After loss, music student finds way to honor advisor

A native of Hawaii, Johnathan De Soto enrolled as a graduate music student at Pittsburg State University in 2021 without having ever stepped foot on campus. 

To start school in land-locked Kansas, in the heart of the pandemic, immersed in new cultures, 3,600 miles from home, was quite a challenge. Homesickness was real.  

It would not be the greatest challenge he faced in his time here. Less than a year after beginning his studies, he lost the person who recruited him: his advisor and primary teacher.  

But DeSoto stayed the course, is set to graduate with one of two master’s degrees on Dec. 16, and on Friday at his master's recital will perform a piece he commissioned to honor his late advisor. 

[2:06 PM] Andra Stefanoni After loss, music student finds way to honor advisor

Picking up the pieces 

De Soto was recruited from Hawaii via Zoom by Professor Doug Whitten, director of athletic bands who specialized in low brass (tuba and euphonium) in the Department of Music. The teaching assistantship Whitten offered was lucrative and enough to make De Soto pass on the other five schools to which he applied.  

People here were friendly. And Whitten made him feel a sense of belonging. 

“He was the bedrock here for a sense, he was like a father figure to me,” DeSoto said. “As a teacher, as a student, and as performers, we were on the same wavelength. Learning from him was going to be a seamless transition.” 

His first academic year went well, and De Soto progressed toward not only a master’s in tuba performance, but also one in orchestral conducting with the instruction of Assistant Professor Andrew Chybowski and Associate Professor Raul Munguia. 

And then, one hot June day, an unexpected tragedy occurred that could have derailed him entirely: Whitten, a longtime cyclist, died of a heart attack while riding his bike. 

“It was really a shock and something that I couldn’t really piece together for quite a long time,” De Soto said. 

"There was no time to mourn,” De Soto said — music duties called, and he threw himself into them because he knew that’s what his advisor would have wanted. 

He performed in the university’s summer music festival in a low brass ensemble with which Whitten always played.  

He assisted Chybowski, who assumed Whitten’s role as director of the Kansas Masonic Band, with sectional work when those students came to campus to prepare for the Shrine Bowl.  

He assisted with the PSU Pride of the Plains Marching Band Camp in August, and he gave lessons. 

He also carved out time to develop as a performer himself with appearances in the Springfield Symphony and the Pinnacle Winds in Kansas City.  

Then, as the fall semester got underway and De Soto began eying his senior recital in December, he came up with a way to honor the teacher he didn’t get nearly enough time with: he set about commissioning a low brass piece of music by a composer Whitten liked. 


Ian Lester is an award-winning euphonium player (Whitten’s primary instrument) who is pursuing his doctorate in euphonium performance at the University of Missouri in Kansas City. 

“Doug knew of him and had several of his works in his music library,” De Soto said. “And two former students of Doug’s, PSU alumni AJ Beu and Allen Parrish, are now teachers and knew of Ian’s work.” 

De Soto, along with Beu and Parrish, formed what’s known in the music world as a consortium — a group that collectively commissions a work, and then has first rights to it before it is released to the public. Fifteen people, including Whitten’s son, joined. 

“I spearheaded it, and AJ and Allen, along with another PSU grad and area music teacher Andrea Dinkel, gave Ian lots of ideas and style notes,” De Soto said. “They knew Doug well." 

They wanted to create a piece that would capture his personality, his contributions to music, and elements that made him “who he was,” De Soto said. 

The result: CYCLES, a 9-minute work in two movements. The first, entitled “The Gifts That Life Brings,” is slower, bluesy, contemplative, lyrical. The second, entitled “Embrace the Grind,” is fast, energetic, driving — like being on a bike. 

DeSoto will perform the world premier in the Sharon Kay Dean Recital Hall in McCray Hall in a recital open to the public. It begins at 7 p.m.  

It then will be available to consortium members to premier it in their own performances. And finally, in April 2023, it will be available to the public worldwide. 

De Soto’s recital also will include works from composers Julian C. Torress, Todd Goodman, Tyler Ono, Anthony Plog, and the late Barbara York, an accompanist in the music department.  

He will be accompanied by Professor Jim Clanton on vibraphone, adjunct instructor Lori Kehle on piano, and graduate student Isaac Hernandez on piano. 


De Soto will graduate with his second master’s degree, a master’s in orchestral conducting, in May 2023. 

He’s thankful, he said, for those who stepped in to help fill the void left by Whitten, including Professor Bob Kehle. Kehle, whose primary instrument is trombone and who directs the PSU Jazz Ensemble, shared as much expertise as he could with De Soto in low brass. 

“I’m glad he was there for me my last year,” De Soto said. 

He’s also thankful for the connections he was able to make while a student at PSU, and for a community who embraced him. 

“I have a passion for music and am never going to stop,” he said. “We chose to go into the profession we did for a reason – not to make the most money, but to live the life that you want. It’s gratifying at the end of the day.”