In 1893, Dett's mother relocated the family to Niagara Falls, New York after the unfortunate death of her youngest son Arthur who was killed by a farmer during a Halloween prank. The move was a fortunate one for Nathaniel who continued to pursue his musical studies in America. Nathaniel Dett studied at the Oliver Willis Halstead Conservatory in Lockport, NY, Oberlin College (BM, 1908, composition and piano), and the Eastman School of Music (MM, 1938). He studied with Arthur Foote at Harvard and won numerous prizes for his choral compositions and for his essay, "The Emancipation of Negro Music." Dett did further study with Nadia Boulanger in France during the summer of 1929.

Nathaniel Dett taught music at Lane College in Tennessee, Lincoln Institute in Missouri, Bennett College in North Carolina, and the Hampton Institute in Virginia. Doctor R. Nathaniel Dett went on to become a prolific composer and choir director. In the 1930's he was taking mass choirs to Europe and receiving excellent reviews. One of his most popular compositions, Listen to the Lambs, is a standard spiritual sung by choir groups all over North America. Dett kept close ties with Canada through the Elgar Choir of Hamilton and his affiliation with the BME Church in Niagara Falls, which was renamed in his honour.

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