The Starting Line
By Adam Glaser
University of Delaware Department of Music Commencement Address
Delivered May 28, 2011, Roselle Center for the Arts, Newark, DE
* * *
Thank you, and good afternoon to our distinguished faculty, parents, grandparents, relatives and friends, and of course, the esteemed Class of 2011. It is truly an honor and a privilege to share this very special day with all of you.
About one hour north of here in Philadelphia, there is an annual event called the Penn Relays which I used to watch when I was college student living there. I had run cross-country in high school. I wasn’t very good, but I enjoyed long-distance running, and might have continued running had I not discovered a local delicacy known as the “cheesesteak." The Penn Relays reminded me that a 5-minute mile was actually possible, if one stayed away from the cheesesteaks. They also reminded me that there are some things in life that are meant to be races -- driven by speed – and some that are not. For instance:
• The Penn Relay’s 400-meter dash;
• Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee;" and
• Getting away to the Jersey Shore on a beautiful weekend.
These are meant to be races.
• My current 2-mile evening jogs around the neighborhood;
• The Adagietto from Mahler’s 5th symphony; and
• Driving to the Jersey Shore in Memorial Day Weekend traffic.
These are not meant to be races. Rather, these are pursuits in which endurance, tenacity and most of all, patience are virtues more highly coveted than speed, strength and the ability to inhale quick-energy gels on the run.
“A life in the arts" is not a race. And today is most certainly not your finish line. A “finish line" would imply that you’ve figured it all out – that you have all the answers about your future. Maybe you do! Goodness knows, when I was in school, I had dreams and goals, but I did not have any answers. I had questions…lots and lots of questions.
Now, let me get something out in the open. I am addicted to analyzing orchestra scores. This is pretty typical for a conductor. In my advanced conducting lessons and seminars at Juilliard, I spend a majority of the semester teaching score study, and I love every minute of it. I could spend hours researching a composer’s background, or completing a chord-by-chord harmonic analysis. I get weak in the knees just thinking about mapping out the structure of a Shostakovich symphony.
For me, it’s like reverse engineering. Do you remember a few years ago when the iPhone first came out? There were all these “techno-wizards" who took the iPhones apart, studied them and tried to rewire them to work on a different cellphone carrier. I suppose this would be like taking apart Wagner’s Ring Cycle, rewriting the whole thing up a minor 3rd, and singing it all in French. I don’t condone either activity. But the concept of reverse engineering a great masterpiece? That I like.
The same thing applies in music. When I sit down with the score of a Brahms symphony, I do a bit of reverse engineering. That is, I ask lots of questions, as if I’m challenging Brahms’ decisions:
• Why did he choose to go from E minor to C major?
• Did he really intend to skip that section in the Recapitulation?
• What on earth does he have against the violas? (Just kidding. Brahms writes great parts for violas!)
Do I expect to find the exact answers? No. Unfortunately, Brahms is terrible about returning my emails. But, in the process of reverse engineering the score, I gain insights both large and small – such as structure, phrasing, tempo relations, motivic connections, and even things that the composer took out. Just like that “zoom" feature in Google Maps, this tactic of asking questions helps me to grasp the music on several levels concurrently – with both “eagle vision" (a view of the landscape from high above) and “chicken vision" (a detailed view on the ground).
Interestingly, it was this same “tough questions" approach that helped me to choose my career path as a conductor. Growing up, I had been a composer, a French horn player, a classical pianist, and a jazz pianist, but I still had not found my calling. My musical future seemed like a thick, tangled forest with no clear path through it.
So, I started to ask myself some questions:
• What drew me to music in the first place?
• What were my strongest assets?
• Where were my areas for improvement?
Sometimes, the revelations were painful. I had dreamed of being a soloist performing piano concertos with an orchestra. One day I was looking closely at the Prokofiev Second Piano Concerto in g minor, specifically the towering cadenza in the first movement. It seemed like Prokofiev expected a third hand to pop out of my chest to play it, like that gruesome scene in the movie Alien. Well, I didn’t have the third hand, and I couldn’t afford the surgery to have it installed in my chest. It was evident that I simply did not have the fingers to competitively perform some of the staples of the piano concerto repertoire. This was a sobering moment: I would not be the next Vladimir Horowitz.
However, in my crisis, I discovered an opportunity, easily summed up in four words: “Small hands, big ears." No, I didn’t have the enormous hands to play Rachmaninoff Second Piano Concerto, but I could play the orchestra score by ear. I started to appreciate my unusually sensitive ears, and to realize that my ability to hear and deconstruct orchestra music in real time could be a huge advantage on the podium.
“Small hands, big ears." I can work with that!
From there, I began to witness a parade of epiphanies about myself:
• I enjoyed the solitude and meditation of composing, but I was an extrovert who craved collaboration with other musicians.
• Music was my first love, but I was also fascinated by history, literature and languages.
• I was no Robin Williams, but I had done some improv comedy, and appreciated the power of humor to ease tension and relieve pressure – something that could be highly valuable in some rehearsals situations.
• I loved to teach, rehearse and to perform.
Gradually, the brush in the forest started to thin out and disappear, and my path became clear before me: I would pursue a life as a conductor.
Now, at the time, this seemed ridiculous. Me? A conductor? No way. I didn’t have a tyrannical personality, I felt like a penguin in tuxedoes, and clearly I didn’t have good “conductor hair." Well, those weren’t the real issues. The truth was that I was frozen by fear; not fear of failure, but fear of taking that first step.
There is a great book by screenwriter Steven Pressfield called The War of Art, about the challenges and blocks inherent to creativity. In it, he refers to “Resistance" with a capital “R", some demon that lives to stop you from putting pen to paper. He has a great chapter, all of 33 words, called, “Resistance is Fueled by Fear," and it goes like this:
“Resistance has no strength of its own. Every ounce of juice it possesses comes from us. We feed it with power by our fear of it. Master that fear and we conquer Resistance."
Taking the first step on a new journey can drum up all kinds of fear: fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of going down the wrong path! Every creative person struggles to play or compose those first notes, because to do so is to make a decision – a commitment -- about what those notes should be and how they should be performed. With all this fear and uncertainty, how do we manage to go forward with those first steps?
As we all know, there are certain wise people on this earth to whom we turn for the answers to life’s toughest questions. Of course, I’m talking about  babies, and  Yogi Berra.
• First, the babies -- Earth’s resident experts on taking first steps. How do they approach their first steps? They may struggle, but unlike grown-ups, they don’t have any fear of those first steps. They just take them. If they fall down, they get up, and keep going. This is brilliant stuff!
• Second, Mr. Yogi Berra, the baseball legend and accidental philosopher who said, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it."
When I was afraid to begin my life as a conductor, an old teacher gave me similar advice. He said, “Adam, just take that first step. It will either be on the right path, or it will bring you one step closer to the right path soon enough." So I did, and as it turned out, it was the right first step. I went on to graduate school at Michigan and Curtis, spent some time in Europe, joined the Juilliard faculty, started guest conducting, and haven’t looked back. I continued composing, getting commissions for new works, and even found a way to incorporate my passion for business and marketing by launching a company that specializes in commercial music and audio branding.
So, here I am, living my life as a conductor and composer, and it is definitely the right path for me. I love working with different orchestras. I love collaborating with brilliant colleagues and teaching talented students. I love discovering new repertoire, rediscovering the established masterworks, and adding new pieces of my own. Importantly, I continue to ask questions, and to learn. This is a lifelong journey, and I am grateful to be on it.
And so, here you are, embarking on your lifelong journey as artists. Where will it take you? Perhaps you’ll ask yourself some of those tough questions, such as:
• What makes you truly happy?
• What are your strengths?
• Do you have a third hand already in your chest? If so, are you an alien?
When you start down a new path, you may feel unsure of yourself and afraid to take that first step. But if you’ve really asked yourself the right questions – and answered honestly – then have faith in your judgment, take that first step, and let it lead you forward.
This will take time. But thankfully, it’s not a race. And this is not your finish line. If anything, this is your starting line.
I hope you find beautiful paths in your future, and if they are not easily visible at first, I hope you find the courage to clear your own path through the forest. Where will each path take you? That’s for you to find out. And as you do, I hope the ground rises up gently to meet you, that the trails are soft and smooth, and that every path you choose fills your life with immense joy, peace, and true artistic fulfillment.
Good luck to all of you. Thank you, and once again, congratulations.
* * *