Rowan University Percussion Ensemble features alumni across decades

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Rowan University Percussion Ensemble invited generations of alumni to perform in the third concert of its kind on Sunday evening.

The ensemble was under the direction of Dean Witten, a percussion professor at Rowan. Witten has worked at the university since 1979 and has developed strong relationships with his students during this time.

Alumni who graduated as far back as 1982, when the school was still called Glassboro State College, joined the ensemble for this concert.

Alumni traveled from all over the country to join Witten for the concert, including northern New Jersey, North Carolina and Florida. Witten said he likes to invite alumni to perform because it allows him to choose complex pieces of music that require more people behind it.

To prepare for the concert, the ensemble rehearsed the entire weekend, including a few hours on Friday night, 12 hours on Saturday and all day on Sunday until the concert began.

Though it was an intense few days, their hard work paid off. The songs were difficult, yet appeared well-rehearsed.

The first act included the songs “The Downfall of Paris,” “Livre Des Claviers Mvt. VI” by Philippe Manoury and “Splendid Wood” by Jennifer Higdon. The second act featured the song “Cantata Para América Mágica” by Alberto Ginastera, which required sixteen ensemble members and had Danielle Pastin, the daughter of Dean of the College of Performing Arts John Pastin, as the soprano for the piece.

According to the concert program, 29 alumni participated in the performance. When asked why they wanted to participate in the concert, the general consensus among alumni was the same: Witten.

“I would do anything for Dean [Witten], and to be able to share the stage with a bunch of fine musicians that have gone through this program – some that I’ve had the pleasure of playing with and some that I haven’t – it’s just a really rewarding experience,” said 2001 Rowan graduate AJ Bianchitf. “He is like a second father, a mentor, to put it lightly. He is a fine musician, fine teacher, fine person. I wouldn’t be able to do what I do in the day-to-day if it wasn’t for his teaching and guidance.”

Glenn Dawson, who graduated in 2015 with a music education degree, has since returned to Rowan to study engineering. Even with his drastic change in paths, Dawson still credits Witten for shaping much of who he is today.

“Dean [Witten] has been such an influential figure in my life that I couldn’t say no,” Dawson said. “It’s such an honor and a joy to play with him and all these other musicians as well.”

“In the music program, your instrument professor becomes a sort of parental figure to you,” Dawson continued. “Dean [Witten] doesn’t just believe in just teaching percussion or just teaching music. He also believes very strongly in teaching life lessons and teaching the entire student and not just the musician. I gained so much growth as a person and not just a musician under Dean [Witten].”

The concert was well-received by the audience. Many people stayed after the concert ended to speak with performers and Witten as well as other audience members. Many alumni used it as an opportunity to catch up with each other and other people they remembered from their time at school. The performance was even attended by Rowan Provost Dr. James Newell.

“I thought it was just incredible,” Newell said. “Every bit of it was good. And to see that many generations playing together was really impressive.”

In typical fashion, Witten led by example when preparing for this concert.

Witten recently learned he has adenocarcinoma, a type of colon cancer. Despite receiving treatments for this, which make him exhausted and cause him discomfort, he still dedicated all of his efforts to learning his parts for the concert and putting on the event.

Witten hopes people learn from his actions, which include his work ethic and ability to play the instruments well.

“On a subliminal level, I was trying to show [people] how passionate I am about this, that nothing will stop me from doing this,” Witten said.

Witten is happy with the concert and all the ensemble achieved in a short amount of time.

“I was pleased with how prepared everybody was and how they gave it 110 percent,” Witten said. “The concert couldn’t possibly have gone any better, and that’s really rewarding.”

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