With a Song in Their Hearts

Students trained at the Setnor School of Music enter the world of professional musicianship with an extraordinary foundation that emphasizes theory, inspires creativity and embraces diverse musical traditions.

Malcolm Merriweather conducting an orchestra
Malcolm J. Merriweather conducts The Dessoff Choirs in New York City. Photo courtesy of Malcolm J. Merriweather.

Just seven years after its founding in 1870, Syracuse University welcomed its first students into the Department of Music and became the first American university to grant a degree that required four years of study in both music and theory.

From the hallowed halls of Crouse College, home of the Rose, Jules R., and Stanford S. Setnor School of Music in the College of Visual and Performing Arts, students have long pursued knowledge in composition, performance, music education and the music industry, molding the beginnings of remarkable careers in their chosen fields.

Conductor Malcolm J. Merriweather ’07, composer Nilo Alcala ’09 and singer-songwriter Julia Goodwin ’20 are just three of many who have wandered those halls and are taking the lessons learned here to the national and international stage, making their marks on the world of music now and into the future.

The Conductor

Portrait of Malcolm Merriweather
Malcolm. J. Merriweather. Photo by Sekou Luke, courtesy of Malcolm J. Merriweather.

As a professional conductor and renowned baritone vocalist, Malcolm J. Merriweather has spent much of his life in a tuxedo.

He grew up singing in a men and boys cathedral choir in Buffalo, New York, cutting his teeth on professional-level musicianship while college still seemed like a far-off pursuit. “I was lucky to have experienced music-making at a very high level as a child,” he says. “We sang multiple times per week, rehearsing, traveling and performing with a professional orchestra.”

This early exposure to major musical performance is what led Merriweather to Syracuse University to pursue his dual undergraduate degree from Setnor and the School of Education’s music education program. “It all started with my audition. I received such a warm welcome from the faculty, the director, the voice teachers, everyone,” he recalls. “They made me feel like I could make Syracuse a home.”

As Merriweather settled in at Syracuse, Setnor faculty encouraged him to try directing and conducting music. “Choosing Syracuse University for my undergraduate career was the best decision I could have made,” he says. “My professors encouraged me to explore the many facets of professional musicianship. I don’t think I could have had the same experiences at a conservatory or a school that’s focused purely on music. The size of Syracuse afforded me many opportunities.”

Among these opportunities: Merriweather learned to play the pipe organ in Crouse College, something he continues to this day. He began working with former faculty member and Syracuse Children’s Chorus founder Barbara Tagg to lead musical ensembles. He became involved with the a cappella group Orange Appeal (“the original all-male a cappella group at Syracuse University”), first as a singer and eventually as the music director.

All of these experiences combined, Merriweather says, are what led him to pursue graduate degrees in conducting after graduation. He went on to earn a master’s degree in choral conducting from the Eastman School of Music and a doctor of musical arts degree at Manhattan School of Music. Since then, he’s brought his extensive education to life as assistant professor, director of choral studies and voice department coordinator at Brooklyn College, music director of New York City’s The Dessof Choirs, and artist-in-residence at Union Theological Seminary.

Notably, Merriweather also serves as artistic director of the Andrea Bocelli Foundation’s Voices of Haiti, a 60-member children’s choir from Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The choir has performed all over the world, including for Pope Francis at the Vatican. The purpose of the program, as Merriweather describes it, is to bring dignity and solace to the lives of Haitian children through music, singing, collaboration and community. “Working with Voices of Haiti is one of my great joys,” he says. “The children who sing with us are excellent musicians. We’re teaching them how to read music while providing an opportunity to travel around the world and see what is outside of Haiti.”

Merriweather’s dynamic and meaningful career was largely influenced by his experience at Syracuse University. “As an artist, performer and educator, I feel like I wouldn’t have such a successful career if it wasn’t for the great instruction in voice, musicianship and ear training by the faculty at Setnor.” To show his appreciation, he stays connected to his alma mater, periodically returning for guest lectures and serving as a member of the college’s Young Alumni Council.

Reflecting on what he hopes the coming decades will bring for him as a musician, Merriweather’s answer is simple: “I hope they continue to be full of joy and love for my profession. That’s all I could ask for. I feel very privileged to love what I do and get paid to do it.”

The Songstress

Julia Goodwin singing
Julia Goodwin performing at a Vocal Studio Showcase in Goldstein Auditorium.

Senior Julia Goodwin grew up just 20 minutes from The Hill in Baldwinsville, where her father—a Syracuse alum and avid piano player—instilled in her a deep love for singing and songwriting from an early age. In high school, Goodwin was a regular performer on the local music scene, making it all the way to the stage of “America’s Got Talent” in 2014. She auditioned with Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” at just 15 years old. (Although she didn’t win the competition, talent judge Howie Mandel referred to her voice as “the definition of passion” following her audition.)

When it came time to pursue music at the collegiate level, Goodwin had her sights set on sunny skies and schools in California, Florida or Nashville. “I love Syracuse, and the community was always really supportive of my art, but I was ready to experience some different weather,” Goodwin recalls with a laugh. “While I was deciding where to go, I learned that Syracuse had recently developed a jazz and commercial music track in the Setnor School of Music. It was more aligned with the singer-songwriter path I was on, and once I learned about it I felt like Syracuse was the right fit for me after all.”

Over the past four years, Goodwin, who is due to graduate in May, has had the opportunity to refine her already strong musical chops with classes on music theory and music history. But perhaps more significantly, she’s learned about who she is as a person.

“As an artist, it’s important to find out who you are and what you want to say to people through your music. Syracuse University has allowed me to meet a ton of people with different musical backgrounds and interests—from the Great American Songbook classics to modern pop artists. I was in a band with some of my closest friends and have performed as a vocalist with different ensembles on campus. Life experience is huge. It helps you connect with others and has really enriched my songwriting.”

Goodwin says that connecting with people is a large part of what draws her toward music-making as a profession. “Music is foundationally about storytelling and bridging the gap between one another,” she says. “It evokes a feeling. It forms a community. It helps us connect with something bigger. That’s why creating music has always been the thing that makes me happiest.”

Upon graduation Goodwin plans to move to Los Angeles, where she spent her fall semester as part of Syracuse University’s immersion program in the undisputed epicenter of the music industry. “I’d love to be an artist, ideally—that’s where my heart has always been,” she says. “But even working as a songwriter or elsewhere in the creative process of music would be a dream come true.”

Goodwin’s Instagram account, which boasts almost 90,000 followers, often features homemade videos of her singing and playing her original songs—a good sign that she’s already captured a fan base interested in what she has to say as an artist. And there are plenty of Orange Nation members cheering for her success. “Syracuse University has helped me grow into who I am, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds.”

The Composer

Nilo Alcala thanks a crowd after his performance
Alcala after debuting his works at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Photo by Ding Carreon, courtesy of Nilo Alcala.

Nilo Alcala refers to his attendance at Syracuse University from 2007-2009 as “some kind of divine orchestration.” After earning his undergraduate degree in music composition from the University of the Philippines, where Alcala was born and raised, he searched online for graduate programs with scholarships in the United States with the intent of advancing his studies. “I knew I wanted to study in the U.S., where culture, arts and innovation uniquely and richly intersect,” he says. “Somehow, Setnor School of Music came up at the top of my search results announcing its Billy Joel Fellowship. I didn’t think twice about applying and was wonderfully surprised to find out that I was accepted!”

Alcala was already composing before he made the 20-hour flight to Syracuse. He had traveled the world with the Philippine Madrigal Singers and attended performances of his own works at a number of international music festivals. Joining the University’s ranks as an international master’s student further nurtured his fascination with and commitment to cultural diversity.

“Attending Syracuse University deepened my appreciation for the uniqueness of cultures—both my own culture and aesthetic and that of the various cultures around me,” he says. He embraces music that creates cultural discourse, with his own compositions often exploring the contrast between Filipino indigenous/folk music and Western classical music. “Music, as with any art form, reflects, presents or gives commentary about the society within which it was created. It reflects the beauty and history of a specific culture.”

Throughout his time at Syracuse, Alcala shared and created music with other students of varying backgrounds and cultures. He collaborated with fellow composers on a concert at Manhattan’s Tenri Cultural Institute, helping launch them into the professional world. He fondly recalls having his choral works performed by the Syracuse University Singers after John Warren, director of choral activities and champion of living composers, took an interest in his works. “The group performed a choral work of mine, ‘Bagbagto,’ which was inspired by the harvest rituals in Northern Philippines,” he says. “It was an enriching experience that reflected my interest in cultural dialogue.”

Among his best memories, Alcala counts his Setnor graduation recital, which amplified the bonds he’d formed with friends and classmates. “I was overwhelmed by how well-attended my recital was. My peers graciously devoted time and energy to rehearse and perform my works, making the recital feel like a celebration concert for friends,” he recalls.

Alcala has gone on to become a force to be reckoned with in the world of composing. He received The American Prize in Composition 2018-19, The Esoterics’ POLYPHONOS Young Composer Award, the Asian Composers League Young Composer Award, and the inaugural Ani ng Dangal (Harvest of Honors) Award from the Philippine president. He also won the Choral Composer/Conductor Collective’s IGNITE Commissioning Competition and was named Musical America Worldwide's Artist of the Month in 2018. Alcala is the first Philippine-born composer to receive the Copland House Artist in Residency Award and have his work commissioned and premiered by the Grammy-nominated Los Angeles Master Chorale.

Though his accomplishments and accolades are indicative of a boundless future, Alcala won’t soon forget his two years spent in Upstate New York. “With my Syracuse University education and my cultural background, I’m in a unique position to continue exploring the intersection of cultures and creating new, compelling musical expressions based on or inspired by them.”

Jen Maser

This story was first published on February 17, 2020 and last updated on .


Also of Interest

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