From Left to Right: Ryder, Danice, Cora (front), John, Rylee (front), Cole
From Left to Right: Ryder, Danice, Cora (front), John, Rylee (front), Cole

Soul Music: Professor’s Son Inspires His Calling

by Abigail Reed

Gentle harmonies mix with the babble of a baby as a husband and wife sing their young son a lullaby before bed—music weaves throughout the family of John Burdett ’01, Ed.D., assistant music professor, director of instrumental studies and bands, playing a central role in their lives. Then, a visit to the pediatrician’s office shook their world of sound and song: the doctor diagnosed their son, Cole, as profoundly deaf. When they received the news, shock flooded their minds.

“How would I tell Cole that I loved him, that we would take care of him?” said Burdett. “In that challenging time of uncertainty and fear, I cried out and asked God to speak those essential truths to my son. Even though Cole had never heard language before, I believed God could communicate these messages to him.”

With boxes still unpacked in their new house, the young family who had recently moved away from their community in the San Gabriel Valley to Illinois was following God’s call for Burdett to pursue a doctorate in music education. Still reeling from the diagnosis, God’s provision immediately began to unfold. The pediatrician assured them they came to the right place. It just so happened that the nonprofit hospital housed an entire branch dedicated to pediatric hearing loss and even funded a specialized school.

“My son experienced the best care possible in the journey of acquiring speech; it was all there for him at the opportune time,” said Burdett. “When I look back on my life, God clearly directed our paths.”

Cole received fully funded cochlear implants that allowed him to hear sounds—his father’s music, the chatter of friends, the melody of a violin—for the first time. He began speech therapy, still in the stage when his mind was most open to learning a language.

After helping his son access speech for hours each day, Burdett worked late into the night on his doctorate in music education, exploring the effect of music on students with hearing loss in his dissertation. Through interactions with the students at his son’s school, Burdett discovered music played an impactful role in the education and lives of the students: drawing in those who could potentially feel excluded because of their differences and fostering a sense of authentic belonging in a community of musicians.

“Relying on God along the way, we worked hard, and our son worked hard, and he has accomplished spectacular things,” said Burdett. “I take this mindset to my students, too. My journey with Cole has showed me persistence, attention, and guidance from experts can result in the desired outcomes—no matter what challenges my students face.”

When Burdett returned to Azusa Pacific as a music professor, he brought these discoveries with him. Whether guiding a composition major with writers block toward inspiration or helping a student master their most difficult piece yet, Burdett enables students to leap over hurdles while holding them to high standards—just like he came alongside his son.

While serving his students, Burdett uses music as a catalyst to change their lives and souls.

“I desire my students to live their most whole life possible,” said Burdett. “But my own experience has taught me that they first need to order their souls—what goes on inside them. This is where music can play a role.”

Burdett dives deep into this relationship between music and spirituality in Enlivening Faith, which features his chapter on incorporating spirituality into 21st century collegiate music curriculum. From pondering meaning behind lyrics to receiving God-given inspiration for musical composition, students undergo spiritual formation as they discover attributes of the Kingdom of God within their musical experiences.

The graceful notes of flutes and rich tones of trombones fill the rehearsal room as Burdett directs APU’s Wind Ensemble—they play with meaning and purpose. Their piece, "Give Us this Day," alludes to the Lord’s Prayer, but Burdett guides them to reflect further on the meaning of the melodies. The composer drew inspiration from a monk who advocated for connectivity, or peace, among people. What does inspiring peace look like for Christians? Burdett’s students contemplate these ideas as they play the song, imbuing inspired thoughts and images into their music.

Just as Cole’s ears opened for the first time to a world of sound bursting with meaning, Burdett’s students unlock an entirely new way of listening to music—a cadence of sweet voices or a lilting melody of strings provide the musical context where eternal truths may be encountered, spurring students on toward holiness.

This article is part of a series that features the inspiring faith stories of APU's students, faculty, and staff. If you are a member of the APU community and would like to share your faith story, contact Rachel White at [email protected].

Abigail Reed is a public relations intern in the Office of University Relations. She is a liberal studies major with an honors humanities minor.