Last night, I graduated from the CUNY Graduate Center (family in town, the hooding ceremony, all the official pomp!), and it was such a mix of sensations: trying not to dis/encourage my wildly waving brother in the audience too much, awe at the range of impressive dissertations by the new doctors from all the disciplines (Doctor of Audiology! Doctor of Urban Education! Doctor of Criminal Justice! oh, and the PhDs, too), the concentrated endurance of focusing as nearly 250 graduates were named and hooded on stage, and nerves.
I don't get nervous for musical performances anymore. I feel like I know what I'm doing, what to expect, how to prepare, how listeners will likely react, and I do it often. Speeches are another matter. I haven't given a proper speech since my high school graduation. I can't remember what that one exactly entailed; likely it expressed a great deal of youthful optimism and encompassed the extent of my awareness of the big, wide world we cocky seniors were entering into (which is to say, not very much). Last night, I gave the address on behalf of the 2015 graduates, and I was, in fact, nervous. I wouldn't be talking about music, composers, or my experience with a piece; I wouldn't be showing listeners what to listen for and then taking my flute out like a medieval shield to hide behind; these words wouldn't be a preamble to the main performance I was about to do.
After getting settled on stage at Avery Fisher, all the classic nervous signs appeared, swirling up from past experiences where I thought I'd banished them forever: sweaty palms; a need to focus on deep breathing; suddenly wishing I'd practiced more; and thoughts, so many doubtful thoughts, crowding into what should have been a calm, confident headspace: What if the microphone does that screechy sound? Do I need to adjust its height when I get up there? What if everyone thinks my voice is ugly or grating or too deep? Do I need to talk louder or more clearly than usual? Everyone else's address so far has been calm and run-of-the-mill -- is my delivery style going to seem falsely animated, or girly and naive, or awkward? What if I flub the words? What if everyone starts to look bored during my speech? What if...
My speech opened with formulaic greetings and welcomes that did nothing to quash these doubts; it wasn't me speaking them. But as soon as I reached the meat of my text, where the form and content had so readily flowed without me having to wrest them out during my drafting process, everything became easier. I didn't have to read the words anymore, I got to enjoy the ideas I was sharing with the audience, and their laughter at all the right times brought the experience that much closer to the interactive aspect of music performance that I thrive on.
The rest of the night was intensely enjoyable. The keynote speaker, a professor at the Graduate Center (with a lovely English accent), beautifully emphasized the fact that while he was not one of the famous "gets" that universities like to be able to boast about as a commencement speaker (Michelle Obama, Stephen Colbert, Maya Rudolph, Matthew McConaughey, Robert De Niro, or, no really, Bon Jovi), the money saved by the university for such an appearance fee (typically $50,000) could instead fund two full-time, five-year fellowships for Graduate Center students. Families in attendance were fantastically vocal and supportive when their graduates walked the stage. One man called out "Yeah, that's my wife!" when his special lady received her doctoral hood. Small children ran amok, screaming and cavorting happily through the aisles. And my fully-grown siblings gesticulated wildly every time I even seemed to turn my head in their general direction. It was a beautiful scene all around.
Commencement speech on behalf of the graduates, May 27, 2015
Good evening. It is such an honor to speak on behalf of the 2015 graduates.
Thank you all for joining us to celebrate this moment of commencement. Welcome, President Robinson, Provost Lennihan, Distinguished Honorees, Trustee Martell, Executive Vice Chancellor Dobrin, Graduate Center Foundation Board Members De Ferrari, Kaplan, Glucksman, Hecht, Morning, and Urvater, Graduate Center faculty and staff, and obviously, my fellow graduates.
And, of course, thank you to family and friends in attendance and scattered across the globe. Although you might not fully understand what it is that we’ve been doing for the past several years, or you may even regret having asked the seemingly casual conversation-starter “So, what’s your dissertation about?”, you have been supportive regardless and understand that today is kind of a big deal for us.
When I started at the Graduate Center in 2009, I said to myself, “Five years? How could anything possibly take five years? I’ll be out of here in four, tops, no problem. It’s just a couple of classes and a little paper, right?” I thought of this degree as a singular event, a hurdle to be jumped and moved past. But this degree represents 20% of my time on this earth, and it signifies not a momentary accomplishment but rather an ongoing set of experiences that define the role I hope to play in the world at large. So I offer the following observations about my time at the Graduate Center as illustrative proof of my ongoing process of finding my place in the world, and I hope they resonate with my fellow graduates’ experiences.
When I started at the Graduate Center, I didn’t anticipate how much I would love teaching, or how my students would eat up all of the time I gave them, or how I would pore over their papers and my lecture notes on the subway. And at home in the evenings. And on weekends. And on holidays... I didn’t anticipate how energized teaching a class would leave me feeling, or how the questions my students asked and the progress they made could affirm my faith in the future, or how commiserating with my colleagues about the broader social and institutional difficulties facing educators could temper that idealism with a cold dose of realism, or how heavy the weight of responsibility is when you’re sitting on the other side of the teacher’s desk.
When I started at the Graduate Center, I didn’t think that New York City would be so awesome – so vibrant, so surprising, so picturesque. Or so expensive. Or, over a decade into the 21st century, that there would still be so much to protest about and demonstrate against: the NYPD’s stop and frisk policy, the Occupy Wall Street movement, minimum wage negotiations, or the more recent deaths of Eric Garner and Freddie Gray.
I had no idea my fellow doctoral students would be so damned smart – every single one of them – and that their comments during seminars, or lingering in one of the gray hallways after seminar was over, or in the middle of a party, or even on a facebook post could be so consistently compelling and thoughtful. Their intellectual curiosity and fidelity to academic inquiry aren’t switches that turn on and off but rather are integral parts of who they are and how they interact with the world. I also had no idea anyone could be so passionate about Robert’s Rules of Order. Thank you, Friday night Doctoral Student Council meetings.
I didn’t anticipate how intimidating and inspiring my fellow students’ breadth and depth of skills would be. I assumed that the music department would be filled with talented young professionals who came here to be a part of one of the most diverse and high-caliber music scenes on earth and to study with innovative musicians and scholars, but I didn’t realize that I would find my fellow students’ artistry and worldview as musicians so invigorating, or that my classes would be filled with players and composers with whom I would want to continue working and making music for the rest of my life. Just like students from other disciplines at the Graduate Center, my musical colleagues here are fierce and impressive in terms of their abilities, expertise, and accolades; they perform not only with impeccable skill but also with purpose; they explore a wide palette of new sounds and musical ideas rather than retreating into the cocoon of complacency; they are concerned with reaching and meaningfully engaging new listeners, making what we do relevant while retaining artistic integrity; and they embrace the beautiful diversity of musical experiences from around the world with respect and intellectual curiosity.
I also never imagined how much fun writing the dissertation would be – once it finally got going, of course – that writing it would feel like traveling at light speed, doing backflips and yoga simultaneously in my mind, all while sitting still and typing at the computer.
I was unable to foresee how life would get in the way of what was supposed to be the simple, elegant narrative of “working on my doctorate.” I had no idea that my father’s sudden diagnosis of cancer and death early in my second year would energize my will to complete my degree and not waste a single precious moment of time, but that my mother’s unexpected death at the end of my fourth would slow me down so much, turning my emotions into a thick molasses within which I struggled to accomplish even the simplest tasks.
But I also didn’t know how consistently supportive the Graduate Center community would be, and not only when I thought I needed it most – how fellow musicians as well as friends from other departments would come to my concerts both on and off campus; how this would be the first school I’d ever attended without a sense of competitive jealousy among the students. I had no idea that an institution could contain such successful, intelligent people who would be so generous with their time despite being so busy with their teaching and research schedules; people who would say, “Let’s get coffee” and actually mean it; people who would never hesitate to lend me a much-needed book, or remind me what pages were supposed to have been read for seminar, or be so open with their own work; people who could be such masters in their respective fields and yet humble in the face of others’ research. I didn’t think the Graduate Center would be full of people who would be so adept and exuberant in their non-academic knowledge and interests, sharing their dog sitting skills or their cooking expertise and organizing ski trips and other important respites from scholarly pursuits – basically, that an institution could exist whose members have accomplished so much but remain so human.
When I was considering doctoral programs, I ultimately decided to attend the Graduate Center because it felt like a place where I would, every single day, feel holistically inspired by my fellow doctoral students and faculty in a way that no other institution seemed to offer. That unfailing energy spurred my work here, and it also is the standard with which I want to engage the world, because I know that’s how the rest of the Graduate Center community will continue to do so. I thank you all for making our academic community inspiring in its accomplishments, intimidating in its collective knowledge, and joyful in its pursuits. I feel lucky to be numbered among you because it is you, your achievements thus far, and your future accomplishments that will arise out of your own set of meaningful experiences at the Graduate Center that make my degree mean anything at all.
Thank you all.