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.