VCU music professor tours internationally while connecting with students

Eric Wheeler is an adjunct professor of double and electric bass at VCU and currently teaches hybrid classes. When he’s not teaching his students in person, he’s traveling to perform jazz internationally. Photo courtesy of Eric Wheeler

Sahara Sriraman, Spectrum Editor

When Eric Wheeler isn’t teaching VCU music students as an adjunct professor of double and electric bass, he’s often touring with various musicians, such as Grammy-nominated trumpeter Theo Croker, or holding international music workshops. 

Wheeler started teaching at VCU last year and teaches his students virtually most of the time, as he doesn’t live in Richmond and is often traveling for various jazz shows he is a part of. 

Wheeler said he’s been playing for almost 30 years, his first gig having been at a small hotel in Washington, D.C.

“I’ve always had a deep passion and love for playing music,” Wheeler said. “I started when I was about nine years old.”

He said that as a child he didn’t have much interest in playing music, but when he started attending high school at Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, D.C., he began to develop a strong connection with playing and performing.

He said he currently teaches in a hybrid format in order to teach around his touring schedule. Often, he’ll teach virtually from an international location, which he said he’d never done before teaching at VCU.

“I’ve learned to be more efficient as a teacher because, of course, when you’re not in person you can’t physically demonstrate,” Wheeler said. “So, you have to really be efficient and clearly articulate what you’re trying to get across to your students.”

Wheeler said that although this is only his second year teaching at VCU, he enjoys it a lot, even though it’s often a challenge to guide his students while ensuring they maintain their own musical style.

“Jazz has a lot of liberties, there’s a lot of improvisation — improvisation is the base of it all, so teaching someone how to improv or freestyle is the biggest challenge,” Wheeler said.

He said that although his schedule is very busy and he’s constantly working, whether he’s playing music, giving lectures or teaching students, he enjoys it and would never give it up. 

“I always say if you love something and you’re passionate about it and you work at it, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have success,” Wheeler said.

Adam Jones, a sophomore music student, said he’s excited to have Wheeler as a professor this semester. He said although he hasn’t had him as a professor for very long, he already feels like he’s learned a lot.

“He’s had a huge impact on my musicianship and my playing,” Jones said. “What I’ve learned from him so far is the importance of strong, healthy technique.”

He said Wheeler has given him a lot more confidence as a bass player through encouragement and guidance, especially because he hasn’t been playing for that long.

Jones said he looks up to Wheeler as a role model and as a musician he hopes to be like one day.

“Having someone of that kind of status as my private teacher has set up a good example for the future, and it really shows me where I want to be,” Jones said.

Jones said that it’s been very beneficial to have Wheeler as a private teacher because of his wise knowledge and positive energy. He also said it’s been good to have a Black male mentor to guide him as he develops as a bassist.

“I would like to keep that connection just because growing up, I didn’t always have the Black, male mentors very often. I mean, I had them but there weren’t many of them,” Jones said. “And, so it’s really nice to have that now in my life.”

Antonio García, the director of jazz studies at VCU, said he knew of Wheeler’s work before he started working at VCU. He said that he’s seen how well Wheeler works with his students. 

“His students find that he is a great communicator and very constructive to them,” García said.

García said that he would describe Wheeler as humble, yet a very accomplished musician.

“He performs at a very high level, so we’re thrilled and honored to have him here,” García said.

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