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May 22, 2019: Commencement Address

I want to again congratulate all our graduates, all of you today on your many impressive accomplishments.  You have worked hard, faced 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 it all.  Please give a big round of applause to those that have supported you on your journey.

So, here we are, and we’re celebrating your great success as we should.  That’s what today is about – the celebration of your success, of your hard work and efforts.  You have become deeper, more thoughtful artists and scholars.  You owe that to your hard work and determination, and the commitment and dedication of the faculty with whom you have worked during your time at Peabody.  I know you all know how deeply your faculty are invested in your success – and I am sure you have thanked them as well.

At the same time, I want to turn your attention to asking the question, what are you going to do with this now?  Some of you will continue your studies, some will go out and start careers.  Eventually, we are all faced with, what’s next?

And it’s a little sketchy out there.  The Chicago Symphony just came off of a seven week strike.  Also in Chicago, the Lyric Opera Orchestra was on strike last year.  The Pittsburgh Symphony was on strike in 2016, and settled with a 7% salary cut in the first year.  Right here in Baltimore, the Baltimore Symphony has been playing for months without a contract, and faces an uncertain future.  That gets your attention.

The uncertainty extends beyond the orchestra or opera world to dance companies, other forms of entertainment, and many businesses.  There is more competition than ever for eyeballs and ears, for dollars, and for that most precious of consumer resources, time.

Here’s a sobering statistic.  According to a National Endowment for the Arts survey, in the first decade of the 21st century, the percentage of U.S. adults who attended at least one classical music event a year declined from 11.6 to 8.8 percent in just 10 years.  That’s a challenging trajectory.

Certainly, there are myriad reasons for this: gaps in music education in our schools, changing lifestyles and technology, to name a few.

We also have to consider demographics as we look to the future.  According to Census Bureau data, in 2014, the United States was effectively two-thirds white, one-third non-white.  By 2060, that will flip.  And classical music and other arts – unless diversity is addressed – will be recruiting performers and attracting audiences from a shrinking minority.

This is both a huge opportunity and a challenge.  If we’re going to prosper, future audiences will have to be much more diverse than we can even dream of today.  And audiences will only become diverse when the performers on stage are diverse.  More on that in a moment.

Today, I want to challenge you to think about how you as artists going out into the world can have a positive impact.  I ran several large orchestras, and now I run a large music school, and despite a challenging landscape, I have always been and continue to be optimistic about what’s possible.  But you have to think about why what you do matters, and how you’re going to get others to care about it, to see the intrinsic value in what you produce.

You already know that you will need to be as persistent, creative and resilient in making the case for what you do as you are in making music.  You are hopefully thinking about these critical issues.  The idea is to confront this head on, before it confronts you.

Now, orchestras are not especially creative places.  I single out orchestras, because it’s something I know well, but it’s not just orchestras that I worry about.  I worry about institutions that are built largely on the past, and are slow to recognize the vibrancy and the promise of the future, whether it’s in the work of living composers, different blends and styles of music, or caring enough about building new and different audiences for the future.  These things can add an immeasurable element of richness to what we do.

I believe the survival and indeed prospering of classical music and many other art forms – at least in this country and I dare say elsewhere – is going to be built on a triangle, a three-legged stool if you will, of excellence, innovation and diversity.

We are all very familiar and comfortable with the notion of excellence, it’s what we have focused on our whole lives, and it’s what has gotten you here, today.  And we can never overstate how important it is.  It’s a competitive world and you have to be outstanding.  In fact, it is excellence in performance that makes art compelling and inspires others.  You learned long ago to dig deep in your art and be the best you can be.  That never-ending search for making something better is what artists live for.

The second leg of the stool is innovation.  That’s a hard one in fields built on the past.  But it can come in many wonderful forms – in diverse and unexpected programming, in new formats, in creative community engagement, in how we present and talk about what we do, and in the partnerships we build across other disciplines and art forms.  You as young artists are hopefully thinking about this, even if that just means recognizing that these issues will be part of your artistic and professional lives.

The third leg of the stool is diversity.  We must recognize that classical music has a diversity problem and we must act aggressively to remedy that problem.

Classical music was once part of popular culture.  As we all know, Paganini and Liszt were rock stars in their days.  Even in the 20th century, classical music was featured on television way before your time, for example, in the “Bell Telephone Hour” and Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts, and in Looney Tune cartoons.  Think Bugs Bunny.

But as time went on, classical music became an exclusive club, a closed inner sanctum that – certainly in the United States – represented and served a primarily older, whiter, more affluent demographic.

While there are notable exceptions – classical performers, conductors and composers today remain not exclusively, but largely homogeneous.  As do audiences.  And by the way, this extends to dance.  A true bright spot is in Jazz which through its rich diversity and the place it’s taken in educational and performing arts institutions today is helping to change this world.

It’s not that diversity in our world hasn’t been an area of concern.  For more than 30 years, orchestra leaders have discussed diversity in their ensembles.  American orchestras have also talked earnestly about attracting more diverse audiences; they have launched sometimes impressive community engagement efforts.

Yet, despite gains by women, something we celebrate, our orchestras are no more diverse today with regard to underrepresented minorities, specifically African-American and Latino musicians, than they were when this conversation began decades ago.

Two years ago, the Peabody Institute made diversity one of five pillars in our strategy.  And we have moved the needle on underrepresented minority faculty from 6.5 percent of total faculty last year to 10 percent this year, nearly twice on average of music schools nationally.  At the same time, our underrepresented minority applicant pool increased 33 percent for this next year resulting in 100 underrepresented minority students for this coming fall, nearly 15 percent of Peabody’s student population.  We are committed to continuing this progress.  Our challenge also is to make sure that once here, all students at Peabody can prosper.  We know there is work to do on that, and are committed to efforts to ensure that a welcoming environment exists for all students here.

I hope you are proud to be graduating from a school that says this is important.  Everyone in the arts – in conservatories, orchestras and ensembles, opera and dance companies, at presenting organizations and elsewhere – must see diversity as more than the right thing to do.  It’s an   existential question.  A strategic imperative that will be a prerequisite for classical music and other performing art forms’ prospering in this country and beyond.

Many Peabody students are already experiencing the three concepts that I’m talking with you about, today.  Many of you graduating here today participated in a program that beautifully put front and center how powerful the result is when excellence, innovation and diversity come together.  Peabody’s performance of Leonard Bernstein’s MASS this past fall, was a performance characterized by these three qualities, implemented through partnerships reaching beyond traditional boundaries.  The result was a community-based event with 3,000 people attending, many of whom were still talking about their experience long after it ended.  That’s the kind of impact you can have and demonstrates the power you possess as artists.

Excellence, Innovation, Diversity.  I hope you will think about these things as being inextricably linked, mutually reinforcing, and all central to creating a healthy eco-system for artists and arts in the decades ahead.  You are that future and I am really counting on you to do this differently, and to do it better than it’s been done in the past.  We’re all counting on you.

Thank you.  Congratulations again, and good luck.