September 15, 2016: Convocation Address

Welcome to all of you.  It’s wonderful to see you.  It’s always so inspirational to me when the year starts.  The energy of our students is palpable.  Now, why are you here?  I mean, I know the obvious, you’re here to learn your instrument and to learn music; to be able to get good enough to make a career.  But, why are you really here?  I hope you’ll spend some time thinking about that if you haven’t already.

Yes, you’re here to practice.  Practice hard – this is a chance to do that!  Get all you can out of your outstanding teachers.  At the same time, expand your horizons.  There is a breadth of musical opportunities before you.  Be eclectic and seek out different experiences – it will pay off.  You should want to perform in every configuration you can get yourself into, and every genre imaginable.  The same for the academic opportunities – there is a whole university out there.  And beyond the university, the city is your campus – don’t live in a bubble.  I promise you that in any job you’re lucky enough to get, community will increasingly be part of what you do.  Find the joy in it.

Now, here’s something you may not know.  The Peabody Institute was not founded as a music school, it was founded as a cultural center for the city.  It started as a library, a lecture series, an art gallery, and yes, a performance space before becoming a conservatory later on – it was in its formation a cultural mecca for the region.  Springing from its supporters were individuals who went on to found Baltimore’s museums, its orchestra, even Johns Hopkins University.  So when we talk about the importance of a broad and holistic view, we come by it genuinely – it’s in the bones and DNA of the Peabody Institute.  And it’s that very history and boldness of it, coupled with a great tradition of training professional musicians, that gives us the imperative and obligation to look differently at music, its impact and how we shape our role accordingly and how you are shaped as musicians.

So with that in mind, there are important questions that I hope you’ll ask yourselves.  And I suppose it brings us back to my question about why you’re really here.  It’s another way of asking, why does what you do, what we do, matter?

What does being a musician mean today?

What kinds of skills will I need to be able to navigate an environment that is vastly different than it was just a decade or two ago, and will be vastly different still 10 years from now?

How do we as artists make a difference in this brave new world?

What makes a meaningful performance? It’s not just about playing well, or the hall you’re playing in.  It may not even be a hall.  It’s about the connection you make with the listener.

Is that the same for all audiences?

Are some audiences more important than others?  Do you make a value judgment about that?

What do I bring that is uniquely me?  That’s an important one.  Each of you are a small, independent business that needs a vision or mission, a plan, and yes, customers.

If you think you know the answers to these questions, you’re ahead of the game.  But don’t worry if you do not, yet.

Part of your time here should be focused on finding the answers to these questions, and others, as you hone your musical skills.  It will not always be easy.  You may have to challenge long-held assumptions.  Some people may tell you it’s impossible to do anything other than practice and play your instrument, and that there is one path.  They’re mistaken, and I believe that because having led major performing arts organizations, I’ve witnessed the pace of change in the professional arts environment, and seen the consequences and benefits of artists who are well prepared for this, or sadly and more commonly, are not.  Are you open to it?  Can you imagine the possibilities?  See what performing artists at the highest level are doing – and it’s increasingly more than what we imagine it to be.  Ask Yo-Yo Ma, whose community work today in many ways is front and center of what he does.

Soon enough community connectivity will be part of the curriculum here and you will have an opportunity to learn firsthand why this matters.  For now, at this moment in time, what I offer you is this.  Practice and make every moment count.  But don’t stop there.  Be curious; be flexible; learn to innovate and experiment; learn different skills; stretch yourselves; make room for more than you think you have room for.

I think of Frances Pollock, singer, composer and recent Peabody alumna, who last year wrote the moving and timely opera, Stinney, produced it herself in the community, and has just been commissioned by the Washington Opera.  Or Julian Xuereb, who set up shop in residence in a senior retirement home and in exchange for living accommodations, works as an artist-in-residence.  Or the Marquee Brass who will be the second round of participants in the Young Artist Development Series we launched last year with a week-long, full-on community residency in El Paso Texas.  Never, ever underestimate the value of flexibility and creativity – musically, professionally, personally – learn that now, not later.  These folks I just mentioned know what I’m talking about.

Also, never stop loving what you do – we are so lucky to have the passion we have.  Lots of people go through life without a passion – don’t take it for granted.  Your ultimate professional challenge will be how to share that passion and make it relevant to others.  This is a unique time in your lives – believe it or not, it doesn’t last forever.  This is the canvass on which you get to paint your future.  Make the most of it.  And have an awesome year.