The website of classical guitarist David Tanenbaum

Commencement Address

Commencement Address
San Francisco Conservatory
May 18, 2001

Members of the Conservatory family and friends:

I’m honored to be speaking to you on this happy occasion.

First, I want to thank Laurette Goldberg. Her generosity and imagination made it possible for me to major here in guitar with a harpsichord teacher. Besides the influence of that work, the flexibility she developed within the early music program turned out to be a great model for a guitar program. When I later became chairman of the guitar department I used some of her ideas to expand the scope of the program to include improvisation, composition and even lute skills. What goes around comes around, and next year for the first time since I was a student, a guitarist here will be studying mostly outside the guitar department. So for all that, for years of arguments about Glenn Gould, and much more, thank you.

And I want to congratulate you, the class of 2001, on a job well done, on accomplishing something real, and I wish you luck in the future. It’s my task here to talk about the beginning of your next journey, and I want to do that by first talking about the decision you made to come here. At some point, pretty far back, you were bitten by the bug. Music spoke directly to you. What can we say about music? Here’s what Plato said:

Music is a moral law
it gives wings to the mind
a soul to the universe
flight to the imagination
a charm to sadness
a life to everything

And it stirred your soul. Then you found some way to bring it into your life, to make music yourself, and that was inspiring, and went well. You took it further. At some point the idea of a deeper commitment arose, and I’m sure counterweights arose also, maybe from an uncle in the stock market, or possibly a parent, or a friend. Other possibilities surely were considered: another strong interest, or the lure of a liberal arts investigation, or even a day job. But somehow this passion was the strongest, you kept on, and decided to come here.

And you stayed here. Certainly there was some spiritual angst along the way, maybe some times when you wanted to walk, and I’m sure you looked around and saw some people who graduated before you who did not realize all their dreams. But still you continued, got the final performances together, and completed the degree.

And now you’re here. You have your degree, and the view must look different. The challenges that were directly in front of you have been met and there’s a big, crazy world swirling away outside. Amidst the satisfaction and celebration you must have questions and doubts. The securities and bonds of this place will soon not be as strong. Within a day or two the people in this room will take wing and be spread all over the planet. What to do now? I was in your shoes around twenty years ago, in this hall, so I think I know how you feel. And what I want to do is to tell you some things I’ve learned in the interim, and hopefully provide some perspective on the journey you are starting now.

I think, first of all, that you have some navigational clues in the course that brought you to this moment. There was a strong line in that story where you didn’t lose sight of your path through some inevitable difficulty and doubt, and I ask you not to lose sight of it now. The landscape gets bigger and more complicated today, but I think the essential struggle and challenge is the same-to find your voice and to follow it. You all have similar degrees today, from the same school, but there are degrees you each have that no one else has ever had, or ever will have-which are your story, your experience, and your voice. Because you have persevered through some hardships and obstacles, your voice has become stronger. The more you protect it, the more you listen to it, the louder it will become. That’s my experience-at first you can be knocked off your center easily, you don’t have your sea legs, but after continually rediscovering your voice, after protecting it through thick and thin, there’s not a demon alive that can disengage you.

There are many examples of this. Our friend Laurette Goldberg has managed to keep going through physical ailments that would fill a medical textbook-she currently takes 27 pills a day and is being cared for by 13 different doctors. When I was asked to give this address I called her up and said “Let’s have lunch, I want to know exactly what you are up to these days.” She said “Great, wonderful. Let’s tell only the truth.” And what I saw was that s he had as many passions as ever-there was a visiting professor living at her house, students, concerts to present, a book to write. Even as the body was declining, the passion was, if anything, burning stronger, and that is because she has honored it and followed it for a lifetime.

When I directed the Lou Harrison festival here in 1997 we commissioned a drawing from his friend Mark Bullwinkle, and the result was a wonderfully lively and vivid image. But there was a problem-it innocuously showed some genitals, and because children would be playing in the festival there was some talk of censoring. When Lou got wind of that, this gentle 80 year old man turned into a lion. His protest was born from a lifetime of defiance, of standing up for art and free expression in the face of any oppression, internal or external, and it was one of the most powerful and unmovable personal fortresses I’ve ever experienced. We ended up using the work as the festival poster, kids especially loved it, and it became a popular t-shirt that makes people smile to this day.

I think it’s important to listen to people like these whose lives represent the courage you want to have. You’ve had that experience here: your teachers have served as this kind of role model. Those relationships will probably fade to some degree, but I urge you to continue them, and find others. I have learned that great relationships are invaluable, but they require real work, real sacrifice, and continual nurturing.

I’d like to tell you now a few other things I’ve learned in the twenty years since I was in your position.

I have found that the greatest of all miracles, my religion really, is life itself. Look around you. We’re in this beautiful place, we have music in our lives, we have love, we have health, the wonders of the body. Each of these things, on its own, is worthy of great reverence. And beyond that, we even have free choice. With all the little dramas that have gone on in this place, and the dramas that you will experience in the future, I hope you can step into the larger picture sometimes. I hope we can be all be awake enough to realize we already have much of what we’re looking for.

In that light, I have worked to appreciate the every day process of making and teaching music, and to reduce trying to predict or get fixated on the outcome. Dr.Martin Luther King, Jr. said that “…one of the great agonies of life is that we are constantly trying to finish that which is unfinishable.” At some point in your time here-although perhaps not recently, with juries and recitals looming-I’m sure you experienced this love of process, and I hope you can get back to it. With all the change going on in your life now, I hope you start practicing again in the next few days-I know I will. I’ll practice today. I love the solitude, the search, the discoveries, even the stagnation: the still space, when nothing seems to move, but all possibilities are open. And I think our lengthy, wasteful, irregular process, our prolonged searches, provide a balance to the everyday necessities of quick decisions and quick results. In this way, artists also balance the power brokers of the world, and we have done that for centuries. I have learned that one of the most fundamental-and perhaps least recognized-of the basic human needs is the need to be generous. This is easy to observe. When you’re having a hard time, at odds with the instrument, mad at the music world, whatever, turn it around and commit an act of pure generosity. Do this even for selfish reasons, but see how it makes you feel. You know how they say that the best things in life are free? I have found that one of those things is quietude. Strange that I’m on a stage where we have all played so many notes, suggesting quiet, but actually I think that’s where music comes from. The next time you’re stuck, or even if you’re not, just sit there, breathe deeply, try not to even give your thoughts much attention. Make a routine of it. I find an amazing power in this. I believe that if every person sat still and quiet for just 20 minutes a day, even 10, this would be a much more peaceful world.

You’ve been in a highly specialized place, developing specific skills, but you won’t have enough to say if that’s all you do. I have learned that the work ultimately comes from the life, and the broader and deeper that is, the more you will have to say. You have found a lot of answers in the practice room, and will continue to do so, but please honor your life as well, it’s your greatest gift. I hope you do many things that have nothing to do with music at all.

And speaking of your life, I want to pass on to you the simple but I think profound goal of the Tibetan Llama Sogyal Rinpoche. He said: “My religion is to live-and die-without regret.”

I’d like to hear what you have to say in 20 years. But also please keep in touch along the way-let’s keep this bond going. Remember your decision to come to this place as a courageous one, an honoring of your own deep passion. Remember your work to complete this program as one of further courage, and real sacrifice. Whatever course your life takes, I hope that decision and the time spent here remain a symbol to you of following and developing your own voice.

We’re all in this together. We’re making music in what sometimes seems like an indifferent world. But whatever the appearances, the world needs artists. There is somehow always room for a real voice clearly expressed. So you stay in the fight. Have courage. I wish you luck. Tell the truth, as Laurette Goldberg told me. Tell your truth. We’ll be listening. Thank you.
© 2001 David Tanenbaum

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