If college is supposed to be the portal to liberation and self-discovery, then Coleen Dieker’s two-year odyssey at Boston’s Berklee College of Music was a resounding success.
“Going there really freed my playing and opened up the possibilities of music,” she said.
It also eventually led to her current job: music director at The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah in Overland Park, where she has flourished.
“She has expanded our music and services in amazing ways,” said Arthur Nemitoff, senior rabbi at B’nai Jehudah. “She has brought spirit and joy to all we do.”
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When she auditioned for Berklee, Dieker was a young musician with years of classical training behind her.
Her mother, Haegyung Dieker, was a former music director at a U.S. Army base in Seoul, South Korea, where she met her future husband, Michael Dieker. She made music a priority for her children: Dieker, her two sisters and a brother.
“We all learned piano before we were 5 years old,” Coleen Dieker said. “We all learned to read music. There were lots of lessons and practicing and being super-disciplined.”
Dieker learned to play several other instruments, including violin, flute and guitar. At Lee’s Summit North High School, she was in orchestra and choirs and worked as an accompanist at her father’s church. It was the first of several non-secular jobs.
In 2007, her senior year, she auditioned for Berklee, which is when she realized the limits of her training.
“I was so nervous,” she said. “I sight-read these classical pieces, and all I could think about were all the mistakes I made.”
Part of the audition was an improvisational piece, something she wasn’t quite prepared for.
“They taught me blues scales, which no one had ever taught me,” she said. “Then they said, ‘Jam with that.’ So I did, and I was like, ‘That was weird.’ ”
But she passed the audition, and enrolled in Berklee with the intent of becoming a film composer. An improvisation workshop her first semester changed her.
“So many musicians can only play from the page. They are so talented, but they won’t go off the page,” she said. “This workshop encouraged freedom to play what you wanted to play using all the skills you have. It was difficult. I’m glad I was young and able to explore and figure out that world.”
Dieker left Berklee after two years because she knew she didn’t want to do film scoring. Instead, she was ready to perform — and learn a more practical skill.
So she enrolled in a nursing program at Penn Valley and Longview community colleges. But when it came time for a semester of clinicals in nursing homes, she discovered something. Working there wasn’t the same as playing music there, which she had done before.
“It was so hard. I cried every day,” she said. “I learned I don’t have that emotional or mental toughness. So I quit after that semester.”
Music remained central to her life. She busked around Kansas City, played fiddle with a band called the Vine Brothers and became a music director at St. Bridget Parish in Pleasant Hill.
In 2012, she was asked to fill in as an accompanist for a service at B’nai Jehudah. It went so well she was eventually asked to become the regular accompanist.
“But then we recognized she had all these other talents,” Nemitoff said. “She could play violin, ukulele, guitar. And she could sing.”
In early 2014, Dieker was asked to be the interim music director during the search for a full-time director. About a year later, that job was hers, even though she is not Jewish.
“Some people told me they didn’t think it was right,” she said of some initial reaction. “But I connect to a lot of it. Judaism is beautiful.”
For Nemitoff, what matters is how Dieker’s spirituality emanates through her music.
“It’s a gift that is rare and precious,” Nemitoff said. “Every one of us is walking down a spiritual path. Where her path will take her, we do not yet know, but she has clearly embraced our community. She is not clergy; she is a layperson who has brought remarkable spirituality and meaning to what we do.”
Her work at B’nai Jehudah has been praised widely among the congregation, including at a Yom Kippur morning service.
“We spent a year transforming it, which is probably our second-largest service — about 1,000 people were there — and Coleen was the key to making it all happen,” he said. “I’d never heard people respond to a service with this kind of praise: holy, awesome, inspiring, transformational, moving, the most meaningful experience.
“She is so talented, she can do anything she wants. We are very fortunate to have her.”
Dieker is involved in plenty of music outside the synagogue. She is regularly asked to perform on recordings by local and out-of-town musicians. She has also performed with touring artists who hire local musicians, as she did this summer for Josh Groban at Starlight Theatre.
And she has become a go-to collaborator in the Kansas City music community. She is good friends with singer/songwriter Jessica Paige.
“One of the best things about playing music with Coleen is how present she is in the music,” Paige said. “You experience a completely genuine, original, never-to-be-repeated music experience.”
Dieker has been bringing the same kind of spirit to the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, said Clint Ashlock, its artistic director.
“Coleen’s ability to emotionally connect to both the music and the audience with extreme passion is one of her many great qualities,” he said. “She is not afraid to assert her personality, which is difficult to do consistently when you play in such a wide variety of musical settings like she does.
“She’s really one of the most brilliant individual musicians in our scene.”
For Dieker, the love of performing and collaborating with other creative people is what drives her. It also continues the education she started at Berklee.
“I’m not the kind of artist who always has this thing I need to create and give to the world,” she said. “I love connecting with other artists, which is why I play with so many people.
“I’m still a student. Whenever I get invited to play something that scares the hell out of me, I do it. And I learn.”