An Auditory History

Professor Emeritus Truman Bullard delivers a standing ovation at the close of the April 27 concert. Photo by Carl Socolow '77.

Professor Emeritus Truman Bullard delivers a standing ovation at the close of the April 27 concert celebrating his 75th birthday. Photo by Carl Socolow '77.

by Mary-Alice Bitts-Jackson 

While the Beatles electrified the pop airwaves in 1964, a quieter musical revolution was percolating at Dickinson. And just as Ed Sullivan and American DJs helped rev up the Beatlemania machine, President Howard Rubendall ’31 needed a musician-educator to champion his cause. 

Truman Bullard was a 26-year-old music teacher at a private school in Seattle when he took up Rubendall's challenge. Fifty years later, Rubendall’s dream of a vital music department is realized—and then some—and Bullard, one of the key music professors who helped set the gears in motion, remains an integral figure in Dickinson’s musical life. 

Incognito soprano 

A gifted pianist, bassoonist, composer, conductor and musicologist, Bullard earned a B.A. in philosophy at Haverford College and a master’s (Harvard University) and Ph.D. (Eastman School of Music) in musicology. While at Harvard, he met Beth Baehr, a flutist and fellow musicologist; they married in 1962 and would raise two sons.

Bullard knew something special was afoot when he arrived at Dickinson for a New Year’s Eve job interview and was escorted to the President’s House so he could meet with Rubendall and his wife, Carolyn. They wanted to build a dynamic choral program at Dickinson, and they invited Bullard to help.

It was only one part of the extensive curricular reforms Rubendall would enact during his 14-year presidency, but it was a pet project. Carolyn was an accomplished cellist, and Howard, an ordained Presbyterian minister who believed music played an important role in worship. They saw the arts as essential to a liberal education, and they made a point of attending Dickinson concerts and theatrical productions. Rubendall also spearheaded fine-arts programming at Dickinson and was the first Dickinson president to speak on the WDCV airwaves—a show of support for a music-based student club.

Bullard’s new job was, therefore, exceptionally visible. He recalls that during his first year at Dickinson, Rubendall asked his own secretary, a soprano, to join the choir so she could provide him with regular progress reports. “I think she probably said good things, because I never had trouble being reappointed,” Bullard says with a laugh.

Exponential growth 

The music department was just two years old then. Students could join the Glee Club and take courses in music history or theory, but there was no vocal or instrumental instruction and no practice rooms.  

Together with fellow professors J. Forrest Posey, who led the faculty in creating the music major curriculum and founded the Collegium, a vocal ensemble (that continues to thrive 52 years later under the leadership of Professor of Music Blake Wilson), and Fred Petty, who joined the department in 1971, Bullard provided the energy, vision and leadership that would come to define the growing music program.  

Soon after his arrival, Bullard hired a piano instructor and a vocal instructor. By the end of his first semester, the choir grew from 30 to 85 members, forcing a move to a large classroom in Denny Hall; by Commencement, it had grown to 110. Five years later, when the Anita Tuvin Schlechter Auditorium was completed, rehearsals moved into that space. “We finally found our mecca in 1984,” Bullard says, referring to the year when the music department moved to the aptly named Rubendall Hall in the Weiss Center for the Arts.

Today, approximately 300 students participate in music programming and classes each year, and 26 music professors and instructors teach music history, theory, composition and performance, along with interdisciplinary subjects, to majors and non-majors alike. Student-musicians perform in an array of ensembles, often side-by-side with faculty and community members, in the recently renovated Rubendall Recital Hall—itself a potent symbol of the college’s commitment to the program.

The music degree offers emphases on composition, history, theory, music performance and, as of spring 2014, conducting. A stellar lineup of visiting musical artists come to campus each year to work and perform with students. Last year’s resident artists included the youngest composer to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize. And Bullard has seen it all unfold.

Ripple effect 

Bullard retired in 2000, but he has remained actively engaged with Dickinson and, with Beth, helped fund a series of concerts that emphasize non-Western music, an area of scholarly interest for Beth, who taught music at George Mason University until her retirement in 2008. A scholarship in Bullard’s honor supports music lessons for students in need who have not yet declared majors, and the Bullards enjoy meeting the recipients.

“His passion for music is simply infectious," says Blanka Bednarz, associate professor of music. "The care with which he welcomes new students each year, taking them under his wing and inspiring them, is most remarkable and treasured. Truman’s and Beth’s kindness to students and faculty, their generosity of spirit and of providing financial support to numerous students are of immense value.”  

Bullard also composes on commission and conducts and performs with regional ensembles, and he and Beth perform together in the Lydian Winds. He occasionally fills in as a bassoonist in the Dickinson Orchestra, and he relishes that chance to meet and make music with current students. Sometimes, former orchestra members, like many of his former students, drop him a line.

In a 75th-birthday card he sent to Bullard last spring, Jinsen Wang ’13, who majored in music and performed in the orchestra, wrote that although he never took a class with the retired professor, he considers Bullard a lifelong mentor. “The guidance that comes from someone wise and caring is just like a lighthouse for a young person,” he wrote. “Every word from you counts.”

That delights Bullard no end; mentoring and teaching remain his passions. And, like the president who hired him 50 years ago, he finds a joy in music far too abundant to keep to himself. 

“I’m a religious man, but I have to admit that, in a sense, music is my religion,” he says. “It offers a window to infinite beauty, goodness and peace, and it’s a privilege to share that, to experience it together.”

Learn more

Read more from the summer 2014 issue of Dickinson Magazine.

Published July 22, 2014