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Joyce DiDonato: Four Truths for Young Artists

Karen Rile

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Published: May 29, 2014 at 4:32 AM [UTC]

Flying mortarboards, Lincoln Center, May 23, 2013

The day I graduated from college was blazing hot, and I was stifling in my summer dress under the synthetic black gown. I couldn't wait for the speeches to end so I could get on with my exciting new life, my life as a writer, whatever that would be. It was the 80's. Everything was possible.

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.

I wish they could have come, all of them, to the Juilliard graduation a week later, to hear the words of commencement speaker Joyce DiDonato, the Grammy-winning mezzo soprano who received an honorary doctorate at the school's 109th commencement ceremony. I wish every young artist could have heard her words. I wish she could somehow stuff her words into a time capsule and send them back to me, at the University of Pennsylvania, lost in a hospital corridor all those years ago. These are words every young artist needs to hear.

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.

DiDonato spoke of four hard-earned truths she has learned during her personal odyssey as a singer. "At first glance," she said, "they may seem like harbingers of bad news, but I invite you to shift your thinking just a bit, or perhaps even radically."

Photo courtesy Joyce DiDonato

The Four Truths of 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.

Read the full text of Joyce DiDonato's commencement speech here.

Watch the speech on video:


From Karen Rile
Posted on May 29, 2014 at 11:29 PM
Update: Juilliard has posted the speech on its YouTube Channel and I've embedded at the bottom of the essay. Highly recommended watching!
Posted on May 30, 2014 at 3:02 AM
Karen Rile's blogs are gems.
From elise stanley
Posted on May 30, 2014 at 4:37 AM
Wonderful - and her comments do not only apply to the arts but also my field - pure science (which is more of an art than one may firs think) and maybe all avocations. Thanks...
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on May 30, 2014 at 1:22 PM
Thanks for this. About a week ago my Facebook feed was overrun with people complaining about controversial commencement speakers, disinvitations, and a lot of self-righteous whining from both sides of what quickly became a tiresome debate about "arrogant" students and "cowardly" administrators (triggered by protests at a handful of private colleges and universities in the Northeastern USA). This manages to rise above all that, and is the one of the first and few commencement speeches I've read or read about this season that I would have liked to have been there for.
From marjory lange
Posted on May 30, 2014 at 1:41 PM
Karen, I agree. This is a commencement speech I wish every graduating student could hear.

It is such a reminder that "Commencement" refers to beginnings, not endings.

Posted on June 3, 2014 at 3:02 AM
Thanks you so much for posting this. I don't think there could be a better summation of what a young artist needs to hear and it was winsomely and graciously said.
From Gabriel Kastelle
Posted on June 3, 2014 at 4:47 PM
Awesome! Thanks for getting this text and sharing it!

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