Student Commencement Addresses
Curtis Commencement, May 12, 2012
Jessica T. Chang (Viola), "Learn and Share by Doing"
President Díaz, Chairman Lenfest, Dean Mangan, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty members and staff, guests, families, and my colleagues, thank you for this opportunity to share a few words on the occasion of our graduation.
Music and friends have always been our saving graces, but even more so in these difficult times. Our hearts and experiences form our voices, no matter what form of expression we take—and Curtis, above all, has taught us to shape and to share our individual voices through music. So, I’d like to share a few anecdotes from my first weeks at Curtis as an incoming Diploma student soon after completing my undergraduate studies. They went something like this:
It was my first-ever coaching at Curtis, with Pam Frank, on Beethoven’s String Quartet Op. 18, No. 1. About three minutes in, Pam called me “a big fat chicken” for not honoring one of Beethoven’s dynamic markings—I made a crescendo, but backed out at the last second and dropped the sound too early before a subito piano. Since then I’ve kept a tally for how many times I’ve been called a “big fat chicken,” and I think Pam has called me that at least once a year. In the same coaching, someone’s watch alarm went off at 9:30 p.m. Pam cracked up and joked if it was bedtime for one of my sixteen-year old colleagues. Turns out, she was right … at 9:30 p.m.
#2. It was my first lab orchestra rehearsal at Curtis, and we were squished into this very room on a hot September day. I was terrified of the magnificent Maestro Mueller and horrified when he announced that we were playing so dryly that “even [his] socks [were] falling asleep!” He then leaned down and slowly pulled up his drooping socks, with great drama.
Last but not least, I remember a conversation amongst a group of friends after a recital, when I brought up the year 2002 in some context, and reminisced about how I was in high school. One of my young colleagues chimed in, “In 2002, I was FIVE!” At that point, I felt so prehistoric that I could have blended into the intricate woodwork, oriental rugs, and antique furniture in the Common Room.
We all had our moments and fears during our first weeks here, because we recognized Curtis as a place with high standards and a rich history. However, it didn’t take long to realize that we were all part of Curtis. There were traditions that soon became occasions for us to come together. There was tea every Wednesday, with birthday cake, Mrs. Sokoloff’s hats, and cookies between rehearsals. We had lab orchestra every Friday, where Maestro Mueller taught us how to tune, how to respect every note, and how to listen. There were humorous things, such as the skits at the Holiday Party. But more important, we began to relish the practices that make Curtis a wonderful school, which is why if we could, we’d petition the Dean to stay a fifth year, or sixth year, or tenth year…
At last, we realized why Maestro Mueller’s socks were falling asleep. Together we’ve gained a greater sense of musical awareness, exemplified by learning to listen, to shape our phrases, and to play with heart and mind. With our increased awareness and capacities for expression, hopefully Maestro Mueller’s socks stay up from now on. This is also summarized in a quote from Pam Frank from a Curtis On Tour trip to Europe. And I quote Pam: “Always vibrate with the phrase … and eat everything in sight!”
I learned that it didn’t matter how old or how young any of us were—we were all here to grow intellectually and musically as artists, and to make the world a better place with our music.
I’m learning how to not be a musical “big fat chicken.” I’m learning to take risks to search for the right timing, the right inflection, and the right sound.
Music has taught us about ourselves through creativity and enthusiasm, perseverance and support. We’ve learned to use our brains, but also to speak from our hearts. In addition to the traditions of Curtis, these are lessons that we must share beyond the Curtis doors. How do we do that? We set the example by sharing our music with the utmost intention, heart, and soul. We rely on our honest voices to convey our ideas. We come together with our music in the face of difficult times. Let us all continue to learn by doing, but also to share by doing, and to inspire as you have all inspired each other during our time together. Let Maestro Mueller’s socks never fall asleep, and let musical “big fat chickens” be distinctions of the past. To the Curtis class of 2012, thank you. It is an honor and a privilege to be graduating amongst everyone here, and I congratulate each and every one of you.
Benjamin Beilman (Violin), "The Curtis DNA"
Like Jessica, I’ve taken stock of the changes since we first entered Curtis. Of course there’s the opening of the new building, recent faculty appointments, and new classmates and future colleagues. The things that stick in my mind are changes that Curtis has made to our basic nature—our DNA.
Like many other elite schools, a common trait amongst Curtis students is discipline. Our childhood involved a long list of sacrifices we made to hone our musical gift. Instead of spending weekends outside playing soccer or going to the movies, many of us spent them in cars or planes traveling to faraway destinations for lessons and competitions. We gambled adolescence praying that it would pay off in adulthood.
We got it right—every single one of us was accepted into THE most selective school in the country. Once we walked through the doors of 1726 Locust, however, we all discovered that discipline wasn’t enough. Over time we uncovered Curtis’s secret ingredient—the idea that true excellence isn’t a destination but a lifelong pursuit. I was exposed to this mindset five years ago while tucked behind the organ in that corner during the Curtis Orchestra’s first informal reading with Maestro Mueller.
Brahms’ first symphony was slated to be the vehicle that would indoctrinate all of us newbies into the Curtis Symphony Orchestra. As I think back, we must have all looked like frantic puppies—wary of the maestro’s wrath but extremely eager to please. As is the typical Mueller way, our introduction to the work didn’t begin with a run-through of the first movement. In fact, we didn’t even start at the beginning. Mueller dissected the symphony in agonizingly minute detail, highlighting figures in the winds, connecting lines between each string section, and jumping between movements to point out motives planted in the symphony’s skeleton.
Once we were finally allowed to play more than eight bars, we were bombarded with typical Muellerisms: “FORTE ONLY!” “Don’t pretend to be UNmusical!” “If I made that sound, I would flush the toilet!” In the end, though, this microscopic work allowed us to put all the pieces back together to make it more beautiful and more profound than before.
Curtis’s obsession with excellence isn’t just about stacking up well against other music schools—we all feel this obligation because we are fully aware of this conservatory’s history and tradition. Walking onstage for my graduation recital took on a completely unexpected level of significance when I remembered that Rudolf Serkin, Efrem Zimbalist, and Leonard Bernstein all filled this very same hall with their music. Mikael Eliasen even likes to joke that Menotti and Barber may have sparked their romance on the couch in his studio.
Curtis’s legacy is more than just lore, though. It’s sustained by the uniquely loyal community of current and past faculty, staff, students, and alumni—a group WE are now joining. We’ve all seen how alumni and faculty of recent and past distinction maintain an active role in the school. Orlando Cole and David Soyer exemplified this duty, as they maintained strong Curtis bonds throughout their illustrious performing careers. Our current teachers only add to the Curtis pool of knowledge as they draw on their active performance careers. Curtis is a community that does not disband once we walk through the doors with our diplomas. Curtis is now part of our DNA.
Though very few of us might eventually become professors here, there are many ways we can maintain the legacy. Take pride in the Curtis mantra that we must strive for perfection, but know that it’s unattainable. When we lose our footing, know that leaning on others for support is not a sign of weakness, but one of strength. Stay connected as we follow each other to other conservatories and sit next to each other in chamber groups and orchestras. I personally look forward to performing alongside each of you at summer festivals and on recitals. Let me take you out for a beer after our successful concerts. Let me crash on your couch when I call you desperately at midnight with no place to go.
Most important, give back to the school that’s given us so much, and make the Dresden Tour a resounding success. Thank you very much, and congratulations.