May 20, 2020: Commencement Address

Let me begin by again congratulating our graduates today on all your many accomplishments over the course of your years here at Peabody.  You have worked hard, overcome obstacles, and likely called on internal resources you never knew you had in order to get to this point.  And now, you are at the beginning of a great adventure, one that will have its peaks and valleys, but you have learned to be resilient and always to return to the purpose that has driven you to be an artist from the beginning. 

All that said, we should not pretend that we have been in a “normal” time over the last several months.  While we have certainly strived to create some sense of normalcy – here you are graduating on time – it’s been anything but normal.  This virtual graduation attests to that. 

In early March we learned that we would need to move online for the instruction of our students, and off-campus for everyone, in a matter of days.  This amounted to a change in paradigm that was almost instantaneous.  While we had been building our online capacity for several years, we would now need to exponentially ramp up that capability.    

Students, faculty and staff, worked incredibly hard and with great purpose to make this productive.  And the learning has continued – not perfectly and not without challenges – but continued, nonetheless.  Faculty have looked for creative, often brilliant ways to teach their subjects.  Students looked for ways to rise above the challenges, determined to take as much as possible away from the experience.  Staff worked behind the scenes to support the new paradigm. 

I know it hasn’t been perfect and I know it wasn’t the spring semester that any of us would have envisioned or probably chosen.  But it’s what we had to do.  And while the last few months represented proportionally a small part of your time at Peabody, you didn’t get to realize everything in all the ways you likely imagined. 

As I have reflected on all this, several important takeaways have risen to the surface. 

The first goes to something that we hope you have learned during your time at Peabody – art matters.  There’s a memorable line in the movie Jurassic Park where Dr. Malcom, the mathematician who specializes in chaos theory notes that “life, finds a way.”  The same can be said of art – art finds a way

You found new ways in the last two months to continue to learn and to grow.  Faculty found new ways to teach.  Peabody found a new way despite the absence of live performances to push the work of its students and faculty out into the world through Peabody ArtReach in the form of archived concerts, living room concerts, musical moments, teaching vignettes and more.  Performing arts organizations around the world despite being shuttered have done the same thing.

And we’ve all learned more from it.  How to reach people – how to touch people at a time when they need it more than ever.  That’s what art does.  I was especially reminded of this recently when social media captured the vision of a solo violinist giving an impromptu concert on a rooftop in Italy, with many coming out on their balconies to listen to this welcome distraction from everyday life.  Art finds a way. 

The second takeaway is that we also learned or were reminded with new urgency that this idea of flexibility and looking for new ways to make art relevant, and finding new pathways, is part of being a 21st century artist.  Aside from this Pandemic, this is something that artists were already facing for many different reasons – economic, lifestyle changes, changes in educational priorities, and more.

This last several months have given us an opportunity – a real life opportunity, to apply that flexibility and creativity to finding new ways to make, teach and disseminate music and dance and other artforms.  And that may be the silver lining in this.  The fact is that this is something that artists must do – with and without a pandemic – to ensure a great future for the role of arts across our communities. 

This isn’t in any way to imply that live performances won’t continue to be important as that rooftop concert demonstrates – in fact, live performance may get a renewed sense of purpose.  I hope so.  Sometimes absence makes the heart grow fonder.  And there is nothing that substitutes for the shared, live experience.  But it has made us think anew about what role technology can play – what things does it help to accentuate and what are its limitations.  We also know if history is any guide that the technology will continue to evolve – maybe to a point where one day sooner than we might imagine it is not even discernible from a live, real time, experience.  Think virtual reality.    

I would go so far as to say over the last few months we’ve all had a real-life Breakthrough Curriculum experience.  We’ve had to learn to be more flexible, more creative, and more willing to try different pathways to success, and even to rethink what constitutes success. 

I hope you take that away from the last two months of your Peabody experience because as strange as it sounds, it will stand you in good stead as you face other challenges, hopefully far less extraordinary, as you move through your professional careers.    

It is true that you are going out into the field of the performing arts at a challenging time.  The reality is that building a career out of something you love has never been easy.  It’s a calling.  And we must recognize the challenge that this once-in-a-century event presents to already-fragile performing arts institutions, large and small.  These institutions are always among the most vulnerable – we operate even in good times with small margins. 

But it will get better – it will improve, and arts institutions will be back.  Art finds a way.  As you move out into the field to start your careers you will need to summon up every aspect of your skills, your craft, artistry, creativity, your business acumen, and yes, your resilience. 

Remember that you have chosen a wonderful field, a field that has purpose, inspiration and the potential to give great joy.  Your job will be to make sure that you become not just practitioners of the arts, but builders, advocates, and trend setters dedicated to building a stronger than ever community of art lovers for the coming decades.

We will be here cheering you on.  I look forward to following every success I know you will have, and your entire Peabody family – faculty, colleagues, alumni – stand ready to support your next steps. 

Good luck, and again, congratulations on this very special day.