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Some Palos Verdes locals may know Chuck Dickerson as a long-time music director at Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, but as I learned in our recent conversation, this multi-talented man is involved in many other projects.

 He didn’t start out to make a career in music.  Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania into a musical family–his father was a choir director, and his mother sang in the choir –it was inevitable that he should eventually continue the family tradition. With perfect or absolute pitch, he learned to play the piano at age three when his eldest brother was on his way to become a professional pianist. In addition to piano, he also plays all the brass instruments and sings.

Chuck grew up in Compton and Altadena and attended high school in Glendale before traveling to the East Coast to attend Howard University, majoring in psychology, then to American University to get a law degree.  After seven years in Washington, he came back to California to practice law. At the same time, he also conducted choirs and orchestras, including the professional South East Symphony. “That orchestra had a youth component and part of the youth component was a junior orchestra that almost fell apart,” Chuck explained. Then, in the summer of 2009 a couple of kids came to him and asked if he could work with them, which he did.  “One young fellow came and brought eight of his friends, all African-American musicians in South Central Los Angeles. At the end of the summer, the orchestra had expanded to twenty-four.  We put on a little recital that went very well, so we continued as an informal community orchestra.”

When the statue of Dr. Martin Luther King was unveiled in Washington DC in 2011, Chuck and his orchestra were invited to play.  “We had to quickly organize ourselves into a non-profit to raise money to go.  After we did that, we started to do regular seasons of concerts” Chuck said.

Today, the orchestra has about 125 members who put on six to eight concerts per season.  “The last is always a season finale at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, and we have played at Walt Disney Hall every year since 2012.”

“Music instills values that are helpful for a successful and prosperous life” Chuck maintains.  “It helps us to strive for excellence. Particularly in classical music, we have to learn the exact notes and the exact rhythm, and when we play in an ensemble, we are compelled to learn how to support others. At times, we have to learn to take the lead and at times to step back and be the accompaniment.  Everyone is depending on you to know your part because if one part breaks down, the whole ensemble breaks down. We also learn that it’s okay to do something over and over again in pursuit of excellence.”

These are reasons why he feels school districts that cut music, the arts and athletics shortcut the students. Because these programs are most often cut in the inner city, he fills that gap, at least a little.

In 2019, Chuck started a similar orchestra in Chicago: The South Side Chicago Youth Orchestra.  “I fly to Chicago every Friday for rehearsal,” he said.  Of course, when COVID hit everything stopped.  “But now, we’re rebuilding and have about 35 kids. If that grows and flourishes like the one in Los Angeles, I hope someone else can take over so that I have time to find another city with disadvantaged children. That’s what I’ve dedicated my life to at this point. I have a mantra: wherever there’s a national football league team, I’d like to create a youth orchestra.” However, at age seventy, he worries that he may not have time to do it all.

Because his life is now entirely devoted to music, he hasn’t practiced law for the past twenty years but he’s still able to make a good living.  “When we started the youth orchestra, which is free, we didn’t have any funds. Now, the budget is one million dollars a year, and I get paid.”  Conducting the choir at Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, where he has been the music director for the past seventeen years, is also a paid position as is conducting the choir at Leo Baeck Temple. In addition, he teaches conducting at California State University, Dominguez Hills and Sierra College in Riverside.

Because he didn’t have a degree in music himself, he finally decided to get a master’s degree in conducting at California State University, Los Angeles. “People would ask me, ‘where did you study,’ and I would have to tell them that I didn’t have a college degree in music.  I felt I had to be certified in some way,”

Chuck has two grown children and three grandchildren.  Now he’s looking forward to Rolling Hills United Methodist Church’s big Christmas concert.  “For that, we generally invite people from the community, from other churches and my students from CSUDH.”

Here’s another opportunity for the Palos Verdes community.

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