Commencement Speech

May 22, 2011

Marcel Proost came by this morning to borrow my truck. He was ribbing me about my being given an honorary degree at the Juilliard School this past Friday.

“So now I suppose I should call you Doctor John, but I don’t see no straw hat.”

“Yeah, that’s right, Marcel. I got to sit there onstage at Alice Tully Hall with some pretty amazing honorees—Twyla Tharp, Sir Derek Jacboi and Herbie Hancock.

“You know, Marcel, I was listening to Herbie Hancock when I was a sophomore in college. He was already a jazz legend, and it turns out that he was only twenty-five at the time and had already been Miles Davis’ pianist. Now he’s seventy but looks about fifty. Cool guy. I met him when he was at Disney Hall at the premiere of ‘City Noir.’”

“Yeah, well you know that ‘Watermelon Man” was like your first minimalist loop piece. Did that in 1973—just listen to the opening.” Totally ahead of the curve.”

“And Twyla Tharp…

“Twyla is about five feet high, wears horn-rimmed glasses and she came to the commencement ceremony in black cowboy boots. You could see the boots under her ceremonial robes. Even at almost seventy, she’s got a cobra’s intensity, coiled up ready to strike with some brilliant new idea. Even Geroge W. Bush knows who Twyla Tharp is! ”

“Gotta check out her great ballet to the Beach Boys’ music, or what she did with Frank Sinatra’s music for Baryshnikov.

“Well,” I say to Marcel, “I felt inadequate to be on the stage with the kind of achievement that those three stars represent.”

Marcel chuckles. “So I heard they made you earn your honorary degree. You had to give the Commencement Speech!”

“Yes, that’s right. Here’s what I told those young graduates:

Juilliard Commencement Speech

I have to say that being a composer invited into a public gathering is always an anxiety-producing experience. No matter how casual or at ease we composers may appear on the outside, there is always that little homunculus sitting on our shoulders, muttering cryptic and often insulting remarks and reminding us that, no matter how much we’ve composed or now matter how grand the honor we may be receiving, “you’ll never be as good as Bach.”

Things have loosened up and changed in a very positive way for composers in the years since I was in school. Back then, when I first started going to concerts, a “distinguished” composer in the audience was relatively easy to identify. You just looked for a very serious middle-aged person, usually male, and usually resembling a college math professor who had misplaced his glasses. He would be the one who had been born on a bad hair day and who wore a wrinkled shirt that hadn’t known an iron in several years. He would be the one who composed using a hardware device called a “pencil” and who carried around his latest composition, probably titled “Confrontations Four” for soprano, double bass, piano and magnetic tape in a well-worn oversized briefcase.

Nowadays composers look decidedly more hip. The male of the species doesn’t compose 12-tone music anymore. He’s more likely to have written a piece for percussion ensemble and laptop based on his favorite hip hop artist and has heard it performed on the Bang on a Can Marathon concert. Instead of a dog-eared manuscript in a leather briefcase, his composition is entirely contained on a memory stick he carries in his shirt pocket. Although he’s nearing forty and has just the beginnings of a receding hairline, he’s dressed like Justin Bieber with red high-tops, a leather jacket and a baseball hat that he wears backwards.

But the best thing about the change in new music since I was a student is that now the world is full of very exciting young women composers, many of who have genuinely transformed the musical landscape with their talent, wit and imagination. You can spot one of these young women composers in the crowd because she is likely to be wearing a thrift store retro chiffon dress, fishnet stockings and her great aunt’s pendant earrings. She’ll be the one with the killer web page and who has an upcoming gig at Le Poisson Rouge. And if you look carefully you’ll notice that on her left shoulder she’s got a tattoo that says “Morton Feldman rocks.”

It’s the month of May and people like me who have been asked to speak at college commencements are feverishly thumbing through their copies of Bartlett’s Quotations or searching Wikipedia for some golden little nuggets of wisdom or humorous anecdotes with which to begin their speeches. I see that while we are gathered here Arianna Huffington, only a few miles north of us, is sharing philosophy and savvy career tips with the graduating class at Sarah Lawrence.

When I graduated from college in 1969 the Vietnam War was raging, and a good 20% of my classmates had already burned their draft cards and had adopted the classic John Lennon hairstyle, moustache and granny glasses. At my own commencement ceremony several protesting students tried to take over the podium and had to be removed by class marshals. Times are less violent now, at least within the country, but the world that awaits this year’s graduating classes is no less volatile, no less unpredictable.

I should be doing the ritual thing and blessing you with words of wisdom and encouragement. But the truth is, all I really want to say is thank you. Thank all of you students who, against all odds and against all the pressures to do otherwise, have chosen to have a life in the arts. All the paradigms of success that we routinely encounter in our everyday lives—on television, in movies, in the online world, in the constant din of advertising, even from our friends and families—all these “models” for success and happiness American-style are about what is ultimately a disposable life, about a life centered around material gain and about finding the best possible comfort zone for yourself.

But by choosing a life in the arts you’ve set yourselves apart from all that and from a nation that has become such a hostage to distraction that it can’t absorb a single complex thought without having it reduced to a sound byte. Most people now, and particularly most people your age, live in a fractured virtual environment where staying focused on a single thought for, say, a mere seven seconds presents a grave challenge. (I mention seven seconds because a staff researcher at Google in San Francisco recently told me that 7.3 seconds was the amount of time that an average viewer stays on a YouTube site before jumping to another page.) You have grown up in a world that offers constant, almost irresistible distraction not unlike what the serpent in the Garden of Eden offered to Eve when he whispered to her, “check out them apples.”

The arts, however, are difficult. They are mind-bendingly and refreshingly difficult. You can’t learn the role of Hamlet (no less write it), you can’t play the fugue in the Hammerklavier Sonata (no less compose it) and you can’t hope to move effortlessly through one of Twyla Tharp’s ballets without having submitting yourself to something that’s profoundly difficult, that demands sustained concentration and unyielding devotion. Artists are people who’ve learned how to surrender themselves to a higher purpose, to something better than their miserable little egos. They’ve been willing to put their self-esteem in a Cuisinart and let it be chopped and diced and crushed to a pulp. They are the ones who’ve learned to live with the brutal fact that God didn’t dole out talent in fair and equal portions and that the person sitting next to them may only need to practice only half as hard to win the concerto competition.

And the wonderful, astonishing truth is that the arts are utterly useless. You can’t eat music or poetry or dance. You can’t drive your car on a sonnet it or wear it on your back to shield you from the elements. This “uselessness” is why politicians and other painfully literal-minded people during times of budget crises (which is pretty much all the time now) can’t wait to single the arts out for elimination. For them artistic activity is strictly after-school business. They consider that what we do can’t honestly be compared to the real business of life, that art is entertainment and ultimately non-essential. They don’t realize that what we artists offer is one of the few things that make human life meaningful, that through our skill and our talent and through the way that we share our rich emotional lives we add color and texture and depth and complexity to their lives.

A life in the arts means a life of sacrifice and tens of thousands of hours of devotion and discipline with scant remuneration and sometimes even scant recognition. A life in the arts means loving complexity and ambiguity, of enjoying the fact that there are no single, absolute solutions. And it means that you value communicating about matters of the spirit over the baser forms of human interaction, because you know that life is not just a transaction, not simply a game about winning someone’s confidence purely for purposes of material gain. By coming to Juilliard, by going through the scary audition process and sweating out your first recital or by losing sleep over some offhand cranky comment by your teacher, you showed that you wanted to take a different route. So I am deeply grateful for your decision, and I know, even without asking them, that all of the other honorees here on the stage with me feel the same way.

I often say when a young composer shows me a score that what I’m looking for is to be surprised, because surprise wakes me up to the world, surprise makes me see something or feel something in a way I never before expected. Nowadays, with all the arts so instantly available via technology, we’re finding it ever more difficult to be surprised by something. We can hear or see just about anything online now, but how often are we bowled over, how often have we been forced to stop all other discursive mind wandering and just sit there in astonishment, listening or looking in rapt amazement? What does it take to move us from our customary place? (And by the way, that is what the word “ecstasy” literally means: ek-stasis- to be moved out of one’s place.) And that is what we want when we confront a work of art, whether it’s a completely new creation or an impassioned performance of masterwork from the past.

There are these lines in a Louise Erdrich poem that I’m currently setting that say it right:

I will drive boys
to smash empty bottles on their brows.
I will pull them right out of their skins.

That is the kind of intensity we’re looking for. We need the artistic experience to pull us right out of our skins.

In order to achieve that element of surprise you have to set up expectation. The quality of the surprise—what Melville called the “shock of recognition”—depends on how carefully, how knowingly these expectations have been set up. And whether you are a master playwright, or a subtle and probing lieder singer or a speed-of-light jazz improviser, your expertise in setting up expectations depends on two factors that would at first glance seem to be contradictory: one is supreme technical mastery, mastery of a kind that is so secure and so thoroughly internalized that it functions at an almost subliminal level. (Just look my colleagues sitting here with me on the stage—Twyla Tharp, Derek Jacobi and Herbie Hancock—and you can see technique personified.) And the other is having a gift for the outrageous, having the willingness and readiness to make that sudden, spontaneous departure from the norm—the ability to depart from the script and make the unexpected leap out of the box, and to do it precisely when it’s least expected. (Look at my colleagues again!) Such a gift is impossible to teach. It has to come from the core of the artist’s personality. I remember hearing Yo-Yo Ma play the Bach sonatas for cello and keyboard. It was the first time I’d ever heard him live, and I remember thinking to myself, “Well he’s a superstar, so it will be note-perfect, I’ll be dazzled by his technique and he’ll look great, but I won’t expect any revelations.” But just the opposite happened. My reaction to his Bach was “Man, that was weird!” He didn’t play Bach at all like I’d come to think I’d known it. He was not afraid to be coarse and edgy at times, nor was he afraid to go beyond the accepted norms of polite expressiveness we’d been admonished to consider proper. He’d obviously asked questions before he started to consider the piece.

In other words you have to BE that kind of person: restless, searching,
ready and willing to take risks. You have to think differently and experience the world differently from those around you.

So if I can leave you with some words of wisdom—I don’t know what Arianna Huffington is saying at this point in her speech, maybe “hold on to your technology stocks”—I would probably urge you to do one thing over all else, and that is never to consider yourself sufficiently educated. Always remember to adopt Zen “beginner’s mind.” If you’re playing or dancing and acting something for the umpteenth time, stop and ask yourself “how can I make it fresh? What have I been missing in this? How can I avoid going on autopilot?” And don’t be afraid to take baby steps. Simon Rattle was already a world-famous conductor nearing the peak of his professional achievement when he went off to study performance practice with Nikolaus Harnoncourt and become a sort of apprentice-groupie to the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. During the last year of his life Schubert sought out a counterpoint teacher and took lessons. And of course we all know how throughout his life Stravinsky painstakingly learned completely new and unfamiliar musical techniques, even at an advanced age, and we know how what he absorbed gave new life and energy to each new phase of his creative life.

Be bold, be humble, don’t mind being difficult, and don’t ever feel that what you’re doing in this attention-deficit disorder country of ours is marginal or unimportant. You are in fact the heart and the soul of its very being.

Comments (29)

Caleb Madison
May 22, 2011

I doubt you will see this Mr. Adams, but it is because of the feelings you have described which make me want to pursue composition. The stale is not as fun, I would far rather live a life that really pushes the boundaries of what I can do as a singular human being. To alleviate the feelings of day to day life for even a single person makes me feel like the sort of person who thrives on monetary gain, immediate satisfaction. Thank you for a great speech here, and better yet, the inspiration you have given me to pursue music composition.

May 22, 2011

Great speech!

Horacio de la Cueva
May 23, 2011

Thanks, This will inspire not only art students, but all of us not involved in business. I'll pass it along to my ecology grad students in Baja California.

May 23, 2011

What an excellent speech! Thank you for delivering something that is inspiring even though I graduated years ago. Thank you for reminding me why I do what I do!

Robert Schuneman
May 23, 2011

Thank you, Mr. Adams, from this veteran learner of 70 years in the arts. Brilliantly and articulately stated.

May 23, 2011

I only wish such wisdom could be brought to the general attention of this country (USA).

Your admonition to never stop learning implies a humility that is unfortunately undervalued today.

May 24, 2011

Surprisingly, there is nothing surprising in this speech. Art as the soul and salve of culture is an ancient idea and I'm left wondering if Mr. Adams thinks our time is like all others. The idea of the value of the new is also old. If this is the best that our best can come up with as a benediction then we should look elsewhere for guidance.

Mike P.
May 24, 2011

Thanks, John. There's a lot in this speech that applies to life beyond the arts, too.

It's a good reminder for everyone, whether or not there is anything "surprising" in it.

Hugh Chandler
May 24, 2011

Perhaps there is something paradoxical in the notion that truth is often repetitive while being fresh and new at the same time. Was their anything in this speech I have heard before? Sure there was. Was there anything I was astonished to read about? Not necessarily, yet I think everything you had to say was totally truthful, and totally in need of being said over and over again. I have been struggling to live a life of a composer for going on 30 years, and I definitely have had to come face to face time and time again with American society's general indifference to the fine arts, and the attitude that what doens't generate income (and lots of it) cant possibly have value. It does require a great leap of faith to keep on believing that one's artistic endeavors have meaning, and it is important to be reminded of it by people such as yourself who have accomplished so much. I appreciate very much your words, and the meaning and significance your life's work gives to these words (as well as your fellow honoree's). I think art truly requires of us to be ceasesless explorers of Imagination, and the most astonishing discoveries to be found there often reveal the most familiar and fundamental truths in an entirely new light.
Thanks for sharing your speech, and even more so, your musical imagination with us Dr. Adams!

Hugh Chandler
May 24, 2011

Oh, and uh, you wouldnt happen to have like a phone number for that girl composer in the fishnet hose, with the Morton Feldman tattoo would you?

David Nice
May 24, 2011

Bravissimo (and the illustrations are quite a jolly bonus!) This will have to go into the next edition of Hallelujah Junction, which I'm finally reading and not only - ah, if only there were something to kick against! - agreeing with every word you say, but marvelling at how eloquently you've summed up the pros and cons of everything you've attempted. THIS is the essential book about music in the 20th century (and 21st, of course), not The Rest Is Noise, because you were there.

Lorraine Manifold
May 24, 2011

Excellent reminder of the importance of the arts, that music is the language of the soul! Music can also teach us realities of life, such as unity in diversity: "The diversity in the human family should be the cause of love and harmony as it is in music where many different notes blend together in the making of a perfect chord." ~ 'Abdu'l-Bahá.
To the person who added the photos to this speech, I would ask to please remove the photo of a young woman's legs and replace it with a woman's face, so we can see her humanity, not a segment of her objectified body. Thanks.

May 24, 2011

Well worth the long wait between posts.

Donald E Giannatti
May 27, 2011


Life and the pursuit of other arts made me put my compositional pens away 30 years ago.

I read this and, well, wept a bit. As an artist in another form, I found that it to be incredibly on point.

Just got them out again - my composition kit (well, probably have to learn the computer software these days).

You moved a lot of spirits there at Juilliard... and at least one old guy out here in the deserts.

Thank you.


Mary Falls
May 30, 2011

Dear Mr. Adams,
I have to give a short program for my art group this coming month and I have been trying to decide what to present. Having read this, now I know. With your permission, I would like to paraphrase parts of what you told the Julliard graduates, giving you full credit for the original concept, but adapting it for those who create artwork. For while I'm assuming Julliard produces actors, musicians, singers and dancers, I see no reason that this speech could not also apply equally well to artists and writers.

It is my aim to encourage both the members who are creating art as a part-time hobby and also those who enter competitions and seek continued education as a means of improving their abilities.

In doing so, I think this might be one of the most helpful programs our group has ever had.
So much of what you said is 'right on' regard-ing the social attitudes creative people en-
counter from the public and the difficulties involved in pursuing an interest that most people feel "ain't ever gonna let you make a living." v

I would be happy to furnish you a copy of what I will present; just let me know where to send it. My program will not be given until July 11th, so if I do not hear from you by that time, I will proceed as I have currently planned.

Thank you,
Mary Falls.

June 6, 2011

Dr. Adams (you are a doctor now),

As a 2011 college graduate, I wish that my commencement address had been this inspiring. The last lines, brought some tears to my eyes and I only wish that I had been sitting in a cap and gown listening to it.

Thank you for your words of encouragement. In a world were my generation is constantly messing everything up, it was nice to be reminded that we matter.

Love from Indiana,

Christian R.
June 6, 2011

This is a very well-worded, powerful speech. We are so lucky to have you as an American composer and your inspiration is endless. Thank you so much, Mr. Adams.

-CR (composer/violinist)

June 9, 2011

Dr. Adams, thank you so much for your words. As a student pursuing music (a masters in violin performance, soon a PhD in musicology), I am faced with doubts from all angles, including myself at times. Your work and your words remind me of the importance of being true to one's self and to one's craft.

Gillian Wallace
June 10, 2011

Many thanks for your wise words. I have quoted from them on my poetry editing website,, as they apply to poets too.

I'm happy to see of your work with poets and will be talking about that in future blog posts.

All the best!

Cary Boyce
June 25, 2011

Duly passed around to my mentors, students, and colleagues. Just to say thanks for sayin'.

Rob Turner
June 27, 2011

Since it's beyond many of them to read it themselves, this address should be read to every politician and "business leader." Just have them sit there and take it. The things they don't know can surely hurt us all.

And @ Lorraine Manifold — a face isn't a segment of a person's body, and can't be objectified? Hmmm.

James O'Shaughnessey
June 28, 2011

Hello John, My son Morgan gave the undergraduate speech at SFCM last month. You can view it here:

James O'Shaughnessey
June 28, 2011

Note bene, Morgan performed your Dharma at Big Sur most eloquently. He's getting a Jordan 7 string electric viola made 4 him. thanks my friend

Curious, as I just gave to him the Alain DeBotton book about how Proust can change your life. go figure, huh?

June 28, 2011

June 29, 2011

Hi Mr. Adams,

I just wanted to thank you for your incredibly inspiring words regarding female composers. As a young female composer myself I find it can often be very discouraging, but to see such positive comments from a prominent musical figure as yourself is especially refreshing.

Thank you so much,

Seth Austen
June 29, 2011

Thanks for your wonderful and inspiring speech! I've been a working musician and composer for over 35 years now, am still learning and studying! It is a particular joy to teach and see new people aspiring to be artists/musicians/composers!

anna grace davis
August 9, 2011

john adams what do you like a cats and dogs alot do we keep them in the pruch and outside yes we do keep going woring and fear you about god about those all unoun you I wish a star and moon and sunset

Pat Ludwig
October 17, 2011

On the matter of small matter of composer fashion, perhaps you may be aware of the tradition here in the Boston area of the Composers In Red Sneakers, who in any case, are no strangers to your work
You are an inspiring figure and just the kind of speaker to help launch a thousand student sputniks!

john simmons
April 11, 2012

Dr.Adams, Thanks for the encouraging words.I am a retired engineer from the biggest Blue corp. All disciplines should hear this message and take it to heart. Thank you again for such great insight and the ability to convey it.

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