SCHENECTADY – Music has taken Schenectady native Hannah Dick around the world and back again.
After more than a year abroad, the 23-year-old Fulbright Scholar has recently stepped into the role of music teacher at Brown School, just a few miles from where she grew up. She replaces Jonina Wilkins, who stepped down at the end of last school year to move to Iceland.
Dick, who was homeschooled, began playing percussion at a young age and joined the Empire State Youth Orchestra in high school, which oddly enough is how she first became connected with the Brown School.
“The Empire State Youth Orchestra began rehearsing at Brown School my junior year of high school,” Dick said.
After playing with the orchestra in high school, and performing in the orchestra’s concerto competition in her senior year, she headed to the Eastman School of Music and the University of Rochester. There she tackled two majors, studying both music performance and brain and cognitive science.
“I knew I wanted to use music to help people in some way. So I was exploring music therapy and psychology and cognitive science,” Dick said, “I’ve moved more into music for community change as my focus in that area going forward.”
Soon after graduating with her bachelor’s degree in 2019, she embarked for Sweden on a Fulbright Student Program scholarship. She spent a year in Örebro, a city about two hours west of Stockholm, studying improvisation, composition and pedagogy.
“[I] had a chance to follow my teacher to Poland and watch him do some seminars at a three-day percussion seminar,” Dick said. “I did a Fulbright conference in Belgium and Luxembourg. I went to Switzerland and watched a percussion competition that a friend was competing in. I got to do all sorts of things. It was a fantastic year.”
In the middle of it, just a few months before the pandemic hit, she was also able to go to Chile with the Global Leaders Program. The executive certificate program works with musicians from all over the world and helps them use music to create change in communities.
“All of us are professional musicians. We’ve been taught how to perform, but we haven’t necessarily been taught how to take an idea and craft it into a business program and an organization and run that organization and interact with people from different contexts,” Dick said.
She, along with a group of about 45 other musicians, spent several months training before spending a month working with communities in Chile at the start of 2020.
“We were trained by a professor from Harvard in a technique for increasing literacy through the arts and we were also working with local organizations in this small town in southern Chile,” Dick said. “We looked at their current programs and their models of sustainability and spent a week brainstorming and analyzing with them what they were doing to present them with an idea of how they could improve and grow and be more sustainable in the future. That was very valuable.”
Not too long after returning to Sweden though, the pandemic hit.
“Sweden had quite a different approach to the pandemic so you weren’t supposed to travel more than two hours away from your home for quite a while over the summer,” Dick said. “I was just hanging out in my hometown, practicing and seeing two friends. But I was very happy to be there.”
After staying a bit longer than planned partly because of the pandemic, she was able to catch a flight back home in mid-August, just in time to quarantine before the start of the school year at Brown.
Dick had originally applied to teach at the school’s summer camp, where she’d worked in high school. However, Patti Vitale, the head of Brown School, felt that there was a more permanent position in store for Dick.
“What I had wanted was a teaching position where I could build my skills and try out ideas and be free to find my way as a teacher,” Dick said. “Here it was being dropped in my lap, in my hometown . . . a full-time job, which for a musician during COVID is an incredible thing.”
“Hannah is not only an accomplished musician, but she is an accomplished person who has so much to offer our school,” Vitale said. “She is also dedicated to improving the community and that’s incredibly important to us.”
Dick teaches every grade in the school, from pre-kindergarten through 11th grade. She’s stepped into the role as some students are distance learning because of the pandemic. The regular band program has been on pause and they can’t hold concerts as they normally would either. Yet, Dick is finding plenty of other ways to teach.
“We have a lot of small percussion instruments that we’re playing, so I find even though we can’t have a band, that there’s still a lot of options and they really fit my strengths better,” Dick said.
She’s also finding ways to share the beauty of music.
As students arrived each morning, having their temperatures checked and hands sanitized, Dick played music for them. She took a mini xylophone and simply improvised, finding that it really brightened the day.
“People are saying ‘Wow, it’s so relaxing.’ It just changed the mood,” Dick said.
From her perspective, moments like that are especially important today.
“Beauty isn’t essential, you don’t need it the way you need food but your spirit needs it,” Dick said. “It lifts you up to see something beautiful or to hear something beautiful. So I think now is the time where beauty is really important. Whether it’s COVID or politics or whatever else people are dealing with in life, it’s been just a tough time. Music is an expression that reminds us that there’s still good, there’s still beauty and hope.”