Sheila Dickson, French Horn


Being part of New Horizons Band is like dwelling in the Peaceable Kingdom


Born 1943

Age: 80

Interviewed by Jean M Davis

“I’m from Minnesota. I grew up outside of Minneapolis in an actual village of 1800 people on a large lake.  I’m the eldest of six girls. New acquaintances had two standard responses to that information: “Your poor father!” and “Your parents just kept trying for a boy, didn’t they!”

If it was said to my father, he would smile politely, and say that he preferred daughters.  If it was a comment to one of us kids, we looked respectfully at the adult and said nothing.

There was always music in the house: my parents sang, my father played trombone, there was a piano and records. We girls had piano lessons and in school played horn, trumpet and trombone in the bands. At home the rule was to leave the instrument out by the stand and chair; when you walked by you were to pick it up and DO something however brief; no putting it in a closet and telling yourself “Tomorrow, three hours, long tones and trills.”

A neighborhood Dixieland group rotated practices among the members’ homes.  That’s where I got to see how musicians could work together, negotiating phrasing and emphasis, listening to one another.  It disabused me completely of the popular fallacy of the musical genius flailing about on stage, striving to express his tortured soul while the rest of the musicians- apparently just insensitive hacks- sat quietly behind their stands and made music.

Piano lessons began at age seven.  I learned to read music and there are probably some pieces in the John Thompson books that I can still play. But the piano and I are not soulmates: to my mind it’s too percussive and too big an instrument.  When I was 10 the junior high band teacher visited my 5th grade class and announced that 5th graders could join the band.  Was anyone interested?  Raising my hand apparently was a signal to space aliens to take over my mouth because there could be no other reason for my saying I’d like to play the violin.  “Well,” said Mr. Gravelli patiently, “It’s a band; we don’t have violins.  We DO need French horns.”

It was a lovely golden single Conn student F horn.  In my school district, $5 would rent an instrument for the school year.  The only thing I had to come up with was a white blouse and a dark skirt for the concerts. The last piece I played in band, seven years later, was Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstances” for my high school graduating class.

Between age 13 and 15 I was part of the Horn section of the Minneapolis Grenadiers, a youth marching band sponsored by a Veterans of Foreign Wars post.  We competed in parades against other marching bands in Minnesota, North and South Dakota, even going so far south and east into Iowa and Illinois. Sixty-five years later I still admire (1) the jazzy marching and musicianship displayed by the Ames Iowa VFW band; (2) the flat-out heroism of the percussionists who despite wrapping their fingers with layers of white adhesive tape finished every parade with bleeding hands, and (3) enjoying the trombone section jamming on “Night Train” during practice breaks. It was the fun of watching people work together.

I was pre-med, not a music major and even though my parents bought a single F horn for me as a graduation gift, I did not play in college due to my and later my husband’s work. I attended college in Minnesota, Arizona, Connecticut and New York state.  Commuting and working full-time, then having a family, meant I put the horn away in a closet. When I next took it out in 1972, it was to play with a chamber group at a Japanese university in Tokyo where I was taking grad school psychology courses.  I imagine that you’ve all seen the photographs of white-gloved uniformed workers respectfully packing people onto trains in Japan.  That is real, and one sticky summer day we were packed so closely I could not extricate my horn at my stop.  I had to let it go on without me and hope that the then-vaunted Japanese ethic of honesty would prevail.  It took a photograph of myself, horn visible, performing with the chamber group to satisfy Japan Railways that it was my baby.

In Phoenix I finished my doctorate and was licensed as a psychologist.  I raised my family of two daughters and a son.  Because I am interested in how people live deliberately, I built a private practice specializing in LBGTQ+ concerns.  I taught in Arizona State University and in various Maricopa Community Colleges, wherever I was needed to fill a slot. I taught psychology, counseling and communication courses and advised students considering grad school in those disciplines. I was Adjunct Faculty, a category developed in the 80s as a way for institutions to provide qualified teachers at reduced expense to the school, meaning low salary with no guarantee of continued employment or benefits.  As an adjunct I was free to come and go, say yes or no to a course and never have to attend a meeting.  It was what I wanted and needed.

I now had some room available for music.  I bought myself a Conn 8 D and thanks to the Maricopa County Community College District programs, played in college orchestras.  I enjoyed playing Tenor horn, too, for the Salt River Brass Band, an authentic British brass band birthed by a hard-working Baritone player.  My take-away from there was that any piece with ‘fantasia’ in the title was going to be a mess.

The throw-away line when describing the weather in Phoenix was always “but it’s a dry heat”.  It was still a dry heat when I returned to Phoenix in 1977 but by 2006 due to climate change and newcomers adding lawns and swimming pools to the desert, it was very hot and humid.  Minnesota mosquitoes were spending winters there, for cry eye!

By then I was a widow and as a psychologist I can work anywhere I can pass the local licensing exams.  I was sharing a home with my older daughter, Carey Sweet, a food-wine-restaurant and travel writer who can also work anywhere there is Wi-Fi and an airport.  My younger daughter, Elisabeth, was a student at Pitzer College in Pomona, CA.  I drew a circle an hour’s drive from Berkeley where my son lived with his family, went house hunting and have been content in Santa Rosa.

Carey volunteers for animal rescue organizations and has horses, goats and occasionally pigs retired on the five acres she and I share. There are four permanent dogs in the house and often puppies and foster adults.  I have learned that the only way I can turn my back on something edible in the house is to put it on top of the refrigerator.

I went to work as a volunteer for the first time at age 15, bringing water, mail and books to bedbound patients as a Candy Striper in a local hospital.  Because I enjoy being exposed to a variety of settings, tasks and learning opportunities without having to sign-up for 40 hours a week I’ve chosen to volunteer in every community where I’ve made a home.   I’ve volunteered for Planned Parenthood as a HIV testing counselor, Middle School Sex Ed Educator and Patient Support Trainer, Reading for the Blind, tutored students studying to become CNAs, supported patients and staff in an early HIV agency/Aids Hospice, been a Peer Tutor for college biology courses and created and facilitated substance abuse groups based on cognitive behavioral best practices.  I currently volunteer for the American Red Cross as a disaster mental health provider, and as a tutor in the Sonoma County Library Adult Literacy Program.

My other daughter, Elisabeth, and her wife have doctorates in Physical Therapy.  They work in Santa Rosa, Elisabeth as a specialist in wound care and her wife as a specialist in Adaptive Exercise.  They have two daughters and we all have a lot of fun together.  The granddaughters enjoy blowing into my horn to emulate the menacing theme that heralds the wolf in “Peter and the Wolf”.

My son died from an aggressive cancer a few years ago.  He was a Real Estate Broker specializing in short sales, which meant he worked with people whose homes were underwater, as the saying went, mostly due to having been sold sub-prime mortgages before the housing bubble burst.  He helped them avoid bankruptcy, save their credit and move on with their lives.

I am proud for my children.  They are kind and thoughtful and make the world a better place.

Shortly before relocating to Santa Rosa, I was selected to participate in a potential Discovery Channel documentary about lay women experiencing religious life in a Benedictine monastery in Dubuque, Iowa.  I applied for the opportunity because as a psychologist, I have academic knowledge and personal experience about ways that people try to influence others.  I am an atheist and was curious to see how I might respond to total immersion for six weeks in a setting designed specifically to bring about and facilitate religious experience.  The four other lay women were a mix, one a lifelong Catholic who taught high school Spanish, a recent college grad working for Google who was applying to medical school, a jewelry designer and manufacturer who split her time between NYC and Cape Town, South Africa and a Baptist single mother of two who had put herself through school to an MBA.  We were all white, save for the Baptist.  The nuns were white, too, save for an East Indian sister.

The religious portraiture on the monastery walls showed the usual blue-eyed whites with blond or light brown hair. One day the Mother Superior met with us guests and showed us a drawing of “Jesus with his family”.  She asked if we noticed anything about it.  They were depicted as small, simply dressed individuals with dark olive skin and black hair, typical Palestinians.   “Number one,” I said, “they are the right color.” She nodded.  The black woman overturned her chair to get a look.

For six weeks during an Iowa winter I rose at 3:30 every morning for the first of five daily worship services.  I came to see that although some of the women who chose to enter the minimum 7-year monastery training program believed that was where they belonged, others wanted to become people who belonged in that setting.  It was another example to me of people choosing to live deliberate lives.

When I relocated to Santa Rosa I knew I did not want to have another private practice.  Then, after returning from the monastery and a few months of unpacking I noticed an announcement in the local newspaper.  The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) was having a job fair at San Quentin State Prison.  Visiting my son in Berkeley had me driving past the prison.  I thought “I know where that is and how to get there.”

It occurred to me that there were similarities between life in a monastery and in a prison:  you have few personal possessions, there are inflexible routines and you must stay where you are placed.  In the monastery it’s called taking a vow of stability; in prison it’s called having a sentence.  In both cases people not in those settings regard you as peculiar and a different breed from them.

One of the CDCR psychologists at the Job Fair commented that the recidivism numbers were dropping, due, he hoped, to rehabilitation programs newly available to inmates.  I told him that I wanted to be a part of that and was subsequently hired.  I worked first with men who had just been sentenced to prison in court, put on a bus and driven to San Quentin.  There was a lot of shock, disbelief and shame as well as fear for their safety and the survival of their families.  I was next assigned to provide individual and group therapy in the Adjustment Center.  Men who had gotten into trouble with the rules or who for safety concerns needed to be kept away from other inmates were housed in the AC in solitary confinement.  Then I was asked to work on Death Row.  Because Gov. Newsom had placed a moratorium on executions a year before I went to work there, none of my patients were killed.  Several, however, were exonerated and released, blinking and fearful, into a world they only knew from television.  My basic experience as an adult and my personal experience in San Quentin State Prison has led me to believe there is no real justice.  An attorney explained it to me: “By definition, what you get, is justice.”

Soon after moving to Santa Rosa, I stopped in at Stanroy’s music store.  Tim, who is now part-owner, told me about the Rohnert Park, Sebastopol and Healdsburg community bands.  I began playing with the former two and wanted to check out the Healdsburg band.  Following a two-hour commute from San Quentin I was at the intersection of Mendocino and Pacific across from Santa Rosa Junior College.  I was realizing that it was just too much travel to get to Healdsburg when I saw a man crossing the street carrying a French horn case.  I recalled all the community college orchestras I had played in and thought “Of course!”

It was later during a joint concert with the SRJC band and New Horizons that I learned about the New Horizons Band of Sonoma County.  I talked with Jean Davis, a New Horizons horn player, who told me how fulfilling it was to play with the band.  I was still working full time, but with a schedule that let me attend Thursday practices.  I was contemplating retirement.  I knew I wanted to play and now I knew about New Horizons.  I came in on a Thursday and was greeted by Lew Sbrana, New Horizons founder and former conductor.  I asked “Do you need a horn?”

The challenge to make good music and the camaraderie are what I enjoy most about New Horizons Band. I like being part of a section and supporting other players; that is very much to the forefront of New Horizons.

Being part of New Horizons Band is like dwelling in the Peaceable Kingdom as portrayed in the paintings.   I value the diversity and acceptance.  There is a place for everybody.