Hello and a warm thank you to Susquehanna University, to President Green, and to the Trustees of the University for bestowing this honor upon me. I used to come to this part of Pennsylvania annually for a music festival, and for several years we gave concerts here on this campus. It's wonderful to be back in this most unexpected of ways.
This is my third commencement address, and it might be interesting to tell you a little about my first one.
There's an expression about composers, "Good composers borrow, and great composers steal!" So, I was thinking about from whom to steal.
At that time, my first thoughts drifted to two inspiring commencement addresses that I had read as a student. One by the legendary pianist Glenn Gould, the other by the brilliant composer, conductor and educator, Leonard Bernstein.
I was doing a lot of reading, and thinking about what to talk about, when my thoughts drifted to something one of my good friends, who is a writer, once said. "The first novel you write, you write what you know, and what you know is yourself." So I thought, well ... let's see how well I know myself! While I was working on it, I was asked for a title, even a "working title." I thought well that's it ... "Working Title." It was part jest, but then I realized, there's some truth to that: What you graduates are about to be presented with here will be a "working title."
My certificates and diplomas are in piano, violin and conducting. Those certificates and diplomas provided for me a "working title." I am a concert pianist, a professor, a conductor. I have created and been artistic director of three different kinds of festivals, I am a collaborator, and an adjudicator, an ambassador, program and flyer designer, administrator, and I also have had some experience as a fundraiser. Each of those things, though related to a life in music, requires a skill set for which I had no training in my university studies. As I reflected on this, I thought of one of my good friends, who has a master's degree in chemical engineering and is the head of research and development at Estée Lauder. His career has been peripherally related to chemistry, but his professionally developed skill set has nothing to do with his degrees. He is now, and has been for the bulk of his career, a businessman, a manager of people and projects, and an innovator.
I would like for each one of you, once you leave here, to look at your degree for a minute, reflect on your accomplishment, make sure your name is spelled correctly, and file the words that constitute that "working title" away. You are on the precipice of a distinctly different world than the one at which I peered some 25 years ago when I graduated. The world now is in many ways open to more possibilities than when I graduated.
It is interesting that feats of computer engineering made it possible for there to be more possibilities in careers in music. In my day, you won a competition to start a career. Who would've thought that something called YouTube could be a springboard to a career in classical music? Someone considered possibilities that didn't exist before and found an avenue for themselves.
I would like for you to consider being an innovator as you begin your careers. Glenn Gould wrote that the artist can be measured by the degree of difficulty of the questions they ask of themselves, and by the nature of the challenges they ask of themselves. Their own ability to demand an answer to an unanswerable question. I think that this mindset is useful in all fields; I think that, as you consider your career possibilities, strenuously challenging yourself will be among your most useful tools for your own growth and development. This posing and resolving of challenges, will require of you your fullest capacities of imagination, inspiration and innovation.
I will provide you examples of important challenges I faced as a student, and how my commitment to having success as a musician, gave me the strength to face and overcome them to give me the career I have now.
Now, I challenge you to find a moment to be brave enough to cast aside the concerns of your parents, your teachers, the impending doom of student loan payments, and ask yourself, "Who am I?" "What do I love to do, to read about, to hear about, to think about? Do I love architecture, engineering, business, music, whatever it is, in all its totality. Can this field fully sustain my happiness and can I be inspired to make substantive contributions in this field, or am I just really good at this, not passionate about it, and landed here by default of some sort."
I absolutely believe that every one of us has that thing in life that we cannot do without, the thing with which we have to be engaged every day. For me, that thing was and remains music. I ask you to know that thing that you love the most. I sincerely hope that your answer is reflected in the words on your degree, but you should also be prepared if it is not.
Somehow many people manage in their lives daily, without being able to do that thing, or combination of things that they love. They put it away in their overstuffed drawer of dreams, which may seem like a safe place, but I believe it was Nelson Mandela who said "you must honor that which is within you, the gifts you have, and release them; otherwise, it will be those things which remain inside you, and kill you." Honoring that thing, however, will give you a pathway to achieve what you may have thought was impossible.
You must imagine either what you know is out there as a career, and yourself doing it ... or imagine doing that thing you love, which doesn't currently have a place in your life, and find the way to its possibility.
Glenn Gould also talked about the difference of what we know and has been proven to work, which he called positivity, and that which we do not know, or hasn't been proven or tried, which he called negativity. We generally construct a small frame in which we live that's defined by the things that are known. He suggested that artists in particular (and I suggest that all of us) must in our minds constantly dip into the great unknowns and unprovens as a possible resource for ideas to help us reach our dreams.
If you are open to the possibility of occasionally finding your solutions in the vast land of unknown and unproven ideas, you will also discover that you have other abilities and talents. Talent, as you will find out, is simply working really hard at doing something you love, and surprise-you become good at it. In your every job, or circumstance, be alert to the opportunities that lend themselves to your other strengths, whether that means you're good at working with people, or at developing, transforming or executing ideas. In our current world, with things changing so fast, this is serious capital.
After you've identified your "must do," let no one tell you what is not possible. Among the things an innovator does is to challenge the orthodoxy. I played the piano and violin both for a long time. I was asked constantly from the age of 16-23 by those who were my mentors, "When are you going to stop with this two-instrument nonsense? When are you going to finally focus? What are you going to be when you grow up?"
As all of my peers focused on one instrument, and one lesson a week, in my mind, I felt that getting two private lessons a week about how music works, was an incredible, priceless thing. I knew that I was getting an education that no one else could get. I felt that this was my greatest capital. I had a ton of knowledge and understanding of how music works and I was open to finding my own path as a musician. I did not know what all those hours of learning would mean in my life, but I knew it had to be a good thing.
Eventually, however, I was put to the test by my piano teacher, Robert Weirich, who issued a powerful challenge to me. A few days after what I thought had been my successful senior recital just before my 23rd birthday, he sent me a three-page, single-spaced letter. (Yes, it was that long ago ... spacing was a thing!)
He said to me that what he and others recognized as my talent, was, I quote "an uncanny knack for projecting the piece as an integrated experience to the listener: the audience is aware of the whole at every moment, and so one's sense of time and experience is altered by the music. I know of no higher satisfaction of either listener or performer. When that happens, you remember it your whole life ... You can count on the fingers of one hand those who are able to do what you can do." (So far so good eh? As I read the letter, I'm like AWESOME!)
He then wrote in the same paragraph, "You have musical ideas that are more eccentric than innovative, [oops] and have a technique that gets in the way rather than facilitates." (Uh, what?) He continued to drive home the point by saying if someone hears you when you're under the age of 21, they'll say, "What potential," over the age of 21, "what a waste." (Keep in mind that I was 23!) Also, "Gee, that's too bad-he's so talented, but he still can't play the piano." And then he said, "I think you can fix this problem, but only if you think that it's important."
The music business loves prodigies, so read both 30 years ago, and today, I was already over-the-hill at 23, and being told that I had no technique! What was I to do?
After feeling like I'd been punched in the gut, I took the letter to heart. My investment until that point had been directed toward music in general. I now refined it to the piano. I then, directed a great amount of intensity on thinking about my technique.
A couple of years later, when I was 25, I went on retreat to the Banff Centre in Canada for a three-month, very intensive period of independent study without a teacher, trying to consolidate the over 400 hours of lessons I'd had in music school, into my own ideas about how music is organized, and how to play it with technical security. Thirteen months after leaving Banff and returning to the conservatory, I won the Naumburg International Piano Competition and started my career. I was incredibly lucky to have a teacher who believed in me and challenged me to deliver to my potential, though by the time of fruition, I was not his student anymore. (If any of you become teachers, you must keep in mind that as teachers, we ask for the now of necessity, but know that our every sentence ... plants seeds.)
I hope ultimately that I'm planting a small one today as well: think of your relationship with your major, know that your major is not called your "ONLY" Think of your personal skill set, know that you must develop yourself as a whole person, that you must find and be true to what's inside of you, to what you may imagine, and to what inspires you. Then be completely invested and intense in the pursuit of the realization of your dreams. As to challenges, one of the most important qualities required in the face of a challenge or to issue a challenge, especially to oneself, is courage.
Be courageous, remember that you learn more from failure than success, and when you become successful, have the courage to thank everyone who helped you, and have the courage to help those climbing up below you, or those less advantaged than you. Our incredibly large world gets smaller by the day, and changes fast in absolutely unpredictable ways, so always be a great colleague to your peers.
William Yeats wrote powerful words that are unfortunately so often true, in his poem The Second Coming. "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." These are important words: conviction, and not only intensity ... passionate intensity.
While I understand the truth of what Yeats meant, in my life, I try to turn these haunting words around. I ask you, the Susquehanna University class of 2018, to be your absolute best, however you define it, to have all the conviction of your ideas, and to execute full of passionate intensity.
Good luck and all best wishes to all of you!
*Prepared remarks may differ from delivered remarks
Members of the class of 2018. We are gathered here to celebrate your graduation, but we are also here to celebrate and recognize the accomplishment of the many people who made this day possible.
First, I would like to ask the faculty and staff present to stand so our graduates can express their gratitude. These are the people who have sustained, frustrated, and inspired you in your journeys at Susquehanna. You can best honor them by applying what you have learned from them in your careers and as you become leaders in your communities.
Next, would the families and friends of our graduates stand to be recognized and thanked. These are the people that encouraged you, loved you, and made significant sacrifices so you could be here. They will continue to be with you as you undertake the next steps in your respective odysseys.
Lastly, we should take a moment to think about those whose gifts have made it possible for all of us to be here. Susquehanna began as a gift of land and funds from the leaders of Selinsgrove to create the Missionary Institute and a collegiate home for the daughters and sons of local families who were not called to religious service. Since then, every Susquehanna student has benefitted in significant ways from the support of alumni and friends of the university, many of whom provided gifts to support generations of students they would never see. It is a remarkable and inspiring legacy.
Members of the class of 2018, we mark the close of your academic careers at Susquehanna University with this celebration of commencement. Commencement refers to the beginning.
Ours is a business of beginnings, beginnings that unfold in myriad directions, the measure of which is seen in the span of the lives of those who call this place alma mater. Please remember that Susquehanna will always be your alma mater, and you are always welcome home.
We are here to celebrate the seeds that have been planted in you, which we anticipate will emerge in glorious splendor as each of you makes your mark on the world. This is your time to exercise the leadership for which you have been preparing.
As W.E.B. Du Bois wrote:
"Now is the accepted time, not tomorrow, not some more convenient season. It is today that our best work can be done and not some future day or future year. It is today that we fit ourselves for the greater usefulness of tomorrow. Today is the seed time, now are the hours of work, and tomorrow comes the harvest and the playtime."
Ours is a business of beginnings. We gather today to send you forth to engage your future with reckless abandon and your world with wonder and tenderness. We are here to wish for you, the life Mary Oliver wished for herself when she wrote:
"When it's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom taking the world into my arms."
Ours is a business of beginnings. Each year we welcome a new class to begin their academic journeys, and every year we bid bon voyage to a class whom we have challenged, cajoled, and supported during their matriculation. This is the life cycle of the university.
Although today marks my first commencement at Susquehanna and the first at which I have the honor of conferring degrees, this is the 32nd year as a professor or administrator that I will watch a class graduate. Every year I am more excited to be a part of the ceremony, because with each new year, I have an ever-richer knowledge of what lies before you, what you can accomplish, and how your experiences here will help make it possible.
When I was a first-year university student, I read the following poem for the first time, but being fresh to the academy, I could not adequately appreciate Walt Whitman's sentiment in his poem for the inauguration of a public school. Now that appreciation grows with each passing year.
AN old man's thought of school,
An old man gathering youthful memories and blooms that youth itself cannot.
Now only do I know you,
O fair auroral skies - O morning dew upon the grass!
And these I see, these sparkling eyes,
These stores of mystic meaning, these young lives,
Building, equipping like a fleet of ships, immortal ships,
Soon to sail out over the measureless seas,
On the soul's voyage. (endquote)
One of the great rewards of university life is that we enjoy a state of perpetual renewal. Each day we have the opportunity to chart a new course in Whitman's proverbial soul's voyage. Each year we are renewed as we send forth a class of students we have come to know and love, whom we have provoked and nurtured, and from whom we too have learned much.
Thank you for that, and congratulations to you all as you commence to "sail out over the measureless seas, On your souls' voyages."
*Prepared remarks may differ from delivered remarks