Alumni News

Orchestrating Impact

David T. Clydesdale ’75 struggled at times to harmonize his love for gospel music with his classical education at Wheaton. He went on to become one of the most prolific Conservatory alumni in history

Words: Ashley Mosteller Rabinovitch ’10
Photos: Nicola Harger

Spring 2021 512x768

In seventh grade, David T. Clydesdale ’75 orchestrated a hymn for his church.

“I have no idea how I did it because no one had ever taught me,” he admitted.

From two tone deaf parents came a prodigy who was composing and orchestrating entire musicals before graduating from high school.

Two weeks before his high school graduation, Clydesdale won a Musician of the Year award in his native Philadelphia that funded a full year of college at a music conservatory of his choice.

“My mom had heard the Wheaton College choir sing, so we got on the phone with Dr. Best, the head of the Wheaton Conservatory, while I played the piano and cello in the background,” he remembered. “That’s where it all began.”

Clydesdale stepped off the plane at O’Hare with his cello in one hand and his suitcase in the other, taking the first of many leaps of faith that would define his remarkable 46-year career as a songwriter, arranger, and conductor. As he immersed himself in studying composition and education, his passion for gospel music met resistance.

“I’ve written gospel songs my whole life,” he explained. “I sold and published my first song at the age of 14, and I continued to arrange and orchestrate for gospel artists while studying at Wheaton, much to the disappointment of my professors.”

Clydesdale remembers clashing frequently with Dr. Harold Best, now dean emeritus, who believed that his student could become one of the world’s greatest composers if he would only focus on classical music.

Even though Clydesdale was a self-described “oddball” within the Conservatory, he can look back and recognize the ways his Wheaton education prepared him for the next leg of the journey.

“Wheaton demanded excellence,” he affirmed. “My professors pushed me to learn my craft. As a result, I know how to conduct classical music. I can stand in front of the London Symphony and conduct Beethoven and Mozart.”

According to Dr. Tony Payne ’79, a veteran professor of music at Wheaton, Clydesdale went on to become one of the most influential alumni the Conservatory of Music has ever produced.

“David is a remarkable man with a mountain of musical accomplishments,” said Payne.

A recipient of 2 Grammy awards and 26 Dove awards, Clydesdale has collaborated with and written songs for musical artists such as Sandi Patty, Steve Green, and Point of Grace. By his latest count, he has worked with more than 300 artists, created more than 3,000 arrangements, and conducted 50 symphony orchestras around the world.

“While I’ve worked in the secular space, 95 percent of what I’ve created is for the church,” shared Clydesdale. “More than impressing people with my music, I want to inspire them. I want to touch lives.”

When people ask Clydesdale about his path to success in the music industry, he is quick to recognize the moments when God presented an opportunity, starting with the unexpected offer to study at the Wheaton Conservatory.

“I simply tell them that I put one foot in front of the other,” he said. “I walk in God’s grace every day.”