Professor Profile | For SIU’s Dick Kelley, music is about more than notes on page

Dick Kelley

Dick Kelley has been part of the SIU School of Music since 2008. The saxophonist currently serves as the school’s director.


Dick Kelley believes in the benefits of a musical education – beyond tunes, notes and instruments.

“Any skills you gain in music are applicable to everything else in life,” explained Kelley, an associate professor of saxophone and director of jazz studies who was recently named director of the Southern Illinois University Carbondale School of Music. “When you learn to play an instrument or learn to sing, it’s not just about the right notes or what fingers, it’s a large scale discipline that you are investing in. With music, you’re not just trying to figure out something, you’re trying to figure out yourself.”

Kelley said music is an avenue for self-discovery and a discipline with many individual disciplines within. That’s something he said he saw in many SIU music students.

“What we see a lot is students who come in and they are already focused,” he explained. “Maybe they have had a great experience in high school band or chorus, so that is what they want to do – to learn to be an educator and teach music. Or, a student might show up already fascinated with how artists get work and how they work with one another so maybe they want to go into the music industry. Other students might be interested in psychology and music so they work to get a degree that allows them to go into music therapy. I think that shows a kind of duality where there is a need for music education; a why for people to learn music,” he explained.

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A native of Decatur, Kelly said he tried a number of instruments as a student before finding his calling with the saxophone.

“I was interested in a variety of music,” he recalled. “I took a little piano, and dropped that; took electric guitar lessons and dropped that; I settled on drums, but wasn’t thrilled about the other things that went with being a percussionist – the marimba, the vibraphone and everything else. I just wanted to play the drum set, but the other stuff just wasn’t for me.”

The saxophone was a different story for Kelley and with it, he earned a bachelor’s degree in saxophone from Millikin University, a master’s from Indiana State University and a doctorate in jazz and improvised music studies from the University of Illinois.

“Performing was what I always wanted to do, so I spent time away from school playing with any group that would hire me and in many different places,” he shared. “I did the whole music dream thing where I moved to New York and trying to make it all work. When you realize that you are going to have to have a day job to make ends meet, especially as a jazz musician, it’s not as glamorous as it seems.”

Those experiences are ones he has shared with students since joining the SIU faculty in 2008, prompting them to attempt similar adventures.

“I think it is really important and I definitely encourage my students to spend some time when they graduate, if possible, to spend some time away from the safety net and see what happens when you take a chance,” he said. “Maybe it is going back to where they are from and try to make a music career or to go to the next largest city and give it a shot.”

He said those experiences teach valuable lessons that set students up for future success – in a way they may not expect.

“I think you realize pretty quickly that there are a whole lot of people who are just as good, if not better, than you at playing music and you learn really quickly some of the basic things: showing up on time, being prepared, knowing your music, being nice, responding to calls and emails and saying thank you – the things that actually get you more work,” he said.

Kelley said teaching these lessons was as important to him as teaching notes on a page.

“When you see the light go on with these things and they actually get it, it’s pretty rewarding,” he said.

We’ve had to say goodbye to some beloved musicians, athletes, actors and more. Here’s a look at the stars we’ve lost so far in 2023, through June.

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