I wrote and said a speech at CIM's Preparatory Commencement not long ago
Hello ladies and germs! Just kidding, that's not how it began. Here is the actual speech:
I'm so happy to be here, and so honored [2013 Distinguished Alumni Award] to be acknowledged in this way. Thank you, President Smirnoff and Dean Shapiro!
I can honestly say that if I had not attended the Cleveland Institute of Music, I seriously doubt that I would be receiving this particular award today.
CIM was my first musical home, and every inch of this building is dear to my heart, and filled with memories. Cleveland holds so many close friends... my musical family.
The city of Cleveland is still home to both the teachers that were like musical parents to me, as well as the medical doctors who were like.... biological parents to me.
I did so much of my growing up right here at the Institute, and some of it here on this very stage, where I played my first recital.
So, if you'll bear with me, I would like to take this opportunity to share with you some fond memories of my time here---since nostalgia unites classical musicians like nothing else..... And I would also like to offer you some small pieces of advice--simply because I've managed to stay alive so much longer than you have, through no fault of your own--and also because receiving unsolicited advice with dignity and calm should prepare you nicely for your future chamber music rehearsals.
I attended the young artist program fairly recently, in the nineteen nineties... which are the second most recentdecade to the one we're in now, so that gives you some idea of how recent it was. Anyway, it was a primitive time, we didn't have Mixon Hall, we didn't have IMSLP, or Harry Potter, or even metronome apps on our phones! The halls were lined with torn-up leather couches, and both sides of the two-sided clocks showed different and vastly conflicting times. This created unpredictable time warps, where you could be late and early at the same time. NOW, of course you have fancy black chairs and the discrepancy between the clocks is down to mere seconds. That's the cost of progress I guess...
I spent hours every day practicing and napping in the practice rooms downstairs, eavesdropping on what the other students were playing, and making friends to last a lifetime. Early on I discovered a brilliant way to retain a practice room while I was away for dinner, the secret of which I will now share with you: crumple up a clean tissue and place it on the middle of the keyboard. No one will touch the piano!
I took most of my piano lessons in room 212, and despite, or maybe because of, all the struggles and suffering over pedaling and legato and shaping four-bar phrases inside of that room, I consider 212 to be my lucky number--February 12th, 2:12 pm, I'm always expecting something amazing to happen.
I brought Mr. Schenly a cute stuffed animal as a birthday present the very first year I studied with him, probably hoping it would make him go easy---or at least easier--on me. He told me thanks, that he appreciated the gift, and that he would put it to good use beating students who learned the wrong notes. Of course, he never did, since flogging became officially discouraged at CIM sometime around the Ernest Bloch era. But there's your first piece of advice: "Try to learn the right notes the first time around."
I played a lot of chess in high school; I even used to be able to beat Dr. Daniel Shapiro. But then we had a break where we didn't play for a little while, and when we returned to our games he had become way, way better than me. He absolutely demolished me. So the second piece of advice is: "Quit while you're ahead," SPECIFICALLY and EXCLUSIVELY with regards to Dr. Shapiro and the game of chess. In all other circumstances, "Never give up."
The nineties were also a time of intense tobacco consumption, with the fumes concentrated especially at the entrances and exits to the building. I was about fourteen years old, and a non-smoker-- one of an elite few CIM pianists able to practice 90 minutes solid without a cigarette break. One day Mr. Babayan noticed some black stains on my sweatshirt sleeves when I was playing for him. They were probably from marker or ink for some high school project, but he asked me if they were cigarette burns. When I told him I didn't smoke, he said, "oh good, I'm glad you finally quit." Years later I realized he was making fun of me. The third piece of excellent advice is I guess, "Don't smoke." Now we're getting somewhere with this advice.
And now something a little more serious, I think.
Even though I went to school here in a time before Harry Potter, I felt, and I'm sure many of you feel the same way, that coming from high school to CIM was very much like leaving the land of Muggles and coming to Hogwarts: going from reality into magic. Just like today, CIM was filled with people---amazing teachers and amazing students---who loved and cared for music, and who believed in its immeasurable value. People NEED music, it's as essential as breathing, because in reality, we're all Muggles; art and music and love are the only magics of our world. And they're magic---I think--because they're solely about giving between one person and another. I thank the CIM community for its integrity, optimism, excellence and endurance and for providing me with such a beautiful example--which leads me to advice number four: Be a giving musician. Be a kind person! Try to do the right thing for other people and try to do the right thing for the music! It pretty much amounts to the same thing. OK, that's the last of my advice.
I imagine many of you are currently deciding between pursuing careers in music or becoming lion tamers, or whatever it is the rest of the world does. Let me just warn you not to choose music because of any misperceived glamor of the lifestyle. All I can speak to is the life of a pianist, but I can tell you that the reality is jet lag, broken strings AND broken keys in concert, platinum customer status at Subway Sandwiches, and having to follow conductors without being able to see their arms--all these things loom large.
But, probably being a lion tamer isn't so glamorous either. So, whether you decide to be a musician or something else-----a wealthy person perhaps--- you will always have the magic and beauty of music informing how you treat the people around you. And you will have some nice nostalgia for your happy times growing up with your inspiring teachers and amazing colleagues in this magical building.
My congratulations to you, and thank you for letting me have the privilege of speaking to you.