Wheaton magazine

Volume 20 // Issue 2
Wheaton magazine // Spring 2017
Erica Breitbarth '09 leading a choir class at Ronald Reagan High School in Milwaukee, Wis. Photo by Tony Hughes

Erica Breitbarth '09: A Grammy Finalist

Although she stands at only five feet one and three-quarters, Erica Breitbarth ’09 isn’t easily intimidated. But in her first job, as a music teacher in Milwaukee, the newly minted Wheaton Conservatory of Music alumna was taken aback. 

Erica knew the city well, having grown up and attended church there. She was excited by Ronald Reagan High School’s offer to come help build the music program. Most of her 50 students had no exposure to music education—and no interest. Only about half who signed up for choir had any intention of singing. 

But Erica knew this was her calling. She was determined to live out Frederick Buechner’s challenge: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” 


Wheaton College aspires to build a new state-of-the-art performing arts center at the heart of campus.

So with grit and creativity, she and her colleagues persevered. Today there are 400 students in the music program. Ronald Reagan High School is now recognized nationally for excellence in music education instruction to urban youth. 

And so is Erica, who was named a national top 10 finalist for the prestigious 2017 Grammy Music Educator Award, which recognizes “current educators who have made a significant and lasting contribution to the field of music education.” Some 3,300 people were nominated for this year’s award. 

Erica says the recognition puts a welcome spotlight on the achievements of her students, half of whom have never taken a music class before entering the program as freshmen. “They are the reason I do this,” she says. 

Other kinds of recognition are also important, Erica says—such as Wheaton’s planned $63 million Armerding Center for Music and the Arts, including its new recital hall, teaching studios, practice rooms, and other needed spaces. She says the Armerding Center, especially with its central location on campus, sends a powerful signal about the College’s values. 

“I remember wandering around campus from building to building with no practice room space,” Erica says. “We made good music, but it was not easy. The facilities at Wheaton certainly don’t reflect the caliber of music being made.” 

She says the improvements will allow the Conservatory not only to inspire current student musicians, but also to attract new ones. 

“I think having a quality creative space is very important,” Erica says. “To do creative work, you must have a creative space.” 

And a little bit of grit doesn’t hurt, either.

Erica's choir class at Ronald Regan High School in Milwaukee, Wis.
Photo by Tony Hughes