Beverly Wesner-Hoehn: Dialogue with an Adventist musician

As a child, Beverly knew that a career in music was her calling in life. At six, she began formal musical studies, and today she is a world-class harpist with numerous achievements and awards to her credit. A native Californian, she received a bachelor of music degree from Pacific Union College and went on to study at the Conservatoire Royale de la Musique in Brussels, Belgium. Upon returning to the United States, Beverly continued her studies in harp at the University of Southern California where, in 1981, she received a master of music degree. In 1989 she was awarded a doctor of music degree with high distinction from Indiana University.

In 1991, Dr. Beverly Wesner-Hoehn was appointed assistant professor in the School of Music at Indiana University in Bloomington where she lives with her physician husband, Theodore, and their three sons Rudi, Casey, and Jason. Her teaching duties include private harp lessons, pedagogy courses, and directing the harp ensembles. She also serves as an officer in several international harp organizations.

Dr. Wesner-Hoehn was born and raised in a Seventh-day Adventist home. As a committed Christian, she sometimes faces challenges in remaining true to her convictions in the diverse world of music. But it is her faith, she says, that has gotten her through difficulties and allowed her to relate well with and gain the respect of her colleagues.

From early in life, music was one of your great passions. Were your parents musical, or did that interest develop in some other way?

For 11 years I attended Sacramento Adventist Academy, in California, which has always had a strong music program. My parents encouraged my three sisters and me to get involved in band, choir, and piano. I started keyboard in the first grade, and then clarinet in the second. I continued studies in these two areas until junior high, when I started harp. My father is not actively involved in music, but my mother plays the trumpet and piano. By the time we were juniors and seniors in high school, my sisters were interested in other careers, but I was so involved in performance and music lessons that I was determined to continue.

Why did you choose to specialize in the harp?

The harp is an interesting and ancient instrument; specializing in it is rather rare. My mother hoped that one of her daughters would play the harp—it turned out to be me! I took six months of lessons in harp under a teacher from Sacramento State University, and she recommended that I seriously continue. My mother had to make me sit down at the piano, set the timer for 40 minutes, and I counted the minutes until practice was over. With the harp it was never that way. I could hardly wait to get home from school to play the harp; I loved practicing.

At what point did your faith become a priority in your life?

I’d say at age 12, when I was baptized. I’m from a third-generation Adventist family, and feel blessed to have this influence in my life. I have been a Christian for my entire life, and the Seventh-day Adventist Church is my home.

How has your faith affected or influenced your career?

Every door that has opened in my career was because God wanted it to open. I have many friends in the music world who are atheists, Jews, or Muslims. I feel that my faith has allowed me to relate to them well, and I have gained their professional and personal respect. Some think an intelligent Christian is an oxymoron, but I feel strongly that I can exist with others of different faith and be respected by them not in spite of my faith, but because of my faith in God.

What are some of the challenges you face as a Christian performer, and how do you manage your commitment to the Sabbath?

I have chosen not to work on Sabbaths. For me, Sabbath is a special event and I enjoy this moment in time supremely. The challenge of the Sabbath’s uniqueness I face with many of the organizations with which I am involved. I serve as treasurer of the World Harp Congress, and I am the executive director of the U.S.A. International Harp Competition. All board members know that we don’t work on Friday nights and Sabbaths. No one has ever said, “We can’t accommodate you.” I think it’s just a question of asking. I wonder how many young musicians today feel that they can ask. When one is in the performing arts and committed to a belief system, it is rare to be asked to perform against those principles. Instead, respect is gained for having values and commitment.

What counsel would you give other musicians, especially Christian musicians?

Excel. Excel in your field. Then you can command the respect of other musicians. Some Christians try to excuse their mediocrity: “We’re just passing through this world, so excellence isn’t necessary.” I think if you are a Christian performing artist you should be the best. Striving to be the best in any occupation is, after all, a Christian imperative.

You said you are the executive director of the U.S.A. International Harp Competition. You are also an officer of the World Harp Congress. What do these involve?

Mainly, I have to organize a tri-annual competition on the Bloomington campus of Indiana University. We usually have 90 applicants and we accept 40 for the four-stage competition. I decide the repertoire with the artistic director, and we offer prizes of more than $100,000 as well as harps and concert appearances in New York, San Francisco, and Tokyo.

I have been an officer of the board of the World Harp Congress for 10 years. The congress meets every three years in a different venue around the world, including Jerusalem, Vienna, Paris, Copenhagen, and most recently Seattle. The next one will be in Prague. It’s a week-long series of lectures, concerts, historical presentations, papers on the development of the repertoire for the harp and developments of the instrument. As treasurer, in addition to caring for finances, I process memberships and publish a biannual scholarly journal.

You also instruct students through lessons and workshops. What are the most important things you try to teach your students?

To love music, their instrument, and the repertoire. While they look for a particular way to interpret music, I ask them also to master a technical skill that will allow them to interpret the music beautifully. One must really love the instrument and the music to succeed. If students don’t have that love and enjoy what they are doing, then they are in the wrong field.

Looking over your many accomplishments, it is obvious that you get a great deal of satisfaction from music. What makes it so fulfilling for you?

Music is so beautiful. I perform on what I think is the most beautiful instrument in the world! Music is often described as the universal language, the language of the soul. That may well be, for whatever country or culture I may be performing in, I try to make a statement through my harp. That statement is that God loves me, and I am doing His will through my music. Whether performing or teaching music, I feel I am doing God’s will. Within those parameters, I find my fulfillment.

What role does music play in the life of your family?

A very important role. Music fills our home and much of our spare time. My family respects my career and I appreciate their support. My husband plays cello and enjoys singing. The boys have started keyboard and brass instruments, as well. We play together for worship, and we’ve played quartets at church and talent programs. We all love a wide diversity of music.

What would you consider as your greatest success thus far in life?

My happy, healthy, loving children are my greatest success. Their respect for me as a woman, as a mother, and as a professional in my field; that’s got to be my greatest success—and my husband’s too. I can’t take all the credit. But together, I think, we’ve presented a united front. In fact, the reason we moved to this university town was so I could study. I think our children have become stronger as a result of seeing Mom and Dad respect each other’s careers.

Beyond our family circle, my husband and I enjoy providing spiritual encouragement and social support to many Adventist students attending Indiana University. I have not yet forgotten my student years, and the importance of interacting with students continues in my life.

You have accomplished a great deal already. What are your aspirations for the future?

For the future, I wish that my children will grow up to love God and make a difference in this world. In my own performance career, I don’t aspire to become the world’s greatest harpist or the world’s most recorded harpist. Those aren’t my goals. My goal is to serve others: to give back to the field of music. That, to me, is very important.

Interview by Cheryl Knarr. Cheryl Knarr works in public relations at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan, U.S.A. Dr. Wesner-Hoehn’s address: P.O. Box 5157; Bloomington, Indiana 47407; U.S.A.