Penn State Graduate School Penn State Penn State Graduate School

Summer 2016 Commencement

Keynote Speaker: Robert Nairn
Distinguished Professor of Music, Penn State 

Thank you, President Barron for your introduction, and thank you to Dr. Vasilatos-Younken for inviting me to speak. Distinguished members of the platform, the University community, 2016 graduates, families, and friends, I am honored to address you this afternoon.

I’ve spent almost my entire life as a performer, on stage in front of audiences, but I’m usually at the very back of the stage, hiding behind a huge instrument and a long way from a microphone. I’m an Australian double bass player. They usually don’t let us get this close to the front of the stage!  

So in staying towards the back, well away from the microphone or spotlight, I’ve been more of a witness than a conductor. I’ve become something of an astute observer rather than a fluent commentator, a better accompanist than soloist, a listener rather than featured speaker; learned empathy; and become perhaps a better teacher by being a better student. I’ve never stopped being a student and don’t intend to stop anytime soon.

In my career, I’ve performed for kings, queens, and heads of state. It’s been my great fortune to work with some of the greatest musicians of my time across a number of genres in over 50 countries. It’s enabled me to meet and mingle with many famous actors, authors, dancers and entertainers. I’ve played in front of 65,000 people but rarely addressed more than a class of 50, so I really am truly honored to stand before such a collection of doctoral and master’s students from across all the disciplines of this great school.

In pondering the content of my address, I did what anyone faced with a 21st dilemma does – check to see if there was an app for that - and of course there is, many in fact. You can waste a lot of time on a phone, and really all I drew from that was the advice, “…keep it simple, be clear, perhaps think what would you tell your own daughter or son, in private.”

So here it is, for today clear and concise. Aspire to a limit-less horizon; think, dream, concoct, innovate, contrive and know there is nothing you cannot do, there is nothing you cannot do. The only limit to your life is your imagination. Be flexible, not bound by fear, or prejudice, and be willing to take chances. Keep your options open and know that the world will change, in ways you would not currently imagine. Follow your passions, hopefully into your professional career.

Today is certainly a day of celebration, so enjoy this day, enjoy every minute of it. You’ve earned it. You owe it to yourself to celebrate with your friends, your fellow students, your teachers and your family. You can be sure that as happy as you are to be here, your family and those that have supported you on this journey are even happier. Happy that you have completed your degree, happy perhaps that the Bursar’s bills will stop, but they are certainly enormously proud of you. Proud of what you have achieved, what you have become, and of your potential.

Most of you will have a clear idea where you’ll be next year; maybe for the next few years, the next phase of your career and life, further graduate work or your first job. An exciting step, tinged perhaps with some trepidation and nervousness. I don’t think I’ve been 100 percent ‘sure’ of any position or job I’ve ever taken. We create our space in each new situation; some will fit us better than others. Don’t be afraid to move, don’t be afraid of change; perspective is part of professional experience and it rarely comes from staring at the same office or lab for decades.

I’ve been fortunate to live in four different countries and, as a musician this has been enormously rewarding. The heritage and traditions of my profession are still very much alive in the centers in which they were born and, while those traditions can be appreciated by visiting, they take residence to assimilate and understand. Global perspective is rarely achieved on the Internet.

So, take advantage of the opportunities to travel, to see this great country of ours, of course, but especially overseas. Learning a foreign language is very different to living and using it daily; its nuances, its colloquial context and expression. Understanding local social relationships, traditions and enjoying different cultural attitudes gives a greater understanding and perspective; it is often essential for successful operations overseas.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave the Centennial Commencement address at Penn State in 1955, and as well as addressing concerns about nuclear power and research he said:

“Throughout the world, mutual suspicions flourish in ignorance and misunderstanding. They can be dispelled only with knowledge and wisdom.”

He was advocating for a broader, general education that combined the liberal and the practical; “(An) understanding of man's social institutions, of man's art and culture, and of the physical and biological and spiritual world in which he lives. (It is) an education which helps each individual learn how to relate one relevant fact to another; to get the total of relevant facts affecting a given situation in perspective; and to reason critically and with objectivity and moral conscience…”

Penn State’s own current strategic plan says:

“In times of conflict and fear, the arts and humanities are critical to our understanding of and balance among values, including choices we must inevitably make as individuals and as part of society. And, in an increasingly diverse world, engagement with the arts and humanities plays an essential role in creating an educated and humane citizenry, which in turn drives community and economic development.” 

The Arts, like so many other human endeavors also provide obvious models for excellence.  Whether you subscribe, like the Macklemore/Ryan Lewis song or Malcolm Gladwell's book ‘Outliers’, that 10,000 hours of practice is what it takes to master a skill like music, (I wish it was only 10,000!) what is clear is that the practice time and discipline that goes into achieving a world class performance exceeds by orders of magnitude the duration of the actual performance.

As we watch our Olympic team build their medal tally in Rio, it’s easy to imagine the enormous dedication and sacrifice of those athletes. We’ve all competed in some athletic activity; perhaps even at a high level and the higher we go, the more we appreciate the resolve and tenacity of those wearing their country’s colors.

Like a novel, a ballet, an Opera, a play, or a musical, a concert exemplifies that any significant achievement most often represents a culmination of vast preparation, commitment and focus on achieving a goal. 

For those of you whose research will continue, you will understand about the many, many long hours for seemingly small rewards, the slow steady progress which can easily lose its own perspective. You may become increasingly alone in your discoveries without the mentors you have known as a student and you will need to know and rely on your own strengths. Take in a concert, an Opera, a play to remind yourself that there are rewards to that kind of dedication, or better still subscribe to your local arts institutions, join a not-for-profit board and make it a part of your life.  

If you have the opportunity, embrace some form of community service; global, national or local. For me here in State College, that has been being a member of the Alpha Fire Company and an EMT with the University Ambulance Service, both enormously rewarding.

Above all, in the years ahead believe in yourselves; know that many other people do, and know that you can achieve anything. Know too that you are part of an amazingly strong Penn State tradition that has produced astronauts and actors, politicians, scientists, engineers and authors, sports stars, artists, performers, composers and teachers, all of whom sat where you are now feeling all the same mixture of emotions. So as you celebrate and reflect both on your achievements and perhaps some of the most care-free days of your life, know you are continuing a great legacy.

My congratulations to you all.

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