May 23, 2017: Commencement Address

I want to begin by again saluting our graduates on your enormous accomplishments, but the first thing I want you to do is turn around to your families and thank them again, because you owe them big time.  Go ahead, do that!  It’s important to recognize your families and friends who have given their love and support and helped you on your way.  Nobody does this on their own.

Now, congratulations to our graduates on all the work you’ve done, the hours of time you’ve committed to perfecting your craft, the music you’ve made, the subjects you’ve mastered, and the path you’ve created for yourselves for this next very important phase in your professional lives as artists, scholars and teachers.

I can’t help but be struck by the fact that you’ve been here and done this during a very interesting and transformative time for Peabody, and in the music world.  I ask you to think about this in the context of your own development.

Over the last several years, Peabody has moved toward taking its rightful place as a leader in reimagining the training of musicians at the highest level, but now in the context of what that means today, in this second decade of the 21st century.

As the oldest conservatory in the United States, Peabody holds a special place in the traditional training of professional musicians, and has adhered to its core commitment to excellence in performance, composition, and other elements of the musical arts.  Now we are building on that tradition and recognizing that while the focus on excellence is vital and necessary, it is not enough.  And never believe that this is an “either or” choice; it is “both and.”  There is a greater context in which this training must happen, and in which we must see ourselves as musicians.

This requires the ability to take stock of what you do well, tackle what you need to do better, and be bold in doing it.  As we talk about transformation and change, we can look at our own recent story.

Over the last year, Peabody has taken the bold step of creating a new curriculum for the 21st Century, our Breakthrough Curriculum, which for the first time integrates into the training of every Peabody student essential skills of communicating about your art; skills for developing audiences for your art; real-time experiences in what the role of the artist is in community, and what community engagement means; the impact of technology and how to leverage and master its benefits; and the ability to be a flexible, facile musician able to step into professional roles that will require you to stretch musically more than you might ever have imagined.

Many of you have taken part in this work, whether participating in task force discussions; through the Dean’s Incentive Grants program, or piloting community outreach components of the new curriculum – a curriculum which redefines what professional music training must be in this new world.

Some exciting examples to point to over this past year include incentive grant-funded projects like computer music graduate student, Yian Hwang’s project, “The Trace of Life” which creates an interdisciplinary composition that combines computer music, neuroscience, instrumental performance, visual arts and dance; or undergraduate Cynthia Sun’s project measuring operating forces in string instruments which focuses on developing a patentable device with an eye toward reducing playing related injury; or there is the Peabody Student String Ensemble created by faculty member Maria Lambros, which has performed throughout the community at sites as diverse as homeless shelters, veteran organizations and prisons.  These examples, along with the Peabody Pop-Ups that continued this past fall sending more than 30 Peabody students out across Baltimore for a series of impromptu performances, all speak to the idea of finding new and important ways to see ourselves as musicians, to engage audiences, and to make music relevant and accessible for more people – to truly give the gift of music.

What we do is about more than any single recital, performance or audition, as important as that is.  It means thinking about how to be prepared for a more expansive role as an artist.  This is important because if we don’t think about our role in developing and growing audiences, who will be there to listen?  If we don’t think about diversifying and broadening our view of what our field entails, how will we broaden and diversify our audiences?

Peabody is leading in a meaningful way.  Who benefits from this?  First, our students are the beneficiaries because they learn to be great musicians and teachers in the context of a world in which they will find themselves.  The community benefits because what better way to intersect with and serve our community than by making it an extension of the classroom and studios here on campus.  And the performing arts organizations that you will enter in the years ahead benefit because you will bring a bright, new perspective that is badly needed in the world of the traditional performing arts, especially music, and most especially classical music.

As we approach the 40th anniversary of Peabody’s affiliation with Johns Hopkins University, we are also taking steps towards leveraging that unique relationship and competitive advantage that we hold as part of a world-renowned research university.  The evolving center for music and medicine which has as its dual focus and emphasis on injury prevention and wellness for performing artists who depend on their bodies in very much the same way that athletes do, along with studying the palliative use of music on a range of disorders from Parkinson’s to Alzheimer’s disease.  Here too, Peabody is prepared to lead and is already doing so with projects like development of the Smart Guitar, screenings for vocalists so they understand their own physiology, a health and wellness-focused seminar series, and a proposed clinic for performing arts injury that will be set up right here at Peabody.  What an enormous benefit this work can have – indeed, is already having – for our students who in coming to Peabody can learn early on, how to navigate and perhaps even avoid debilitating and career threatening injury.

These projects, and others, have already benefited from bringing together more than 70 partners in various medical disciplines as this initiative grows.

We are also thinking broadly about program development.  We’re expanding dramatically Peabody’s on-line presence including programs in wellness that can serve our alumni and other professionals, starting a conservatory-level dance program, and a new media program focused on creating and producing music for video, augmented and virtual reality. This is cutting edge stuff which builds on a core strength here in composition and recording arts, and complements an expanded commitment to music of our time, which many of you took part in as members of our new music ensemble, Now Hear This, or as performers on two recordings in as many years, by the Peabody Symphony Orchestra for Naxos records’ American Masters series, conducted by two world renowned conductors, Marin Alsop and Leonard Slatkin.

At the same time, our Peabody Diversity Pathway Task Force’s work has begun in earnest.  Focusing on a range of issues from programming and curriculum to recruitment of students from underrepresented minorities, to issues of inclusion and diversity on campus, we recognize here that the work is just beginning, not just for Peabody, but for our field.  Here too we can lead.  The seriousness with which we take this issue is critical.  There may not be easy answers, and these may not always be easy conversations, but they’re necessary conversations, and there are answers.  Again, I relate this issue back to our field in saying that if we want to broaden and expand audiences, we must broaden the backgrounds of the artists on our stages.  And that will result in a broader depth to the excellence we always seek, and it does in time build audiences by welcoming new people to the experience.  It’s both the right thing to do as well as enlightened self-interest.

Today’s graduates have already experienced elements of these changes.  The fact that you’ve been in an environment discussing change and innovation, should be good training for what you are going to find in your futures.  Because make no mistake about it, ready or not, the changes that have impacted so many fields and professions, are going to continue in our profession unabated.  Your ability to be flexible, to navigate, be prepared for, and embrace changes in our field, in audiences, programming, venues you’ll perform in, our very definition of what performance means – these are all central to your futures as artists.  You have witnessed important changes at this institution as we set a course for Peabody’s role in professional training, in Baltimore, and at Johns Hopkins University.

When Peter Sellars visited Peabody recently for a Dean’s Symposium and a number of working sessions with students, many of us were astounded by Peter’s perspective on life, music and our profession.  He is astonishing in so many ways.  He and I had a chance to talk about our four strategic pillars of Excellence, Interdisciplinary Experiences, Innovation and Community Connectivity.  In true Peter fashion, he looked immediately at the pillars and remarked, “no, no, this is great, it’s exactly right, but you must reverse these.  Begin with community and innovation, and when you do that right, that results in excellence.”

Like many things in life, we are coming full circle.  Peabody was founded as a cultural center; a concert series, a museum, a lecture series, a library, even before it became a preparatory or conservatory.  This holistic view of what it means to be a musician has come full circle.  We build on our tradition of excellence but understand that we must be in and of the community; the university community, the civic life of Baltimore, and the international community.  We have a major role to play, and with all its accomplishments of the last 160 years, I am sure that Peabody’s best days are ahead, and yours as graduates and the future of our art form, are as well.  But it depends on your carrying forth and being prepared to seize the opportunities that come, some of which may be unexpected, and that you do so with a flexibility and openness that will serve you, and music, well.

Good luck – we’re really, really proud of you.