Be the Change: Dr. Richard Allen Fiske – Maestro of Music

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It’s Wednesday afternoon at Shasta College, and students are filing into the music building lugging their thick black instrument cases. The violins and cellos get tuned and horns warm up as Dr. Richard Allen Fiske – the affable conductor and music director of the Shasta Youth Symphony for more than 20 years – welcomes the young musicians to rehearsal.

Now in his 80s, Dr. Fiske has introduced classical symphonic repertoire to a generation of the North State’s young musicians who audition each summer for a seat in the youth orchestra. Some are fourth and fifth graders who look nervous, some are high schoolers with several years of experience, still others are college students who have gotten to know Dr. Fiske in his rigorous theory classes. Each week, they tackle new arrangements requiring them to sight read, keep tempo and deliver quality performances of some of the most famous symphonies and overtures.

art-1115-btc2It’s not easy – but students who accept the challenge say that, year after year, Dr. Fiske’s passion for music as well as his high expectations prove rewarding.

“He works really well with young students who are as passionate about music as he is, and he does everything he can to keep music alive,” says William Storz, a Shasta College music student now in his third year with the Youth Symphony. Storz says most classes include “life lessons” and reflections on Dr. Fiske’s many musical experiences. “Because of his experience, he has so much to offer us to bring musical history alive.”

  Dr. Fiske earned degrees in conducting and music education from prestigious conservatories like Oberlin Conservatory of Music, Manhattan School of Music, Julliard School, and Indiana University in addition to studying at L’Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris. And he has served as a conductor with notable symphonies around the world, including the Shasta Symphony Orchestra, which he led for more than 20 years.

“We’ve always felt so privileged that someone with such a prestigious background would care and spend time with the kids,” says Carrie Heneveld, past president of the Shasta Youth Symphony and mother of 11 children, including 8 who participated in the orchestra. One daughter, who served as first violinist and guest conductor with Dr. Fiske several years ago, is now finishing her degree in music education and is touring with a musical group. “Dr. Fiske is very encouraging and has a great sense of humor,” adds Carrie.

Reflecting on his love of music and ongoing commitment to the North State’s young musicians, here’s what Dr. Fiske had to say:

When did you discover your love of music?

We had a piano. I must have been 1 or 2 years old and I remember seeing my grandfather play it. I started learning piano when I was about 6 or 7. I had an aunt who had been ill and became deaf. She loved to sing hymns. I had the music and she would sing, but I had to figure out her pitch. I didn’t realize it but I was learning to transpose music. All I knew was that I loved my aunt so much, I wanted to please her. Then my uncle would say, “Come here, Professor.”  That’s what he would call me, even as a boy, and he’d give me a quarter as a reward.

What motivates you to work with young musicians?

My mission here is to work with the kids. I have to support what the kids are doing. They are the voice of the future. I love to see the students grow as musicians. Many of the students then come back as music majors or go off to other colleges to study music.

Do you have a favorite quote or life philosophy?

“Every child for music, and music for every child.” Karl Gehrkens came up with that slogan at Oberlin Conservatory. And I believe in that.

Who inspires you?

The next great performance I hear – wherever it comes from.

Do you have any words of wisdom to share with kids and young adults in our community – particularly young musicians?

You have to practice to get ahead. Don’t give up on that too early because that practice will stay with you the rest of your life.

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The mission of our Be the Change column is to feature community members from the North State who are actively making a difference in community life. If you would like to nominate someone who is making a difference, please write to pn@northstateparent.com.

Sonia Giordani-Johnston
About Sonia Giordani-Johnston

Sonia Giordani-Johnston is a freelance writer inspired by generous people who do small acts of kindness with great love. She lives in Redding with her husband, their four children, a dog and 12 chickens.

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