Photo Flash: Merit School of Music's Suzuki-Alegre Strings Ensemble Takes Trip to Japan

Eighteen talented, dedicated Chicago kids ages 9 to 18, all students in Merit School of Music's Suzuki-Alegre Strings program, have returned from a once-in-a-lifetime experience, representing Chicagoand the U.S. at the 16th Suzuki Method World Convention in Matsumoto, Japan. Scroll down for photos from the trip!

"We put a lot of pressure on ourselves memorizing songs, practicing on our own and rehearsing together in the months leading up to the convention, but all of our hard work definitely paid off," said Karina Fabian, 17, a resident of Pilsen, a senior at St. Ignatius College Prep, and a violin student with Merit's Suzuki-Alegre Strings program for 12 years. "What was most inspiring was meeting kids from all over the world who share the same passion for music that we do. Even though there was a language barrier, everybody there had one thing in common, their love for music. Looking back, the trip has only motivated me to practice more and continue to get better."

At the convention, Fabian and her 17 fellow delegates, many who had never traveled outside Chicago before, joined more than 2,100 fellow violin and cello players from all over the globe to showcase their talent, perform for their peers, and participate in lectures, lessons and master classes taught by the world's leading Suzuki instructors.

The invitation from convention organizers to Merit's Suzuki-Alegre Strings Ensemble to participate at this prestigious music conference underscored growing international recognition for the program's unique blend of the Suzuki method of classical instruction with traditional Latin folk music.

"These 18 kids experienced a new culture first-hand, learned that people are people all over the world, and they now have a whole new understanding that despite our differences, music can truly be a universal language," saidThomas Bracy, Executive Director, Merit School of Music. "They may play classical and folk music, but these kids are looked up to now as rock stars by their fellow students at Merit. The example they set will reverberate throughout our Suzuki-Alegre Strings program and the entire Merit community for years to come."

The 18 students, selected from among more than 200 students currently participating in Merit's Suzuki-Alegre program citywide, are: Andrea Aguilera, 13 (Archer Heights/St. Barbara Catholic School), Itzel Alvarez, 16 (Berwyn/Christian Liberty Academy), Joselyn Cadena,13 (Archer Heights/Galileo Scholastic Academy), Anthony Cai, 12 (Chinatown/Andrew Jackson Language Academy),Brandon Cheng, 10 (East Garfield Park/Tri-Taylor/UIC/ Andrew Jackson Language Academy), Karina Fabian, 17 (Pilsen/St. Ignatius College Prep), Mercy Garriga, 15, andGrace Garriga, 16 (Avondale/Francis W. Parker School),Yesenia Gonzalez, 17 (Pilsen/Chicago High School for the Arts), Isabella Ibarra, 12 (Gladstone Park/Decatur Classical School), Michael Kijowski, 18 (Lawndale/home school),Alexander Laverty, 9 (Wicker Park/Latin School of Chicago),Michelle Lechuga, 17 (Belmont Cragin/Walter Payton College Prep), Aminah Muhammad, 13 (Chicago Lawn/Kenwood Academy), Martha Muller, 15 (Little Italy/Walter Payton College Prep), Audrey Somchith, 11 (Rogers Park/Decatur Classical School), Carly Zarate, 11, and Alejandro (Alex) Zarate, 13 (Midway/Clearing/home school).

Most have received five or more years of violin or cello instruction with Merit. More than half are Latino, and many live in or around Chicago's Pilsen and Little Village communities, where the program began and Merit has concentrated its Latin-infused Suzuki Method instruction for more than 10 years.

Merit's Suzuki-Alegre Strings program is led by co-directors Monica Lugo and HerineCoetzee Koschak, who also co-chaperoned the Japan trip. The program is particularly rigorous, with high expectations established for student attendance, practice and performance outcomes. It also serves as an international model, thanks to its unique approach to traditional Suzuki training with its incorporation of Latin folk songs, and its strong sense of diversity and community.

Now that they're back, when can we see them perform? On Thursday, May 23 at 6 pm at Chicago's Four Seasons Hotel, 120 E. Delaware, the Suzuki-Alegre Strings Ensemble will be the featured guests and live entertainment centerpiece at Merit's Gala 2013, appropriately themed "In Tune with the World: From Pilsen to Matsumoto."

The ensemble will perform the same repertoire they played at the convention for Merit School of Music's top supporters. In addition, Shalisa Kline Ugaz, who founded the Suzuki-Alegre Strings program in 2000, will be saluted for her truly original vision of integrating Latino folk songs into the Suzuki Method's traditional repertoire, and making the program available to Chicago-area students regardless of income. The gala's top honorees are Carol Prins and John Hart, who will receive the 2013 Alice S. Pfaelzer Award for Distinguished Service to the Arts for their tireless support of Merit. Tickets are $500 per person.

On Sunday, June 2, the ensemble will come full circle by returning to Pilsen, where the program originated, to headline Merit School of Music's annual Stringtacular. This awe-inspiring celebration of string instruments brings together more than 200 young players enrolled in Merit's Suzuki-Alegre program from all over the city for a free concert at the Harrison Park Fieldhouse, 1824 S. Wood Street, from 2 to 3:30 pm.

The 16th Suzuki Method World Convention, sponsored by the Talent Education Research Institute, was March 27-31, 2013.The conference theme was "The World will be One, Joined Together by Children Making Music." The Suzuki method was developed more than 50 years ago in Matsumoto, Japan by violinist Dr. Shinichi Suzuki. The cornerstone of the Suzuki method is that children can learn music in much the same way they learn to speak their native language - through listening, imitation and repetition in a caring and supportive environment. Another key ingredient is the belief in every child's innate ability to learn, perform and succeed. Throughout the world there are more than 400,000 Suzuki students studying in 46 countries and regions. For information, visit

Merit School of Music,, is a non-profit community music school providing high-quality classical music education to more than 6,000 Chicago-area students, from newborns to age 18. Founded in 1979, Merit transforms the lives of Chicago-area youth by providing the highest quality music education - with a focus on underserved communities - inspiring young people to achieve their full musical and personal potential. Merit's esteemed faculty teaches a continuum of instrumental programs leading to the Alice S. Pfaelzer Tuition-Free Conservatory for the most advanced and motivated young musicians.

For tickets to upcoming performances and more information, visit or call 312.786.9428.

Photo Flash: Merit School of Music's Suzuki-Alegre Strings Ensemble Takes Trip to Japan

Photo Flash: Merit School of Music's Suzuki-Alegre Strings Ensemble Takes Trip to Japan
Touring their first destination, Tokyo, where the kids experienced the city's famously crowded subway trains, visited an ancient Senso-ji Buddhist temple, and enjoyed strolling among the cherry blossoms in full bloom in central Tokyo's Ueno Park.

Photo Flash: Merit School of Music's Suzuki-Alegre Strings Ensemble Takes Trip to Japan
Taking a day trip to Hamura Higashi Elementary School, about an hour outside of Tokyo, where the students met, shared a meal, and performed with and for their Japanese counterparts.

Photo Flash: Merit School of Music's Suzuki-Alegre Strings Ensemble Takes Trip to Japan
Participating in the Children's Summit, part of the conference hosted at Matsumoto Shuho Secondary School. Ensemble member Mercy Garriga was one of only six international students selected to present a speech about her lifeat school. Other representatives came from the U.K., Australia, Finland, the Philippines and Japan.

Photo Flash: Merit School of Music's Suzuki-Alegre Strings Ensemble Takes Trip to Japan
Visiting the Shinichi Suzuki Memorial Hall, Dr. Suzuki's home in Matsumoto where he developed the Suzuki method, now a museum.

Photo Flash: Merit School of Music's Suzuki-Alegre Strings Ensemble Takes Trip to Japan
Performing in the opening ceremony at Matsumoto City Gymnasium, where the students played shared repertoire in a mass concert with thousands of fellow musicians from more than 30 countries. The opening also included formal speeches by conference officials and local dignitaries, including a terrific address in both Japanese and English by her Royal Highness, Princess Takamodo of Japan.

Photo Flash: Merit School of Music's Suzuki-Alegre Strings Ensemble Takes Trip to Japan
Encountering traditional Japanese food such as seaweed salad, miso soup, smoked fish, tofu, pickled vegetables and miso soup. "Fish waffles" (waffles shaped like fish containing chocolate, custard, cream cheese, or bean paste) were particularly popular. The culinary highlight of the trip? The final night's visit to a restaurant that featured classic "fast food" sushi that whizzed by the kids on a conveyor belt.

Photo Flash: Merit School of Music's Suzuki-Alegre Strings Ensemble Takes Trip to Japan

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