2019 Commencement Remarks

May 24, 2019

Thank you chairman Kovner, and before I go any further I want to express my gratitude to the extraordinary Juilliard faculty and staff who make this institution what it is. And my thanks to all of our trustees, many of whom are with us today, and to our esteemed guests here on the stage, and perhaps most of all to the parents and family and friends and supporters and loved ones of the class of 2019. The amazing class of 2019!

Graduating students, I salute you. It is my honor to speak to you in my first commencement as president. And it is an honor that humbles me, as I consider the work you have done and the paths you have forged to arrive in this place, at this time.

This is a moment to stop and be proud of what you have achieved.

A moment to stop and reflect on the values you have grown.

To stop and smile.

To stop and set the frame for your next adventures

To stop and imagine a life.

And to consider, how will you measure this life?

The answer I believe is in the question itself.

It is in the word life.

First, consider what it means to live. To be alive, to be a part of the world in a full sense, to participate, to help and be helped, to succeed and to fail, to work and to rest, to be passionate and driven yet to be at ease and at peace, to love and be loved…. To live.

Then, consider the span of your life. Every moment has eons within it, there is history in every current reality— we are indeed as Wynton Marsalis once said “all born midstream.” We are not simply ourselves, we are the continuation of millennia. Within ourselves, we contain multitudes as Walt Whitman wrote. Acknowledge that and you acknowledge that you are in a long game, with many openings and many closings… there are many movements to play in this symphony, and when you think about your life remember that, it will change the choices you make.

Many times you will find yourself confronted with choices that lack certainty. Some of the time it will be clear, “this is right for me and this isn’t…” that will happen. But just as often, it won’t be so clear. In those moments there is the potential for the extraordinary. There will be risk, and with risk there might be reward.

My message to you today is this: say yes. Just that: say yes.

Now, I know that might seem obvious, but in reality it is not so simple. It’s always easier to not do something. Cynicism has always been in fashion, it’s always cool to be jaded, but that cynicism is the enemy of action, and of progress, and of creativity. It will stop you from fulfilling a dream every time and as artists and human beings, we need to nurture those dreams not stifle them. We need to imagine, to reimagine, and imagine yet again. The world is changed by people’s dreams, by people’s ideas, by the habit of saying what if?

“In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson. “They come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. “

Our own rejected thoughts! Think about that. There is an answer to that, say yes to those thoughts. Give them a chance to breathe, let them live, work at them, refine them, share them, accept advice on them, be aware of your own power in this world.

Say yes. And stay open.

Stay open for business and for life, stay open early and stay open late.

And as the poet Sonia Sanchez wrote: stay on the battlefield. Whether it is a new sonata or collaboration, or your commitment to further a cause, to benefit society in some way through your gifts as an artist- stay on that battlefield.

What you need to remember, is that you are not alone on that battlefield in any of what you do. You have your team, and by saying yes, you expand that team and create the opportunity of gratitude.

That’s the other message i want to leave you with today: Cultivate gratitude.

It is a value that will make your life full of meaning. Remember the moments that mattered. Remember the person who took the time to give you a hand, and then pay it forward. Cultivate gratitude, your own sense of gratitude is the seed of collaboration. It is an expansive strategy, at odds with zero-sum consumerism, but in line with Martin Luther King Jr.’s belief that our world does indeed bend toward justice.

Say yes and cultivate gratitude as a value which motivates you, and in the end creates infinite possibilities for your development as artists and as citizens of the world.

This is not an altruistic simplified “do good” message, though I would just say “be kind.” I speak of an ethic that will take you places you cannot imagine, and connect you with people you might otherwise never have the benefit of sharing your lives with.

This is not a repudiation of rigor, of the hard work required to succeed, of the hard work that has gotten you to this extraordinary moment today. This is an expansion of the possibilities of what you might do with that rigor, to build from this moment.

As you cultivate gratitude, cultivate inspiration. Think about your heroes, and say thank you. Be open to admiration, look for people to admire and to learn from always.

In my own life, I recognize the imprint of so many heroes, people who have made me who I am. People who have given me strength. And have given me solace. People whose shoulders i stand on, and people whose shoulders I lean on. I think of my teachers. I think of my mentors.

I think of my predecessor and your president until this year, Joseph Polisi, who I thank for his vision and for his generosity. I think of my Juilliard family, on the stage or in the house, who have all been an ever increasing source of joy and strength over this past year.

And I think of my family, my wife heather, whose endless love and support and fierce idealistic vision make me a better person every minute of every day.

I say thank you here and now, and now ask you to join me in saying thank you to your own team, who have carried and cheered you on to this day, beginning with your friends and families who are in this hall. Class of 2019, rise and salute your people who are so proud to share this happy day with you.

Gratitude. It is an expansive philosophy. Like breathing. It feels good, and it determines a lot… it gives us the air to do or not do. How we are grateful determines our team. Have a big team. And breathe.

It is a thrill to congratulate you all. An honor. We can’t wait to watch you soar, to watch you do the unimagined, to see you continue to grow into the creative voices of our time, joining the generations of extraordinary alumni who are juilliard.

Say yes, cultivate gratitude and inspiration. Be open and caring, support each other, be large… take a stand, don’t second guess yourselves… you do indeed contain multitudes, you are the culmination of so many who have come before-- you are the future.

Onward, class of 2019!

Last Updated Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021, 05:19PM