May 25, 2022: Graduation Address

I feel like commencement speeches should come with some kind of a warning, so I’ll quote the cartoonist Gary Trudeau, who said:

Commencement speeches were invented largely in the belief that outgoing college students should never be released into the world until they have been properly sedated.” I’ll try my best not to sedate you but I make no guarantees.

Now to be serious, how great is it for us to be here, live, in person, together. It’s taken some time to get here, but we did – you did!

And that’s the place I want to start. By again congratulating our graduates today on all your many accomplishments during your time here at Peabody, all done while navigating some pretty challenging circumstances. You did not let that deter you. You have worked hard, overcome obstacles, and called on internal resources you probably never knew you had in order to get to this point. And now, you will set off on a great adventure, one that will have its peaks and valleys, but you have learned to be resilient, especially over the last two years, and always to return to the purpose that has driven you to be an artist from the beginning.

I invite you to take a moment to think about, and again thank, all the people in your lives that have helped you arrive at this point today. None of us do it ourselves. Parents, grandparents, siblings, friends, teachers, mentors, and others were there to help you find your way, perhaps when you had your doubts. So – please do thank all the folks that have made a difference in your life. And again, I think you have to most of all applaud yourselves for your perseverance, determination, and grit. Well done!

I also want to take a moment to celebrate our first graduating cohorts in Music for New Media and Dance. When we launched these programs four years ago, we could not have imagined how quickly they would have risen to the top in terms of quality, excellence, and prestige. All of you who are graduating in this first cohort took a chance in coming here, but somehow you knew that with leadership like danah bella and Thomas Dolby and the other outstanding faculty, you would be in good hands. As Elle noted earlier, it was still a leap of faith. Today these programs stand as a testament to our faculty and students looking forward.

Now the question is, what do all of you, all our graduates, do with your accomplishments? I don’t have to tell you that you’re going out into the world at a pretty remarkable and challenging time, but one in which you have the capacity to change that world, and to influence it, because you are artists.

Here we are, emerging from a pandemic that, make no mistake about it, has left scars. You are going out into the performing arts at a time when the challenges already there, have only been exacerbated by COVID.

And beyond that, you are starting your careers at a tumultuous time generally. At times, it may seem the divisions are insurmountable, that things aren’t going in a good direction, or even that the world is on fire, metaphorically and sometimes, literally.

That’s the challenge. But here is the part that I really want to focus on. You have the chance to impact all this now, locally in your communities, or wherever you are. You have an extraordinary power literally at your fingertips. You have the power of art which you can use to change lives, one at a time. I know, it sounds cliché. But it is really true. With what you do, you can lighten a person’s burden. You can, through your music and dance not just entertain, but express what others may be feeling, and in that sense become a mirror that reflects back those feelings as if to say, I understand, I am empathetic. Not long ago on our campus we saw a stellar example of this when three students, Denis Savelyev, Ramilya Saubanova, and Evanghelina Ciobanu, performed a concert to mark the terrible events in Ukraine. A concert they organized themselves, and which contributed to frontline aid. It was these artists’ commitment and authenticity that made this evening truly memorable.

From time to time I teach a seminar on Arts Leadership. I taught it this fall, and actually I know several of my students in this last class are graduating this year. I love teaching the class because it allows me to get to know a handful of you all in a way that I can’t know every student, although I wish I could. What I also especially love increasingly about this class is the creative thinking that I see from you, as young artists looking at the world. For many of you, there is an altruism, a sense of lifting up the community with music or dance, and really thinking beyond the very limited parameters of “I get on stage. I play for an audience for 90 minutes, and I leave.”

It’s true sometimes we do that. And that’s fine. But increasingly artists are leaving their mark in different, more profound, and perhaps more lasting ways.

One of the things my students do in this class is create a vision, mission, programming and organizational structure for an artistic institution that they dream up. Jotaro Nakano and Marques Caesar-Lopez created Harmonic Connections with its mission to connect and harmonize the many diverse communities of Baltimore through arts collaboration, and then backed it up with a plan to execute on the idea.  Sam Broomell and Patrick Towey created Euphoniac Alley, envisioned to present and preserve a diverse artistic history by inspiring creativity across musical eras and ​generations.  And there is Negar Afazel and Lindsey Choung who created the Hope String Academy, which was imagined as an after-school program for string players, dedicated to nurturing musical abilities and social awareness through musical education and enrichment classes, with a coinciding mission of giving opportunities to international musicians as instructors in the program.

And this kind of creative thinking isn’t restricted to the Arts Leadership seminar. In fact, the Breakthrough Curriculum’s Pitch class has become a hotbed of creative ideas. I know this because now each year a number of those are selected to present or pitch to me for funding. I’ve been so impressed at the blossoming creativity of those ideas in recent years, a great example being one advanced by graduating senior, Kaijeh Johnson, whose virtual platform Second Movement provides access to artist experts of color, and advice for black and brown musicians as to how to advance and navigate a field that has lacked in diversity for way too long. Or there is Laura Carskadden’s Gender Bias in Opera project, that seeks to address the harmful stereotypes of women in many traditional operas, by swapping genders and turning stereotypes on their head, and then assessing how audiences may react through the lens of their own implicit biases. And then there is Samuel Hollister’s Aurora Baltimore that creates an interdisciplinary experience involving chamber orchestra performing newly commissioned works, which are then featured alongside new artwork and poetry inspired by the composition.

What I am driving at is that you as artists can singularly make a difference, and embrace change because you have the ability to adapt, to think creatively and broadly about how to both do good, and advance your career, conventionally and unconventionally. And this isn’t me saying you can or should do this. You are doing it. Your colleagues are doing it. And if you’re not yet, maybe they will inspire you to consider how you can shape your own future, and in the process, make a real contribution to the field and the world.

So now, take it out of the classroom and the practice room, and bring it to life – really go for it!

This is now my eighth graduation speech to our students and I am more optimistic than ever. You could certainly argue that the environment hasn’t gotten easier, in fact harder, more complex, more challenging. But I’m optimistic because our students more than ever are open, more creative and embracing of the idea of making their own path, charting their own course, and at the same time, staying committed to something they deeply love – the art – the work, which is the reason you all came to this in the first place.

I wish you well. We are incredibly proud of you. We believe in you, and I encourage you to always remember your own resilience, and that your future ultimately truly is in your own hands more than you might imagine.

Congratulations again, to our new graduates, and your families. Bravo and well done!