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Music convocation address

May 16, 2014

Dean’s Awards Convocation Address, 2014

 

I want you to know that I consider it an honor to get to address you each year and I promise to keep this brief. But I warn you that despite the fact that I am usually a very private individual I am going to “go personal.” You see, I turned 50 this year. I’ve taken to referring to this as my first 50 years and that’s fun because I really hope—and doubt I’ll get another 50. Some people your age are going through a quarter-life crisis—that never happened to me. But at 50, you stop and think.

Since turning 50, I have gotten really good at math. Well, actually only subtraction. As dean of the Music School I go to a lot of concerts and read a lot of programs. It used to be that my first glance entailed looking at the programming to see how the works would fit together—or maybe reliving fond memories of the last time I heard a particular work. Now my eye immediately goes to the composer dates followed by a little subtraction: Prokofiev, died in1953 born in 1891. 1953-1891 is 62. He made it to almost 62. Copland is easy, 1990 minus 1900 equals 90 (well-done, Aaron), Mahler 1911 minus 1860 that’s 51 …ouch that’s getting close…. Anyway, you get the idea.

And, from there I move to other equally distressing thoughts such as the fact that by the time Sondheim was my age, he had 26 major theater efforts to his name. Bach, by my age had written over 200 works. And Mozart… By the time he was my age Mozart had written over 600 pieces! Not to mention that he had been dead for 15 years.  You get the point. Life is short and there’s a lot to do. And while we are obsessing over time I will go ahead and tell you there are only 5 minutes left in this speech. You are almost there. What I lack in wisdom I make up for in brevity.

We only get four or five years with you—your college life is so short— and I am not certain we are ready to let you go. But we will have to eventually so I’d like to offer a few insights. I don’t claim to have any real wisdom at 50, I just want to get in a few parting shots before your folks come and you pack up the minivan. You likely have a 40-year career ahead of you and more importantly decades of life to live. How can we be sure we’ve prepared you?

How did composers like Mahler and Stravinsky seem so well prepared and have such certitude? When asked about the chilly reception to his music, Mahler was unfazed and said simply, “My time will come.” In my favorite Stravinsky story, he had just written a ballet that called upon a larger orchestra than the impresario wanted to pay. Poor William Schumann was tasked with the delicate effort to get Stravinsky to rewrite a piece that Stravinsky already believed to be perfect. Schumann sent a telegram that said “Your ballet a colossal success. Would be even greater success if you agree to certain modifications in instrumentation.” Stravinsky wired back, “Quite content with colossal success.”

How can we gain assurance like that? In the musical world we know that in order to be successful, you have to be just a little better than the competition. But is that enough? I have spent many years talking to professors and alumni and musicians about how we do just that. How are we just a little better than our competition? You might be surprised by the answers. Graduation speeches are often filled with platitudes. This one will be too—just not the ones you might imagine.

“Polish your shoes,” one of our alums told us a few weeks ago.  More wisdom there than we may realize. One of my mentors once told me, “Be your own worst critic.  You may or may not accomplish anything but at least you will keep someone else out of that position.” I overheard one faculty member say recently, “Show up early”—great advice for anyone, doing anything.  And a person clearly wiser than I am said, “Like who you see in the mirror and change something if you don’t.”

In a nod to our liberal arts college I am going to give my platitude award to none other than Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters when compared to what lies within us.” What lies within you? That is the ultimate anti-Google question. Really—you can use Google for just about everything—except that. You can Google what is in chocolate chip cookies or a 5-hour energy drink or even Spam but Google cannot tell you what lies within you. And maybe you can’t even do that. Yet.  But you will, eventually, and the sooner you find that out, the better.  Because knowing yourself and what you are truly capable of is the most important thing you can do.

We’ve tried to help you discover that here—we gave you papers and tests and quizzes and juries and recital hearings; we gave you 5-performance weeks and sleepless nights and break-free days. And why? To help you find yourself and what you were capable of doing. We challenged your thinking and your faith and your ability— all to find out what was in you. And you know what? It wasn’t enough because the world you walk into after college will do more than that. But that’s okay because what lies before you doesn’t matter. What you discovered here is that you can. And that’s why what lies behind you doesn’t matter. All that matters is what lies within you and you have only scratched the surface of that. And since Google can’t tell you, you’ll have to find out on your own. And since this is my speech I get to throw in my opinion: what lies within you is the capability to do and be that which you love. And I hope you discover that before you hit the half-century mark.

Mahler and Stravinsky knew what was within them. It gave them the confidence and the strength to succeed. You will know what is within you, too. And I guarantee you this—it is more than you think. You can do anything. The world will tell you that things have to be seen to be believed. I tell you things have to be believed to be seen.

I ‘ll leave you with the words of Christopher Logue:

“Come to the edge,” he said.
“It’s too high,” they said.

“Come to the edge,” he said.
“We’re afraid,” they said.

“Come to the edge.”
“We’ll fall.”

“Come to the edge,” he said.
And they did.

 

And he pushed them.
And they flew.

 

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