The Legacy of David Dickau: A Look Into His Career

“Students need to know that you love them, and that you’re there for them and care about them…that you don’t just care for them because of their voice. You need to care for them as a person first.”

These words have been lived by Dr. David Dickau throughout his long and successful career as a composer and conductor. His list of accomplishments includes 26 years of teaching at MNSU, Mankato, 13 years as music director of Magnum Chorum, president and chair of ACDA, numerous appearances at festivals, countless compositions and awards, and much more. The most notable aspect of this man’s career is the impact he has had in the lives of others. The following is an excerpt from a conversation I had with Dr. Dickau reflecting on his career.

Dr. David Dickau

Beulke: How did you get in to choral music?

Dickau: My first encounter with choral music was in my sophomore year of high school in Bakersfield, California. At the time, I was planning on going into computer programming, was an athlete, and played piano. My future choir director found out that I played and hunted me down. Before I knew it, I was playing for one ensemble and singing for another! I watched this director through that time and he became a model for me because he was a source of healing for students and used music as a vehicle for connecting with people. After a year, I thought, “What a great way to invest your life.” As it turned out, the director had a daughter, a soprano, whose name was Anne. We started dating and years later, she and I got married, making my director, Robert Petker, my father-in-law. It was because of him that I’m in choral music. He had such a profound impact on my life.

Beulke: What happened next?

Dickau: I went to a community college for two years as a music major and eventually went to USC to finish up my undergraduate. When I first went to USC, I went as a composition major, and I quickly discovered, within weeks, that sitting there with a piece of manuscript paper, pencil, and four walls, was not for me. I realized I needed that daily interaction of making music with people.

I had the opportunity to study under Charles Hirt, choral director at USC, in his last choral musicianship class; what an honor that was. One of the last things he said to us was, “Remember that choral music is the only kind of music where the instrument is inside the person. Love the people first.”

I eventually went on to do my masters at the Northwestern University, taught in Bakersfield, California for two years, then started my doctorate at University of Southern California. That’s where I worked with Rod Eichenberger and Morten Lauridsen.

Rod really changed my life. Many people around the country talk about what Rod did for them…With him, gesture is more important than anything else. He believed deeply that gestures are universal and you can use them to communicate so much without saying a word.

I graduated with my doctorate in 1986, and then went to a Presbyterian church in Berkeley

California, right on the USC campus. After working there for a few years, I took a job at Minnesota State University, Mankato where I’ve been since 1991.

Dr. David Dickau conducting the MN State University Mankato Concert Choir in 2012.

Beulke: What drew you to teaching?

Dickau: I realized I loved the daily connection of making music and connecting with students. I loved the collegiate environment and age group, the type of people that were intellectually curious and hungry for learning. They were looking for meaning and something new in their lives. To catch someone at that time in their lives was exciting and very fun for me. I realized that I had as deep of a passion for that as anything else.

Beulke: How did you get into composing?

Dickau: So I never considered myself a serious composer in the early days. I would write here and there, and little by little my pieces started being sung. What really changed my composing life was “If Music Be the Food Of Love.” This was commissioned for the 1996 Minnesota All-State SATB Choir, and was the piece that made my compositional career take off.

Through all of this, what I’ve found most exciting and important are the relationships that I’ve developed with the people commissioning, performing, and listening to these pieces.

If Music Be The Food Of Love

Beulke: Why is choral music important right now?

Dickau: For one, our society is getting harsher and more inward. It’s this side against that side. Choral singing is such a communal activity, it’s something we all do together. The texts make such a huge difference; I’ve been consciously setting texts in the past several years that emphasize good human values: reaching out beyond yourself and thinking of other people. It gives us a chance to all focus on things that are uplifting, healthy, and good for our society. Just the experience of singing is important, I think, because that instrument is within ourselves and we have to give of ourselves when we perform.

Beulke: It’s the most personal instrument.

Dickau: Absolutely. I think the most satisfying aspect of my career is getting to share that experience for all these years with all of my students. When we see junior high boys singing about profound emotional experiences, and singing with understanding and perhaps experiencing and giving expression to some of those things for the first time – that’s valuable. So I think choral singing gives our society so much of what it needs desperately right now.

Again, the text is so important. As a composer, my goal is to serve the text by bringing music to it. If we sing important texts that challenge us and cause us to want to build community, that’s a great thing. I think choral music can do that in a powerful way because of the text.

Beulke: How do directors help bring community to our groups and emotion to our performances?

Dickau: To start, we as teachers need to be willing to be transparent. There has to be this humanity and understanding of the depth of what you’re doing and what you’re singing about. A lot of it comes from a director that is not afraid to be vulnerable.

F. Melius Christiansen was famous for saying, “Sing with your head and your heart.” It takes both equally. If there’s too much emotion there, they won’t sing technically well enough to convey that to the audience.

Also, as a director, I think we need to invest in the people in the room, and facilitate the music experience for everyone there… it’s not about you as a director. Students need to know that you love them, and that you’re there for them and care about them. And that you don’t just care for them because of their voice, but you look in to their eyes when they’re singing and are really connecting. You need to care for them as a person first.

Beulke: What is in the future of choral music?

Dickau: I think social justice is becoming an important issue in choral music. For instance, taking traditional barriers and working to break them down. I’ve seen a lot of real interest in choral music moving in the direction to be aware of social justice.

Beulke: What is an accomplishment that you’re the most proud of?

Dickau: Personally, I’m proud of my wife and kids, that they have done well and are living fulfilling lives. And honestly, that’s more important to me than anything else. In teaching, I’m the proudest that we created a culture in our classroom where people came and felt safe, we invested deeply in each other, in the texts we sang, and in the music.

Beulke: Who do you look up to?

Dickau: Anyone who’s humble and authentic. If those two things are present, then you have my deepest respect. I’ve had the joy of having so many of these people in my life.

Beulke: Who inspires you?

Dickau: At this point, it’s my students, the people I’ve worked with, and the way we respond to one another…that completely inspires me every day. In composition, it’s hearing from a singer or group who sang a piece of mine and tells me how much it means to them. Again, it’s that interpersonal connection; it keeps me going.

Beulke: Looking back on your career, what thoughts do you have?

Dickau: Gratitude for one. Gratitude for the relationships I’ve had with colleagues and singers through the years…we’ve shared an important aspect of life together that went deeper than expected, through the music and times we’ve shared together. Music has been a vehicle for that connection to happen.

I also hope that I’ve been a positive influence in the lives of others… that would mean a lot to me. Overall, I feel so grateful for the opportunities that I’ve had.