I was very honored to have been invited to speak at commencement at the Curtis Institute of Music on May 12, 2018. Curtis has been my musical home since I first arrived as a student when I was 12 years old, so it was particularly meaningful for me to give the welcome to the new alumni. At Curtis, we share transformative experiences and rich traditions, and come away with a sense of belonging to a community.
I was in august company at graduation, with Joseph Polisi as keynote speaker and George Walker as honoree, in addition to Curtis President Roberto Diaz and Deans Bryan and Grady.
I’m pleased to share my speech below.
Congratulations to you all on your graduation from Curtis. I am honored to have been asked to address you as you join the ranks of Curtis alumni, and it is my privilege to welcome you to the Curtis alumni family.
When I was thinking about what I’d like to say to you today, I decided to share with you something that happened as I was preparing to perform as soloist with an orchestra in North Carolina last weekend. As I reviewed the score for one of the pieces I was going to perform, Charles Tomlinson Griffes’s Poem for Flute and Orchestra, I saw the handwriting of my teacher at Curtis, the legendary flutist Julius Baker. I learned the piece my first year at Curtis when I was 12 (so I’ve had the score a very long time!). Mr. Baker had corrected an accidental in my part, changing a B natural to Bb. In the performance history of this piece that note is actually somewhat controversial, but those of us who are Baker students play Bb there because Baker’s teacher at Curtis, William Kincaid, told him it’s a Bb which he had learned from his teacher Georges Barrère, for whom the piece was written. As I practiced the passage with the Bb, I felt an enormous sense of the significance of this note and what it represents for me – a strong feeling of tradition. The lineage that we feel as Curtis-trained musicians, knowing that we are continuing and adding our voice to rich traditions of interpreting music. I felt a profound sense of loss about my beloved teacher while feeling connected to him through this fond memory.
This one note made me reflect on what tradition means as a Curtis alumna. The tradition we are part of is alive, and is constantly evolving. To graduate from Curtis is a major achievement and a milestone, and you are going on to do great things. This step is an ending and it is also a beginning – a deceptive cadence? – no, more like a phrase that dovetails into the next. With the impeccable training and transformative experiences you’ve had at Curtis, you are poised to forge your own path in music, to hone your craft and pursue your individual artistic vision.
As you well know, being a musician involves intense attention to detail – getting us back to that one note – while never losing sight of the big picture and music’s unique power as a universal form of communication. Thinking about the way I sometimes obsess over the tiniest details of the music I’m playing – I suspect you can relate – I thought of the 17th– and 18th-century Dutch scientist Antoni van Leeuwenhoek. He was one of the earliest developers of the microscope and the first to observe bacteria and other microscopic organisms. It’s hard to imagine the world around us without his discoveries. He wrote of the time he spent in scientific experiment, saying that “on these observations I have spent more time than many will believe, but I have done them with joy.”
Just as Leeuwenhoek is known for illuminating the world contained in a drop of water, you as musicians get to seek the meaning in every note, striving for understanding of the organic whole. As you take this momentous next step in your lives, I encourage you to work tirelessly, to bring your talent, your intellect, your creativity to bear on every note – from the smallest detail to your grandest dream. And to do it with great joy – go forth and make the world a more beautiful and illuminating place! Thank you. – Mimi Stillman