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Schlabaugh has spent Bethel years teaching and making music

April 16th, 2018

by Melanie Zuercher

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Inter-Mennonite and intercollegiate cooperation eventually brought Karen Bauman Schlabaugh, professor of music, to Bethel College.

Schlabaugh retires after 24 years at Bethel, though she’s been associated with the college almost since she and her husband, Merle Schlabaugh, professor of German, moved to Kansas from Iowa in 1984.

Schlabaugh has a master’s degree in piano performance from Ithaca (New York) College and a doctorate in music from the University of Iowa. Merle had been teaching at Iowa Mennonite School in Kalona, while Karen had a private piano studio, when she was offered a fulltime job in the music department at Tabor College, Hillsboro.

Merle taught German and Bible part-time at Tabor for the first year and then took a one-year leave replacement at Bethel that then became a full-time position when the former German professor opted not to return.

In the meantime, there was “a long-time music education co-op that was still going on” involving Bethel, Tabor and McPherson College, in which faculty from the three colleges would teach music education classes for students from all three.

“I don’t remember the year exactly, but there were some positions cut at Bethel, including the piano teacher,” Karen Schlabaugh recalls. “Marilyn Epp ’72 took some of the students, and [Bethel] explored the possibility of some exchange hours, so I started coming to Bethel to teach the advanced piano students, and Harold Moyer went to Tabor to teach the second-year Music Theory class that I had been teaching.

“Eventually, Bethel offered me a fulltime position. I had been at Tabor for 10 years then. So the exchange went on during quite a few of those years.”

One of Schlabaugh’s early teaching responsibilities was piano pedagogy, in which, at one point, Hesston College cooperated along with Tabor and Bethel.

Toward the end, “I was teaching piano lessons, two sections of Class Piano, Aural Skills 2, Music Theory 3 and 4, and one Music History class every year, and I was department chair,” Schlabaugh says. “I decided it was time to step back from so much responsibility and I went to half-time [in 2015].”

Among her highlights of 24 years (mostly fulltime) at Bethel, she says, “some of them relate to seeing students, especially piano students, progress and grow to the point of playing their recitals as seniors.

“I can think of numerous students who made amazing progress – that you might not have thought, in their first or second year, would end up doing what they did. It wasn’t always the ones who were really proficient to begin with. Sometimes being able to successfully complete the recital performance was the amazing part.

“There are also the ones who are quite skilled to begin with and get a lot better. Just in general, seeing students [make] progress [has been rewarding].”

She is also proud of students’ academic achievement.

“At some point along the way, I’m not sure what year, we started giving the major field exam in music. A lot of [college and university music] departments give that test. What you see is how [we] compare to national scores.

“Some of our best students have scored exceptionally well. That says a lot about what happens here, even though we’re a small school.”

While at Bethel, Schlabaugh has been part of “too many performances to count.” That includes her solo performances on piano and also organ; accompanying student recitals and student juries (both vocal and instrumental); and accompanying and sometimes traveling with music faculty, usually from other institutions.

Two special events, Schlabaugh says, “were the International Clarinet Symposium in Vancouver, where Suzanne [Tirk, clarinet, from Wichita State University] played in a concert honoring her former teacher, and with Andrea Banke [oboe, WSU] at the International Double Reed Society. These were both really important performances.”

Among major changes, Schlabaugh refers to “the student population. It’s more diverse and in many respects, that’s a good thing.

“In music, we’re seeing less-prepared students coming in. I don’t necessarily mean academically – a lot of students coming in haven’t had ‘academic’ music classes in high school and it’s always been that way.

“But you could count on students knowing the fundamentals, by and large. You didn’t question their ability to read music, understand rhythm, know what key signatures were. But that’s not a given any more, making instruction more challenging.”

From her own observation and from talking with colleagues, she says, it seems that fewer students are taking music lessons and those who do aren’t continuing with them as long.

Another change during Schlabaugh’s tenure: “While there is a long tradition of choral [excellence], I think instrumental music has made great strides. That has strengthened the department as a whole and made it more well-rounded.”

For the immediate future, Schlabaugh is “closing the circle” by going back to Tabor in the fall, two days a week teaching piano as a sabbatical replacement.

“I have a handful of private students, which I’ve always had, but I have not been taking on new ones.” And she’ll be preparing her program for a November concert in Bethel’s organ recital series.

As an avid knitter, Schlabaugh plans to do much more – “I didn’t do a lot this spring, because I had too many recitals,” she says.

Since February, she has played a duet recital with Susan Gaeddert ’00; accompanied one junior and one senior trombone recital and a senior violin recital; performed a Mozart piano concerto for the Masterworks concert; played for several dozen vocal and instrumental juries, Bethel baccalaureate, prelude music for the wedding of two former students and the Newton Mid-Kansas Symphony Orchestra’s chamber concert; and attended the 300th-anniversary celebration of her home congregation, West Swamp Mennonite Church of Quakertown, Pennsylvania, for which she played organ.

Clearly, there’s a lot of delayed knitting waiting to be done.

Bethel College is the only private college in Kansas listed in the analysis of top colleges and universities, the Washington Monthly National Universities-Liberal Arts section and the National Liberal Arts College category of U.S. News & World Report, all for 2016–17. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see

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About Bethel

As the first Mennonite college founded in North America, Bethel College celebrates a tradition of progressive Christian liberal arts education, diversity within community, and lifelong learning.