Arts News

The Percussion Ensemble Celebrates its 50th Anniversary

The Percussion Ensemble will commemorate the milestone with a reunion concert in spring 2023.

Words: Bella McDonald ’24
Photos: Tony Hughes

Wheaton College IL Percussion Ensemble

The Wheaton College Percussion Ensemble rehearses for their fall concert.

On May 11, 1973, in Pierce Chapel, the Wheaton College Percussion Ensemble held its very first concert. The ensemble was founded by Professor of Music (Percussion, Percussion Ensemble, Music History) Dr. Kathleen Kastner, who remembers the life-changing phone call she received from Dean Emeritus Dr. Harold Best a year after Dr. Kastner graduated from Wheaton College. She was working toward her master’s degree at the American Conservatory of Music with no intention of teaching music. God had other plans.

“Dean Best called me up and said, ‘Do you want to come out and teach?’” Dr. Kastner said. “I never applied for this job. It was a God thing.”

During her first semester of teaching, in the fall of 1972, Dr. Kastner introduced something that she never had during her time as a Wheaton student: a musical group solely for percussionists. Thus the Wheaton College Percussion Ensemble was born. Since its founding, more than 200 students have participated in the ensemble, including both music majors and liberal arts majors.

Percussion wasn’t prominent in the United States until the early 1930s, and the Wheaton College Conservatory of Music offered its first percussion degree in 1955. By the time Kastner formed the ensemble in the ’70s, collegiate percussion was still a novel enterprise, and the available repertoire was limited, making it hard to find new music for the ensemble to perform.

“There are times when you have to get creative,” Dr. Kastner said. “It’s exciting to research new music. I enjoy the challenge.”

Fifty years later, four tall metal file cabinets in Dr. Kastner’s office boast hundreds of scores.

“I watched the field of percussion grow up before my eyes,” Dr. Kastner said.

The ensemble will commemorate its 50th anniversary with a reunion concert in March with alumni performers.

To explore music at Wheaton and view upcoming performances, visit