AJ Merlino: percussionist, teacher and music industry peer
When you think of the Grammy’s, what usually comes to mind? You most likely imagine the music awards ceremony that takes place every year. However, the foundation does much more than present star-studded trophies.
AJ Merlino thought the same, until he was first nominated in 2017 for the Grammy Foundation’s Music Educator Award.
“It’s very flattering,” Merlino said with a toothy smile. “The shock of being nominated for something you didn’t know existed is probably even better than being nominated for something you knew existed.”
The Music Educator Award is given to teachers who “have made a measurable difference in the lives of students” and “have shown a commitment to the larger cause of maintaining music education in our schools”.
Fast forward to now, Merlino has been a quarter-finalist for the Grammy Awards four times in the past five years. Quarter-finalists are determined by initial nominations and then asked to submit additional materials if chosen. Few educators can say they have been nominated for such a prestigious award.
“Most people don’t become teachers [in general] to get recognition or awards,” Merlino explained. “Having national recognition is a really cool thing for something you do. [every day].”
But what does Merlino do on a daily basis? This is a loaded question for someone with their full resume and busy routine. He currently holds various positions at Albright College, including Associate Dean, Director of Music Industry Studies, and Assistant Professor of Music.
However, it took an interesting trip to Merlino to get to where he is today.
Merlino grew up just outside of Asbury Park in West Long Branch, New Jersey.
“It’s a great musical city. Live music was always present so I had the advantage of having great venues, bars and restaurants where I could just go and listen to music.
Local Jersey people looking to make it big flocked to venues around town to show off their musical talents. When Merlino started practicing music around the age of 13, it didn’t take long for him to book his first gig at a bar.
“It’s just a great music and concert scene and it shaped my perception of the industry,” Merlino said. “If I had grown up in another part of the country, I probably wouldn’t have gotten into music.”
Apart from cultural influences, Merlino’s father also played a role in his journey in the music world. He was inspired by his father’s musical tastes, which ranged from Afro-Cuban drumming to Motown.
With drum lessons and high school band experience under his belt, Merlino then attended Kutztown University where he earned his first Bachelor of Arts degree in Music. He spent much of his time with the college’s World Percussion Ensemble, which traveled to music festivals and workshops all over the world, and he even learned the basics of piano.
However, his academic journey did not end there. Merlino went West to receive two more certifications, his Master of Music and Doctor of Musical Arts, at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. Being in the entertainment capital of the world, he had plenty of opportunities to show off his talent and put his marketing skills to the test.
“I was constantly challenged as a performer, as a composer/arranger and as a businessman. I always learned something new and it kept me on my toes,” he explained.
Despite the ever-increasing and saturated competition in the city, Merlino was able to perform a wide range of concerts during his four years. His time spent as a project manager for three of Vegas’ top talent agencies gave him the right connections to book various venues along the Strip.
He never got bored because, in addition to his university studies, there were always concerts to play, time to rehearse and artists to find. Merlino typically spent 12 to 15 hours almost every day playing music. Although it might seem exhausting for the non-musician, he loved having such a busy schedule.
In his senior year, while still getting his doctorate, Merlino was hired at Kutztown University to fill the position of his former mentor, Frank Kumor, who had gone on sabbatical. He spent this short time as Director of Percussion Studies and Conductor of the World Percussion Ensemble.
When Merlino’s time as a substitute ended, he was looking for a full-time teaching position. Fortunately, Albright College was looking for a new director of the Music Industry Studies program, which it received in 2015.
“It just happened at the right time.”
However, it wasn’t a full major until Merlino came to Albright and helped shape the program with his various business courses. He designed each class to sync, so students learn multiple aspects of the industry at the same time from opposite angles.
“It’s a great way to create this system of mentoring and working knowledge. You go from ideation to application in the same week knowing something exists,” Merlino said. “It’s going really well.”
Due to his passionate nature, Merlino wanted another job on his plate besides being director and assistant professor of music. So in 2019, he added Albright College’s Associate Dean of Student Professional Development and Experiential Learning to his lengthy resume.
“I wanted to have a broader impact on higher education, and I thought administration would be the way to do that.”
His previous experience working in project and talent management has been of great help in helping build strategic partnerships with external resources. On a daily basis, Merlino builds strong relationships with doctoral schools, various employers and develops programs to help students find employment after graduation.
“The ELCDC allows me to leverage my talent management knowledge to use the same skills, but to help Albright students.”
Merlino’s work does not go unnoticed. Sophomore Olivia Trace recognizes her dedication to the success of her students.
“I can really see that he cares about me and the rest of his students. It’s obvious he wants us to grow as musicians, students and people, and he’s working on his side to make that happen. happen,” Trace said. “He thinks big and it’s thanks to him that our music program is so successful. I can really recognize him, and it feels good to know that I have a teacher who goes to beyond expectations and truly wants the best for us, and for us to have every opportunity possible.
Rachel Carraghan, another student in the Music Industry Studies program, also commented on Merlino’s teaching and mentoring skills. She added: “He doesn’t just do his job and that’s it, he goes above and beyond that and puts everything he has into it.”
Merlino has been both teacher and mentor to his many students in the program. His impact has been and still is invaluable to all students wishing to enter the music industry.
“One piece of advice that AJ has ingrained in every student from the start is to take every opportunity that comes your way and go for it. If it benefits you in any way, do it. Take a chance and gain more experience where and when you can,” explained Carraghan.
As for Merlino’s future, he has no idea which path he will take, but he is always looking for a new adventure. For now, he plans to be busy with his ever-growing list of responsibilities at Albright as well as keeping pace with performances.
“I don’t need a lot of alone time or thinking time in my life. I like to stay busy. I like a bit of chaos. For me, if I was doing less, I would probably try to take something else,” Merlino explained. “My existence is busy.”
Currently, Merlino has no performances scheduled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but you can listen to his latest percussion work with We Used to Cut the Grass here.