Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

Notable lessons

I picked up the cello for the first time when I enrolled in a summer music program to learn to play the instrument. The experience surprisingly changed my life.

Initially, every success at being able to play a piece of music was supremely satisfying. I already appreciated classical music, thanks to my parents, whose passion for it led them to share it with my brothers and me. Being able to play it for myself was a revelation.

I couldn’t put the instrument down. I practiced for hours at a time, teaching myself how to play Bach’s Suite for Cello #1 by studying a film of a Pablo Casals performance, borrowed from the local public library. My mother later told me that she sometimes left the house, simply to get away from the constant sound of false starts, muffed notes and abrupt stops.

That initial drive to master the music brought me to the attention of music professor Elizabeth Potteiger at the nearby Miami University of Ohio. I took lessons from her every Saturday for four years, and I learned a great deal, about playing the cello, injecting artistry into performances, and life’s possibilities. Her life as an academic and a musician served as an early inspiration and model for my own path.

This is a story I’ve told before, to illustrate the power of teaching and mentorship. However, it also leads me to reflect on the ways in which the study of music and musical performance connect to other topics and fields of inquiry. What I learned as I dug deeper into developing my skills as a cellist was the importance of understanding other subjects, such as the cultural, experiential and historical sources of inspiration for particular composers.

Indeed, as my understanding deepened, I began to see music as both influencing and reflecting the cultural milieu from which it arose. For example, the emphasis on technical virtuosity that was prevalent in Bach’s time no doubt inspired his compositions for solo instruments, including the cello suites that were not well-known until Casals made them famous. Similarly, the license for individual musicians to embellish the melodic line with their own improvisations probably provoked his detailed approach to musical notation.

Music scholars, musicians and knowledgeable fans also are well aware of the ways in which genres of music influence each other, whether it be the way in which composer Harry T. Burleigh preserved African American spirituals through his art songs or the inspiration that the Beatles and many other pop, rock and jazz musicians drew from the modernist works of composers such as Steve Reich and Philip Glass.

The multiplicity of connections within music and between it and the other disciplines of the liberal arts is emblematic of the liberal arts, and it is the reality that underlies Wheaton’s innovative curriculum. At many institutions, the links among the academic disciplines await discovery by students. At Wheaton, faculty members make those connections explicit, through the shape of their courses and the lively cross-disciplinary conversations that take place among professors and students.

With so much to choose from, each student’s journey through liberal arts study at Wheaton will be different. The path is not always straight, thus it is not easily predictable. It is precisely that element of surprise and discovery that contributes to students’ intellectual excitement. And it is what facilitates an education that allows students to learn about themselves as well as the world.

About Ronald A. Crutcher

Ronald A. Crutcher is the President of Wheaton College.