Is commencement an ending or a beginning? I’ve considered the question from various points of view—that of graduating students, continuing students, and faculty and staff—and with my own sense of the culmination of the school year and the beginning of summer.
My return to Manhattan School of Music last May, shortly before the 2013 Commencement, was an incredibly joyful homecoming for me. Many of you may not know that I had worked at MSM for 15 years, in various positions including Dean of Enrollment and Alumni, before moving to Chicago to serve as Dean of the Chicago College of the Performing Arts, and then as Provost and Executive Vice President of its parent institution, Roosevelt University. I was so pleased, upon my return, by the change and growth that had occurred since my departure in 2000. My inspiration to come ‘home’ to MSM was my deep familiarity with the community, as well as my longstanding bond to the institution which began in 1985—and my motivation to serve as President was, is, the possibility of building a new and great future with all of you for this very special conservatory that I love.
What a year it’s been. I’ve seen the extraordinary faculty of MSM in action, in settings large and intimate, teaching with unwavering commitment. I’ve seen students on every level eager to learn and engage. I’ve seen staff dedicated to creating the right environment so that every member of the MSM community can focus on the two principles around which we coalesce: excellence and dedication to our students.
The year’s daily routine of teaching, learning, practicing, and creating was punctuated by a wealth of performances, including standout events like MSM Opera Theater’s December production of The Mother of Us All; the MSM Symphony’s Carnegie Hall debut in April with Glenn Dicterow, not just a spectacular soloist, but a member of the MSM Board of Trustees and Chair of MSM’s Orchestral Performance Program; and appearances by our jazz ensembles at Jazz @ Lincoln Center, the Apollo Theater, and—backing up our own alumna, Jane Monheit—at Birdland.
For one week in March, even as matriculated students were on their well-earned Spring Break, the campus was anything but quiet. Of the 850-plus students currently enrolled at MSM, approximately 350 will graduate this Spring. So with current students heading home to any one of 44 states in the U.S., Singapore, Sydney or Hong Kong, Paris or Berlin, to visit family and friends, we dove into the crucial ritual of identifying the best potential talent to enter MSM in the Fall—auditions! In that incredibly intense, pressured week for everyone involved, I spoke with many parents, and thought about the excitement of possibility I felt in my own student years, and the thrill of anticipation these young people from the further reaches of New York, the country, and the globe, must have felt. With pleasure, I felt like the Mayor of MSM, walking the halls, shaking hands, and making sure everyone I met was comfortable in our house. I loved the geographic, social, and cultural diversity of the aspirants. We tried a few new things—an Auditions Week newsletter to illustrate what awaits them on the MSM campus and transforming the elegant David A. Rahm Board Room into an open hospitality suite, a place to mingle and meet. I spoke with many members of the faculty, who told me, universally, that the talent pool was superb. But still, not all will make it—1,800 aspiring musicians walked through the doors of MSM that week, to a competitive and highly selective process. And of those who will win their auditions, around 40 percent will choose to become MSM students. These new students will become part of MSM and our legacy, and they will contribute to the continuity and evolution of the art forms MSM teaches and cherishes.
Which brings me back to my original question: is commencement an ending or a beginning? On May 16, the graduates will leave the protected, nurturing environment of this historic and venerable corner of Manhattan. Some will land on the greatest performing arts stages. Some will remain in this ‘if you can make it here, you’ll make it anywhere’ world of New York City and forge new and unique paths. Others will take their talent, knowledge, discipline and ideas to a vast array of cities and towns, states, countries, and careers, but all with that guiding value at the core of an MSM education: excellence.
My first MSM Commencement as President took place just six days after I returned to New York and assumed my position. What a way to end my first week, to celebrate the joyous milestone of these highly successful students. This year, I’ve had the pleasure of being immersed in the details of Commencement, with an eye toward creating a moment of reflection and inspiration. I have the honor of bestowing Honorary Doctorates on four remarkable individuals. I hope that their personal journeys and contributions to their professions and their communities inspire and influence each of our graduates: Joan Ades, who has lent her name and support to an annual voice competition and created Joan’s Closet to help young women find beautiful stage attire; the wonderfully talented Tony Award-winning singer and actor, and MSM alum, Shuler Hensley; the distinguished Executive Director of the New York Philharmonic, Matthew VanBesien; and the esteemed Peter G. Robbins who has given six years of service as Chair of the Board of Trustees of MSM. But the most important message I want to underscore is that MSM will always be the home of those who received their education here – so no matter how far or where your journey takes you, whether in music or another field, come back, be a part of MSM’s future, help us continue to build this incredible musical house for those rare, talented musicians who follow.
How wonderful it is to be home again, to be back in this rare, supportive atmosphere of true community. With my deepest gratitude to the faculty and staff, to the Board of Trustees, to the supporters of Manhattan School of Music for all your labors, love, and dedication, for your unwavering belief in educating our students and working to perpetuate our art forms, I would like to say—Commencement is both an ending and a beginning and we’re just getting started!
Have a great summer,