Flying mortarboards, Lincoln Center, May 23, 2013
But afterwards, on the way to the graduation celebration at my parents house, we needed to deliver an envelope to my boyfriend's father's department office, in the university hospital. The errand felt anticlimactic—the business of the envelope did not concern me, and I was impatient to get to the party. But I needed a ride. So mortarboard in hand, the gown draped heavy on arm, I followed my boyfriend into the wrong wing of the confusing hospital and things went bad quickly. A door slammed behind us and we couldn't reopen it. Somehow, we had accidentally entered a sterile surgical area. Strangers rushed up to us with gowns and paper slippers. "How did you two get in here?" hissed a masked man in a scrub suit. "Put these on!" and we were rushed through a maze of blinding white corridors. It was hard to walk with paper slippers covering my heels. Right, left, right—lost in a complicated building right next door to the university where we'd spent four cozy years. Finally, heavy doors opened and we were spat out, blinking, into a familiar-looking hallway. The office we were looking for was just around the corner. My boyfriend smiled sheepishly. "I knew it was around here somewhere." We dropped off the envelope and headed to the party.
Sometimes life imitates metaphor.
Commencement ceremonies are a time of celebration, for sure, but mixed with anxiety. Particularly in this economy, and particularly for arts students. This month my husband and I attended a couple of graduations: Tyler School of Art at Temple University, where daughter #2 graduated with a BFA in Glass Art, and The Juilliard School, where daughter #3 received a BM (yes, that's what they call it) in Violin Performance.
On both graduation days clouds threatened rain, and the temperature was chilly. At the Tyler graduation, framed by a terrifying mural of giant yellow owl eyes (Temple's mascot), the Provost spoke of the difficulties of a life in art, of the need to be resilient, to be prepared for failure, and how one learns more from failure than success. The graduates leaned forward beneath the gaze of the owl; their parents leaned back. What future were they headed towards? What maze of corridors? What would be come of us all?
The owl keeps watch over Tyler School of Art's graduation.
DiDonato, who is one of the most celebrated opera divas of our time, was onstage in a line-up of illustrious honorary degree recipients including choreographer Lar Lubovitch, jazz great Marcus Roberts, architect Frank Gehry, actor Viola Davis, composer Philip Glass, and Board Chairs Bruce and Suzanne Kovner. DiDonato began by speaking of her unpromising start as a music student as a vocal education major at Wichita State University. She graduated in 1992, the year my daughter and most of her classmates were born.
"[I was] the only young artist of my class to fail at securing management until the ripe age of twenty-nine; and despite my evaluation sheet for the Houston Opera Studio which simply declared me to possess “not much talent”; and despite many more rejections and dismissals than actual “yeses”...
"...Despite all of that, I am somehow, miraculously standing before you all today...dispensing tidbits of “wisdom” before a group of artists–and this is no exaggeration–artists whom I never could have been classmates with because there is no way I could have gained admission to your school back in the day. I simply wasn't ready back then. That is the truth. One never, ever knows where their journey will lead..."
Choreograph Lar Lubovitch receives an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree in Alice Tully Hall as Joyce DiDonato, Philip Glass, Viola Davis, Frank Gehry, Marcus Roberts, faculty, and students look on.
Photo courtesy Joyce DiDonato
1. You will never make it. That's the bad news, but the shift I invite you to make is to see this as fabulous, outstanding news, for I don't believe there is actually an “it." “It” doesn't exist for an artist. One of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, right here, right now, in this single, solitary, monumental moment in your life is to decide, without apology, to commit to the journey, and not to the outcome. The outcome will almost always fall short of your expectations, and if you're chasing that elusive, often deceptive goal, you're likely in for a very tough road. For there will always be that one note that could have soared more freely, the one line reading that could have been just that much more truthful, that third arabesque which could have been slightly more extended, that one adagio which could have been just a touch more magical. There will always be more freedom to acquire and more truth to uncover. As an artist, you will never arrive at a fixed destination. This is the glory and the reward of striving to master your craft and embarking on the path of curiosity and imagination, while being tireless in your pursuit of something greater than yourself.
2. The work will never end. This may sound dreadfully daunting–especially today when you are finally getting out of here. But what I have found is that when things become overwhelming– which they will, repeatedly, whether overwhelming via unexpected, rapid success or as heart-wrenching, devastating failure–the way back to your center is simply to return to the work. Often times the work will be the only thing that makes sense. And it is here where you will find solace and truth. At the keyboard, at the barre, (the ballet barre, not the wine bar), with your bow in hand, articulating the music, the pulse, the speech, the rhythm. Be patient, but know that it will always be there for you, even if in some moments you lack the will to be there for it. All it asks is that you show up, fully present as you did when you first discovered the magic of your own artistic world when you were young. Bring that innocent, childlike sense of wonder to your craft, and do whatever you need to find that truth again. It will continually teach you how to be present, how to be alive, and how to let go. Therein lies not only your artistic freedom, but your personal freedom as well.
3. It's not about you. This can be a particularly hard, and humbling lesson to face–and it's one I've had to continue to learn at every stage of my own journey. But this is a freeing and empowering truth. You may not yet realize it, but you haven't signed up for a life of glory and adulation (although that may well come and I wish, with every fiber of my being, that it will come in the right form for every single one of you.) However, glory is not your destination, for glory is always transitory and will surely disappear just as fleetingly and arbitrarily as it arrived. The truth is, you have signed up for a life of service by going into the arts. The life-altering results of that service in other people's lives will never disappear the way fame unquestionably will. You are here to serve the words, the director, the melody, the author, the chord progression, the choreographer. And above all, most importantly, with every breath, step, and stroke of the keyboard, you are here to serve humanity.
4. The world needs you. Now, the world may not exactly realize it, but wow, does it need you. It is yearning, starving, dying for you and your healing offer of service through your art. We need you to help us understand that which is bigger than ourselves, so that we can stop feeling so small, so isolated, so helpless so that, in our fear, we stop contributing that which is unique to us: that distinct, rare, individual quality which the world is desperately crying out for and eagerly awaiting. We need you to remind us what unbridled, unfiltered, childlike exuberance feels like, so we remember, without apology or disclaimer, to laugh, to play, to fly and to stop taking everything so damn seriously. We need you to remind us what empathy is by taking us deep into the hearts of those who are, God forbid, different than us, so that we can recapture the hope of not only living in peace with each other, but thriving together in a vibrant way where each of us grows in wonder and joy. We need you to make us feel an integral part of a shared existence through the communal, universal, forgiving language of music, of dance, of poetry and art so that we never lose sight of the fact that we are all in this together and that we are all deserving of a life that overflows with immense possibility, improbable beauty and relentless truth.
All week long I've thought about DiDonato's speech. My husband, whose musical obsessions run to harpsichord and organ works, not opera, kept calling me up to remind him of her name, so he could tell his colleagues, friends, and patients about her fantastically inspiring message. A few days ago, I wrote to Joyce via her website and, graciously she wrote back with the full text of her address, which I've reformatted for reading and uploaded here.
So spread the word: this is what it means to live a life in art. It's about the journey. Your work will never end. You have entered a life of service. The world needs you.
Watch the speech on video:
Click here for a reference page to all of Karen Rile's series: A Parents' Guide to Conservatory Auditions
Was it only four years ago when we last gathered? The air at graduation was celebratory: kids in their comical headgear, and the families in their Sunday-best, ready for pomp, circumstance, and auld lang syne. We were all awash with relief following the long, difficult audition season. Remember how future felt? Bright, yet opaque. As the graduates hugged one another, they wept, joyous, sentimental, and a little afraid; soon they would scatter towards the unknowable future.
Four years later, told from today's perspective, each story unfurls, as if pitched by the steady arm of fate. The international star, the also-ran, the triumphant underdog, the tragic lost soul, the stolid learner. As with any narrative, when considered in retrospect, it seems to us now that events could not have happened any other way.
And here we are again: another commencement tomorrow. In the mental map of one's life, the college years are a large country, a continent, even. So much energy, psychic, financial and physical, devoted to preparing for the time you spend there. Yet, in reality, this space is brief.
I've been teaching in colleges for over twenty-five years (although in my own mental map, that's a smaller country than my own four college years.) And every May my seniors (wasn't it just yesterday that they were callow freshmen?) express astonishment that it's suddenly over now, this momentous part of their lives; now they're spat out into the world.
Shouldn't college be longer? Six, maybe eight years? You wonder, how could these kids be ready for life, in so little time? One thing about the culture of conservatory programs is that college generally does last more than four brief years. A few land jobs, or leave the profession, but most continue to a master's program for another couple years of performance study. At the beginning of her senior year, my daughter made a decision to go straightaway to grad school.
Four years ago when she was a 17-year-old applying to undergraduate conservatory programs, I was there for her. I made spreadsheets to help her organize repertoire lists. I booked the accompanist and the hall for prescreening tapes. I pushed the buttons on the video recorder. I downloaded the footage and formatted it with hair-raising difficulty on my balky iMac. I even walked the DVD packages to the post office. I completed the FASFA, IDOC, and CSS forms. I made flight and hotel arrangements and booked on-site accompanists. I took off from work; carried the suitcases; paced the hallways with bananas and water bottles at the ready. I dealt with the financial aid offices. I wrote the deposit check. I'm pretty sure she couldn't have done it without me.
To my eyes, my daughter seems the same as four years ago. Same looks, same sense of humor, same kid, same. Wishful thinking for a parent who leans away from the bittersweet moment of their child's absolute independence. This time around, however, she told me about her plans over the phone. I had little persuasive input about her choices. And why should I, after a four-year hiatus from involvement in her musical life? She arranged her own prescreens, recorded them herself, and uploaded them from her own computer to the audition web portals (the dread home-made DVDs having been made obsolete by advances in technology.) As an afterthought, she forwarded me the files for my own listening, which I did at my computer a hundred miles away, hearing this repertoire for the first time. She made her own travel plans, booked accompanists, and got herself to auditions and back carrying her own water bottles and bananas. I never had to miss a day of work.
What a difference, four years. "That was easy," you say. And on one level, it sure was, and it was great to see how well she handled the choreography of this large project, while simultaneously keeping up with lessons, classwork, rehearsals, and her paid fellowship work. On the other hand, my private anxiety level skyrocketed as the month of April approached—much as it had four years ago. This time around, without my input, she'd applied to only a few ultra-selective programs on the theory that if she didn't get in it would be wise to take a gap year, prepare harder, and try again. A plan that had seemed prudent in October felt suddenly precarious in March. If she didn't get in anywhere, or received no funding, what would she do? The future seemed opaque.
When my kids were little—I had four babies in seven years—they were teetering in four different directions at all moments. I remember thinking how much less fraught my life would be when I didn't need to worry about the mortal perils of tumbling down stairs or aspirating un-halved grapes. But my friends with grown children told me, "Parents never stop worrying; you just worry about different things." Puh-lease, I thought, imaging their cushy lives. You don't need to be on constant high alert; you get to sleep through the night.
Of course, my friends were right, although at the time, holding my fretful, sleep-resistant infant, I would never have been able to imagine a distant future in which I'd be up all night wondering when this infant would hear back from Yale. "How did you survive the anxiety?" I asked a fellow music-parent, whose daughter had done the grad school application circuit a year before.
"Nerves of steel," was her reply. I think she was being ironic.
I don't have nerves of steel, except in the story I tell myself, in retrospect, in the bright light of the day-after when it seems suddenly obvious that the story could not have turned out any other way.
* * *
Click here for a reference page to all of Karen Rile's series: A Parents' Guide to Conservatory Auditions
A few weeks ago I published a magazine profile on a gifted, prolific young composer, Joseph Hallman, whose grit, dedication, and talent have taken him far, despite a disadvantaged start in life:
...Hallman’s composing career is blossoming with accolades, commissions, and critical approbation. He’s been listed by WQXR as one of the 100 top composers under 40. Philadelphia Orchestra members are (still) playing his works, as are such internationally recognized concert artists as cellist and MacArthur fellow Alisa Weilstein, tubist Carol Jantsch, and members of the New York Philharmonic and the Cleveland orchestras. Most recently, he received a 2014 Grammy nomination for two pieces recorded on Sprung Rhythm, the debut album by the Maryland-based Inscape Chamber Orchestra.... (from "The Outsider Who Wouldn't Take No for an Answer". Read the rest here.)
Nowhere is the power of privilege more starkly obvious than in the classical music world, particularly among string players. Because he was an outsider, and poor, Hallman had a late start in music. Lucky for him, he was a bassoonist, not a string player, and bassoon players typically begin older because of the physical demands of the instrument. What if he'd fallen in love with violin or cello, where players begin as young as three and rarely older than seven or eight? Would he have had a career at all, given his circumstances?
Privilege: it's what we all want, but hate to admit that we have. I'll say it here: my own kids were lucky to have decent teachers and instruments. They did nothing to deserve this fortune; it was an accident of birth. They had a parent who could forgo income to supervise their practicing and drive them around to lessons and rehearsals. They had access to to the higher echelons of the pre-college music world because their parents were able to figure out how to navigate the system, even though we are not musicians ourselves. That's cultural capital in action. Consciously and unconsciously we pass information and techniques for how to manage the world onto our children. Mozart became "Mozart" for many reasons, not the least because his father Leopold understood the system.
When my oldest daughter was a young teenager she came home one Saturday from youth orchestra rehearsal brimming the painful realization that the kids who who won spots in competitive strings programs had families who either could afford lessons and instruments or who had enough insider knowledge to figure out how to get them these things. An extreme example was the 11-year-old, not even a particularly serious player, whose parents had bought her a Stradivarius (as a tax shelter, an investment.) She studied with one of the top, and most expensive teachers in the city and was placed in the elite orchestra, last chair. How could a child from a disadvantaged background compete in this arena? "This system isn't fair," my daughter said. For her, it was a political awakening.
As they grew older, our girls began to wonder about kids who had never had these privileges. How many would-be Mozarts were forfeit to their generation for lack of cultural capital? The massive loss to humankind seemed devastating.
You could argue that there are many examples of successful classical musicians (and I can name several) who rose to prominence, or at least qualified success, despite a lack of privilege. But their narratives stick in our heads because they are extraordinary and they confirm our romantic from-the-bootstrap idealism.
The truth is, it's an uneven playing field, and it tilts, undeniably, away from the have-nots. And in this way the state of classical music is a metaphor for life. It's tempting to say that a musician like Joseph Hallman succeeds because his early deprivation made him spunky and tireless. Or to suggest that he has achieved so much at a young age because he was forced to struggle. The implication is that deprivation is an advantage itself and fosters ambition.
But isn't that a little condescending? Hallman succeeds and will continue to, because he was born with energy and a resilient spirit. That's his birthright, his unearned advantage. Just imagine what happens if we move him, or another gifted, disadvantaged musician, up the continuum of material privilege.
…synesthesia is natural, almost an extra sense—so much so that such questions as "What is it like?", or "What does it mean to you?" are as unanswerable as asking, "What is it like to be alive? What is it like to be you?"
—Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia
But despite having completed both books, and despite her apparent comprehension of the elements of musical notation, one of my daughters still had difficulty sight-reading. The extent of her struggle did not become obvious for a very long time because she had a quick ear and could memorize a passage if she heard it once or twice. If she floundered during a lesson, the teacher would correct her and she'd mimic his demo perfectly. Thus, for years, she got by, undetected.
In retrospect, I see there were signs that she was different. Her reaction to music had always been extreme. For example, we could not listen to bluegrass music in the house because the harmonies elicited in her a painful sensation of thirst. That's right: bluegrass fiddles make her thirsty. And she seemed to find unbearable sadness listening to music in a minor key. Luckily, most early Suzuki repertoire is written in happy keys, but at five she would weep as she played "Gavotte in G Minor". I remember watching her during a lesson, aghast and fascinated as tears spilled alarmingly onto the varnished surface of the violin. I could barely make sense of her torment; no music had ever moved me this profoundly. The teacher simply shrugged and said, "Okay, next let's play a happy song."
But most foreign to me was her consistent claim that music had color.
"I can't read these notes because the colors keep changing!" she'd protest, as if she'd been assigned a cruel and impossible task. I'd walk over and stare at the sheets on the music stand. Black notes on white paper.
"Just concentrate," I'd sigh. As parents often do, I lived in that precarious spot between denial, frustration, and bemusement, trying to balance what I knew to be logical and true against her insistent demonstrations. We believe that we are empathetic, but the basis of empathy is an assumption that our personal experience of the world is universal. I did not see colors when I heard musical pitches or keys. How could it be that she did?
By contrast, her sisters accepted her assertion that she perceived color through music, and to some extent they claimed to share it. While driving, I would listen to their absurd banter in the back seat of the car:
"D Major is blue-green."
"D Major is so purple. F Major is blue-green. "
"Nuh-uh. C minor is purple."
And so forth. There were similar arguments concerning the colors of letters of the alphabets and days of the week. In my heart I believed these confabulations were a form of sisterly competition, and I'll admit they irked me. For one thing, the argument was never-ending: how could anyone prove, in the end, the true color of G Major or the letter E?
My daughter said she loved playing thirds, which to her evoked the warm colors (red, orange, yellow) of Starburst candy, a sweetness she could taste with her ears. But, she insisted, the colors of minor chords were musty earth tones, like paint with black pigment mixed in, and these gave her a desolate feeling.
As she grew more advanced on her instrument, she was no longer able to get by as easily on her excellent ear. Teachers and coaches grew understandably impatient, even irate, at her apparent inability or unwillingness to sightread. It was suggested that she was unprepared or careless. But she was not—music meant more to her than anything in life. It was suggested that she had a learning disability. But she did not have academic difficulties in school. Try explaining to a doctor that your only complaint is an incapacity to sight-read Shostakovich. First world problems, indeed.
When I was a child I spent a lot of time wondering what it would be like to have another sense. But just as a congenitally blind person cannot fathom sight, I could never imagine what this sense could be. Having an extra sense would inform every other sense, providing new meaning and depth to my interpretation of the world. It might go something like this:
"When there are multiple musical voices interacting with each other, complexity accrues" (as my daughter, now in her twenties, told me recently.) "The bass gives grounding and context, and the effect is intensified by the presence of the inner voices. When our quartet played a chord together, we might be purple (cello), red (viola), orange (violin 2), and yellow (violin 1). Then if we shifted up a third, or into a minor key, the cello would stay purple, but I [viola] would go from red to orange, and the violin from yellow to blue. When a violinist shifts a fourth, she jumps across the color wheel."
In quartet she played viola, gorgeously, but her inability to quickly connect with the printed score drove everyone crazy. She had one coach, a woman who'd struggled with learning disabilities in her own youth, who took time and tremendous effort to help her; under this coach's mentorship my daughter's quartet performed on From The Top's radio and TV shows, and in venues like Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center. But not every coach was as patient or understanding, and I could not blame them.
One day while my daughter was in a lesson at her teacher's house in South Philadelphia, I sat in my car in the sun in a loading zone near the Italian Market reading Oliver Sack's Musicophilia, a collection of essays on the intersection of music and neurology. The windows were rolled down; it was warm, and there was faint spoiled vegetable stench in the air. I mention the sensory details of that moment in the parking spot because my own particular brain forever weds a moment of epiphany with the setting in which the realization came to me.
When I got to the chapter on synesthesia, my heart began to race. Here, in black letters on creme-colored paper, in the words of the most popularly famous neurologist of our time, and published by Alfred A. Knopf, was a precise affirmation of everything my daughter had insisted, since early childhood. Everything, there in print. I felt a soaring sense of validation on her behalf. And I owed her an apology.
My daughter continued to study and play for the rest high school; in fact, she spent an extra year in high school in order to switch directions, as it became clear that she was not headed for a conservatory. But when I suggested to her that her synesthesia was a disability that had hindered her progress as a musician, she disagreed: her experience of music is so rich, deep, and beautiful that she would never trade it for an ordinary, flat perception. Like mine.
She took a direction in her life that would have been as unimaginable to us when she was young as her relationship with music is to me. Now an artist who works primarily in glass—colorless glass that becomes a lens through which to interpret the world—she is preparing her first solo show, her BFA thesis exhibit, titled Chromesthesia. For her, music remains the driving force in her life's art. The opening's tomorrow.
I hold it true, whate'er befall;
I feel it when I sorrow most;'
Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.
--from In Memoriam A.H.H., Alfred Lord Tennyson
When my daughter was a freshman in college, she attended a summer festival on the other side of the continent. While she was there, a wealthy philanthropist offered her the use of a bow that he owns—a family heirloom. It was an excellent bow by a London-based firm whose name would be familiar to anyone with more than a passing interest in string instruments.
My daughter was honored to accept the loan, which was open-ended, so she brought the bow home with her at the end of summer. This is not the first instrument she and her sisters have borrowed, and the arrangement has always been that we cover the item on our family's instrument insurance policy with the stipulation that any reimbursement should go directly to the owner. I contacted the philanthropist and asked whether he wanted me to insure the bow with him as the loss-payee.
The philanthropist told me by email not to bother with insurance. "... the money means nothing compared to the family value." It made me nervous to think that my daughter would be custodian of another person's valuable object without any protection. So I did add it to our instrument policy, which meant first getting an appraisal. Turns out it was worth 50% more than the philanthropist believed—perhaps only pocket change for him, but definitely not for us. I wanted to make sure he would be repaid fully if the bow were damaged or stolen.
Fast forward three years. A few days after her graduation recital, the philanthropist emailed my daughter to check in and ask what her plans were. He also asked her to return the bow: he had another student in mind to lend it to. This was not the best timing: two weeks before her graduation jury. He asked her to send the bow by FedEx. Perplexed, my daughter telephoned me, wondering how one FedExes a valuable violin bow. Wrap it in bubble wrap? Put it in a tube?
Good thing my daughter has another bow, a wonderful contemporary bow made by American maker Lee Guthrie, which she purchased herself while in high school, with money saved from gigs and appearances. The following week, while she practiced ferociously for her juries, I took an Amtrak trip to visit my daughter, for her birthday.
Outside, it was monsoon weather. The train station was full of TSA agents. As it nears the anniversary of Bin Ladin's assassination, security is high. The dangerous-looking bow case that I was carrying attracted the attention of Homeland Security officers, who pulled me out of line to examine it. They swabbed down the bow case and my backpack while their dog trod up and down, sniffing.
"What is it?"
"It's a case for a bow."
"A violin bow. It's empty. Do you want me to open it?"
The officer shook her head and waved me back into line, with a bored expression.
In the end, the exchange was easy enough. After lunch, my daughter removed the bow from her violin case and put it into the TSA-attracting bow case. Because it was pouring outside, I wrapped the case in plastic umbrella wrappers, and then tucked it inside my own raincoat, for good measure, to protect it during the half-block walk to the subway. A bow case concealed in a raincoat looks more suspicious than a bow case in the open—but on the trip home I was ignored.
This morning I drove it to the shop of a bowmaker and dealer and paid her to prepare and ship it back, properly, to the owner. It'll be there Monday, safe, I hope. Then I'll be sure to cancel the insurance.
Here's the thing: a musician's relationship with her instrument is intimate. It's a connection that can be more personal than one's relationship with living, breathing persons. A borrowed instrument is no exception to this phenomenon. While it doesn't belong to you legally, you still give yourself to it, body and soul.
I know many musicians—and probably you do, too—who lost use of their loaned instruments and suffered for it. Famously, there is Dylana Jenson, whose cruelly recalled Guarneri del Gesu severely impacted her ascendent career. But there are many others: a violinist we know whose beautiful 18th century instrument was reluctantly called back after many years because its owner fell on hard times; a violist we know who had to return her viola because its owner, who had been focusing on baroque playing, suddenly needed her modern instrument again; the conservatory student who lost "her" violin because the owner, a professional player, was selling two instruments to trade up for a better violin for herself.
A few years ago I lent one of our violas to the violist, above. It's not a great instrument. It's decent, though not nearly good enough for a player of her stature. But it's what she's got for the time being, and I'd be hard-pressed to yank it away from her before she can replace it with a viola worthy of her talents.
When the instrument or bow doesn't belong to you, it can be recalled at any time. And no time is a ever good time. But does this threat of living with continual insecurity mean that musicians should avoid instrument loans? You must weigh the benefits of the relationship against the potential devastation of loss. And make sure you have a backup in place.
Months, or years spent in the company fine instrument or bow will bring help to bring your playing to the next level, and beyond. The sorrow of parting is painful, but it's better to have loved and lost, and grown.
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