For Black History Month this February, we’re highlighting some of our favorite local Black musicians and creatives. Kyle Dickson is a long-time friend of CYSO, where he’s worked as a sectional coach and guest conductor with many of our ensembles over the years. Kyle recently relocated to Los Angeles where he served as a Salonen Conducting Fellow with the San Francisco Symphony under the guidance of Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen through Colburn School’s Negaunee Conducting Program.
Social Media Team member and Concert Orchestra cellist Abigail AuYeung sat down with Kyle Dickson to discuss how he found his way to music as a young child, when he felt the pull toward conducting, and what it’s like being a Black conductor in the still very white world of classical music. Read Abigail’s interview with Kyle below.
How did you get into music?
When I was in second grade, I was selected to be in the violin class. My elementary school had a general music class, but they wanted to start a string program, so they hand picked the kids they thought would do the best. I thought that I’d do great in it, but got kicked out on the second day for accidentally breaking a string.
I didn’t actually find my way back into music until I was in 8th grade when the Winans Academy of Performing Arts, a high school in Detroit, did a recruiting trip to my middle school. They played for us and I bowled over. After that, I begged my parents to enroll me the next year at Winans Academy so that I could learn violin. It just looked so fun with everyone playing together. Learning the violin was tricky, so I ended up swerving towards piano instead, but it was frustrating because I couldn’t play with my friends. The pianists always did their recitals alone, while my friends would be doing their quartets or playing in an orchestra. I was always a team player so that’s what pushed me to pick up the violin again. It’s been bliss ever since.
Did you ever play in a youth orchestra?
I did! When I was in high school, I played in the Detroit Civic Youth Ensembles, a program similar to CYSO. I also played in the Metropolitan Youth Symphony, which was in a suburban area of Detroit. It also consisted of teenagers and serious pre-college students.
How have you worked with CYSO in the past?
I love CYSO! They’re like family to me. I’ve worked with them since I moved to Chicago, about 7 years ago. To see the students in the program grow and mature is so magical. The staff is just phenomenal, every single person there really cares about every single one of the students. Everyone’s heart is in the right place. That’s why I always enjoy working with them especially when they would call to do a sectional or to fill in for someone. I’m always like, “sign me up!” because the energy is always there. It’s always very positive and reassuring.
Why did you choose to switch your focus from violin playing to conducting?
I always was curious about what my musical path was going to be like. I wasn’t always too sure if I was going to be a violinist, a pianist, a cellist, or a violist, but I knew I was a musician. Early on, before I settled on violin, I was just trying my hand at everything.
Conducting was one of those things that I thought I would explore, but to be a good conductor, you have to be a good instrumentalist first. Somewhere along the line, when I started college for the first time, conducting just fell to the wayside because I was taking violin very, very seriously. There was, however, always that conducting bug. I’m a teacher, so there was always a bit of conducting involved whenever I was teaching orchestras.
When in my late 20s I was having neurological issues with my fingertips. It forced me to think long term: “if I can’t play violin anymore, how could I still do something that is meaningful to me and still feeds the artistic musical identity?” That was a spot that conducting fit into. I had played with so many different ensembles, accrued so much ensemble experience, and worked with so many wonderful conductors that I admired and learned from by just playing under them that I had a network that helped me to take conducting seriously when I made that decision.
Classical music has traditionally been a very white space. What has been your experience of being a Black musician in classical music?
It’s tough when I think about how many people who look like me are deterred from entering the field because they don’t see people that look like them. You could be exposed to classical music from a young age and all that, but if it’s something that you don’t feel like you could really belong to, it could really feel like a barrier.
My first experiences in music were in Detroit that belonged to my ethnic and socioeconomic community, with Winans Academy and the Sphinx School. I was exposed to the idea that music was as much part of my culture as anyone else’s. It was really important and impactful for me, but I realize that it isn’t the case for the blinding majority. That’s why I take what I do so seriously. I want to be as visible as possible so that I can inspire other Black and brown students to enter the field and so that they can see themselves reflected in what I do. It’s been a real inspiration for me to make sure I stay in the game, and include everyone. It’s largely my responsibility just because of who I am.
What are your thoughts on recent pushes for more diversity in the classical music world?
I think that they’re great. I think that the push for more diversity in classical music has been going on for a while. Lately, there seems to be more of a headway that’s been made due to the social unrest. It’s lit a fire under a lot of arts organizations, under a lot of musicians. [But] this isn’t just music, this is our whole society. You see this push for more inclusivity in music and any field.
I’m encouraged by the urgency that has taken over everyone in the past two years and I caution everyone to continue to analyze the ways in which we pursue inclusivity so that we’re actually representing the people we want to include in the most meaningful and respectful way possible. There are tons of ways to go about making sure that certain cultures and socioeconomic groups are represented in our field. Classical musicians need to remember that as great as classical music is, it’s not so much that under-represented communities will have their lives enriched by classical music; it’s the classical music world that will be made better by the inclusion of these cultures, not the other way around. We need to look at this relationship as mutually beneficial, not as just a one way street. It’s something we can all be made better as a result of.
What are you pursuing now in your music journey?
Right now, because I’m at the beginning stages of my conducting career. I’m pursuing a better way to communicate my music, learning my music, and making sense of the works that I’m trusted to present and really connecting with the musicians I’m leading. Conductors can easily get into this cycle of meeting an orchestra, conducting them, and then leaving without remembering anyone’s name or making meaningful musical experiences together. It’s tricky to make it happen every time, but it takes discipline and commitment to the work. It means bringing my A game to every single score I am learning, not cutting corners, and being the most genuine, honest musician I can be. Otherwise, I can’t sleep at night.
What advice would you give to a prospective conductor?
It takes a very special kind of person to be a conductor. That’s not to say that there aren’t tons of different personalities in the conducting field. There are people that are loud, boisterous, pompous, and super confident, and others that are super laid back. There’s a wealth of people that are successful interpreters of music and conductors.
First thing, be yourself. Don’t be what other people think you should be because they have an idea of what a conductor should be or who a conductor is. Also, learn as much as you can about the music. Get really good at your instrument, dig in, and be the best instrumentalist you can be. There’s no other way to learn expressivity as a conductor.
Learn about other instruments. If you’re a strings player, learn about winds and brass, and how they produce sound. If you’re a brass or wind player, learn everything you possibly can about strings and percussion; find some strings friends! I always tell people that I try to find a really close friend on every single instrument so that I always have someone to talk to and nerd out about things I don’t know about other instruments. I think that’s the first thing I would address, after that, everything falls into place. Listen to a lot of recordings. Become a sponge, take everything in, and enjoy the ride.
Anything for our instrumentalists?
As an orchestral musician, I feel like I lost so many years just sitting in the orchestra, just playing my part, and not listening to what’s going on around me. Realize what your role is, because you’re contributing to the whole orchestral fabric. Be honest with yourself about what you want and who you are because plenty of people will try to change you and tell you who they think you should be. If you love music, stick at it. There’s no reason that you won’t be successful. You’ll find your way!
ABOUT ABIGAIL AUYEUNG
Abigail AuYeung is a cellist in CYSO’s Concert Orchestra. This is her second season with CYSO. She’s currently a freshman at Hinsdale Central High School. In her free time, Abigail enjoys reading, baking, and playing the cello, of course!