At 5 years old — an age when many Westport youngsters are fascinated by whatever Disney movie is being marketed to their impressionable brains — Danielle Merlis got hooked on Yo-Yo Ma.
But not just any piece by the master cellist. Over and over, she listened to “Butterfly’s Day Out.” To this day, the Westport native returns to the track for inspiration.
Now though, she can actually play the piece.
In elementary school, when she had to pick an instrument for orchestra, Danielle asked her mother — a musician herself — for advice. Joan talked about the cello in a special, almost magical way.
Long Lots music teacher Betsy Tucker was an important influence. She instilled enthusiasm and excitement, while teaching fundamentals so thoroughly that students felt confident at the outset.
Starting a string instrument can be daunting, Danielle says. Tucker made sure she enjoyed the cello, no matter how awkward she felt.
Danielle studied with local cello legend Lois Errante. She worked her way to first chair in the Staples orchestra and Norwalk Youth Symphony, winning awards throughout the state. She played in Tanglewood’s Young Artists Orchestra.
While a Staples High senior, Danielle attended Manhattan School of Music Precollege. She then studied for 2 years with the renowned Matt Haimovitz, at McGill University.
New York drew her back. At NYU Danielle discovered a new passion: composition. She earned her master’s at NYU’s prestigious film scoring program.
She plays and composes in a range of styles, using the cello for tragedies, romantic stories and nostalgic moments. A trip to Mongolia last year led her to compose an original score for a documentary about that distant land. She scored “The Kidnapping of a Fish,” which was accepted in to the Cannes Film Festival. Right now, she’s writing genre tracks for ABC-TV.
Danielle has performed with Chris Brubeck, Glenn Frey and the entire Eagles band, and in venues like Lincoln Center, the Ozawa Concert Hall, Joe’s Pub and the Provincetown Playhouse.
While performing, Danielle says, “I completely let go of all boundaries, expectations and rules. I truly live in the moment of the sound and story I express within the music. Playing cello allows me to access my most natural instincts.”
She loves the instrument because of its “warmth, and its ability to speak and connect with people in an intimate, personal, non-aggressive yet potent and powerful way.”
All her experiences — particularly the importance of a strong, positive early introduction to music — come together in Danielle’s next venture. She’s started a Cello Camp (“a cellobration”) for aspiring young musicians.
“I want to give back to a community that gave me so much,” she says. “And summer is the best time to combine fun and growth.”
Danielle hopes that “cool” musical experiences — through repertoire and collaborations with musicians they might not have access to in school — can expand youngsters’ vision of the cello.
“I want to give them what Betsy Tucker gave me, when I first started: tools and excitement,” Danielle explains.
Who knows? Perhaps one of them — or their teacher — is the next Yo-Yo Ma.
(Danielle is collaborating on the Cello Camp with Staples graduate Lucas DeValdivia. The program runs from August 22-28, and is geared to students entering grades 5-9 with at least 1 year of experience. For more information, click here. For Danielle Merlis’ website, click here. )