessary component of those collaborations so I make an effort to continue exploring new locations and return to previous destinations on a regular basis.  

5. What is one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring young student interested in furthering his or her artistic career?

The best piece of advice I would give to students would be to encourage them to constantly create without self-judgement and constantly seek knowledge in all aspects of whatever career they are trying to further.  Knowledge is indeed power and is also a huge asset when trying to make decisions about which direction to go in and what the best next steps will be to get you there.  As equally if not more important than increasing knowledge of their art, is the importance of creating it often and without judgement.  In many forms of art, the artist is often the biggest obstacle to themselves when it comes to progress.  Artists are often their own toughest critics and that self-criticism can be both a motivator and hindrance of progress if not maintained in balance

As part of National Arts in Education Week, we'd love it if you could share one story about how arts education has personally impacted your life!

Art education has personally impacted my life by giving me a greater sense of meaning, appreciation and purpose to the art I create.  The first time I visited an elementary school to talk to students about building the bus and traveling around the world to play music, I was completely caught off guard by the energy of the classroom and enthusiasm of the students.  For a long time, I had performed music to mostly adult audiences in settings that varied greatly in energy and performance experience.  That first time I visited a school, it was my first time in front of an audience almost completely comprised of five to seven year olds.  I had performed for children in the past, but it wasn't in an educational setting where I was trying to relate meaningful information while make it fun and engaging with music.  The look on their faces and the unbridled enthusiasm they showed for sounds and rhythms was a huge inspiration to me.  It was a reminder of the simple and pure magic of music.  Seeing and hearing through the eyes and ears of those children that day, I was their student and they were my teacher.  I have been grateful and determined to return that favor ever since.

Posted On: September 17, 2016
Listed As: Arts Forum