The Greatest Story Ever Told

Kathryn (Voelker) Wert ’06 has received a 4 under 40 Alumni Achievement Award for her commitment to her faith, calling, and development of her craft. From playing piano in church musicals, to pursing her music degree at Bethel, to receiving her Master’s and Ph.D. in music conducting and now teaching music at Liberty University, she has diligently followed her dream to create a musical on the life of Jesus.

By Katie Johnson ’19, content specialist

December 16, 2020 | 10:30 a.m.

Kathryn (Voelker) Wert ’06 is one of the first recipients of Bethel's 4 under 40 Alumni Achievement Award as she continues to honor her faith and use her musical talents for God's glory.

Kathryn (Voelker) Wert ’06 is one of the first recipients of Bethel's 4 under 40 Alumni Achievement Award as she continues to honor her faith and use her musical gifts to share the greatest story ever told.

Kathryn (Voelker) Wert’s ’06 fingers pressed the ivory keys of her church’s piano, the notes matching her mother’s voice as they performed “There Is Strength in the Name of the Lord” during a musical her father had directed on the life of Jesus. From her perch behind the piano, as the melody rose and fell in time with the lyrics, Wert glanced between her mother singing, “His name will be worshiped forever / Creator, Redeemer and King” and the audience responding with tears, smiles, and wonder at this part of the story.

“This is what I want to do,” Wert thought as cosmic understanding flowed through her. “I realized at that moment, that to me, the best way to tell a story is musical theatre. Songs. Music. The stage. Real people. The greatest story you could possibly tell is the story of Jesus Christ and how He died for our sins. That is, I would say, my calling.”

This was just the beginning for Wert, a high schooler in Cokato, Minnesota, at the time. Her dad had attended Bethel when she was in high school to earn his degree in musical theatre. He was eager to pour his skills into creating a church musical, pulling together his family and the talented musicians and actors in their community. Wert followed his footsteps a few years later and pursued her Bachelor of Music in Applied Performance: Piano as well as a theatre minor at Bethel, learning from some of the same professors who taught her father. 

While Wert knew her calling, she trusted that God would help her determine how to tell the story of Jesus as a musical without requiring her to sing at a professional level. As she pursued her degree in piano performance, she battled tendonitis her sophomore and junior years. With Director of Keyboard Studies Carolyn Nordquist’s unconditional support, Wert planned her semesters so she could still meet her performance requirements to graduate as intended. During this season, Wert learned about herself as a musician, woman of faith, and her dreams as she decided not to become a pianist. Though not easy, she trusted that God would continue to grant her the abilities to accomplish what she was meant to do.

In response to this decision, Steven Thompson, professor of music and director of instrumental activities, created space for Wert to explore conducting. Professor of Theatre Meg Zauner also collaborated with Wert to time routines to match the music for Zauner’s dance classes. The production elements involved in musical theatre seemed to fit Wert’s skills and interests better than performing, and Wert registered this as she applied to the Eastman School of Music for her master’s degree in Conducting and Music Education. Though Wert could have attended a music conservatory for her undergraduate degree, she was grateful for the opportunity to solidify her faith and develop her musical gifts at Bethel. “I learned so much about the Bible, apologetics, and church history, and I felt like Bethel was really important to ground me in that area,” Wert says. “I’m so glad I was able to have both experiences, and that Bethel came first, because I loved all the classes. I loved the Wind Symphony and the teachers and the place itself.” She then went on to receive her Ph.D. of Music-Conducting from University of Northern Colorado.

Her first teaching job ended when she was let go for sharing her faith with students, which eventually led to complications beyond the classroom. She was at a camp in upstate New York at the time, and without being able to contact her friends or family, she had nothing to rely on but her faith. She explains how the Lord reminded her of her calling: “It was one of the greatest moments of my life—in the middle of an on-the-floor-crying-session, and that’s when the Lord told me, ‘This is what you’re going to do.’ At the time, I had zero experience in musical theatre. I had gotten my theatre minor, but I had never even done my own show. I had never taught a cast. I had never led a choir. I had never conducted a pit orchestra. I believed Him, and I pursued it.” Her next teaching jobs involved opportunities in both charter schools and Christian schools for various grade levels. Through these positions, her love of teaching was confirmed, and she further knew this was part of what she was meant to do. 

When Wert was pursuing her master’s degree, she worked at a church near Rochester, New York, and she stayed with a family who included her in their holiday celebrations. During one New Year’s Day, Wert connected with their son-in-law who had also attended the Eastman School of Music. They talked about everything that mattered to them—their time at Eastman, their dreams, their career goals, their stories. A few years later, the son-in-law had become a dean at Liberty University, and he called to ask if she’d want to work as a music professor for their Christian university. 

Trading Colorado for a state she had never visited, Wert moved to Virginia to take the position. In her eight years in the role, she has started a second university band, directs the symphony orchestra, and teaches music theory classes. She also gives piano lessons and produces Liberty’s musical theatre productions with a professional group hired in-house. In addition to everything else, she advises graduate music research students online. Due to the pandemic, she treasures the ability to apply what she’s learning about virtually connecting with her undergraduate students to her online graduate classes—like hosting Zoom drop-in hours and discovering her students as human beings outside their class webpage. 

For her commitment to her faith, calling, and development of her craft, Bethel has awarded Wert with one of the first 4 under 40 Achievement Awards. As she continues to grow in her role as a music professor, Wert proves to be a powerful example of following the Lord on faith, especially as she honors her specific talents. “Through many, many strange turns of events, I found that there was a need for my skill set in musical theatre,” Wert says. “Teaching music to casts and directing pit orchestra and playing piano for rehearsals. Even though I felt like I had pretty significant weaknesses, God still called me and used the strengths that I do have.” 

Now, Wert is waiting for the best opportunity to use her strengths to fulfill what she’s meant to do. “If someone ever said, ‘What is your calling?’ I’d answer, ‘To do a musical on the life of Jesus Christ.’ Without question. That’s how I know I’m not going to die yet, because it hasn’t happened yet,” Wert laughs, but her features reveal a quiet determination that God has honored time and time again.

Nominate Someone for the 4 under 40 Alumni Achievement Award.

Bethel University’s National Alumni Board annually seeks and accepts nominations for the 4 Under 40 Alumni Achievement Award. The selection is made from Bethel University graduates 40 years of age or younger who have had outstanding achievements in career, public service, and/or volunteer activities.

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