Thursday, May 07, 2009

Blair School of Music, Vanderbilt University, Senior Recognition Ceremony, May 7, 2009

One of the highlights of graduation at the Blair School is the Senior Recognition Ceremony. We celebrate each graduate by reading their personal biography. I was honored to be the Keynote Speaker this year and I share my speech here as another tribute to the gift of life!

Senior Recognition Ceremony - May 7, 2009

Thank you, Eva, for inviting me to speak today. Seniors, I must tell you that she did ask your first choices to be speaker today, she worked hard on it, but they were all unavailable. So, she asked me and I appreciate it. She knew I’d BE HERE anyway, and I do know and have pretty nice relationships with most of you.

I tell you that for a couple of reasons. For one thing, you may be wondering why on earth I’m up here instead of someone else. The other reason lies at the heart of what I want to talk to you about today, which is “what have you learned at the Blair School that will deeply inform and shape your life ahead, both in and out of music?” Tomorrow, Chancellor Zeppos will speak eloquently to you, as part of Vanderbilt’s class of 2009, but the lessons of life we learn in music school and through our immersion in music are perhaps unique, profoundly vivid, deeply personal and worth reflecting upon today as you prepare to close this chapter of your life.

Music School Lesson Number 1 –Talent and brains are nice and they’re very important, but there’s always somebody else out there who seems more talented or smarter - or both. Celebrate that and learn from it. Remember when you first arrived at Blair four years ago? You were probably the best or one of the best musicians in your high school. And then you came to Blair where it seemed that everyone was maybe better and brighter and more talented than you. Quite a shock, wasn’t it? It is for all of us. In a sea full of talents and gifts, you had to cope. All of you struggled in some fashion - but found your way, and you succeeded. What have you learned? I hope you have learned that YOU, each and every one of YOU, have unique, priceless gifts no one else has. I hope you’ve learned that music and its expression are bigger, broader, more amazing and varied than you ever imagined. As skill, knowledge and artistry have grown, you’ve learned that there’s no one right way; there are many right and good ways. I hope you have learned to listen, see, hear and appreciate the wonder in others and the wonder in you.

You may remember that Yo Yo Ma was in Nashville in October. He’s a giant of a talent, a brilliant performer, and his love for music and musicians inspires others to be their absolute individual best. I have a vivid memory of his performance with percussionist Joseph Gramley and the Nashville Symphony. In addition to Gramley, numerous members of the orchestra had solos in the concerto. In those moments, Yo Yo Ma would turn and focus his full attention upon each player even while continuing to play himself, and I swear, each PLAYER’S performance blossomed in a palpable way. When we share the wonder and believe in others, we all grow.

LESSON #1 – Learn always to be your best self – and revel in the music of others.

Music School Lesson Number 2 begins with a question: In music and life, what single controllable factor brings most of your successes and failures? All of you arrived here with fine, young talents, and after 4 years you have developed them further and matured a great deal. What single factor or habit was most likely to bring success along the way? There are other reasons, but you know the NUMBER 1 REASON because you are musicians. You’ve dealt with it at Blair each and every day. What brings success? Practice! Daily Practice. Not that mindless practice where you go through the motions but are thinking about dinner or a date. Not 4 hours of practice crammed in at the last minute. Practice - focused, determined attention to the task at hand regularly and repeatedly. One of the great things about music is that there aren’t any short cuts. There’s no substitute for practice, and doing the reading, learning the score, researching thoroughly, writing, re-writing, and re-writing the paper, slowing down the tough passages and working them every which way till they are part of your soul. We all make lots of excuses but we know the truth – we either did or didn’t do the work. Doing the work, the practice, and not giving up – that’s what brings mastery, knowledge, and success.

Enough said! LESSON #2 – Do the work, and be your best.

Music School Lesson Number 3 – Keep your eyes, ears, mind and heart open – anything can happen. As musical artists you know this. You are in a performance and you make a mistake that you never made before, even though you know it cold. Or you’re playing in the ensemble and somebody comes in early or late and the whole ensemble is spooked and scrambles a bit before recovering. Or, you’re performing and it goes better than you ever dreamed. Totally one with the music, you make a quantum leap in ability and artistry. These things happen to all musicians everywhere because we are human. I think it’s great that these things happen to us because they teach us to stay alert, seize the moment and keep things in perspective. We can be great, or badly stumble, but we can also recover and succeed.

LESSON #3 is also known as “Life is what happens to you when you had other plans.” No matter who you are or how perfectly your life in and out of music has gone so far, you will find that life brings great surprises, bizarre challenges and incredible and unexpected opportunities. Four years ago, I was reveling in my work as a choral director and assistant dean. I was dreaming of great things ahead. While running one day, I got hit by a van and thrown about 15 or 20 feet. Critically injured, I had severe trauma to my brain and a bunch of broken bones. It seemed that all was lost, but incredible medical care, family and community support, and the things I learned in music got me through. Four years ago, I never imagined that today, I’d be teaching collegiate classes and still serving in the dean’s office. I couldn’t put the round pegs in the round holes or remember what day or month it was. But, like you, I went to music school where we learn to do our best even if we’re different. Like you, I went to music school, where we learn to practice, practice, practice – every day over and over till I got it right. Like you, I went to music school where we learn to be open to new possibilities and grow into them.

I am delighted to be able to speak to you today. As you go forth from this place, know that, through music, you’ve acquired the skills to cope, prosper and grow. Make beautiful music wherever you go. When challenges come, dig deep, think back and remember these 3 lessons and you’ll do fine. And keep in touch – we’d love to hear from you.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

in times of sorrow

Pam and I are organizing a knit* project for the families of the Blacksburg victims. We invite you to join us in this effort.

*sewing and crochet are also obviously welcome.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Celebrate Life!

Good morning!

A year ago today, I was, as you know almost killed by a van. Thanks to the skill, help, love, care and concern of more people than I can imagine, I am alive and enjoying a wonderful rich life. I am also enormously grateful to each of you for your continuing help, care and patience as I slowly but steadily get the pieces of my life back together again.

Today, I ask you to join me in the celebration of life. Take time to smile, hug someone, treasure your home, family, work, colleagues and friends. Take some deep breaths and savor the richness of life.

I will be out of the office today in honor of the day. Also, my mom was admitted to VU hospital yesterday afternoon so the doc can check on her continuing breathing difficulties, so I'm going to be tied up there as well. She was doing much better when we left her last night around 10:30, as she was on oxygen and her spirits were good. She seemed downright hardy in fact! That was encouraging. She has emphysema, so it's going to continue to be a tough go, but she's doing better and the medical staff is great. She's 83 and tough and we are so lucky to have her!


Monday, December 26, 2005

Christmas cheer

Merry Christmas to you all!

today was truly a red letter day, actually as was yesterday. three days of baking aside, we still had cookies to bake yesterday so we started early, nagging the Grandma and negotiating her down from an arrival time of 4pm to 12:45pm. while waiting for her, we knocked out the sugar cookies (4 c of flour worth). Grandma arrived and it was time for the pecan puffs. there is no explaining it-the puffs are always better when she makes them. we managed to finish the puffs by 3:30pm and had time for a small rest before dressing for church.

after lengthy discussion we had decided to attend the 5 o'clock service at Westminster Presbyterian over the late Eve service or the Christmas Day service. Westminster is a delightful church with a spectacular music program and a progressive minister. [sad that it has to come to this but they have gone so far as to state explicitly in the program that all are welcome, regardless of denomination, race, nationality or sexual orientation.] the service was charming and given the year we have had, we all found ourselves reduced to tears at one point or another.

from church it was off to renew another tradition-Christmas eve dinner at the Chinese place. (more accurately, it is the Chinese Garden I but we have never referred to it as such.) several years have passed since we ate there and many more since we spent Christmas Eve there. they immediately recognized us, scolded us for our long absence and pampered us shamelessly. we dropped Grandma off at her place and returned home to wallow in one middling quality Christmas movie after another.

this morning we woke leisurely. Grandma arrived about 9:30am and we made mimosas, scrambled eggs and biscuits for breakfast. afterward, we started the turkey and opened presents. Santa still brings us stockings (with a lot of help from various family members)! after opening gifts for each other, it was time for our 4th annual Great Cookie Drop.

the Great Cookie Drop is probably my favorite part of the day-a perfect melange of family, thanksgiving, surprise and love. after a weeklong baking frenzy, we take the cookies to those who serve and safeguard our society instead of being with their own families on the holiday. this year, we baked 5 lb of butter worth of cookies: Tollhouse chocolate chip, peanut butter, chocolate peanut butter chip, oatmeal raisin, sugar cookies and pecan puffs. the cookies are bundled into wrapped boxes, weight varying according to anticipated head count. this year we expanded for a total of two fire stations, the enormous central police station, and both arms of TSA screening at the airport.

the first couple years, we were greeted with confusion and surprise, though never suspicion. although we always have to break into the police station, TSA used to be my greatest concern. who knows what they might think we intend? we half expected to get arrested the first year we went to the airport. these days, there is no concern. there is little confusion at our visits and much, much joy. sure, we still have to break into the police station-no one is ever at the front and the back is closed off by automated fences-but they are always glad to see us. once we made our cookie drops, we headed home to finish the turkey and dine quite well.

after supper, it was time for our annual viewing of A Child's Christmas in Wales. the evocative words, the beautiful imagery-just stunning. (don't worry, we did not forget our other favorite. we watched the original 1952 version of Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors with Bill and Kelly before they left for Ireland. we hate being away from them, but Joanie McCarthy deserves special Christmas visitors as well.) after the movie, we enjoyed a festive carpool to take Grandma home. once home again, we watched the end of a few Christmas movies and the last of the Vikings/Ravens game. finally, there were hugs and general agreement that THIS was the best Christmas to date before everyone trundled off to bed.

peace to all and to all a good night!

Sunday, December 25, 2005

second service

we have been quite busy enjoying the holiday so it has taken a few days to post this but we thought you would all like to know about the following.

in the early (and late!) days after the accident, Mom received an incredible number of teddy bears and other stuffed animals, cards and we all received more support than one would think possible. as she has continued to heal, we had debated what to do with all the bears. they are all very dear to us, Mom especially, and have provided incredible comfort but the time has come to move on. after great discussion, Mom decided that we should take the majority of the bears to a local shelter. to that end, we searched online and eventually discovered Safe Haven.

Safe Haven is an amazing place. it is one of only two shelters in Tennessee that keeps the family together. they work to get people back on track and back in a home of their own. when we arrived, there were no adults in view but we were greeted by three sunny children who guided us to the right place. it turned out that one of the kids belonged to Bruce Newport, the executive director, and frequently came to play with the kids leaving at the shelter. Bruce gave Mom and i a nice tour, completely unphased by our alternate crying and joy. the toys will be given to children living in the shelter and to children of local indigent families. children for whom Santa would otherwise not come.

here we attach a picture of the many bears and their friends under Safe Haven's tree for your enjoyment.

it was a very gratifying experience and a true opportunity to share some of our blessings with those less fortunate. we hope you share our joy in passing on your gifts of love and hope to those truly in need. keep your eyes peeled-Mom will most certainly have much to say about this wondrous holiday season herself!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Days of Thanksgiving

Just think, it's been over 375 years since the first Thanksgiving - the three day celebration held by the Pilgrims in 1621 to celebrate their landing and harvest. Interestingly, this celebration of landing, harvest and survival was not repeated by the Pilgrims. I guess they were too busy trying to survive and brave the New England weather!

Prior to the mid-1800s, the celebration we know as Thanksgiving had nothing to do with the Pilgrims or native Americans. This beloved American holiday grew, in fact, out of a traditional English holiday that celebrated family and community. The governor of each colony or state would declare a day of thanksgiving each autumn - so that folks could formally give thanks for general blessings. As the colonists spread west in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, they took their holiday with them, governors across the country proclaimed individual Thanksgivings, and families traveled back to their original homes for family reunions, church services and large meals.

Thanksgiving finally became an official US holiday via proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. The proclamation declared the last Thursday in November as Thanksgiving Day. Finally, in 1942, President Roosevelt declared Thanksgiving to be the fourth Thursday in November and there it remains.

Interesting, isn't it, that we share such a need for thanksgiving, family, traditions and holidays? My brush with death has engendered a real passion for these things - even greater than the zeal I've always had for them, and I can't wait to bake the turkey and make the stuffing and celebrate with those so very dear to me! I want everything to be "as it always has been" - the ritual of our gathering and celebration as a symbol of caring, joy and perserverance and the continuity of family.

Like every family, we have the usual stresses and strains, irritations and charming eccentricities. I can't wait to revel in them all - the qualities and talents - the wonders that differentiate and make us each unique. Like the yin and the yang, they are both our weaknesses and our strengths. Divinely flawed, fully human, and possessed of extraordinary and ordinary talents, we gather and celebrate that we have endured and perservered, and yes, we thrive and we go on.

Celebrate the joy of life! Celebrate the wonder of family and friends!

I have so much to give thanks for and I shall shout it from the housetops!

Thank you all and may God bless you!

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Extraordinary Ordinary Days

In the church calendar, there is a long spell from Eastertide until Advent and it's called Ordinary Time. Easter is over and Advent/Christmas are a long ways off so there are few exciting festivals and celebration. As a good friend who loved Ordinary Time once noted, "let's face it, ordinary time is most of where we live". So true - we should savor and find all the little delights in ordinary time.

I write today with no real news at all. It's hard to believe I have completed about 3 months of fulltime work and so far, am keeping up! The support of so many has helped me and encouraged me and I am grateful.

Have patience with me, my friends! I can do so much now and it's great and I'm trying as hard as I can to get better, do it all and not let you down. Yet, there's so much more I wish I could do for you all and can't, and I hope you'll have patience with me and grant me grace as I keep on going and keep on trying to get stronger and wiser.

I was stunned to discover that it took me a good week to recover from the October 30 concert! I hurt everywhere and the tiredness was amazing. It's better now - yay - but wow! The holidays are coming and there will be lots of activities, special concerts to lead (!!) and so many things and people to see! I guess I'll just do the best I can and hope for the best. I suspect I'll be working and resting and that's about all I'll be able to do-and I sure hope I can do that. Forgive me and bear with me if I'm less than an attentive friend to you during this time. Selfish as it is to say, I need your friendship more than ever, so do let me hear from you if you can!!

My goal during the rest of 2005 is to keep up, learn to accept the crummy stuff, find the fun and keep overcoming the fear. I hope you can do the same as we all have problems, difficulties and fears. It's selfish of me to "wallow" in my own and allow them to control my actions - and yet it still happens at times! It sure has given me a sense of appreciation for folks who deal with trauma and difficulty all the time and I hope it has made me a kinder, gentler person.

Know others who have been through traumatic injury to themselves or loved ones? Remember to give them a hug and helping hand - the trauma for ALL lasts a lot longer than one might think. My poor family has sure been through it and I know they are still having the same flashbacks and fears that I do. You think you're past it and then out of nowhere, whack! But we ARE getting there and we WILL be better and stronger and kinder in the end! There is hope! There is joy and there is beauty! Let's all support each other and share the hope!

Sunday, October 30, 2005

The Power of Music and Love!

VUCC Fall Concert
Originally uploaded by jacquichris.
Today I was privileged to lead my first concert since last the accident last February. That's a long hiatus for a conductor. The Vanderbilt University Concert Choir and Chamber Singers presented a one hour concert to a large, responsive, and appreciative audience. These college students have been kind, dedicated, hard working, and most delightful to work with. It was a thrill to lead them and they gave their all and sang beautifully.

What a funny feeling it was to walk out on that stage. In spite of regular apprehensiveness - "can I still do it?"- I have treasured every rehearsal since we began in September. Leading the dress rehearsal in the concert hall yesterday was like winning the lottery. I felt so alive, so real, so happy - like I was meant for this - like I was meant to lead a choir. What amazing joy! Today I was excited and nervous - so worried I would let someone down, but once the music started I was possessed by it and by the voices and faces before me. To be a part of that wondrous moment when all become one and a new and ultimate truth is born - that is magic. When it was over and a colleague said, "doesn't it feel great to make music with people" I began to cry. As the tears rolled on, I hugged every student I could get ahold of and we celebrated.

Okay, now I'm exhausted and everything in my body aches, but I don't care. During those long days when just being alive seemed awfully difficult, my wonderful family, my dear friends and so many choir folk cared for me, encouraged me and helped me. I can never thank them enough for making me believe that I could recover, that I could make music again. Thanks to them, I am privileged to make music with people again - and wow - it's great. It is my fervent hope and prayer that I'll keep getting stronger and healtier so I can thank them over and over - and keep on leading choirs. Better days have indeed arrived and I am SO grateful!

Saturday, October 22, 2005

The road is long and unmarked!

Things have been so busy that I've not been able to post! I apologize to you, those kind readers who have been so wonderful in your concern and caring.

I've now completed about 8 weeks of the fall semester and so far, it's gone well. It's been both harder and easier than I feared. It's been harder in that I'm still "scared of screwing up", insecure, frustrated by my continuing ailments and often really tired. It's been easier in that I've been able to fulfill all my responsibilities, including rehearsals of all three choirs, my main "deanly" chores, and even a choir performance at the VU Homecoming Game. And of course, people have been SO kind and SO helpful and I appreciate that too. I've made plenty of goofs too, but nothing too bad.

Being a person who clinically had a "severe traumatic brain injury" puts me in an awkward spot, to put it gently. As ALL the doctors say, I have had a miraculous recovery - I'm "off the charts!" and my goodness, I am incredibly grateful to have been released to "go and do and live and be happy!" On the other hand, I still have the problems I mentioned above.

I'm constantly working and pushing to do my best and also trying to find out if there's anything else I can be doing to get better. I can find lots of information on the web about brain injury and recovery, but it's all pretty dire, pretty grim, and I've moved way beyond anything I've yet to read. So part of me is delighted and part of me wonders, "Am I missing something? Am I unaware of my shortcomings? Are people telling me I'm ok and doing well - but really I'm not and they are just humoring me? Are my goofs and errors natural human mistakes or results of my injured brain? Will my stamina and easy nature ever return? Will I somehow regress to a condition more commonly seen in these types of injured people?"

It helps when I immerse myself in positive thinking experiences and activities that boost my confidence. Reading about the recoveries of others like the "Central Park Jogger" - remember her? - is helpful and then there's my "hero" Lance Armstrong - he's amazing. I didn't have cancer but he's still an inspiration. I'm constantly pestering my loved ones and dear friends, "am I really ok?" and trusting them to tell me the truth and not humor me. I look forward to the day when I FEEL ok and don't feel like MY body has been hijacked and I've been left with THIS one. I hope it will just take time and more experience and I'll come to accept myself more.

Thank you for reading about all my fears and insecurities. If you are reading this, it is likely that you are one who has walked this road with me for quite a while, and I think it's probably time to confess my fears and problems as well as to gloat about my successes. So please know that I'm really grateful to be able to work and be of service to others at school. I love what I do and I love the folks I do it with!

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Some Big Mile-stones - The Blessing Continues

I am delighted to report that I had my LAST visit with the neurologist on September 14. The good doctor gave me a check-up, asked many questions, reminded me it would take a full year or so for some things to fully heal and for full stamina to return, and RELEASED me to go and enjoy normal activity. The release I expected - hooray, no more doctor visits to that office. But wow - the idea of no restrictions, no caveats - just be an adult and respect and take care of the body as any adult should - that was a bit of a stunner to me, although I don't really know why. I guess a part of me has gotten used to being kind of, as I say, broken, and I guess I expected to continue to always be broken.

Honestly, it has taken several days for the wonder and joy of the doctor's news to fully begin to penetrate my mind and heart. After an initial joyous - and doctor approved - small glass of wine, my dreams were somewhat disturbed by random fears of events in the past and more importantly, continuing fears about the future. Somehow the accident engendered fear and anxiety in me that can still stop me cold in my tracks. It seems as every week is still full of "firsts" - in actuality "returns" to normalcy, like driving, going out of town, being with lots of people, walking - and walking without a limp for the most part, and then the really big one - the first choir rehearsals.

Being with, and leading my choirs for the last two weeks has been both an enormous joy and a terrifying time. All of my choirs have been wonderful - welcoming, supportive and dedicated. It has been enormously gratifying. But the fear is there too - "am I doing as good a job as before?" - "are my eyes and ears working properly and picking up all I need to know?" - "will I forget things or mismanage the rehearsal in some way?" Where does such anxiety come from? Trauma, I guess. Fortunately, my wonderful family and friends have promised to tell me honestly if I'm not doing the job or measuring up, and I have to trust them and believe they will be honest with me.

The good news is that it's a bit like riding a bike - it does come back - and the fear is gradually being replaced by joy and attention to the tasks at hand - helping folks learn and make beautiful music together, and handling the administrative needs that fall to me as an assistant dean. How blessed I am to have such opportunities! I am grateful beyone words and look forward to gradually conquering more fears and challenges little by little.

I know that there's a good chance that my remaining medical problems will continue to improve and - with luck - heal completely. I treasure that hope and regret the times when I waste time ruing the aches and pains - lucky I am to have life - how selfish of me not to expect some lingering problems!

We had a joyous occasion this weekend! We were able to give our old car, a 16 year old Toyota that we no longer need, to a graduate student and his wife - refugees from Tulane and the hurricane! These poor folks had to swim to safety from the roof of their place after almost a week of waiting for rescue! International students from Russia, they lost everything and yet are so happy to have a place at Vanderbilt for the semester. Meeting them, hearing their story and enjoying their amazing zest for life was an absolute treat for Roland and me! We were humbled by their spirits and positive natures and it was a thrill to be able to do a tiny bit of something to help - I have so much to be thankful and grateful for! That SURE helped get my priorities back in order!!

There's a wonderful old saying, "Bloom where you're planted" and it's great advice. Let's all try and bloom and bring some joy to the world!