Throwing yourself into the ocean – and flying

DicksonA jazz vocalist spent her summer taking lessons and shadowing her vocal hero. She learned the value of mentorship, the importance of taking risks and the imperative of trusting yourself. 

By Guest Blogger Claire Dickson '19

Claire Dickson ’19, a resident of Lowell House concentrating in Psychology with a secondary in Music, was awarded an Office for the Arts Artist Development Fellowship to study vocal performance under Grammy Award-nominated vocalist and composer Theo Bleckmann in New York City. Dickson is a jazz vocalist and composer who has performed regularly on campus including performances with the Harvard Jazz Band, studied abroad at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam, and taken performance-oriented courses with Vijay Iyer, Yosvany Terry and Esperanza Spalding.

When I sing, when I am performing music I love and I am present with it. I adopt the mindset that nothing matters besides singing. Of course, outside of the moment of music making, I think about the importance of music and how it can communicate, bring joy, broaden perspectives and more, but when I am singing it feels as if my life depends on it.

Claire Dickson and jazz bands
Claire Dickson '19 performed last fall with members of Harvard Jazz Bands. Photo: Jake Belcher/Office for the Arts at Harvard

This past summer I found a mentor who brought my understanding and experience of survival mode singing to another level. Through my Artist Development Fellowship, I took lessons, attended performances and shadowed rehearsals of one of my vocal heroes Theo Bleckmann.

The easier singing is, the more it feels like the only way you could ever possibly express yourself. That is why I am so glad to have spent so much time on vocal technique with Bleckmann. Improving my technique and vocal health this summer has made me understand how important ease and relaxation of the muscles required for singing is for accessing that life-or-death feeling.

After developing more comfort and confidence in my sound, I started wanting to open up more on stage. Bleckmann has a fantastic singing stance where he pushes his chest forward and his shoulders back slightly. His stage presence communicates both seriousness and investment in the music but also playfulness and his personality. I started approaching my physicality on stage as finding ways for me to access this combination. This was an important shift away the dos and don’ts and thoughts about what the audience will think that are so often brought up to singers, especially female singers, regarding stage presence.

Learning from mentors and peers this summer has been incredibly important, but at the same time developing independence and trust in myself as an artist has allowed me to take the inspiration and information that resonates with and challenges me and put aside (at least temporarily) what does not fit.

Finally, thinking of myself as a developing artist is powerful, especially when I realize that all artists are always developing. There is no end goal or final stage of development. Whenever you are doing your art, no matter how much you feel you still need to study and search, you are throwing yourself off a cliff, to the wolves, into the ocean - and flying.