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Music Makes the Man

by Hilary Bentman

Assistant professor A.J. Merlino wouldn’t be who he is today without music. Now, the Grammy nominee is helping the next generation navigate the complexities of an ever-evolving industry.

AS A THIRD-GRADER, A.J. Merlino wanted to play guitar.

There was just one problem – guitar lessons weren’t offered through his school. Barely missing a beat, and much to the dismay of his parents, the young Merlino chose the drums instead, and never looked back.

“I think it worked out,” he says.

Merlino has grown into an accomplished percussionist, performing as a side musician with such industry giants as Jay Z, John Legend, and members of LMFAO and The Killers. In 2012, millions of television viewers could watch Merlino play alongside CeeLo Green at that year’s Billboard Music Awards ceremony.

Brushes with celebrity aside, Merlino, an assistant music professor and director of Albright’s music industry studies program, is, at his core, a passionate performer, a dedicated teacher and a strong advocate for music education.

He plays and records with several bands, touring near and far and sometimes overseas. But, he says, “I’d be really bored if I just performed. Performance with education, that is a lot of fun.”

At Albright, Merlino is helping the next generation of artists, managers and producers navigate the complexities of an ever-evolving industry. And through his nonprofit Reading Samba School, Merlino is working to ensure that everyone has access to music, regardless of income or address.

For his efforts, Merlino was nominated for the 2017 Music Educator Award from the Recording Academy and Grammy Foundation, and named one of 290 quarter-finalists, out of a pool of more than 3,300 candidates.

“It took me by total surprise, but it felt amazing to be recognized by the GRAMMY Foundation,” says Merlino. “I was even more pleased to know that a student from Albright sent in the nomination.”

From drums to bongos to discarded salad bowls found while dumpster diving, Merlino will play any percussion instrument he can get his hands on.

“It’s about seeing the world through different eyes, tapping into things, discovering sounds. I love the adaptability of percussion instruments. You can play in every genre and play multiple instruments on stage.”

As for style, his passion is samba and Afro-Cuban music. Merlino’s big break came while pursuing his doctorate in musical arts at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. There, he was mentored and inspired by Dean Gronemeier, UNLV ’s director of percussion studies. And it was in Las Vegas that Merlino began working with Cirque du Soleil percussionist Kurt Rasmussen, a prolific performer with a star-studded resume.

Merlino started networking and booking special engagements with the likes of Jay Z. Pop artists don’t always tour with regular percussionists because the equipment is too large to transport. Instead, locals are hired to fill in.

“I was in the right place at the right time,” says Merlino.

In 2012, Merlino was tapped to help rearrange singer/rapper CeeLo Green’s song “Fight to Win” and perform with him at the Billboard Music Awards ceremony. “It was a surreal experience. There were so many people. I couldn’t wipe the stupid smile off my face.”

“I love that you have to practice on your
own, have discipline. That teaches you a
lot, beyond just skill. It’s taught me how
to be a good human being.”

Not long after, Merlino made his way to Berks County to teach, eventually joining Albright. He became a full-time faculty member in 2016.

At Albright, Merlino draws on personal experience to teach his students about all aspects of the industry, from performance and technology to marketing and management. His instruction transcends the classroom. He’s the faculty adviser of Lion Enterprises, Albright’s student-run organization that includes a record label. And his students are helping to develop a custom market analysis for Remember Jones, a soul band he plays with full-time.

The music industry has changed dramatically in the last decade, as technology and social media have given artists unfettered access to consumers, creating a do-it-yourself environment and demanding that those entering the business be a jack-of-all-trades.

Trent Gray ’17 says Merlino is preparing students well for this new reality.

“To have someone with so much knowledge and who is so well-versed, who has a full grasp of everything… he takes a huge, vast industry and segments it out,” says Gray, a music industry studies/arts administration major and president of Lion Enterprises.

Despite the changes and accompanying uncertainties, Merlino believes this is the best time to be in the business.

“At no other time in history can you record something in your basement and it has the potential for everyone to hear it. That kind of accessibility is amazing.”

Thinking about accessibility led Merlino to create the Reading Samba School in 2013 to provide free, weekly music lessons to area residents. “I was not satisfied with what students were getting for percussion instruction. There’s a demographic here that can’t afford private lessons.”

When not teaching, Merlino is touring, playing full-time with Remember Jones and Bella Vita, and periodically joining other bands.

Music, he says, has made him the person he is today. “I love that you have to practice on your own, have discipline. That teaches you a lot, beyond just skill. It’s taught me how to be a good human being.”

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