Chris Dickson: President of Absolute A Cappella

A leg casually folded across his lap, right ankle over left knee, he laughs, “Our concert is November 17th.”

Chris Dickson, a senior from West Hartford, Connecticut, studying Atmospheric Science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, is always focused on the improvement of Absolute A Cappella, the group he is now leading as president for the second consecutive semester. The above statement constituted his reply when asked if there was any significant information he wanted to share about the a cappella group he’s been a member of since his first semester at Cornell, back in 2014.

“It’s an important thing to have – a presence on campus,” he states, gesturing animatedly with his hands to further convey his point. Establishing the a cappella group’s on-campus presence is not something Dickson is unfamiliar with, however. He had his work cut out for him when he ran for the group’s Public Relations Chair position, which he also held for several semesters.

Despite his current senior position in the group, however, executive roles in Absolute weren’t always so central to Chris’s life. He auditioned for a cappella “because I wanted to keep singing and being involved in music. I thought it would be the easiest way to do that,” he claims. He’d “also heard a lot about the social scene surrounding it – that it was a very active community at Cornell,” which further motivated his choice to audition. As a lifelong musician who played cello and string bass for several years, became a skilled vocalist in high school and endeavored to teach himself some piano, guitar, mandolin, trumpet, and drums on the side, it was clear Dickson’s contributions to Cornell’s musical community would be accepted with equal eagerness.

His motive for choosing Absolute A Cappella in particular was due to a natural relation; the ease with which he connected to the group’s members mimicked the ease with which he felt a cappella would allow him to remain involved in music. He reminisces: “I saw [members of Absolute] chalking and writing ‘a cappella’ down, so I started talking to them. They...were really friendly and were the only people who’d talked to me... I had a connection to people from that group immediately. They were a very approachable group, and not many of the other [groups] seemed to be [as approachable].”

And while the approachability of Absolute has remained about the same for the last three years, the “laid-back” attitude of the a cappella group, as Dickson describes it, was something he said he worked hard to change. “When I joined, people didn’t take it very seriously,” he recalls. “The mentality was, ‘We’re here have fun,’ and it didn’t really matter how we sounded. We wanted to change that,” he states definitively, referring to himself and the group’s musical director (M.D.), Jae Hun Shin.

Chris’ ambition to change the group’s prior outlook has been central to his experience in the organization. However, he wasn’t always so sure of his ability to perform as a leader. He recalls a time, at the end of his sophomore year and tenure as Public Relations Chair, when his membership in the group was not guaranteed. “It’s not that I wasn’t fully having a good time,” he reflects, “but I was sort of getting bored. We’d gone through a rough patch – musically, we were doing fine, but we’d gone through a rough patch as a group – and I was considering quitting the group.”

Examining his circumstances and identifying his inner potential as a leader, however, Dickson challenged his own idea by entertaining an alternative: “I realized I could get that change [I was looking for] by either leaving the group or basically taking more responsibility,” he remembers, pausing to collect his thoughts.

It was at this time that Chris decided to make a positive change and accept the position of Business Manager. He would go on to see this change reflect a similarly positive one in himself. Dickson reflects on his own hesitation in becoming a leader of Absolute. While he’d collected valuable information from his friends and peers in the group who had held executive positions and mentored him, “it was a lot of trial and error,” coming into his own as a leader, he articulates.

“How do I put this?” he wonders. “Previously in the group, we’d had some issues with, um, being a little too authoritative.” Dickson, as President, and Shin, as M.D., worked together to redesign the organizational structure of the group with regard to membership and dedication.

“Our first semester running the group together, it was a lot of figuring out how to strike [a] balance” between creating an environment that facilitates easy-going energy and enjoyment with one that prioritizes commitment, hard work and musical accomplishments. To Dickson and Shin, these were top priorities, and their devotion to striking that perfect harmony led them to feel “a lot more confident about what we want – in terms of producing a concert and a sound that we’re proud of” this semester – their second in counterpart leadership.

Yet, perhaps the most influential and inspirational part of Dickson’s involvement in Absolute A Cappella is not only how he has come to create such a dramatic improvement in the group’s social chemistry and professional sound quality, but how it has shaped him as an individual, as well. “I’ve brought up Absolute in almost every job interview I’ve had,” he offers, mentioning it seems unrelated to his future career ambitions in Atmospheric Science. “When I was debating [running for Business Manager], I knew I didn’t have that experience, and it was something I needed,” he considers. “I’m not necessarily a super assertive or commanding person… and I guess at first I was trying to make myself more of that.”

Dressed in a distressed blue button-down shirt, salmon shorts, and black Vans, Chris sits back in his chair as he speaks, demonstrating firsthand his approachable, laid-back personality. “You have to see yourself as a leader,” he thinks aloud, “and then people will start to, too.” He further articulates the necessity of this attitude: “You have to do that because people are used to seeing you as a peer.”

While Chris’ friendly personality and not-too-assertive tendencies have earned his friendship and respect from the group’s members, it was his personal choice to challenge himself in a leadership role that allowed him to grow most drastically, with the help and support of Absolute’s members throughout the process.

“I’d say it’s the consistency of it,” he states definitively, after having taken several minutes to contemplate his thoughts, identifying the aforementioned consistency as his favorite aspect of being in the a cappella group. For Dickson, this consistency exists in several dimensions: the uniformity of scheduled rehearsals each week, the regularity of routinely spending time with a supportive collective of peers and the permanence of an organization that unites through a love for music.

“During [your] time at Cornell,” he relates, “your living situation can be hectic, your personal friendships and relationships can be volatile, grades can be all over the place…,” he drifts off, releasing the thought. “...but just having this group of people to return to and having this group of friends where we sing together and have fun…,” he marvels, seeming suddenly far away. “’s just something to latch onto, I guess.”

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