Trustee Breslin, Associate Provost Chivukula, Dean Forger, Associate Deans Rayl and Kroth, members of the faculty & staff, Ms. Moriarty, Mr & Mrs. Taggart – it’s great to see some familiar faces from my days at school- proud parents and above all graduates.
Let me start off by saying thank you. Not only has MSU given me an extraordinary honor but the weeks of anxiety & wracking my brain over what to say have given me a new bar to measure stage fright by. Based on my hours of research I simply have to get through this without making any reference to our current president, global warming or anything to do with La La Land.
I thought the simplest way to appear wise was to plagiarize talking points from my MSU graduation speaker. Unfortunately, 17 years later, I don’t remember it – and I couldn’t find the video on You Tube. You are probably thinking – and you may be right – that I was worrying about an audition. Because 17 years ago, that is what music meant to me. Perfect scales and round tones, an orchestra job or university position – and generally being able to support myself without working at Starbucks – not that there is anything wrong with that! 17 years later, I can tell you that music is far more formidable, in its ability to connect, to unify and heal – and at least for a pianist, it’s right at our fingertips.
It was only recently that I discovered the true range of a musician – in meaning and impact on people. Let me paint you a picture of a uniquely gratifying moment where I experienced the power of music to influence society.
Imagine a 750 seat concert hall with a balcony, packed, standing room only. Guests in their Sunday best clothes, dressed to impress. A grand piano center stage, with chairs perfectly placed for the violinist, violist and cellist. Colored lights dimmed just so to create a soft glow as the romantic tones of Brahms float through the hall ….
Sound like a good gig?
Possibly Carnegie Hall?
What if I told you that this is in fact the Hathor Festival, one of six concerts my charity puts on that brings health care and social services to the most vulnerable people in Indian society. That just hours before the first chord was struck our audience had received free vaccinations, pap tests and screening for Tuberculosis from our volunteer doctors. That the hall was in Kalighat, a slum in India and our 750 guests were women and children, who live in extreme poverty in India’s red light districts. Many of the women are victims of inter-generational prostitution, many of the kids orphaned by violence (often domestic). Others have cerebral palsy or physical disabilities, and some are transgender people considered outcasts in Indian society. All sitting as one - transfixed & inspired by a genre of music they had never heard before, Western Classical.
Joining me on stage were my colleagues, musicians from Oberlin, Juilliard and the Cleveland Institute of Music who had traveled across the world to perform for free. As a bonus to this program was my new friend, Bickram Ghosh, a Grammy winning tabla player who toured with the late Ravi Shankar. But the real superstars of the day followed our piano quartet. Children of the red light district, transgender community and the Indian institute of cerebral palsy performed. These kids blew everyone away, entertaining each other and us. You could see the energy and hope flow from these young performers as they danced, sang and twirled on stage taking their turn to feel special in the spot light.
Behind the scenes was a small brigade of volunteers and donors, from billionaire CEOs of international companies to the inspiring nuns of Mother Teresa’s Daughters of Charity. Kolkata has the second largest red light district in Asia with over 10,000 women trapped in sex slavery. Our goal is to heal their mind, body and souls through music.
In a country still plagued by a caste system, watching the wealthy work hard to motivate and educate the poor made me realize one of the powers of music is to inspire and to make musicians, leaders, in changing the world.
So you could say I discovered the power and meaning of music in parasite prevention for prostitutes. Truly.
Okay. So, I am not advocating that every graduate out there hop a flight to Calcutta. That was my journey. But the last 17 years have renewed my faith in music and given me fresh perspective, and if you permit me, I'd like to offer a few pieces of advice.
Go ahead and take a risk. As you’re sitting here today, you might have a 3- 5 or 10 year plan in mind. These plans may involve teaching music, performing in orchestras, a solo career, or some mix of the above. Parents cover your ears; I’m here to tell you graduates, that when an opportunity comes up that requires throwing your entire plan out the window – take it.
Seven years ago I was comfortable in Cleveland with plenty of work to pay my bills, but something was missing. I felt stagnant, burned out and needed a break from music. I always had a dream to live and work in Rome, and decided the time was right. A lot of my friends questioned my judgement but I realized I would rather take a risk, move to Italy and discover it wasn’t for me, than sit in my apartment in the cold winter playing saxophone and trombone repertoire wondering “what if?” (sorry about that Dean) So I quit all my jobs, sold my car, packed up my apartment and moved to Rome.
Living in Rome forced me to start anew in another culture and language. I learned how hard it is to work and live as an immigrant – yes, even in Italy. I battled the visa process and negotiated rents “in Italiano.” I also fought off a few Romeos with amorous intent. And I may not have become the best English teacher, but I learned resilience, street smarts and an openness to other cultures. Lessons I would need later.
My next piece of advice is to Develop relationships not just Facebook friends, and don’t be shy to use them.
After two years in Rome, I wanted to re- enter the world of music. I researched biographies of faculty at local schools and universities and found Roy Zimmerman, a graduate of MSU School of Music who happened to be the music director at the American Overseas School in Rome. I called him up, I told him I was a Spartan… he hollered “go green” and I responded “go White” and we met that afternoon. By the time I left his rehearsal room, I had a full time music job in Italy. Finalmente!
Bear in mind, I was not an education major, and was out of my comfort zone teaching 4th & 5th graders, recorder class and high school choir. Yes MSU groomed me to be a concert pianist but it also gave me a priceless resource, my classmates. My MSU colleagues, those from Music ED, marching band and Men’s Glee emailed me lesson plans, recordings, sheet music, everything I needed to succeed. I had kept in touch with them over the years and they came through. Your MSU degree is your ticket to a global network of musicians. Value the relationships you’ve made here and make sure to answer the call of a panicked pianist looking for the Hindemith Clarinet Sonata.
So, take a risk, develop relationships and my third piece of advice is to adapt.
You received excellent training at MSU. Right now, you may think for a successful concert you require a first class venue, tuned Steinway Grand, perfect acoustics, and a well -rehearsed ensemble. Any, hey, there’s nothing wrong with that, by the way. But I have found incredible gratification in music when none of those were present.
After three and a half years in Rome I got married and moved to Calcutta, India. What a culture shock: in a city of 15 million people I found one piano tuner, one Western Classical music school, and one piano rental company. And with almost metronomic precision, the four and a half month monsoon, wreaks havoc on all instruments. That is when I realized I needed to adapt to my surroundings and the resources available. It is not always going to be a perfect recital hall or a perfect setting.
At one of my Kolkata Classics concerts I was performing Puccini when a herd of water buffalo started wandering into the back row which didn’t even bother the children sitting on the dirt tarp. At another event an opera singer belted out “Ave Maria” with rock star lighting and artificial haze in an arena for thousands. I have actually had a photographer climb on stage and pop his head in between me and the page turner to take a quick snap over my shoulder. These moments are stressful – but we reach the most grateful audiences and have fun!
The greatest truth I knew, forgot for a spell, and then relearned in a deeper and more meaningful way is that music is transformative. It heals, brings hope, inspires, helps us cope, and makes us see the world with fresh eyes. The world is ahead of you and it is a place of opportunity. Take a quiet moment, once all the graduation festivities have receded, and remember to ask yourselves: “What is success for me?” The best answer is a personal one – informed and inspired by your own passion. It might come to you right then in a moment of Zen-like insight. Or it might take ten (or seventeen) years for the answer to come into focus. But stick with that question like a mantra and you’ll reach your goal.
My truth is that success comes in many forms. A technically perfect performance is something awesome to strive for. But realizing that our ability to communicate, reflect the beauty of the world through music, and underscore our shared humanity is what truly makes me feel successful.
Graduates, you have exceptional talent and you have an amazing world in front of you – go out and grab it!