The Oklahoma City Philharmonic was founded in 1988 to provide “inspiration and joy for the community through orchestral music.” This past September, Gettysburg College graduate Chris Merkle ’11 took a career leap and began his new position as General Manager of the lively and dedicated organization.
Merkle’s passion for music was sparked at a young age. He grew up in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, and ultimately chose to attend Gettysburg College to study voice, bassoon, and conducting. He wanted musical training at the highest level, but he also knew that employers see value in the perse thinking that comes from studying in a liberal arts environment.
Two of his most memorable professors at the Sunderman Conservatory of Music include Prof. Jeff Fahnestock, his vocal coach, and Prof. Jocelyn Swigger, from the piano faculty. Merkle recalls Swigger as being an excellent advisor who is extremely passionate about the work of her students. Outside of his active class and rehearsal schedule, he loved singing in the Drop the Octave acapella group, being an Admissions tour guide, studying abroad in Vienna, Italy, interning at Musselman Library, and eagerly waiting in line for Thanksgiving Dinner at Servo.
Merkle feels that his education at the Sunderman Conservatory offered him a unique advantage for his career path after graduation.
“In a traditional conservatory setting like Juilliard or Eastman, you go and study music and that’s it—that’s your focus. While at Gettysburg, I received training to understand the eccentricities of being a musician. And now, at my current position, I do more business than music,” said Merkle, a former music major. “Without the liberal arts education that I received, I wouldn't have the knowledge to understand the other side of things. I also think the fact that I had a holistic education, allowed both sides of my equation to appeal to my graduate program at American University.”
There is no such thing as a typical day at work at the Oklahoma City Philharmonic. Merkle coordinates sending musicians into the community; travels frequently to schools to coach aspiring musicians or to inspire students with a demonstration; and, at other times, visits an art gallery to entertain patrons. He also spends his time touring and creating meaningful partnerships with venues that might want to host the Philharmonic, such as local history centers, art museums, galleries, restaurants, and parks, as well as negotiating contracts with both full-time musicians and visiting guest soloists.
Due to the pandemic, the orchestra has not yet launched their new concert cycle, but they have set their sights on performing again in the coming weeks. “It will be strange and different with everyone in masks,” said Merkle. “But musicians have committed their lives to doing this, and it's going to mean so much to them just to be able to create music together again.
“There’s a lot of work that goes into a performance from a lot of different people, but there’s something special about people experiencing art together simultaneously. Anyone who has been to a live performance can relate to this. Whether you’re a performer, or involved in production, or the audience, or staff, you know when you’re in the middle of something special. And that's exciting. We live for those moments because they make the long hours and hard work worth it.”
For any current or prospective Gettysburg College students who is passionate about music, Merkle suggests talking to anyone and everyone with a background in music. Though he acknowledges that it may feel awkward initially to ask for help or advice from someone who inspires you, he always remembers the advice he received from his graduate school professor.
“She told me to imagine that the situation was reversed. If someone came up to you and said, ‘You don’t know me, but I think what you’re doing is interesting and I’d love to know more about how it happens.’ You’d be flattered, and you would probably be willing to speak. I have found that to be the case. People have been incredibly generous with their time with me.”
He continued, “Connections get made. Down the line, you don't know how those connections will pay off.” That’s exactly how he found his current position—a mutual contact heard about the opening and suggested Merkle. He also recommends trying everything, from interning to volunteering to joining clubs.
“You might not realize how much joy you will find from a job, an activity, or an experience simply because you haven’t tried it yet. Get your feet wet. You never know where it will take you.”
Learn more about the Sunderman Conservatory of Music at Gettysburg College.
By Delaney Adams ’21
Photos courtesy of Chris Merkle ’11