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Commencement 2007: 'The Road to Joy'

For the 221 students who received diplomas at Juilliard’s 102nd commencement ceremonies on May 25, the day was truly unique. For starters, it was the first time in the School’s history that graduation was held in Avery Fisher Hall, rather than Alice Tully Hall, which had shut its doors in April for 18 months for renovations. And instead of a morning ceremony with the traditional punch-and-sandwich party on the (now defunct) Milstein Plaza, commencement was held at 3 p.m., with the post-ceremony party by the fountain with the (now temporarily missing) Henry Moore sculpture. But with all its differences, graduation was still graduation: Proud students gathered with family and friends for well-deserved celebration. Honorary doctorates were awarded—to the former dean of the School, Stephen Clapp; jazz legend Benny Golson; Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim; dancer and ballet master Frederic Franklin; playwright, actor, and director Sam Shepard; philanthropist Dan W. Lufkin; and singer, actor, and Juilliard alumna Audra McDonald, who addressed the class of 2007. Her speech is reprinted here.

Receiving honorary doctorates at the 102nd commencement were (left to right, back row) Frederic Franklin, Benny Golson, Stephen Sondheim, Dan W. Lufkin; (front row) Stephen Clapp, Audra McDonald, and Sam Shepard.

(Photo by Peter Schaaf)

Left to right: Stephen Sondheim, Laurie Carter, Bruce Kovner, Stephen Clapp, Audra McDonald, and Joseph Polisi.

(Photo by Peter Schaaf)

Singer and actor Audra McDonald (BM '93, voice) addressing the class of 2007.

(Photo by Peter Schaaf)

Graduating pianist Kimberly Chen with President Polisi.

(Photo by Peter Schaaf)

Graduating baritone Sidney Outlaw with family members.

(Photo by Peter Schaaf)

The Juilliard Orchestra's commencement concert featured vocal soloists Brenda Rae, Ronnita Nicole Miller, Jeffrey Behrens, and Sidney Outlaw with the Juilliard Choral Union in a performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, conducted by James DePreist.

(Photo by Peter Schaaf)

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For the 221 students who received diplomas at Juilliard’s 102nd commencement ceremonies on May 25, the day was truly unique. For starters, it was the first time in the School’s history that graduation was held in Avery Fisher Hall, rather than Alice Tully Hall, which had shut its doors in April for 18 months for renovations. And instead of a morning ceremony with the traditional punch-and-sandwich party on the (now defunct) Milstein Plaza, commencement was held at 3 p.m., with the post-ceremony party by the fountain with the (now temporarily missing) Henry Moore sculpture. But with all its differences, graduation was still graduation: Proud students gathered with family and friends for well-deserved celebration. Honorary doctorates were awarded—to the former dean of the School, Stephen Clapp; jazz legend Benny Golson; Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim; dancer and ballet master Frederic Franklin; playwright, actor, and director Sam Shepard; philanthropist Dan W. Lufkin; and singer, actor, and Juilliard alumna Audra McDonald, who addressed the class of 2007. Her speech is reprinted here.


My time here was confusing and full of angst. My angst had to do with being 18 years old, away from home, in New York City, and full of high expectations. My confusion was because I was studying opera and wanted to sing on Broadway. Or did I want really want to sing opera but didn’t know enough about it, or was it … I don’t know. 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.

George Bernard Shaw once said, and I quote: “This is the true joy of life, the being used up for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clot of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. 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.” Shaw’s words can guide your path and place you on the road to joy. They can easily be used as guiding principles for your life in the arts.

Let’s examine part of that quote again. “Being used up for a mighty purpose …” What does he mean by a “mighty purpose?” I think it means finding and holding on to the joy you get from your art and the joy you give with your art.

Hold on to the peace and the passion that first brought you to your craft. As you face daily challenges in pursuit of your craft, and begin to resent the business, the competition, the humiliation, the disappointment, or any aspect of it, step back for a moment, a day, or a year and reclaim your mighty purpose, your joy. Life as an artist requires you to give and give and give of yourself. If you don’t believe that your purpose as an artist is a mighty one it will become difficult if not impossible to give of yourself. But what you give must be genuine. It must be you.

Be yourself in your art. Be inspired by Yo-Yo, Renée, Baryshnikov, Placido, Lang Lang, and Meryl but do not try to be them. You can not be them. They already exist! The world has already been blessed by their unique talents. It is your unique talent that must now bless the world. My idols were Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland, and Lena Horne. When I was first getting started I tried so hard to emulate them and couldn’t. I came to realize that my true joy came not from emulating who I wasn’t but discovering who I was, who I am as an artist. I have been compared to any number of artists who came before me.  People have questioned some of the roles I have chosen or music I have performed. I have wonderful, supportive advisors. I have been mentored by extraordinary artists. In the end I have to be myself. Be yourself. Shaw said, “Be a force of nature”; I say, be a force of nature by refusing to say no to yourself. There are plenty of people in this world who can and will say no to you. You must never be one of them. If you feel that you are right for a certain role, have the chops to play or win a competition, if you have the stamina and the high notes to sing a certain aria then pursue it. Do it. 

You honor and nurture your talent by pursuing any opportunity to express that talent. Do not worry about the outcome. The outcome can not be your concern. Your job is to do the work, no matter how the world may feel about it! The great director and playwright George Wolfe said: “When they try to run me out of town I get in front and act like I’m leading a parade!” There are certainly roles I wanted but didn’t get. Rather than pointing fingers and complaining about inequities, rather than becoming a “feverish, selfish little clot of ailments and grievances,” complaining that the world is not devoting itself to making me happy, I have chosen to use these situations to motivate me. I do not blame myself for the, in my humble opinion, questionable decisions of others. It is more important that I am prepared for the next opportunity when it comes. No matter what comes my way I have to be ready to lead the parade. My parade. Your parade.

We all have a responsibility to the community of man. Your responsibility begins by honoring the training and education you have received at Juilliard. Take responsibility to continue to nurture and support the arts no matter what profession you end up pursuing.   Support arts education, attend concerts and plays. If you move to a small community, support children’s theater, dinner theater, and attend community productions. Share your talent. Encourage talent in others. 

Understand the privilege it is to do for your community what you can. Not everyone has the opportunity to help others. Take responsibility for the world that we live in. Realize that your position as artists is not only to entertain but also to inspire, educate, inform, comfort, and give voice. These are dire times in our world. We read about poverty, homelessness, famine, war, and disease on a daily basis. Use your art to change things.  Sounds hokey, but true. Think about Chopin’s “Revolutionary” Etude, ponder the music and poetry of Bob Dylan, recall the songs sung by slaves, and reflect upon the sounds of the children’s orchestra in Argentina. Art can and does change the world—one person at a time.

I recently learned about the work some of you did which started through Juilliard’s summer grant program. It gave me great hope to hear that 20 Juilliard students spent one week of their spring break helping to rebuild New Orleans and provide arts training to children impacted by Katrina. I was moved to hear about the work you have done in South America, Africa, and the Middle East. I was deeply moved by the work done right here in New York City through Juilliard’s Educational Outreach programs. Your stage does not have to be at Carnegie Hall. Your audience does not have to be in black tie. The people in attendance may not even be able to afford tickets. But everyone deserves art.  Everyone needs art. How lucky for you that you have a world that needs you.

I’d like to end with a quote by Robert Edmond James. I heard yesterday at the Tony nominee luncheon. It was read by the great actress, former Juilliard faculty member, Marion Seldes:

“An artist must bring into the immediate life of the theater … images larger than life … Here is the secret of the flame that burns in the work of the great artists of the theater. They seem so much more aware than we are, and so much more awake, and so much more alive that they make us feel that what we call living is not living at all, but a kind of sleep. Their knowledge, their wealth of emotion, their wonder, their elation, their swift, clear seeing surrounds every occasion with a crowd of values that enriches it beyond anything which we, in our happy satisfaction, had ever imagined. In their hands it becomes not only a thing of beauty, but a thing of power. And we see it all—beauty and power alike …”

As I look out upon Juilliard’s graduating class of 2007, I see beauty. I see power. Take that along with your joy into the world and do great things.

Congratulations and thank you.

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