Chicago Musical Pathways Initiative mentor Kyle Dickson’s musical interests began in grade school, in Detroit’s public school system. He remembers going on field trips to watch orchestra concerts conducted by then-DSO Resident Conductor Thomas Wilkins, a black man, which left a deep impression about Dickson’s own classical music ambitions. His formal music education commenced in high school, taking lessons at the Sphinx Institute in Downtown Detroit—initially studying piano but quickly gravitating towards the violin. After high school, he studied violin performance at Michigan State University and DePaul University.
At first hesitant to take on conducting, it quickly became an integral part of Dickson’s musical life. “I was so resistant to becoming a conductor because my goal always was to be part of the team,” he said. In his first experience conducting, Dickson put together a student ensemble for an event, intending to participate as a violinist but conducting out of necessity. “We were not together at the rehearsals, so I stood up and conducted. We got a standing ovation at the performance, and that is when the idea of also pursuing conducting was born.”
Currently, Dickson studies at Northwestern University, where he serves as a graduate assistant in the conducting program. When making the transition to conducting, he did not intend to give up the violin, at the time imagining his musical life would be an equal balance of both.
“The farther along I went on the path, balancing both fields became impractical. Now it is maybe 80/20 because of the responsibilities of conducting.” He is a conducting fellow for Chicago Sinfonietta, helps conduct two collegiate orchestras at Northwestern, serves as music director for the South Loop Symphony Orchestra, and is a violinist in D-Composed, a Chicago-based chamber music ensemble honoring Black creativity and culture.
Last year, Mr. Dickson joined the CMPI family as a mentor for fellows in the program. “I always respected my teachers and mentors growing up and am happy to serve that role because I had such great mentors and can pass on what I know and feel. I also know what it feels like not to have a mentor, a guiding light.”
Another area of interest to him is arranging. Recently, Dickson composed a beautiful arrangement for Lift Every Voice and Sing – the famous black empowerment song initially written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson and then set to music by his brother, John Rosamond Johnson.
Kyle Dickson’s arrangement of Lift Every Voice and Sing (Johnson), performed by CSO Principal Second Violin Baird Dodge. Todd Rosenberg Photography, 2020.
Dickson will advise our fellows on score study at CMPI’s next family meeting. “I was floored by how much basic information I had not considered as a violinist before I had transitioned to conducting. Many aspects of score study are beneficial to all music, and showing young musicians how to create links between those skills can help in their development.”
Despite this year’s challenges during the pandemic, Dickson has found new ways to reach audiences and remains optimistic about the future. “I genuinely believe there is a silver lining in every situation. As musicians, this pandemic has taken a lot from us. The core of what we do is connecting to other people. Despite that, we benefit from having the time to take our time. Before, everything was, go, go, go! – with no time to reflect. I’ve enjoyed learning new ways to connect through art in this time.”