Shortly after I was called to serve as Wheaton’s next president, one of Chicago’s leading choral conductors happened to be staying with our next-door neighbor in Philadelphia. We chatted over the backyard fence, and when he learned that I was going to Wheaton, he immediately started raving about the quality of our choral program. He had heard our ensembles, he knew some of our graduates, and he was impressed with our Conservatory of Music.
This encouraging conversation mirrors my own assessment of our music program. We are blessed with exceptional leadership through the ministry of Dean Michael Wilder. Recent hires in composition, conducting, and instrumental instruction have sustained and even strengthened our excellent faculty. A good number of our students are going on to top graduate programs across the country, or investing their gifts in the lives of young people through music teaching and ministry.
Last year, our Symphony Orchestra competed for the American Prize in Orchestral Performance. Under the direction of maestro Daniel Sommerville, our musicians came in third place, behind the University of North Carolina Symphony Orchestra and the University of Denver’s Lamont Symphony Orchestra.
We continue our long-standing commitment to having non-music majors participate in all of our major ensembles. Nearly half of the students who sing in one of our choirs or play with either the Symphony Orchestra or the Symphonic Band come from academic departments throughout the College.
We do have one major limitation, however. Wheaton may have the worst facilities of any serious music school in the country. I do not say this lightly, but on the basis of reports from the National Association of Schools of Music (NASM) over the past several decades (including, most recently, last year).
The quality of our music buildings is far below the standard of our program. McAlister Hall was designed to house a Conservatory only half as large as our present population of 200 music majors. Most practice rooms are too small to meet current standards for the auditory health of our musicians. Sound bleed is a major problem. A recent woodwind recital I attended in Pierce Chapel was interrupted intermittently by the unmistakable sound of brass instruments wafting in from some nearby practice room.
We have tried to do what we can. Improvements made to Edman Chapel through the Promise of Wheaton campaign are making a difference. So are the modest renovations we made to Pierce Chapel last summer. But due primarily to cost, our longstanding hope for a new conservatory building has yet to materialize.
Happily, the dream has not died. In fact, we are working together with architects and acousticians to assess our needs, determine a location, draw up architectural plans, and study the feasibility of raising sufficient funds for a new Conservatory of Music. Ideally, a new building would include not only a small recital hall (we host well over a hundred recitals each year), but also a concert hall that would seat audiences of 600 or more. These would be the first facilities at Wheaton College specifically designed for music performance.
Accomplishing these ambitious goals will require a major investment from people who believe that music is a vital part of a liberal arts education and who want to make a kingdom investment in young people who will make music for the glory of God. We do not presume upon God’s extraordinary provision, but we do pray for it, and we invite the wider Wheaton community to do the same.