Inside her office sit two grand pianos, with a desk pushed up against the corner. The sounds of students practicing drift through the walls. She prepares for performances in between lessons with students.
A Juilliard-trained pianist, Choi Witte, assistant professor of piano at Missouri State University, blends her teaching with a passion for performance.
She calls music a universal language. It speaks to everyone.
“When I’m performing, I’m trying to communicate with the audience through my music. It’s then up to the audience to decide how they’re going to receive it and how they’re going to translate it,” she said.
Choi Witte revels in the idea that music can cross cultural barriers that written language often can’t.
“It’s the one language for which you don’t need a translator,” she said.
She notes that music achieves its universality because human emotions are similar in every area of the world. You know someone is happy when they smile.
“You can connect with people on an honest, sincere, very raw level with music,” she said.
Choi Witte honed this idea in her 2018 piano album, “Boundless.” The title comes from her hope to embrace every aspect of your culture, even if you have more than one.
“Performance is impermanent. Recording “Boundless” was one way to make music more permanent for me. It feels good to have a tangible work that I can say, ‘This is what I did, and this is mine.’”
“I have two heritages: Korean and American,” she said. “With ‘Boundless,’ I wanted to explain that you can’t pull yourself into two pieces. You are one body.”
The record, consisting of three pieces in 11 tracks, draws inspiration from all corners of the world. American composers with international heritage composed each piece.
“The three composers can’t help but be influenced by their heritages,” Choi Witte said. “But, there are no boundaries in music. You can walk back and forth between many different parts of yourself.”
“The word boundless is saying there are no boundaries if you allow yourself to be inspired by your surroundings.”
Choi Witte’s colleague and friend Dr. Ching-Chu Hu composed the first piece, “Pulse.” It has subtle hints of Asian influence. The cadence of the four-track piece resembles the human heart as it experiences a whirlwind of emotions.
“I’ve had cardiologists sit in the audience when I perform ‘Pulse.’ They tell me at times it sounds like actual heartbeats,” Choi Witte said.
The second piece, “Sonata Andina No. 1,” draws from Latin American influence. Dr. Gabriela Lena Frank, pianist, composer and Guggenheim Fellow, combined the western sonata form with Andean folk music traditions.
“Gabby’s work is very much about the juxtaposition of two cultures, and how one doesn’t have to overpower the other,” Choi Witte said.
“Sonata Andina No. 1” uses the piano as an imitator of other instruments, such as guitar, drums, flute and marimba.
Dr. Philip Lasser, Choi Witte’s former Juilliard professor, composed the final piece “Sonata for Piano Les Hiboux Blancs ‘The White Owls.’” It’s French-inspired music that has followed Choi Witte throughout her career.
“It was the first contemporary piece I fell in love with,” she said. “I’ve known it since college, and I’ve performed it numerous times in the 17 years it’s been with me.”
Choi Witte’s mastery lies in performing works. For every piece she plays, she searches for a deeper meaning, something that helps her and the audience connect to the music.
“Sometimes you are given pieces that you don’t have a choice about,” she said. “It’s up to you to find something in the music that is convincing and meaningful because people naturally understand sincerity.”
She shares this wisdom with her students at Missouri State.
“I tell them it doesn’t matter if you don’t like the piece, because part of being an artist is connecting to whatever you’re given and taking it to the sky,” she said.
“I think a lot of different types of personalities can enjoy contemporary music. It has no pillars or traditions that dictate how you are supposed to perceive it.”
Performing someone else’s music adds another layer of pressure, but Choi Witte’s collaborators on “Boundless” trusted her artistry with their compositions.
“With Minju on stage, I can relax and let her playing transport me to the emotions I wish to convey,” said Hu, composer of “Pulse.” “I know I’m in very safe hands with Minju. She commands the piano and creates such beautiful sounds that she brings the music to life.”
Choi Witte admits she still gets nervous before performances.
“It helps to think about my students,” she said. “I’m teaching them to be the best they can be. The more I challenge myself and invest in becoming the best musician I can be, I can pass that on to them.”
He believes that perspective ignores the attention to the sacred and spiritual on campuses. It also doesn’t account for the intersectionality of religious studies. It overlaps with many other disciplines – from social work to politics.
The role of religion in higher education is a dynamic topic right now, he noted. But as a sociologist, he’s always been intrigued by how religion fits into the context of human society.
In 2001, he and Dr. Kathleen Mahoney ventured into an extensive research project.
“We wanted to test our hypothesis that there is more attention to religion now than at any time since the post-World War II era,” he said.
They began collecting data and historical documents from all available sources. Then they conducted in-depth research to fill in the gaps.
Finally, in 2018, they published “The Resilience of Religion in American Higher Education.”
“It’s a sustained look at how religion has survived and persisted on college campuses despite a multitude of changes,” Schmalzbauer said.
It is Schmalzbauer’s second book in a career that has produced more than 60 articles, book chapters and reviews – all in the same “intellectual neighborhood.”
“John is so creative. He does not take what he’s experiencing for granted,” Dr. Elaine Howard Ecklund said. She is the director of the Religion and Public Life Program at Rice University. “He’s able to step aside from the institution of higher education, even though he’s part of it, and shine a scholarly light on the way religion shows up in unconventional ways in higher education.”
For the book, Schmalzbauer and Mahoney, formerly of Boston College, researched the history of religiously-affiliated institutions. They performed surveys, interviews and site visits. One primary question kept popping up: Are these institutions less committed and connected to their religious identities than in the past?
“There’s more religion than meets the eye on any campus.”
Schmalzbauer said the answer was a resounding no. In fact, many administrators reported feeling more invested in this identity. Others described trying to find new ways to stress this mission, even if there were fewer figureheads, such as priests and nuns.
“We realized this story is so much bigger than religious colleges. It involved schools that have no ties to a church,” he said. “We underestimated the Herculean task of pulling this together.”
They investigated nonreligious public and private institutions. By reviewing curricula and research in many areas of study, they found overlap throughout the humanities, social sciences, health care and law. The intersection of these subjects further proved that religion provides context in diverse discussions.
“Religion has always been in dialogue with other ways of seeing the world on American campuses,” he said.
The increased presence of religion at universities, he noted, is due to the combination of those who see it as an object of study and people of faith.
“Education doesn’t erode your commitment to organized religion or to a spiritual quest; it may heighten it.”
Documenting the student faith groups and ministries, he gathered the number of groups as well as the membership. He tracked the numbers over many years, trying to be inclusive of not only the most well-established groups, but also the newer ones with more regional or local affiliations.
As time passed during data collection for the book, the numbers continued to change. Organizations changed names. Some vanished. New ones appeared.
With the arrival of new religious groups or as students begin identifying as spiritual or skeptical, the landscape shifted.
“John works through the history of religion in higher education and talks about the ways in which it waxes and wanes,” Ecklund said. “It’s the best of history, religion and sociology. And he reveals that religion is experiencing a real resurgence.”
But Schmalzbauer says, it’s also a snapshot in time.
“It’s too easy for people to say, ‘higher education destroys religion,’” he said. “The real story is much more complex.”