Beat by Beat: Building Community and Finding Healing through Music

Words: Grace Kenyon ’22
Photos: Kayla Smith

When Emma Cho ’24 was in preschool, she wouldn’t stop humming. When her parents found out, they enrolled her in piano lessons, and Cho has been committed to her craft ever since. Now as a music pedagogy major in Wheaton College’s Conservatory of Music, she has participated in just about every outlet available to her on campus, including orchestra, jazz combo, and percussion ensemble.

Just like music, Wheaton has always been a part of Cho’s life. Her parents both earned their master’s degrees in clinical psychology from the Graduate School, and Cho grew up in the Wheaton area. It was so close to home that she didn’t want to come to Wheaton at first, but when she visited campus, the environment posed a stark contrast from her public high school, where she was often the only Christian in her social circles.

“Being in a Christian environment felt so welcoming,” Cho recalled.

Cho spends most of her time at Wheaton between two very different, yet similarly tight-knit communities. One is the Conservatory of Music. The other is the Office of Multicultural Development (OMD), which has become one of her on-campus “homes.” She was one of the founding members of the OMD publishing team, helping launch a student publication called The Nexus, which aims to provide an outlet for minority student artists and writers on campus through its magazine and social media.

The drive to amplify lesser-heard voices also bleeds into Cho’s musical pursuits. She says the highlight of her musical activities is participating in the percussion ensemble, in part because this group emphasizes repertoire outside of the traditional Western classical music “canon.” 

“I feel like when people hear the term ‘classical music,’ they often shut off their brain and are like, ‘Oh, that’s what I listen to to go to sleep,’” Cho said. “But with percussion, people are drawn to it organically because it’s just so interesting visually and aurally.”

For example, this semester, the percussion ensemble is performing an all-female program that includes a short quartet piece called “Taxidermy” by 21st-century composer Caroline Shaw. Among the piece’s eccentricities is its instrumentation, featuring four performers hitting flower pots that have been tuned to different pitches. Cho is always looking for ways to diversify the kinds of music she studies and plays, but her interest doesn’t stop at quirky percussion pieces. She is also fascinated by the ways music can be used as a tool to heal.

Since high school, Cho has been interested in music therapy and speech therapy. She still remembers watching a documentary in her high school AP Psychology class about former congresswoman Gabby Giffords and her recovery from traumatic brain injury. Cho was fascinated by speech, particularly the ways music can help repair the brain’s capacity for language.

“Sometimes people who have had serious strokes or traumatic brain injuries aren’t able to talk but they’re able to sing,” Cho explained. “I just thought that was so cool, how music can connect those parts of the brain and it can be used for healing.”

During her time at Wheaton, Cho has taught a class called Clementi’s Colorful Chimes, a handbell chimes class for kids with special needs. The class is offered through the Community School of the Arts (CSA), the College’s community program that provides lessons and music classes for students of all ages and abilities. When she graduates from Wheaton, Cho plans to continue pursuing this intersection between music and neuroscience. After completing a year of prerequisite classes at Northern Illinois University, she hopes to earn a graduate degree in speech pathology. Although she may be switching her academic focus for now, she knows she will continue applying the work ethic she developed at the Conservatory.

“People in the Conservatory are very committed to excellence in whatever they do, and it’s infectious,” Cho said. “Being really deeply committed to learning and to what I do is something I will take away from Wheaton.”