Opening Speech: Be Awake Every Moment

Thursday, Aug 31, 2017
Daniel Parker
Juilliard Journal
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The following is excerpted from a speech student council president Daniel Parker, a second-year master’s student, gave at the president’s welcome for new students.

I’m going to start by telling a story. In the summer of 2013, I was sitting in a shack in the vast, majestic Ventana Wilderness, in central California. There was a Zen Buddhist monastery where I had gone because I was sick of MIT, where I was a sophomore. I felt I needed to find myself, so I took some time off.

At the monastery, according to traditional Buddhist rules, there was no music, no dancing, no singing, no raised voices, no electronic devices. There wasn’t even internet. It was a total break from the modern world. Almost six months in, some voice inside me told me to pull out my hidden laptop—carefully stashed in my suitcase—and open my iTunes. Something in me needed to hear the gorgeous sound of musical performance: captured by a microphone, saved on my hard drive, transmitted through my speakers, setting the air around me into vibration, bathing me in sound. I know every single one of us has heard this voice of creation and creativity. It’s our gift.

I chose the Prelude from the first Bach Cello Suite in G Major, one of the jewels of our repertoire. And sitting in the middle of nowhere, no music in my ears for months, I was transfixed—and I knew from this moment that music defined my life and that I could have no life without it. Each time I test this truth, it becomes stronger. It sustains me and inspires me; it keeps me true.

I share this story because every single person in this theater has a path that brought you to Juilliard. Every single one of us has a story. Some are simpler than mine, some are darker and more challenging. Yes, each of us won an audition so many other people didn’t. But it goes deeper than that. By virtue of sitting here, you have some gift, some inner light, and you simply must share that with the rest of humanity. You cannot treat this opportunity lightly. These are the stakes of your education here. This is the purchase your effort holds upon the world.

The country we live in today is a different place even than when I became a student here last September. [ed. note: After the monastery, Parker returned to MIT and earned his bachelor’s in music.] We have a president who wants to destroy national funding for the arts. Who wants to increase military spending, but deny basic healthcare and dignity to trans service people. Who wants to build a wall to keep human beings from entering this country. Who wants to tear apart and rip up families trying to make their lives here. Who humorously encourages brutality when he addresses our police forces when African American children are still being gunned down by police forces. A president whose contempt for the arts and for thought and for discourse has shocked our polity and revealed the virulent racism, the xenophobia, the white supremacy, the militarism, the inequality, the violence, and the regimes of economic and racial control that are some of the darkest, most intractable knots in this country’s history.

By virtue of sitting here, you have some gift, some inner light, and you simply must share that with the rest of humanity. You cannot treat this opportunity lightly. These are the stakes of your education here. This is the purchase your effort holds upon the world.

Doing art can seem self-centered, but I think the only true art is selfless. The force of your craft has nothing to do with our need for praise and our vanity. Our art speaks to the heart and divulges its true worth only inasmuch as it reveals and offers freely the vulnerability and rawness of our inner lives.

We need to talk with each other about how we learn and advocate for our vision of the future. Yes, art is only one piece of the puzzle. But our society urgently needs the penetrating and prophetic voices of artists, the moral and creative cognition that is the marrow and seed of what we offer to the culture and life of our society. Nothing less will do; nothing less should we aim for. This is what it means to be an artist. And this is what you’ve signed up for by coming to Juilliard.

The Juilliard Student Council is here to build community and raise consciousness. We’re here to lift up and magnify the experiences of people of color, of queer people, of trans people, of undocumented immigrants, and of other oppressed groups. We’re here to represent you and understand your experience here, to help solve your problems, and to be part of making Juilliard an even better place than it already is. One extremely important resource I want to point you toward is the Juilliard Counseling Services. Unlimited access to a trained counselor is an incredibly valuable resource, and we need to fight the stigma against seeking mental health care.

More than anything else, my request of you is that you ask each other questions—about who we are and what our dreams for the world are. Questions about the difficulties we face and the heartbreak that we work through. Questions about identity and difference, about our experiences and our imaginations, about what energizes and frustrates us, what moves and astonishes us.

Lastly, we owe it to the legacy of our outgoing president, Dr. Polisi, to become fiercely engaged in the political process. Write that letter to the editor. Speak up in class. Go to that protest. Pick that fight you’ve been avoiding with your racist relative. Put not just your art but your voice and your body on the line for those who are more vulnerable. Be open to the unfolding of your story and the fact that you have a part to play in the civic drama of this nation.

While you are at Juilliard, your life will transform. You’ll fall in love. Your heart may be broken. You’ll build community and make friends you’ll hold onto forever. You’ll learn something new and encounter unfamiliar, uncomfortable ways of looking at the world. You’ll encounter the messiness of reality as you grow into the fullness of your artistic identity. Don’t waste your chance at transformation while you’re here— but most of all, don’t forget to have fun and don’t forget to always be yourself, no matter what.