University of Delaware: Department of Music Convocation Speech

Congratulations to each of you.  

This is a wonderful day of celebration and reflection perched as you are at this major intersection in your lives.  

While this day is justifiably celebrated as the first day of the rest of your life, your should also relish it as the last day of an extraordinary journey that began many years ago: a journey practicing, studying, late nights… requisite share of triumphs and disappointments.

A journey of long hours, hard work, early morning classes, 4 part dictations, sight singing in soprano clef…You have finished the journey.  And today you should celebrate. 

Your journey has been fueled by passion: Passion that led you to music early on; passion that steeled your discipline for those extra hours of practice; passion that allowed you to make music your true love.

Your passion will continue to serve you well as you transition from student---the receiver---to professional---the giver.  Share it often, freely and generously.  


Your passion will be your keel and your solace.  It will keep you steady, and on course when the winds of uncertainty threaten to blow you out to sea, or capsize you.

Buttressed by your fine education, your passion will allow you to keep your bearing and remain buoyant.

My passion has guided and encouraged me from early on.

I have loved music from the beginning.  

When I was a toddler, I used to dance to the rhythmic whooshing of the dishwasher.  When the wash cycle was complete, I’d toddle to the piano and poke out tunes.  Eventually, tired of my dancing, and of my poking, my parents offered me some piano lessons. 

I loved them.  

I loved my teacher

I learned piano, theory and harmony

I remember being delighted to learn that my parents evening cocktail was part gin and part tonal center.  I thought the idea of tonic in music was hilarious.  

The point is, I loved music mightily from the get go. Like you. That love often led to a peculiar perspective on the world outside my cozy music bubble. I remember well the day I realized that it was not talent that made me different, but my passion.


As a child, when not practicing, I often played in our neighbor’s basement.  

Their two boys were my good pals.    

Their basement was a kids’ paradise.  

We played hockey and ping-pong. 

We danced to what is now vintage disco---complete with rotating disco ball and strobe light. 

They had a giant projection TV on which we played the newest video games like Atari Breakout.  

But the best part of the basement was the Bally pinball machine.  

It was heaven.  

Of course, I had no occasion to venture upstairs.  

But once, for reasons lost to history, I did.  

I wandered into their all-white, virgin, pristine living room.  

I looked for the piano.  It had to be somewhere.  After all everyone had a refrigerator, a phone, a tv, a toilet, and a piano.  Right?  

Where was it?  Was it camouflaged?  Was it white too? 

I returned to the basement and asked Jonjon where his piano was.  

Was it being repaired?  Was it in another room? 


He looked at me in a way that I have since been looked a thousand times. 

That squint of disbelief—narrow-eyed laser-beaming through my skull into my pre-frontal cortex coming to grips with my stupidity.  

Unsquinting his eyes he told me flatly that they didn’t have one.  

How could that be?  

I was confused and felt my priorities fundamentally de-valued.  How could a kid so cool that he had a pinball machine in his basement not be into Chopin?

Every friend of my parents, every cousin, every aunt and uncle, grandparents--- all had pianos.  My world, up until then, was filled with music and musicians.  I thought everyone had music in their lives like I did.

That day, my bubble popped.  

How can a world filled with so many wonderful, inventive and thoughtful people not find our art deeply compelling?

Asking why my deep, abiding passion for this art was not universally valued has been a central theme in my career.  

Searching for an answer, and searching for ways to demonstrate the power of our art, has fueled my journey, and I suspect it will fuel yours too.

Along my journey, I have made some observations---some of which I hope might be helpful to you.


First:  Make the distinction between artist and entertainer.

It is a distinction too rarely made.  After all, even the NYTimes conflates ‘arts’ and ‘entertainment’.  

But you are not entertainers.

Entertainment is great.

Movies, restaurants, sporting events, comedy shows, pop music.  

Though all of these pursuits have real artistic potential---that potential is not the primary conceit of the pursuit.  

Driven by economic priorities, entertainment seeks to please. 

Entertainment re-enforces social bonds.  

We all wear Phillies caps, or laugh at the same jokes reveling in our sameness.

Entertainment confirms where art confronts and questions.  


Art does not smooth cultural ripples, but stirs the waters.  

Art embraces outsized humanistic panoramas clarifying our experience by placing it in the broadest possible context.   

By contrast, entertainment views a portion of that panorama with binoculars.  

Seeing that big vista can be unsettling.  And challenging.   

Your job, no matter your career, will be to balance the wide angle with the close up, and to remember that your obligation as an artist is to make people comfortable with the prospect of discomfort and challenge.  

This is not to say that art cannot please.  But the path to its pleasure is not quantified by the revenue line in a budget, but by a thankfully unquantifiable sense of spiritual enrichment.

Do not rear from entertainment, but do always remember that the art leads. 

Be free to entertain, but be obliged to make art.


This brings me to the next point: Our art is not broken.   

Still, there will be pessimists---people who are convinced that Classical Music’s time has come and gone. Every year, and in every generation, people will peal the funeral bells for what we do.

Listen to this opening from a Time Magazine article:

"As a group, the symphony orchestras of the U.S. are unsurpassed in quality by those of any other nation in the world. Yet today they are in trouble —loud, unavoidable, cymbal-crashing financial trouble. In the next five years, we stand a very good chance of losing at least one-third, if not half of our major symphony orchestras."

That was written in 1969.  

Doomsaying is the great ritornello of our profession whose interwoven solo passages, played by professionals and advocates, often give the opposite impression that our art is robust and invincible.  

The truth is somewhere in between.  

The fact is our art works, but that its relationship with our prevailing culture has always been tenuous.  

I cannot count the number of times non-musicians have offered to help re-engage a lost fan-base for classical music by proposing to fundamentally tinker with the art.  Play an abridged version of Beethoven 5 on electric guitars while roller skating as the audience sings along with kazoos.  That’ll surely reignite the public’s passion for this great music.  My favorite encapsulation of the false premise that our art is broken came from my old boss at the Saint Louis Symphony, where I was associate conductor for many years.  Hans Vonk, the music director during my tenure there said with his classic, dry and unsmiling Dutch accent, that what people really wanted was to hear Yo-Yo Ma play Bolero every night.  

But we know our art does not need that particular kind of help.  Given the right circumstances, music works incredibly well.

When I was a freshman at University of Pennsylvania, a friend borrowed my LP of Bruno Walter conducting Brahms 2.  She returned a couple of days later with my record---and said, beaming—“Who IS this Walter Brahms! “

So your role is not to modify the art, but to amend the soil in which you sew the seeds of great music—to ensure that the interest germinates—Because our art works beautifully.

But the prevailing attitude toward arts education is in rough shape and that attitude will be a constant headwind for all of you. 

Those of you entering specifically into music education will have the rare and precious opportunity to affect the cultural climate.  

Change it.  Make it work.  Share your passion.  

Without education and exposure---to kids, and grownups---we can’t have a viable future for our art.  So invest the time and the energy in working toward making our art accessible and relevant to as many people as you can.  

By sharing your passion freely and generously, you will inculcate the uninitiated.  Fortify yourself with your education, gird yourself with your passion, and remember that the important battles are not the easy ones.  


That brings me to my 3rd point:  Even when you occasionally feel that the cause might be unwinnable, keep pushing forward because

---success is a manufactured conceit------

Sure, you’ll get reviews, you’ll get performance evaluations, pay raises, job offers.  But value your contributions independent of all that.  

When you get a great review, don’t let it go to your head.  

When you get a bad one, don’t let it get you down.  

What matters is your passion and your dedication to your craft---whether you are playing at Carnegie Hall or teaching a roomful of kindergarteners.  

As you ask your audiences to find comfort in challenges, find comfort in challenging yourself.  You will be better off for it, the art will flourish and your audience will be grateful.  

As you grow, your need for growth increases too.  

There will always be the feeling that just beyond reach is some sort of career Nirvana.  

That is an illusion.  

So enjoy the work.  

Revel in the art, the craft.  

Respect your audience, respect your art and respect yourself.  

Work hard, then work twice as hard.  

Push your potential beyond your comfort.  

If your job prevents you from fulfilling your potential, change your situation.  

Find a job where you are challenged every day to do more, to do better, to work harder.  

Find comfort in spending your life with great music.  That is the true nature of success in what we do.  Because, in the end

It’s about the music

This is my last point.

I know you know this.  

But invariably, in the heat of budgeting, or marketing, it can be simple to lose sight of.  

Don’t get distracted.  

Yes, you’ll have to manage non-musical variables all the time.  

Even when those variables threaten to blow you off course, remember the music.  Remember your love and passion for this art.  

Remember the hours and hours you have given it.  

Remember the power it has to move you, to move your audience, to move humanity. Remember dancing to the dishwasher.   


Invite people to dance with you, make them see what you see, hear what you hear.  

Give others the gift of that grand panorama, and to give them permission to be in awe of it.  

Give yourself and your audience permission to love the music---and give yourself the permission to experiment, to triumph and to fail.  

When you grant those permissions and remember that it’s about the music,  you will have succeeded in being an artist.  

You are here not to entertain, but to deliver timeless messages from an unbroken art.  

So don’t look back.  You know what happened to Orpheus when he looked back.  

Look forward and be guided by the power of this great art and by nourished by your passion for it.  

Be diligent with your craft.  

Maintain standards beyond your reach and surround yourself with colleagues who can help you grow.  

Share your gifts selflessly.  

Graciously learn what you can from others and show them sincere gratitude.  Mostly, have faith in the art you love, and share its joys with everyone that you can.  Your art and craft will be your solace and your reward, and others will want to share in the glow of your contentment.  


And you will have the deep satisfaction of being a true artist.

Good luck and be well.