Joyce DiDonato’s Inspiring Words


I stand before you this morning, duly humbled, and in awe of the distinguished and hard-earned accomplishment awarded to each and every single one of you on this unforgettable and long-awaited day of your graduation. Look at you! You are here! Through that first nerve-racking audition, all those subsequent sleepless nights, the painstaking preparation for your recitals, the endless hours of reed-making and memorization, the blisters and the tears, and now walking side by side with the lifelong friendships you have now forged, you are about to be alumni of the acclaimed Juilliard School! You, my friends, are living the dream!

I wish I had had the foresight when invited to speak here today to ask to break with tradition and print my biography from when I was your age instead of my current one. A great example of contrasts, it would have shown you that despite my “star turn” as the offstage lover in Il Tabarrowith my one, single, solitary line (did I mention it was offstage?), and that despite being the only young artist of my class to fail at securing management until the ripe age of 29, and despite my evaluation sheet for the Houston Opera Studio, which declared me to possess “not much talent,” and that despite way more rejections and dismissals than actual “yeses”—despite all of that (and I could go on!), I am somehow, miraculously standing before you today, regaled in an admittedly different kind of designer gown, dispensing tidbits of “wisdom” before a group of artists who—and this is honestly no exaggeration—artists who I never could have been classmates with, because there truly is no way I could have gained admission to your school back in the day: I simply wasn’t ready. That is the truth. One never, ever knows where their journey will lead them. But yours has led you here.

There are a few more hard-earned truths as I have come to know them that have arisen on my personal odyssey as a singer that I thought I might share with you today. At first glance, they may seem like harbingers of bad news, but I invite you to shift your thinking just a bit (or perhaps even radically)—you guys are artists, so thankfully you’re already brilliant at thinking outside the conventional box! I offer these four little observations as tools to perhaps help you as you go forward, enabling you to empower yourselves from the very core of your being, so that when the challenges of this artistic life catapult and hurl themselves directly and unapologetically into your heart and soul—which they will do, repeatedly—you will have some devices at your disposal to return to, to help you find your center again, so that your voice, your art and your soul will not be derailed, but you will instead find the strength to make yourself heard and seen and felt. Then you will have the power to transform yourselves, to transform others, and, indeed, to transform the world.

My first observation: You will never make it. 

That’s the bad news, but the “shift” I invite you to make is to see it as fabulous, outstanding news, for I don’t believe there is actually an it. It doesn’t exist for an artist. One of the greatest gifts you can give yourself, right here, right now, in this single, solitary, monumental moment in your life—is to decide, without apology, to commit to the journey, and not to the outcome. The outcome will almost always fall short of your expectations, and if you’re chasing that elusive, often deceptive goal, you’re likely in for a very tough road, for there will always be that one note that could have soared more freely, the one line reading that could have been just that much more truthful, that third arabesque which could have been slightly more extended, that one adagio which could have been just a touch more magical. There will always be more freedom to acquire and more truth to uncover. As an artist, you will never arrive at a fixed destination. This is the glory and the reward of striving to master your craft and embarking on the path of curiosity and imagination, while being tireless in your pursuit of something greater than yourself.

A second truth: The work will never end. 

This may sound dreadfully daunting—especially today when you are finally getting out of here! But what I have found is that when things become overwhelming—which they will, repeatedly—whether via unexpected, rapid success or as heart-wrenching, devastating failure—the way back to your center is simply to return to the work. Often times it will be the only thing that makes sense. And it is there where you will find solace and truth. At the keyboard, at the barre (the ballet barre, not the wine bar), with your bow in hand, articulating your arpeggios—always return to your home base and trust that you will find your way again via the music, the pulse, the speech, the rhythm. Be patient, but know that it will always be there for you—even if in some moments you lack the will to be there for it. All it asks is that you show up, fully present as you did when you first discovered the magic of your own artistic world when you were young. Bring that innocent, childlike sense of wonder to your craft, and do whatever you need to find that truth again. It will continually teach you how to be present, how to be alive, and how to let go. Therein lies not only your artistic freedom, but your personal freedom as well!

Perhaps my favorite truth: It’s not about you.

This can be a particularly hard, and humbling, lesson to face—and it’s one I’ve had to continue to learn at every stage of my own journey—but this is a freeing and empowering truth. You may not yet realize it, but you haven’t signed up for a life of glory and adulation (although that may well come, and I wish with every fiber of my being that it will come in the right form for every single one of you—however, that is not your destination, for glory is always transitory and will surely disappear just as fleetingly and arbitrarily as it arrived). The truth is, you have signed up for a life of service by going into the arts. And the life-altering results of that service in other people’s lives will never disappear as fame unquestionably will.

You are here to serve the words, the director, the melody, the author, the chord progression, the choreographer—but above all and most importantly, with every breath, step, and stroke of the keyboard, you are here to serve humanity. You, as alumni of the 109th graduating class of The Juilliard School are now servants to the ear that needs quiet solace, and the eye that needs the consolation of beauty, servants to the mind that needs desperate repose or pointed inquiry, to the heart that needs invitation to flight or silent understanding, and to the soul that needs safe landing, or fearless, relentless enlightenment. You are a servant to the sick one who needs healing through the beauty and peace of the symphony you will compose through bloodshot eyes and sleepless nights. You are an attendant to the lost one who needs saving through the comforting, probing words you will conjure up from the ether, as well as from your own heroic moments of strife and triumph. You are a steward to the closed and blocked one who needs to feel that vital, electric, joyful pulse of life that eludes them as they witness you stop time as you pirouette and jeté across the stage on your tired legs and bleeding toes. You are a vessel to the angry and confused one who needs a protected place to release their rage as they watch your eyes on the screen silently weep in pain as you relive your own private hell. You are a servant to the eager, naive, optimistic ones who will come behind you with wide eyes and wild dreams, reminding you of yourself, as you teach and shape and mold them, even though you may be plagued with haunting doubts yourself, just as your teachers likely were—and you will reach out to them and generously invite them to soar and thrive, because we are called to share this thing called Art.

You are also serving one other person: yourself. You are serving the relentless, passionate, fevered force within you that longs to grow and expand and feel and connect and create; that part of you that craves a way to express raw elation and passion, and to make manifest hard-core bliss, rapture and—please, I beg of you, never forget this—fun! Don’t ever abandon that intoxicating sense of fun in your art. Through that, you are serving your truth. My hope for you is that you will let that truth guide you in every moment. If you can find that, you have everything. That’s why “making it” is, in the end, utterly insignificant. Living it, breathing it, serving it—that’s where your joy will lie.

I want to share with you a quick email from a soldier on the front lines of our arts: an elementary-middle school teacher from Salt Lake City, Ms. Audrey Hill, who is fighting the great fight. She brought her students to the recent HD telecast of La Cenerentola, and wrote the following note to me:

“One of my boys, a fifth grader, wrote in his review this morning that one of his favorite parts (besides the spaghetti food-fight scene) was where … you were singing about getting revenge, and how he really liked that your revenge was going to be forgiveness. This boy was new to our school this year, has a beautiful singing voice, and has been teased a lot. I have seen him getting more and more angry as the year was coming to a close and today it seemed like all that had disappeared. It was very moving for me to experience.”

That’s exactly who you are serving as you now go out into the world. How lucky are you?!

So O.K., I lied—I think this may be my favorite truth: The world needs you. 

Now, the world may not exactly realize it, but wow, does it need you. It is yearning, starving, dying for you and your healing offer of service through your art. We need you to help us understand that which is bigger than ourselves, so that we can stop feeling so small, so isolated, so helpless, so that, in our fear, we stop contributing that which is unique to us: that distinct, rare, individual quality which the world is desperately crying out for and eagerly awaiting. We need you to remind us what unbridled, unfiltered, childlike exuberance feels like, so we remember, without apology or disclaimer, to laugh, to play, to fly—and to stop taking everything so damn seriously. We need you to remind us what empathy is by taking us deep into the hearts of those who are, God forbid, different than us—so that we can recapture the hope of not only living in peace with each other, but thriving together in a vibrant way where each of us grows in wonder and joy. We need you to make us feel an integral part of a shared existence through the communal, universal, forgiving language of music, of dance, of poetry and art—so that we never lose sight of the fact that we are all in this together and that we are all deserving of a life that overflows with immense possibility, improbable beauty and relentless truth.

What an honor it is to share in this day with you—savor every single moment of it, even this long speech—and then fly out of this building, armed with the knowledge that you make a difference, that your art is necessary, and that the world is eagerly awaiting to hear what you have to say. Go on, make us laugh, cry, dance, feel, unite, and believe in the incredible power of humanity to overcome anything!

Excellent Advice from Eric Whitacre

Music students: as the semester grinds on you may feel intensely burnt-out. You may even consider dropping out of music altogether. If that happens, go back andlisten to your favorite recordings, make music with your friends, do anything you can to remind yourself why you loved music before you started studying it. An education in music can be a very good thing, but it can also squeeze the life out of any love you ever had for it. Don’t let it.

Sameness Is The Enemy

Sameness is the Enemy by Scott Robinson

You know the feeling: you’re just arriving in a part of the US you’ve never visited and looking forward to seeing what it has to offer. Your plane touches down and, like magic, Muzak switches on. In the airport, the insipid music (or another version of it) is again your unwanted companion, following you even into the bathroom. You wend your way past the same Chili’s Express, Cinnabon and Miller Brewhouse you saw in the airport you departed from 2,000 miles ago and pick up your car keys at the rental desk. Out in the lot, the music continues to follow you as you make your way to your car, through speakers mounted every five feet in the canopy overhead.

You hit the road, looking forward to the local scenery on the way to your hotel. You’re on a highway and it looks disturbingly like a lot of other highways in a lot of other places you’ve been, nowhere near this one. You pass shopping centers, malls and large swaths of housing developments just like the ones back home. These bear evocative names that recall whatever was destroyed in order to put them there: Fox Run Woods, Turkey Glen Estates. Nervously you turn on the radio, thinking, “maybe I’ll catch some local music.” But up and down the dial is a seemingly endless supply of the same pop/rock you were subjected to back at the airport, along with a hefty dose of right-wing talk and a smattering of news.

Near a big intersection you find your hotel, one of a giant chain (aren’t they all nowadays?). Your spirits fall as you look around and realize that this highway interchange is indistinguishable from all the others you’ve seen all across this continent. Wal-Mart, Wendy’s, Home Depot… you are in the center of a giant ocean of unrecognizable conformity. Where Indians once hunted bison is now no different than where steamy Floridian jungle once stood. Those worlds have been removed and replaced with… this.

You step into the hotel lobby (yes, the pop music is playing there, too) and make your way to the check-in desk, passing by the hotel bar. Maybe you’ll drop in later for a good local beer! Quickly you scan the taps: Bud, Bud Light, Coors, Coors Light… no luck there. As the perky young gal at the desk hands you your key, you ask, “Where can I get some good local chow?” “Well, there’s a Denny’s next door,” she answers cheerfully, “and an Applebee’s just across the highway. I like Applebee’s, ‘cause you know what you’re gonna get – it’s always the same!” This scourge of sameness has somehow permeated nearly every part of our landscape and every aspect of our culture. And it isn’t just here at home. Thanks to globalization, multinational corporate behemoths now bring us Kraft cheese in France, Coca-Cola in Chad, McDonald’s in Moscow and Starbucks in Beijing’s Forbidden City. Where America’s jazz once fired the imagination of the world, now her bland, pitch-corrected pop has stultified the cultures of other nations, driving out their indigenous music like an invasive species. In cafés from Kowloon to Cameroon, I’ve had to endure the same stuff that I would in my local New Jersey bar. What’s disturbing is the tyranny of it, the ubiquity. We are not allowed to escape it – it is required listening wherever we go.

The forces of sameness are at work in education, too, where the push is toward ever more standardization and away from innovation in teaching. Even the world of jazz, supposed bastion of unfettered imagination, is susceptible (theme-solos- theme formats, formulaic endings, the dreaded “everybody wear all black”). And thanks to deregulation and corporate greed, jazz has virtually disappeared from radio along with almost anything that isn’t pop or talk. Radio stations once had live orchestras; now many of them don’t even have local DJs, as programming is prerecorded from a prescribed playlist and piped in from corporate headquarters. This trend began in the ‘90s with test marketing: test groups determine playability based on just 10 seconds of music. Playlists shrink, songwriters start “writing to the test” and sameness wins the day. Today, any sort of DJ autonomy has vanished from most radio, as corporations decide what gets played. There’s big money in sameness!

What about the Internet? There’s been much to be thankful for, with independent musicians finally out from under the yoke of record labels and distributors who decide which music is worthy of release. But I see an ominous new trend coming: subscription services, which many say will soon replace downloads. For a monthly fee, listeners can access an entire library of music… but only whatever music the company chooses to provide. Even more unsettling are the new “acoustic personalization” services, which provide listeners with music matching the acoustical profile of whatever they listened to last – a virtual recipe for sameness! How would someone listening to Coltrane discover Art Tatum by such a method, let alone Bartók’s string quartets? The joy of discovering new sounds will be forever lost if we start allowing our listening choices to be made by a computer program whose sole criterion is that the next piece must sound the same or nearly the same, as the last.

Why does uniformity have such a hold over us? Why do humans, those most creative of animals (in America, that most creative of nations), seem so eager to prostrate themselves before the altar of sameness? I have a theory: perhaps, like brute physical strength, creativity is becoming less critical for day-to-day survival. Where early humans had to use brawn and brains to find a way to stay alive, now most (in the developed world, at least) can simply pick up a pizza or buy groceries. Could we be in danger of losing our creative edge? Certain species of birds have, through the centuries, lost the ability to fly. Consider the ostrich: does not such a flightless bird seem somehow less a bird, absent such a distinguishing characteristic? And would not a diminishment of our own creative powers make us, in some immeasurable but crucial way, less human?

If there is an answer to this dilemma, at least for musicians, perhaps it cannot be stated more simply or more passionately than what Anthony Braxton said to me years ago: “We have to keep playing music like our life depends on it – which it does!” He was speaking, of course, of creative, far-reaching music, music that elevates the imagination and transforms the listener. We musicians are often told that we must “give the audience what it wants”… but an audience can only want what it already knows. I believe that part of an artist’s job is to find that which the audience never knew it wanted, that which it was not even equipped to imagine. This way, the music is allowed to evolve and grow and perhaps take us humans along with it. Indeed, creativity – and creative music in particular – may be the most powerful weapon we have against the creeping tide of sameness and uniformity. Let us wield it often and well.

Multi-instrumentalist/composer Scott Robinson has been a highly-active presence on the New York-based jazz scene for more than 25 years, appearing on some 200 CDs. He has been heard with Frank Wess, Bob Brookmeyer, Maria Schneider, Anthony Braxton, Hank Jones and more and toured 11 African nations in 2001 as a US Jazz Ambassador. This year, Robinson’s ScienSonic label has released its first two CDs of “worlds of tomorrow through sound”.

Your Secret Weapon Of Art

This is a speech given by Leonard Bernstein in 1970 at Tanglewood.

“It’s the artists of the world, the feelers and thinkers, who will ultimately save us, who can articulate, educate, defy, insist, sing and shout the big dreams. Only the artists can turn the “Not-Yet” into reality. All right, how do you do it? Like this: find out what you can do well, uniquely well – that’s what studying is for, to find out what you can do particularly well. You. Unique. And then do it for all you’re worth. And I don’t mean “Do your own thing,” in the hip sense. That’s passivity, that’s dropping out, that’s not doing anything. I’m talking about doing, which means (another old-fashioned phrase) serving your community, whether that community is a tiny town or six continents. And there’s no time to lose, which makes your position twice as difficult, because you’re caught in a paradox. You see, you’ve got to work fast, but not be in a hurry. You’ve got to be patient, but not passive. You’ve got to recognize the hope that exists in you, but not let impatience turn it into despair. Does that sound like double-talk? Well, it is, because the paradox exists. We’ll help you as much as we can – that’s why we’re here – but it is you who must produce it, with your new atomic minds, your flaming, angry hope, and your secret weapon of art.”


True Story

An email I sent to my students a few years ago. All true.


Please allow me to tell you about something stupid I did a long time ago. When I was a senior in high school, I auditioned for clarinet scholarships at several colleges. Two of them offered me very good scholarships. One school offered more than another, so I picked the school with the best offer. I sent in the acceptance letter to the school I picked, but I never told the teacher from the other school that I was not going to go to his school. He emailed me and called me one the phone, but I did not return his phone calls.

Why did I do this? In retrospect, I guess it was because I was afraid he would be mad at me. I did not want to tell him I was not going to his school, so I just kept putting it off and eventually, it was so late that the scholarship deadline had passed.

This was a dumb thing for me to do because the clarinet world is so small. In the past several years, I have seen this teacher at festivals and conferences and I always feel bad around him. I respect him so much; yet, for all he knows, I did not pick his school because I did not like him or something. That was simply not the case at all. He is an excellent teacher and player.

Fast forward four years. I had just finished my undergraduate and I was auditioning at several schools for my master’s degree. Again, I was offered scholarships and I had to turn some of them down to accept something at another school. But, by the time I was ready to start my master’s degree, I was smart/responsible/thoughtful enough to contact the other teachers to tell them what was up.

Just by contacting them and being nice, I have made some good, important friends. Some of these teachers have ended up being fantastically supportive colleagues to me now that I am out of school and teaching. Really, these people are some of my best supporters.

So, here is my advice. Do not put off contacting someone because you are afraid of an awkward situation. Contact them, choose your words carefully, and tell them what is up. People appreciate that. It shows them your maturity and they will respect you more as a result. And then at the end of the day, they will feel better and so will you.

Communicating efficiently, effectively, and cordially with people is a very important key to success. And you cannot develop this skill until you try it. So, please do that. As time goes by, you will get better and better at it. Just by being nice, you can open so many doors for yourself.

Please feel free to comment, if you want.

Dr. Phillips

How To Play A Dang Good Jury

How To Play A Dang Good Jury by Timothy Phillips

1. Get some dang sleep the night before! You’re not a dang machine!
2. Eat some dang breakfast the morning of! Lay off the dang sugar and dang caffeine though! And don’t stuff yourself with goo!
3. Dress nice! Nobody wants to stare at you unless you look right! Dang!
4. Warm-up thoroughly before your dang jury! Otherwise your jury will be a warm-up! And nobody wants to listen to you warm-up!
5. Go through your reeds and pick the best dang one! Try em in the dang concert hall, if you can!
6. Don’t be nervous unless you haven’t prepared your dang music! In that case, be nervous all you want!
7. Think the dang music with your brain before you try to play it! Otherwise, it might just sound like a mish mash of nonsense because your head isn’t ready yet!
8. Don’t warm-up too long before your dang jury! You’ll wear yourself out!
9. Think good thoughts about what you’re going to play! If you think of only bad things, bad things will probably happen! Dang!
10. Have some dang fun and BE THE DANG MUSIC! 

Important Info For Would-Be College Music Majors

Important info for would-be college music majors: at most music schools, you have to take 6 progressive semesters of applied lessons before you can do your senior recital. You also have to take separate, progressive semesters of music theory and aural skills. So, if you go to a community college to get your “general studies” courses out of the way, then plan to transfer to another school to do your music stuff, you’ll end up spending MORE semesters in college than somebody who didn’t go to community college. Also, it should be noted that most music schools will not accept applied lessons or other music classes (such as music theory and aural skills) if you transfer from one college music program to another. This info might save you years of college and MANY thousands of dollars. You’re welcome. 🙂