Wheaton magazine

Volume 21 // Issue 1
Wheaton magazine // Winter 2018
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photo by mike hudson '89

Musical Mentorship

YOU’VE LIKELY HEARD of the theory of six degrees of separation. Among Hollywood stars, it’s “six degrees of Kevin Bacon.” Among Wheaton alumni, it’d be six degrees of music professor Dr. Kathleen Kastner ’71. 

After teaching the college’s Introduction to Music course for a quarter century (with four to five classes each year), many Wheaton students have passed through Kathleen’s classroom. This includes current president Dr. Philip Ryken (whom Kathleen still remembers sitting in class with his now wife Lisa ’88) and current provost Dr. Margaret Diddams ’83. 

Having launched the college’s percussion program 45 years ago, Kathleen still teaches percussion ensemble and other percussion classes, as well as private percussion lessons with a dose of personal discipleship. Midway through her career, she began teaching 20th-century music history and world music, which she continues to teach to this day. For her decades of mentoring students both musically and spiritually, the Wheaton College Alumni Association selected Kathleen as the 2017 Alumna of the Year for Distinguished Service to Alma Mater. 

Kathleen grew up near Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in a Polish-German community where the instrument of choice was the accordion. Her mom played it as a hobby, but after one lesson, Kathleen “wasn’t a big fan.” At age six, she got a toy xylophone for Christmas and discovered her love for marimba. 

She still has that Christmas present. She also now has a book, The Marimba: Teach It!, which she published after an innovative career keeping Wheaton on the forefront of the percussive arts. 

Kathleen started marimba lessons soon after that pivotal Christmas, and in high school commuted from Milwaukee to Chicago to take lessons from a local teacher who had studied with Clair Omar Musser, a leading marimba player who put together a 100-piece orchestra for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933. Her teacher recommended that she apply to Wheaton’s Conservatory of Music. When she was accepted, there were only two other marimba players. They took the train into downtown Chicago every Thursday for four years for their lessons. 

Kathleen started marimba lessons soon after that pivotal Christmas, and in high school commuted from Milwaukee to Chicago to take lessons from a local teacher who had studied with Clair Omar Musser, a leading marimba player who put together a 100-piece orchestra for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933. Her teacher recommended that she apply to Wheaton’s Conservatory of Music. When she was accepted, there were only two other marimba players. They took the train into downtown Chicago every Thursday for four years for their lessons. 

After graduating, Kathleen was invited by former dean Harold Best to come back and teach the college’s handful of percussion majors. She accepted and launched Wheaton’s first percussion ensemble in 1972. It was “kind of a new thing, even in the percussion world,” she says, that let Wheaton join a burgeoning national trend that allowed students to major in percussion for the first time. 


“I’ve seen this whole field grow up before my very eyes,” says Kathleen. 

She later received her doctorate from the University of Illinois, Urbana- Champaign, where she studied with percussion Hall of Famer Thomas Siwe. Kathleen has served the Percussive Arts Society as a board member, historian, chair of its scholarly research committee, associate editor of research for its Percussive Notes journal, and president of its Illinois state chapter. 

"God's expression throughout the world is so vast. God has created all these different people and their musical expressions."

In 2003, Kathleen used her sabbatical to study world percussion. She traveled to the enviable destinations of Hawaii, New Zealand, and Australia. There, she observed Japanese taiko drumming and researched Maori, Pacific Islander, and Aboriginal music. 

The highlight of her 10-week trip was going to Bali where she studied gamelan—large ensembles of mostly metallophones unique to Java and Bali. She even took lessons with the royal musician in Ubud, a town that was regarded as the center of music-making in Bali. “I’d known about these instruments, and I’d taught about them,” says Kathleen. “So to learn from him and do that—it was the coolest thing ever.” 

Kathleen was an active solo and chamber music performer for decades before pivoting to her current passion: percussion pedagogy. She also has a decades-long legacy of passing on her talent and her faith to students. 

Kathleen believes Wheaton is integrating faith and learning “even better now than we used to.” The college’s new Christ at the Core curriculum offers her “a more intentional way of making connections” as a music teacher. 

In her world music class, for instance, Kathleen has connected students to musical cultures around the globe. “I love to open up students to the idea that there is music outside of our Western culture,” she says. “They know it now more than they used to. But it’s still surprising to them.” 

Kathleen is also honest about the history. “In the 1700s and 1800s, missionaries went into cultures and told locals they had to sing hymns in order to be a Christian.” 

But missionary practices have changed, Kathleen notes, emphasizing the development of indigenous songwriting that accompanies Bible translation, empowering people to worship with their own heart music. 

Kathleen once traveled to Palau to attend the Festival of Pacific Arts— which featured musical performances from 28 island nations—to gather video material for a new class on the music of Oceania and Indonesia. “They started the whole thing with a big ecumenical service” with “extraordinary singing,” which involved choirs singing hymns as well as seated dances where legs are crossed and only the arms make motions. 

“God’s expression throughout the world is so vast,” says Kathleen. “God has created all these different people and their musical expressions.” 

Kathleen’s private lessons often give way to one-on-one discipleship. 

“There’s not a Christian way to hit a drum or a non-Christian way to hit one,” she says. “It’s really about helping the student understand over time that what they are doing is part of God’s calling for them. And what they are doing, they should be doing to the best of their ability.” “It is a talent they have been given; and when given gifts, we are to use them.” 

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