Rowan University percussion director dies

Percussion professor Dean Witten of the department of Percussion, who recently died. -Photo courtesy of Rowan University College of performing arts

Sunday, March 18, Rowan University’s College of Performing Arts announced the death of Professor Dean Witten. Witten was a staff member in the Department of Music at Rowan University and was a professor of percussion as well as the director of percussion studies. Witten had been teaching at the school since 1979.

During his career, Witten was the principal percussionist at Lincoln Center for the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra. He was also in the pit for several Broadway shows including “Les Miserables,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “The King and I” and “The Drowsy Chaperone.” During his time in a set orchestra, Witten performed alongside Frank Sinatra, Harry Connick Jr., Celine Dion, Sammy Davis Jr. and Liberace, among other artists.

In an email statement, Dr. Rick Dammers, Dean of the College of Performing Arts, said that Witten’s attention to detail as a professor consistently produced stellar work from his department.

“Professor Witten had a tremendous impact on the department and on the lives of his students,” Dammers said. “Over his thirty-eight-year career at Rowan University, he developed an exceptionally strong percussion studio through his mentorship and high expectations of his students.  His students consistently developed the highest levels of musicianship and have continued on to successful careers as performers and educators.”

Dammers also mentioned that while Witten was gone, the positive impact he had at Rowan University will be felt for a long time.

“Professor Witten’s time at Rowan is best summarized by the word passion,” Dammers said.  “His passion for music, student success, and excellence leaves a large legacy that will be carried forward by the Music Department and by his former students around the world.”

Nyzaina McDonald, one of Professor Witten’s former students, graduated in December with a B.A. in music. She echoed Dammers and said she enjoyed his style of teaching, both in and out of the classroom.

“One of his many great qualities was that he made his lessons relatable,” McDonald said. “Not just to music but to life. I think anyone who met him would say that Dean told them a story and taught them some type of life lesson. He had such a full and interesting life and he told the best stories.”

She also said Witten was a mentor to her, and shared a story about how Witten helped her.

“Four years ago, I walked into Dean [Witten]’s office as a scared freshman with no confidence, and no idea what I was doing,” McDonald said. “I was so frustrated with other things going on in my life that I didn’t think I would ever graduate. Dean wasn’t just my percussion teacher. He was like a father to me. I don’t know how many times I sat in his office and just cried and he would always be there to encourage me to keep pushing and keep fighting.”

McDonald added, “I remember him telling me ‘Nyzaina, if we’re going to do this, you have to give me your heart. Sometimes I have to massage it and sometimes I have to smack it, but you have to trust me,’ and from that moment forward I did. Dean didn’t just teach me how to be a better musician, he taught me how to be a better me. He taught me to believe in myself and I owe him so much for all the life lessons and wisdom he instilled in me.”

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