POCATELLO – As a child, Idaho State University music student was very active and into sports. At the age of 9, everything changed – Merrill’s family discovered he had numerous birth defects in his heart. Merrill had to have six heart surgeries, and was crushed when he found out he couldn’t follow his dreams of playing sports.
“I was very lost for the majority of the following decade,” Merrill said. “I felt that classical music was really the only music that had the capacity to express all of the hardships that weighed on my soul, and I loved listening to it.”
One day, at age 12, Merrill had the urge to sit down at the piano and teach himself how to play. After three years, he decided to get more serious and sought out lessons at the university level and found ISU’s own piano professor Kori Bond.
“I realized, almost by accident, that I had the ability to communicate through the music I played and composed,” he said. “My goal is to share my music with the world so that my music can help someone the way it helped me.”
Merrill is now a freshman music student at ISU and continues to study with Bond. In November, he had the chance to perform at the Music Teachers National Association Competition in Boise. He placed first and instantly became one of the best piano players in the state. This is only the second time that a student from ISU has won state. Fellow ISU student Hui (Lei Lei) Sun placed third this year.
“To win the state level was such a mix of emotions,” Merrill said. “It was gratifying, humbling, all while being honoring. Freshmen tend to not place, so it was such a pleasure to be chosen to represent our state.”
Merrill played compositions by Brahms, Debussey, Bach, Busoni and Corigliano. Merrill said to prepare to play a half hour of music he had to learn thousands of notes, phrase shapes, dynamics and other aspects of music to memorize it perfectly. Merrill said he practiced for 40 hours a week for six months before the competition.
“The preparation certainly paid off,” Merrill said. “Competitions like this give musicians an opportunity to improve.”
After the state competition, Merrill moved on to districts. Although he did not place, he said he worked very hard and personally improved.
“It is motivating to other students at ISU to see an example of their own potential success,” Bond said. “Potential students also get the chance to see that our piano majors at ISU are seriously talented and well taught.”
Idaho State University’s piano program is currently home to 20 students. Students are taught by Bond and adjunct music professor Mark Neiwirth.
“Our goal is to help students reach the next level,” Bond said. “We take a unique interest in each student. We are interested in their abilities and interests, whether they like jazz or church music. And we are interested in what they want to do in the future.”
Bond said that many of her students are interested in graduate school, and the piano program has a 100 percent success rate in enrolling undergraduates in higher education programs.