Cynthia Westerbeck: For Emphasis
Lainey S. Cronk, August 11, 2008
Cynthia Westerbeck has taught in our English department since. She was also our 2007 Educator of the Year and teaches in the Honors Program. Her husband, Roy Benton, is a professor of mathematics at PUC.
Cynthia Westerbeck is emphatic about the things she is not: I do NOT improvise,” she says. “I cannot draw to save my life.” And, “I am not a Shakespeare scholar.”
She may not improvise—but she is a musician. Cynthia has been playing violin and piano as long as she can remember. “Five-year-old, Suzuki violin, the whole nine yards.” She played both instruments right through into college, when she became a piano major. And from sixth grade through grad school, she gave piano lessons. “That was truly my identity, up through college, was as a musician.”
She’s also emphatic about her style as a pianist. “I hated Romantic music,” she laughs. “People who could sit down and just toss of Liszt and Chopin just drove me nuts.” Instead, she loved really contemporary music. “The highlight of my musical career was performing Prokofiev’s first piano concerto with the Walla Walla Symphony,” she says. She found she could pound out 20th century music of all forms, “in part because I don’t memorize music the way I ought to, which is by understanding the harmonic progressions. And in 20th century music, you don’t have to! It’s patterns. I get patterns; I don’t get theory.”
But all these were elements of her formal training. “I practiced,” she states simply (and also emphatically). “I was very much a trained musician. I never, ever sat down and just did it for the fun of it.”
Until, that is, she met Roy Benton, now her husband. “He could play anything, any style, and would just play for hours. And it was just for fun, which was a total revelation for me.” In their living room music sessions, Cynthia would play the melody on the violin and Roy would improvise on the piano or guitar. Eventually they took their music to a wider audience than the living room furniture; they’ve played for events ranging from weddings to our production of “Twelfth Night” last spring.
Also, she can’t draw—but that doesn’t get in the way of her teaching History of Western Art this quarter. In grade school she dreaded Fridays, because it was art day. But while teaching at CUC, which has no art department, Cynthia was asked to teach a class on world literature and fine arts—a complete survey of the humanities, integrating art, history, philosophy, music, literature. So she spent that first year basically living in the D.C. art galleries, teaching herself about art. The class ended up being “grand fun, I mean just fabulous.” (“Fabulous” is one of the words she uses for emphasis, along with “literally” and “definitely.”) It became her class. So when she came to PUC and we needed someone to fill in for the art history class, she accepted.
Then, too, Cynthia isn’t a Shakespeare scholar—but she did pinch-hit for the Shakespeare in Ashland class this past summer. It’s another area where she has plenty of experience. She did some theatre in high school and college – including a role as Laura in The Glass Menagerie – and started going to Ashland while a student at Walla Walla. While at CUC, she was taking students to plays about three times a semester (she taught there for 8 years) in addition to whatever she saw just for fun. Like when she and her sister were in Cornwall and, on a whim, decided to check out The Wind in the Willows at the Minack Theatre—which turned out to be “the most fabulous setting for a theatre ever,” carved into the stone overlooking the ocean at Land’s End.
What with all that, Cynthia pretty much has to get her therapy from housecleaning and playing in the orchestra, though she also loves to cook and enjoys tagging along on some of Roy’s outdoor excursions. “I don’t pretend to keep up with him,” she says, “but he’s very nice about slowing down.” She loves hiking, biking and mountain climbing (although, she admits, “I do require a trail”).
And, for a little emphasis in her day, she still likes to make fun of the Romantics.