Commencement Address Excerpts to Inspire Your Summer

By: Edna Landau

To ask a question, please write Ask Edna.

The summer is a special time for many of us, presenting an opportunity to take a break from our normal routine and relax sufficiently to enable us to reassume our job responsibilities with increased vigor and renewed enthusiasm. For those who are graduating, the summer may offer the possibility for self-reflection and preparation for new roads that lie ahead. It can also offer a great opportunity to network, make new friends, and experiment with new artistic initiatives. Recognizing the great significance of this moment in their students’ lives, music schools and conservatories go to great lengths to arrange for distinguished artists and exemplary role models to address the graduates as they embark on this next step of their professional careers. A review of recent commencement addresses revealed a level of eloquence and wisdom that impressed me greatly and inspired me to incorporate various excerpts into my last blog post of the academic year. I strongly encourage our readers to savor these speeches in their entirety. Each and every one of them is remarkable.

A little less than a week ago, I watched the Juilliard School’s 109th Commencement Exercises online.  The beloved mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who was awarded an Honorary Doctorate, delivered the Commencement Address. Remarking at the outset that it took her until age 29 to obtain management, she enumerated “four truths” related to her personal odyssey as a singer that she hoped would empower the graduates, when confronted with challenges in their artistic lives, to transform themselves and the world. Among them were the following:

You will never make it. That’s the bad news, but the “shift” I invite you to make is to see it 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, 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.

It’s not about you. 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)…The Truth is, you have signed up for a life of service by going into the Arts. And the life-altering results of that service in other people’s lives will NEVER disappear as fame unquestionably will.

The world needs you…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…Fly out of this building armed with the knowledge that YOU make a difference, that your art is NECESSARY, and that the world is eagerly awaiting to hear what YOU have to say.


Very soon, you will be going out into the world, perhaps to study further, perhaps to audition for orchestras and opera companies, or perhaps to begin a career teaching future students to love and be skilled in music. It is vital to keep extending your horizons, keep experimenting, keep questioning…It is all very well to know a lot about what we might call the “how” of music, but more important is the “why”: to strive to understand the meaning of the music you perform, to give it heart and soul, to let it sing with your personal voice…Challenging oneself, pushing boundaries, not accepting the status quo, are certainly not the safe options or some rosy path to success. But the easy way is also perhaps the shallowest and sometimes leads nowhere…To quote from Mark Twain: “Life is short, break the rules, forgive quickly…love truly, laugh uncontrollably, and never regret anything that made you smile. Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did.”


Your job is not to go play the hell out of the music you will play for the rest of your years. Your job is to be an agent of artistic experience…You can play perfectly, but if I didn’t make a personally relevant connection, if my sense of the world didn’t expand, art didn’t happen…We need you to expand your toolkit beyond the marvelous musical skills you have developed to make great music, to be irrepressibly curious, unstoppably experimental in using all the tools and discovering more, to open up these works of art.


We need the artistic experience to pull us right out of our skins. In order to achieve that element of surprise, you have to set up expectation…Your expertise in setting up expectations depends on two factors that would at first glance seem to be contradictory: one is supreme technical mastery, mastery of a kind that is so secure and so thoroughly internalized that it functions at an almost subliminal level. And another is a gift for the outrageous, having the willingness and readiness to make that sudden, spontaneous departure from the norm—the ability to depart from the script and make the unexpected leap out of the box, and to do it when it’s least expected. Such a gift is impossible to teach. It has to come from the core of the artist’s personality…You have to be restless, searching, ready and willing to take risks.


You need to understand that an art which does not renew itself is an art which becomes dry and museum-like and will ultimately lose relevance for its audience…No matter how much you like improvising cadenzas in Beethoven or Mozart concertos, as I do, you commission pieces year-in and year-out. You have to do that! You have to make our art new…Go out to the race track and bet on a horse. Choose the composer or composers that speak to you. Play their music. Go to the barricades. Fight for them. If your horse comes in, you become part of music history. You become the Joseph Joachim, who premiered Brahms and Schumann and Dvorak. You become that person of the twenty-first century. And if you don’t, you still fought the good battle…Make the music new. Make it indispensable. Make it as exhilarating and terrifying as life really is.


My time at Juilliard was confusing and full of angst… I just felt like I was on the wrong path. Looking back, I realize that I was so directly on my path that NASA couldn’t have charted it any better. My path had nothing to do with what others wanted me to be or do. It had even less to do with what I thought I wanted. My path was the road to joy. Loving what I do gives me the joy I didn’t think to seek. Joy gives me the courage to persevere.

I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the community, and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it what I can.


With these words of wisdom, I take leave of all of our readers until September. I thank all of you for your loyalty and wish you a most enjoyable and fulfilling summer.

To ask a question, please write Ask Edna.
© Edna Landau 2014



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