Colburn School Commencement Address
May 7, 2012
By Arnold Steinhardt
Good morning. I’m honored to be speaking to you at this 2012 Colburn School commencement and equally honored to teach at the school. I was born and raised in Los Angeles and it pleases me immensely to know that Colburn, with its faculty of distinguished musicians, is now the pride of the city and a magnet for some of the world’s most gifted young musicians.
Howard Pasamanick Photography
The streets directly surrounding Colburn are particularly meaningful to me. My father worked as a diamond setter in the jewelry district just a couple of blocks from here. When I was young, my mother often took me downtown by streetcar—yes, we had streetcars in those days—when she shopped at the Grand Central Market behind Colburn. We rode the Angels Flight railway down Bunker Hill—what a thrill that was! I had my first violin lessons at the G. Schirmer music store a few blocks away. And just a few years later, I made my debut at the age of 14 as soloist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in Philharmonic Auditorium, the orchestra’s then permanent home across from Pershing Square.
One of the most significant events in my young life also occurred in Philharmonic Auditorium, and that leads me to what I’d like to talk about today—how music has had an impact on me, and how you in this graduating class can use music to have an impact on the world. When I was ten or eleven years old, my parents took me to hear a recital by Mischa Elman, one of the reigning violinists of that era. I only remember one work on the program—Johann Sebastian Bach’s Chaconne for unaccompanied violin. The magical sounds that poured out of Elman’s violin overwhelmed me, and tears unexpectedly filled my eyes. I had played the violin for four or five years by then, and quite honestly, the sounds coming out of my violin also made people’s eyes fill with tears, but for a very different reason. Not only Elman’s masterful playing touched me. It was also the heart clutching, almost frightening power of Bach’s music. I wondered for the first time what it would be like to learn the violin well enough to stand on a concert stage and perform such music for people.
Each of you graduating today undoubtedly has your own memorable first-time experiences with music. Maybe it was hearing a Beethoven symphony or Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or a Gershwin tune or even Nirvana or The Rolling Stones. You probably remember tentatively picking up the instrument of your choice, then the exhilarating realization that you had a gift for it. And at some point you must have become aware that you held something more then a musical instrument in your hands, that you possessed the awesome ability to communicate indescribable beauty and emotion. It became the engine that drove you to put in the thousands of hours of practice necessary to nurture your abilities. And here you are, graduating from one of the world’s great music schools. Congratulations.
At this moment, poised for a career, you are the future midwives, so to speak, who will be delivering composers’ babies, their creations—and with it, you will have the heady power to affect your listeners in so many ways.
For one, you can entertain: That sounds so superficial, doesn’t it? When I perform in Canada, I have to fill out a form that lists me as an entertainer. I got a little huffy the first time. How dare they call me a mere entertainer. I’m an artist, I said to myself. But there is nothing wrong and everything right with the gift we have to make people smile in a world filled with much unhappiness. Think of that when you’re playing a Mozart Divertimento, a Beethoven Serenade, or when you land a fabulous job playing back up for Lady Gaga.
You can open hearts and minds: The Guarneri String Quartet, of which I was a proud member for its 45-year career, often performed Mozart’s D Minor String Quartet. Once, as we had just finished the work, an eight-year-old girl stood up from her seat and rushed up the aisle sobbing, followed by her concerned parents. To their relief, it turned out that their daughter was not ill at all, only overcome by the beauty of Mozart’s music. We had revealed something wondrous to this youngster.
You can heal: In Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, the American author, William Styron, relates his descent into depression and his thoughts of suicide. Quite by accident, Styron hears Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody for voice, viola, and piano at that moment and realizes that he cannot possibly end his life when such beauty exists in the world. Music becomes the turning point and the impetus for his eventual recovery.
You can comfort: On September 11, 2001, that terrible day in America, my family and I were in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. Three of us set out early on a hike, but when we returned later in the day, my wife, Dorothea, who had remained in camp, threw her arms around our son Alexej, and burst into tears. She had heard on our radio that the World Trade Towers had fallen, that the Pentagon had also been attacked, and that the United States was in an emergency state of alert. I found it impossible to put my brain around these shocking events, especially as we stood there surrounded by the most indescribable beauty. How could this have happened in our country, blessed as we are with such basic security and with no war on our soil in almost 150 years. For the first time in my life, I feared for myself, my family, and for all Americans. For the first time in my life, I had the awful feeling of facing a completely uncertain future. It was as if the ground had been removed from under my feet. Without knowing why, I went to our tent and took out the practice violin I’d brought along. For a good half hour I played Bach for myself by the little stream where we bathed daily. I hung on to Bach’s well-ordered world of beauty for dear life as a way to deal with the world that seemed to be falling apart all around me. Music comforted me, provided solace, began to put the ground back under my feet, and reminded me that it would always be there in times of need. That is the power that music holds for all of us.
You in this graduating class are now leaving the school’s nest and will soon step out into the professional music world. You might perform as soloist, play in an orchestra, form a chamber music group, or teach. You may surprise yourselves and be good at talking or writing about music or starting your own concert series.
But why am I suggesting all of these possibilities when classical music is dying? At least that’s what I’ve been hearing for the last thirty years. There was a drawing in the New Yorker magazine a long time ago depicting a desolate back alley littered with empty cans and bottles. The caption underneath was: “Life without Mozart”. I cannot imagine a life without Mozart or Bach or Beethoven or Schubert or Schumann or Mendelssohn or Brahms or Tchaikovsky or Bartok or Stravinsky. I refuse to believe that classical music is dying, but it certainly is changing as all things inevitably do. We live in a new world of breathtaking technological advances that are altering the way we think and feel; and also what music we listen to.
You’ve heard the joke about the so-called “new” Russians, Igor and Ivan, who meet on the street. The “new” Russians are the ones whose recently acquired wealth far outstrips their education.
“Ivan,” Igor asks, “do you know who Mozart is?”
“Nyet”, says Ivan.
“Well then, what about Bach and Beethoven? Do you know who they are?”
“Nyet again,” says Ivan. “Who are these guys, anyway?”
“I’m surprised at your ignorance, Ivan. They’re the guys who write music for cell phones.”
So, graduates, this is your world—the world of cell phones and the internet, of voice recognition and instant access on YouTube to everything from violinist Joseph Joachim’s 1903 recordings to present day composer Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir in which he brings some several thousand individual voices around the globe together in a cyber internet choir. Be curious rather than suspicious of this new world. Examine it! Accept it! Use it! And don’t be afraid to reinvent yourself when the spark of an utterly new idea suddenly hits you. If I told you that a deaf percussionist could have a brilliant solo career, you’d ask me to have my head examined. But that is exactly what Evelyn Glennie, the Scottish virtuoso percussionist has done. Mark Wood, who graduated from Juilliard as a traditional violinist, plays a seven string electric violin called “The Viper” with his rock band. Three students from the Curtis Institute of Music, Nicolas Kendall and Zachary de Pue, violins, and Ranaan Meyer, double bass, decided to turn their jam sessions for fun into Time for Three. The group’s charisma, enthusiasm, and seemingly limitless musical boundaries have made them a hot property on the concert circuit. And by the way, they can play Mozart beautifully.
Many years ago, a documentary film called High Fidelity was being made about our Guarneri String Quartet in rehearsal, travel, recording, and performance. The film crew seemed to show up everywhere—in New York City, Tampa, Florida, Albuquerque, New Mexico, Baden-Baden, Germany, and even Venice, Italy. I asked the producer, Wally Scheuer, who was putting up the money for High Fidelity as he had for many other documentaries, whether the filming wasn’t costing a great deal. Absolutely, Wally told me. Not only that, Wally confessed. He had lost money on every film he’d ever produced, including From Mao to Mozart which won an academy award. “Then why are you doing it, Wally?”, I asked. Wally thought about it for a moment and then he said, “I guess I just want to leave a few footprints in the sand before leaving this earth”.
I always remembered Wally’s words. Wouldn’t every one of us like to leave a few footprints in the sand before we’re gone? And I can’t help thinking that you young musicians with diplomas in your hands are about to make some significant footprints of your own.
Once again, graduating class, I congratulate you on this memorable day in your lives.
Now, get to work!
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Thanks for posting Arnold! We were honored to have you as our speaker! Have a great summer.
I presume you remember Longfellow’s poem, A Psalm of Life, that we had to memorize in 5th grade:
…….Lives of great men all remind us
We can make our lives sublime,
And, departing, leave behind us
Footprints on the sands of time ;
Footprints, that perhaps another,
Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,
A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,
Seeing, shall take heart again.
Let us, then, be up and doing,
With a heart for any fate ;
Still achieving, still pursuing,
Learn to labor and to wait.
What a beautiful Commencement address,. How eloquent, and moving.
Incredible also the moment in the Sierra Mountains when word reached you of the Twin Towers’
demise, yours and Dodo’s response, as you felt the ground being pulled from under you. I could see you playing at the water edge, and my soul contracts.
Yes the power of music.
And a very inspired message to the young.
Thanks again, Maestro Steinhardt, for showing us what’s important!
Dear Mr. Steinhardt,
Your Russian joke makes me think about this morning when i was listening to KUSC pledge drive on the way to work.. They were playing excerps from the EMI 6 CD set “100 best film classics” and one of them was Mozart’s ‘Eine kleine Nachtmusik’ played in the comedy “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective.”. I sure hope that in listening to such beautiful music, the listeners would be curious to check out the composer and from that discovering the wonderful world of classical music.
Thank you for the heart-warming speech and i will check out Mozart’s D Minor String Quartet and Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody :-)
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