Below is the text of the Convocation Address given by Jonathan to the 2014 graduates of the Bienen School of Music at Northwestern University. To view a video version of the speech click here.
President Schapiro, Dean Montgomery, guests, faculty and administration of the Bienen School, and most of all, soon-to-be-no-longer-students of the Bienen School: Good morning. And thank you – a heartfelt thank you – for inviting me today, not just to speak to you, but to share this day on which you have so much to celebrate, so much to be proud of, so much to look forward to. All I can say, with the hope that overuse hasn’t leeched the meaning out of the word, is that it is a true privilege.
At the same time, though, it’s a bit terrifying. My own commencement, you see, wasn’t all that long ago, and I remember it well. To be specific, I remember the commencement speaker well. To be remorselessly specific, I remember the way her speech raised first my eyebrows, and then my blood pressure, and the way I stared her down, as if attempting some sort of Vulcan mind meld situation, trying to get her to wrap the thing up.
In fairness, I had a concert that evening in Islip, New York, a four hour drive away, so as far as I was concerned, she was on the clock before she even started – I’m just praying that none of you are as jaundiced and horrible now as I was then – but really, it was the content of the speech I was reacting to. Looking serenely at our unblinking faces in Curtis Hall, she told us that, armed with our degrees, we would be not merely musicians, but businesspeople – heads of Fortune 500 companies, even. If she had taken a harder, less serene look at the people she was talking to, the improbability of her prediction would have quickly become apparent to her. But no matter.
The subtext of her speech seemed to be that making music would never be as interesting, challenging, or valuable as a more “real world” endeavor, so I probably would react to it the same way today as I did then. But what I find so extremely striking, looking back at that 2001 speech, is that I found it so extremely striking. Today, rarely do five minutes go by without someone saying that musicians not only can, but should, must be entrepreneurial – a mere 13 years ago, the message was so unfamiliar, I had absolutely no idea what to do with it. My friends, my about-to-be colleagues, it really is a brave new world you are commencing into today.
The 2001 me would surely be shocked at how the music world has changed; he would be more shocked still by how exciting, freeing and fulfilling it can be to live in that changed world. It is not an unmixed blessing to be beginning your musical lives – because “career” is such an ugly word, particularly for something that ought to be a calling – in 2014, when so many of the existing models for the making and sharing of music are foundering, if not crumbling. But it is indeed a blessing. I know this because, despite not being by any stretch the most enterprising or creative of my peers, I have seen my own musical life branch out in directions I couldn’t have envisioned a decade ago. I’ve had the opportunity to organize series of concerts, where I was responsible for choosing the repertoire, for hiring the other musicians, even for the promotion, heaven forfend. And the result was that I become much more alert to the power of programming – to the ways in which context can open our ears, or close them.
I’ve spent many lonely and thrilling hours writing about music, about a lifetime of grappling with Beethoven and having my heart stopped by Schumann. Now that I have some limited experience being confronted with that most terrifying vision – the blank page – I stand in greater awe than ever at the achievement of those composers, and really, at the achievement of all composers. And, coming back to that music, after somehow filling those pages, I’ve found, paradoxically, both greater clarity and more mystery than ever in the music at hand.
Finally, in addition to teaching piano students, which I might have predicted was in my future, I’ve taught a course about Beethoven to thousands of people online, which, given my moderate to severe technophobia, I still can’t quite believe happened. But having had that – truly, remarkable – experience, I think more often and more deeply about what it means to communicate with an audience, with words, but most of all, with sound, than I ever used to.
The common thread running through all of these projects is that they each originated with an idea – with me asking myself which aspects of music mattered most to me, and then dealing with the implications of my answer. And having done that work, my feeling for the music concerned was invariably more…many things, really. Vivid. Three-dimensional. Accessible to me. None of this replaces the need to practice – sorry, folks – and sure, there are some days when I wouldn’t mind having 24 uninterrupted hours to devote myself, hermetically, to my craft, but I can say, unequivocally, that I am a better musician for having lived this more varied, more ventilated musical life – a musical life which would have been unavailable to me a generation earlier. You may choose a different musical life from the one I’m describing – in fact, you almost certainly will – but the freedom to do so is a, perhaps the, defining characteristic of our musical era. As Emily Dickinson said, you dwell in possibility.
So, that’s the good part. The best thing about this brave new world is that anything is possible; the worst thing about this brave new world is that… anything is possible.
For years, young musicians have been under pressure to conform to tradition – perhaps in no other art form has the weight of tradition been quite so heavy. It is the responsibility of every musician not to ignore that tradition, but to always question it. That pressure has not gone away, but joining it now is an equally powerful, more insidious one: the pressure to be new, to make a name for oneself by being different, and therefore carving out an unoccupied space. While at first, these pressures might look like opposites – “old is good” vs. “new is good” – and while they do tend to come from different sources, they are at their core, very much like one another, because they both ask you to ignore your own passions and interests. They are both about plugging you into a system, without ever asking if it’s a good system, or if you have something meaningful to contribute to it. And one has to find the courage to resist both at all costs. If you put together an unconventional program that really turns you on and someone powerful tells you that “things aren’t done that way”, you find a way to do it anyway. And if someone tells you that you should play the complete works of Sorabji because it’s never been done in Chicago before, you say no. Unless, of course, due to some no doubt hugely traumatic event in your childhood, you actually like Sorabji’s music.
In short, because there are more pathways than ever before, there are more wrong reasons for doing things than ever before. With increased possibility comes increased responsibility – responsibility to make your musical choices with absolute conviction and integrity. It is not selfishness, but the very essence of artistic generosity, to ignore what the world may be clamoring for, and instead ask what it is that you want to share with the world.
What this means is that it is more difficult than ever, and therefore more essential than ever, to locate and hold onto your musical center. To do so, you must ask yourself the only question that really matters, the fundamental question whose answer will provide you with the strength you need to choose the right musical path, your musical path: Why do I make music?
I will get to my answer eventually – today’s answer, anyway, because it is forever shifting – but I thought it might be more revealing to share some of the things I’ve heard over the years that have helped lead me to that answer.
The first is a quote of Artur Schnabel, a musician for whom I have a reverence that I hope falls just short of being irritating. Schnabel was, in a sense, my “grandteacher”, having taught my own teacher, Leon Fleisher, and this remark actually concerns Fleisher – it is Schnabel’s response when asked, at a lecture at the University of Chicago – to give his opinion of his (at the time) teenaged student:
“He has imagination and courage. He will try things and face the risk of failure. This is nowadays a rather rare quality. Courage is suppressed by the pursuit of safety.”
In addition to being as precise and perceptive as assessments come – seven decades later, Fleisher still has imagination and courage in spades – this gets right to the heart of one of the deepest psychological challenges we face. Given the instability of the life of a musician – the ever-changing musical world confronting us, the nerves that we simultaneously need and wish we could rid ourselves of – the urge towards safety is powerful. Being reliable – being able to produce today what we produced yesterday – is a quality we tend to prize highly, in self-defense. But it is among the least interesting, the least musical qualities a person can have. To pursue safety – stability – is to value what you already know and can do today more highly than what you might learn tomorrow. While this is completely natural and understandable – it is the result of being defended, which we all are, to a greater or lesser extent – it is ultimately nothing more than complacency: the enemy of the artist. Without courage – without the rejection of safety – literally not one great work of art would exist: not the late Beethoven quartets, not the Rite of Spring, not Guernica, not Ulysses.
So that’s courage. And what of imagination? I hardly need to stand in front of a group of people who have chosen music as their life’s work and explain its importance. But can it be developed? Isn’t imagination something you either have, or you don’t?
To be honest, I don’t know. Certainly, neither love, nor money nor the Vatican is going to turn me into a composer – I simply don’t have the talent. But while imagination may be among the most elusive of qualities, curiosity – its cousin – can be practiced, much in the way that an instrument, or any craft, can. I know this, because as a child, I was interested in music to the exclusion of almost anything else. And look at my reaction to that commencement speech at Curtis – fine, there may have been many forces at work, but my response showed that I was almost disdainful of the notion that something outside of music might merit my attention. But 13 years later, having met people from all professions and walks of life from all over the globe – another gift my life as a musician has given me, incidentally – I am not that person anymore. It has only taken a little bit of alertness for me to discover how endless, and endlessly interesting, the world beyond music is.
So if you cannot be more imaginative than you are – and let’s face it, imagination, like money and attractiveness, is one of those things everyone would like more of – you can train yourself to be more curious and alert. And those qualities are enough to make music, and your relationship to it, open ever outward.
The next quote I’d like to share with you comes from another piano-playing Arthur whom I revere: Rubinstein. He is grappling with the same question as Schnabel, though unsurprisingly, given their respective personalities, he comes at it from a very different angle:
“Of course there is no formula for success except, perhaps, an unconditional acceptance of life and what it brings.”
It’s funny: It’s the Schnabel quote, not this one, that references “failure”. But I find Rubinstein’s remark even more deeply concerned with it. Because to not accept life – its vicissitudes and challenges – is to try to control it. And why do we try to control life, if not to ward off what we fear? And what do we fear more than failure? It’s terrifying – believe me, I know – but with the acceptance Rubinstein is talking about comes freedom, the freedom to allow both the good and the bad that you deny in the alternate scenario.
And failure is liberating. This I learned the hard way, which, come to think of it, is in this instance probably the only way. A number of years ago, I played a concert that was attended by a huge number of childhood friends and teachers. And every one of my worst fears as a performer came to pass: there were memory slips, moments of panic, and a constant feeling of disconnection from what I was supposed to be doing. Honestly, short of classic anxiety dream territory – walking on stage without, say, a piano or my pants – it couldn’t have been any worse. And trust me: it hurt. It hurt while it happened, and it hurt more afterward, when I had to face friend after friend, with no idea what to say to them.
But sure enough, later that evening, the sun went down. The next morning, it came up again. And when it did, I had the musical equivalent of a very bad hangover, but I was otherwise exactly the same. The same as I was the day before, the same as I would have been if I’d played the best concert of my life instead of, to my subjective ear, at least, the worst.
I don’t think any realization has ever been quite so useful to me. Music means an enormous amount to me, as I’m sure it does to each and every one of you. But concert to concert, the stakes are simply not that high. You might think you played terribly, you might briefly feel humiliated, but you will learn from the experience. The course of your life will not be irreparably altered. No one will die. (Well, unless it’s a particularly bad performance of that Stockhausen piece with helicopters.)
And courage, just like curiosity, can be practiced. With my personality, when faced with a new and unfamiliar task, my first instinct is to think that it is completely beyond me. In spite of this (or is it because of it?), I try new things all the time. Unfamiliar repertoire. Learning something under a tight deadline. Public speaking…
I don’t mean to go all American Idol on you. It’s not that “you can do anything you put your mind to.” You, and I, and everyone else on this planet are each unequal to a great many things. But you will never know without trying, and you will invariably learn from failing.
The third quote I want to share, because I come back to it constantly, myself, is not from a musician, but from the late, great poet, Seamus Heaney – from the speech he gave when he accepted his Nobel Prize:
“[Poetry has] the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it, the power to remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values, that our very solitudes and distresses are creditable, in so far as they, too, are an earnest [part] of our veritable human being.”
While it’s ostensibly about poetry, this says what I think are the very most essential things about music, and our job as musicians – unsurprising, perhaps, as music is really just poetry written in a purer, more beautiful language. Making music is not – or should not be – about ego, or glory. It is about showing the most vulnerable sides of ourselves, our “solitudes and distresses”. It is a means of communicating those things that we can’t otherwise – not with prose, not even with words – those things, as Heaney says, that we know are true, even if everything in the material world conspires to suggest that they are false.
And that “hunters and gatherers” bit – that’s even more on the nose. Because in the end, music is all about engagement, and as you engage, you represent values. You do so in choosing to shape a phrase in one way and not another; in coming to a rehearsal prepared or unprepared; in honoring your commitments or not; in treating a colleague well or badly; in trying to reach people with your music, or in shutting them out. Making those choices: that is what it means to be a musician, and a musical citizen.
So why, then, do I make music? Because of its wondrous, powerful, often terrifying beauty. And because I want to share that beauty, so unlike the other beauties of this world, with as many people as possible, in as many ways as possible. Because I am genuinely frightened to think what I might have been without music in my life. Every significant thing that I have learned about myself, I have learned through music. From Mozart’s Soave il Vento from Cosi fan Tutti, and the D Major String Quintet and d minor Piano Concerto, I learned that it is normal that all my emotions – my rage and my exhilaration and my anguish – live so close to one other. From playing Schumann – the Davidsbündler and the d minor piano trio and all the rest of it – I learned that loneliness, too, is ironically a shared human experience. From Kurtág’s silences, I came to understand the relationship between needing, badly, to speak, and not knowing what to say. With every note I play or hear, I become just a bit less maddeningly inscrutable to myself. And to whatever meager extent I have learned to communicate my feelings: that too, I have learned from music – from playing it for people, and with people. That is why I make music: because I need to, and because I want, deeply, for other people to have their lives enriched in the same way.
I’ve taken enough of your time – I don’t want anyone Vulcan mind melding me! – but I would like to share one more bit of Schnabelian Wisdom. In that same University of Chicago lecture, he was asked whether the intellectual or emotional side of music mattered more to him: a question presumably as irritating in 1945 as it is today. His response: “Love has to be the starting point – love of music. It is one of my firmest convictions, that love always produces some knowledge, while knowledge only rarely produces something similar to love.”
To that end, I will make one request of you. Today, tonight, before you leave this campus and go your hopefully merry ways, think back to your first musical experiences. More to the point, think back to the first moment when you knew you loved music. Whether you were playing it, listening to it, writing it, or writing about it, whether it was the repertoire, or the tactile experience, or the camaraderie of it, try to remember it, as precisely as possible, what it was, and what you felt. Lock that memory inside you. And then go on remembering it, every day. Each time the search for improvement – forget perfection – feels overwhelming, remember it. Each time life conspires to take you down a new and difficult path, re-remember it. Each time you are asked to do something that doesn’t sit quite right with you, remember it yet again. Nothing else will be as useful a guide in keeping your equilibrium, in preserving a healthy relationship with your art, in hunting and gathering the right values. It will make it possible to fulfill what are really your primary tasks as a musician: to work, doggedly but lovingly; to try to play just a very little bit better each day, until the day you die; to leave the world of music, in your own, small way, better off than it was when you first discovered it.
Thank you, once again, for allowing me to be here with you as you enter the next phase of your musical lives. I am genuinely moved to look out at all of you, who have chosen a life in music, and I cannot wait to see what it is that each of you will do in this beautiful, messy, wonderful world of possibility. I wish you, quite literally, all the luck in the world. Congratulations!