New K-State orchestra director ready to pick up batons

Rachel Dirks, the new orchestra director, smiles as she conducts a rehearsal of Peter and the Wolf on September 25th. The orchestra is preparing for a family concert which will take place on October 23rd. (Sarah Millard| Collegian Media)

Tucked into the second floor of McCain Auditorium, there is an office with pastel-purple walls, dimly lit by lamps. It is cluttered with file cabinets filled to the brim with musical literature; a string bass rests upright on its stand.

The office belongs to Rachel Dirks, instructor for the school of music, theatre and dance and now, director of the orchestra.

A black-and-white photo hung on the wall across from the doorway calls direct attention to the man captured within it, presumably awaiting a cab alongside a Parisian street. It is raining and his cello stands beside him and with his only umbrella, he shelters the instrument, leaving himself victim to the onslaught of gloomy weather. The subject, Maurice Baquet, was photographed in 1957 by Robert Doisneau.

“Oh, the things we do for our instruments,” Dirks said.

Dirks, who grew up in Newton, Kansas, said she was encouraged at an early age to experiment with music and singing in church, which was monumental to her journey with music. When she was in the fifth grade, Dirks began playing the cello and the clarinet.

“I loved how my dad would point to a line in the hymnal and say, ‘Ooo, sing tenor this time,’” Dirks said.

When Dirks attended Bethel College in her hometown, she initially enrolled as a pre-medical student. By her sophomore year, she changed her focus to music.

Bethel College did not offer a music education degree so Dirks graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Music Performance and completed the credits needed for education certification separately. She would later receive a Masters in Music and Cello Performance at the University of Texas.

Dirks, who also completed certification to teach science, said her background in the subject has allowed her to make even more connections with people throughout her career.

Currently, Dirks is studying to complete a doctorate in music education and orchestral conducting at the University of Kansas. She lives in Lawrence with her husband and one of her two sons, commuting between home and work at least three times each week. On the nights before Dirks has to be in the office at K-State early, Cora Cooper, professor of music and the chair of the string division, allows her to stay in her home.

“Dr. Cooper has graciously opened her home,” Dirks said.

Cooper said she is happy to have Dirks at the helm of the orchestra.

“She has been a force for string music in Kansas for years, respected both as a teacher and as a terrific musician,” Cooper said. “Her commitment to building community in the orchestra and through the orchestra in Manhattan is a joy to see. Expect some exciting programs ahead.”

David Littrell, former K-State Symphony conductor, retired after 27 years of conducting and said he felt it was time to turn the program over to a “younger” individual with “new ideas.” Upon hearing Dirks received the position, Littrell said he couldn’t have been happier.

“I’ve always highly regarded her,” Littrell said.

Dirks said she aspires to continue to embrace the instilled values of community within the music department.

“I have always appreciated the openness [at K-State] to include everyone in all activities,” she said. “I see an opportunity at K-State to share my love of music and young people with the next generation of teachers.”