May 23, 2018: Commencement Address

I want to again congratulate all our graduates, all of you today on your many impressive accomplishments. You have worked hard, suffered setbacks, triumphed and done things you once thought impossible. Now, as a first order of business, I invite all of you to stand up – all graduates right now, turn around and thank your family and friends who have been there with you each step of the way, through your triumphs and failures – and yes, if you didn’t have some of those, we didn’t do our job. Please give a big round of applause to those that have supported you on your journey.

You enter the world today as young adults and professionals at both an exciting, and daunting time. It is impossible to look around at the world and not come to the conclusion that we are in a time of unprecedented change and evolution. This is true of many fields, music included, as well as many aspects of our culture. For all of us engaged with arts institutions, it’s incumbent upon us to not just navigate, but set the pace for, and lead that change. This, after all, has been the hallmark of the arts: to challenge, question and find new ways of seeing the world.

So what is Peabody’s role in this change? As the oldest conservatory in the United States today, and as a division of one of the world’s great universities – Johns Hopkins, The Peabody Institute has an especially important role to play in leading change in the field of music. It is the reason that this past fall Peabody launched a unique approach to training 21st century musicians. The Breakthrough Curriculum puts a stake in the ground around this issue by saying that it is no longer enough to be an outstanding musician and performer although we know that is paramount – but in today’s world one must be a good communicator, effective programmer, and a citizen artist in every sense. Embrace it or not, today we are all in the audience development business.

Similarly, in another first, The Johns Hopkins Rehabilitation Network Clinic for Performing Artists at the Peabody Institute opened on our campus in April, a major step forward in serving injury prevention needs of our students and other members of the wider musical community, and in doing so, putting front and center an issue that has damaged too many careers.

Peabody has also chosen to put a stake in the ground around the issue of diversity and inclusion. It is no secret that the world of classical music has been largely devoid of diversity – look at symphony orchestras. Sadly, they look no more diverse today than 25 years ago, when orchestras began to talk about this challenge.

But that is where we come in. Because the discipline of the arts, especially music, requires early access to training, moving the needle here mandates a commitment by institutions like Peabody to make diversity a core value.

We should really ask ourselves in a deep way, why does diversity matter?

I see four fundamental reasons. First, it’s the right thing to do and doing the right thing will always be in the interest of the institution. Second, as we have seen in business and other enterprises, diversity begets excellence. And we are all about excellence. Third, musical barriers are breaking down. Different genres of music are influencing today’s composers, and vice versa – classical music is influencing other voices. In order to foster this fantastic and rich landscape, we benefit from different creative voices in that conversation, as performers, composers, and audiences.

Apropos this point, it is exciting and remarkable news that the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in music went to rapper Kendrick Lamar for his album DAMN. Lamar is the first composer outside of the classical or jazz arenas to be awarded a Pulitzer. And one of the critical subtexts of his win is the message that it sends about how musical boundaries are uncontained – they are breaking down. For too long we have seen art and music as a function of silos – pop here, classical over there, jazz somewhere else, you get the idea. It doesn’t work anymore. It is artificial.

Which leads to the fourth, and perhaps most important point. Diversity is key to future audience development. If we want to be growing audiences for the future, we need to attract a more diverse audience. This will be even more essential as demographics shift in the coming decades. We need to understand and leverage that shift. And ultimately, we will only truly diversify our audiences if we diversify the performers on our stages. That is quite simply why the focus on diversity and inclusion is not only right, it’s also smart and vital for the future of classical music and in the interest of all genres of music.

Now, as I have sat back and thought even more about what is underneath all these initiatives, indeed what is underneath the whole notion of being a musician, more than, anything, it is about listening. Yes, it’s about doing, but there can be no music without listening.

If we’re playing in an orchestra, we have to listen. If we’re playing chamber music, we have to listen. We have to listen to ourselves, and we have to listen to others. Our whole art form is based on active listening and the exchange of ideas through listening.

So, when we talk about the 21st century musician and skills necessary to not just make art, but to make art relevant, it’s about more than community engagement. It’s about active listening – it’s about as Eric Booth would say, and I’m paraphrasing, it’s about engaging in dialogue with our potential audience, listening to the framework of their lives, and trying to figure out how we can add value in a meaningful, substantive and relevant way. Through dialogue and understanding.

In many ways, the aspirations around diversity and inclusion pose the same question. Are we listening? Are we really listening? Can we hear things the way others do?

We live in a time when it’s tempting not to listen. The politics, the level of discourse, the inability to distinguish fact from fiction, or worse, the lack of caring about that distinction.

What we do has the ability to cut through all that with music. Anyone who has ever made music, knows there is no lying – there is no deceit there. Performance and art reveal truth and vulnerability.

So it occurs to me that here we are – a community of musicians, a world unto ourselves. And we have all the challenges of the larger world. We have relationships, we have people with voices and those that are struggling to be heard. We have people we feel in sync with, others with whom we do not. And from time to time, civility is challenged.

But it also occurs to me that we have a huge advantage. We’re a community of listeners. Active listeners. We’re listening as musicians to each other. We’re listening to the outside world as to how we can be of service.

So perhaps we can improve our own experiment here – our own ability to listen, and be a model for others in this area in much the same way we’re modeling new modes of training. There is a lot of passion on this campus. It mostly gets channeled positively and productively. But maybe we can all do a little better. Maybe we can all listen a little better to each other – as musicians, people and colleagues. That doesn’t mean nirvana – it doesn’t mean we’ll always agree. It just means we listened. We listened a little more. And in the process, made this an even better place. Thank you.