May 23, 2012

Teaching Artist Eric Booth Addresses NEC Graduating Students, Families, Friends at 141st Commencement Exercises, May 20, 2012

Teaching Artist Eric Booth, who also received an honorary Doctor of Music, gave the following Commencement Address at the 141st Exercises, May 20 in NEC’s Jordan Hall.

With Booth's assistance, we publish the full text of his address here, along with a video excerpt.

A Wheelbarrow Full of Redefined Words

Hello, Everyone. I am all wired up like Madonna with my headset mic, and was just informed it isn’t working. So it is back to the podium for me, with this note to self—the first moment you think for a flash that you’re Madonna, remember, you’re not. My, but we are doing a lot of clapping here today; how appropriate for this celebratory occasion. Thank you. Thank you, Tony Woodcock; thank you Leslie Wu Foley; thank you Colleagues and Trustees here on stage; thank you, families and friends who join us in celebration today; and most of all, thank you Graduates for inviting me to be the last thing standing between you and that parchment you want. I have learned that it can be a dangerous position, standing between a musician and something she wants; I learned that the hard way by once standing between free food and low brass players. But I will take the risk of a few minutes delay to offer some thoughts. First of all, I have to say to David Tarantino, thank you for your charming speech on behalf of your classmates. I was reminded of some research work I did at Juilliard with the psychological services counseling department, when they told me that there is only one instrument that never shows up in their offices, and it is percussion. After your speech, I know why.

So here we are. A commencement. It is one of those funny words, called a contranym, which has two meanings that are exact opposites of one another. A commencement is a conclusion; and it is a beginning. So today we find ourselves somewhere in between the world you knew and the one outside. In fact, part of what I want us to think about today is this business of being suspended between two seeming opposites. You have been in one kind of world—and congratulations on the enormity of your accomplishments even to get into one of the world’s greatest music institutions, and then the enormity of your achievement to survive and thrive at NEC, a journey you conclude today. Let me pause to acknowledge just how remarkable NEC is—not only for its famous music programs, expanded now with jazz and contemporary improvisation, and by a growing entrepreneurship program and the nation leading Sistema Fellowship. You have done well amid stiff competition in an institution that has done well amid stiff competition. And now a new chapter of your artist’s life opens, and it runs by different rules than all your previous chapters.

So here we are in this little bit of in-between time. It is called liminal time—one of my favorite words “liminal”—we’re in the liminal zone here today. You’re done with schooling; you’re about to explode into the real world, and there is this little bit of undefined time. Liminal. It comes from the Latin meaning “threshold.” You have probably heard words like “preliminary,” etymologically “before the threshold”; and “eliminate” which is “taken away from the threshold”; and “subliminal” which is “underneath the threshold of awareness.” But we are in liminal time right now “on the threshold”—and standing with you on this threshold, I am going to take the opportunity to mess with a few of your understandings. I want to focus on a couple of your key words and adjust them enough that you enter this new chapter of your artist’s life thinking a little bit differently about the opportunities and responsibilities that lie ahead.

The liminal zone is important in the arts; it’s not just some intellectual concept. It is the place where the stuff that makes for art happens. The audience has to reach out from themselves toward us, and you reach out toward them with your performance, and if good things are happening in the liminal zone, people do what I describe as the single most important thing in the arts: they make personally relevant connections. They don’t just admire, or recognize, or appreciate (all good things, but side benefits); they meet you in the liminal zone, and they are changed in some way by the encounter. They enter the world you are offering with your best heart and skill and make a connection that matters to their lives. Look at the idiom, they “make” a connection, it is the world’s smallest creative act, and yet an act of consequence. They enter into artmaking with us in an improvisation in the liminal zone.

The first word I want to redefine today is merely the word “art.” In U.S. culture, we have a subliminal default definition of art connected to its nouns. The things—art IS the activities in those special, set-apart buildings, the performances we spend thirty or fifty bucks to go see, the paintings on the wall. Art is the nouns. I too had this understanding, in fact I was a terrible arts elitist in my youth—classically trained and a leader with my fellow arrogant young New York artist friends in referring to ourselves as the Art Police. Always on duty, determined to punish the perpetrators of artistic crimes of commercialism and mediocrity. But my classical certainty in the canon of my art form was shaken as a result of an experience that counts as the worst moment of my professional career. I was being interviewed live on a TV morning talk show, so it was a peppy young woman. She said to me, “Eric, we have just a little time left in our interview, so could you wrap this up for us with a quick and clear distinction between art and entertainment?” I appreciate your laugh of empathy. How would you have done? Well, I confess the hogwash that poured out of me for those minutes was a humiliation to humankind. I had no idea, and all I could do was cling to a bit of advice a friend once gave me that popped into my head—if you are ever dying on live TV, just don’t stop talking so they can’t turn it into sound bites that will haunt you for the rest of your life. That’s all I had, so I went with it, and poured out unending sentences of meaningless blather for an interminable two minutes. So after that near death experience, I asked myself “What is that distinction?”—so I never have to endure that again. And the answer that came up has guided much of the rest of my career. The distinction is that entertainment—which is not the enemy nor opposite of art, please lord don’t let the arts be opposed to entertainment—entertainment happens within what we already know. Whatever our reaction, laughing, crying, getting excited or scared, underneath that, entertainment says, “Yep, the world is the way you think it is.” Entertainment confirms. And that feels great. I will pay good money to watch highly skilled people confirm MY sense of the way the world is.

Art, on the other hand, happens outside of what we already know. Inherent in the artistic experience is the capacity to expand our sense of the way the world is or might be. The art isn’t in the noun you are looking at. It lies in the amazing human capacity to expand the sense of the possible. The art lies in the verbs, as Leslie noted in the quotation she used to introduce me. So I am introducing you to the verbs of art, which you know experientially in your art making, and my definition of art, which I am hoping you carry away today, isn’t about creating fantastic, technically impeccable Bartok. It’s about making things you care about—in the medium of Bartok but in other media as well, applying the verbs of art throughout your life. The most terrifying assignment I used to give my Juilliard students who were training to be teaching artists as they were earning their Master’s degrees, was to get on a New York City public bus and engage people in substantive conversations about classical music before they got off. Without getting hit. They were terrified. They would lie awake for nights in advance, fearing what might happen. And after the bus adventure, they almost invariably came back with the same observation, “You know, if you get talking with people about music in general, get engaged around that, they all have a big life in music that matters to them a lot; and after we connected there, they were really interested to learn that my life goes deep in one particular sliver of the musical world.” That is connecting in the common ground of the verbs of art where all of us make personally relevant connections in music (though only a small percentage through classical music). Nouns tend to separate people; verbs tend to unite us.

Now I am going to give you a new job title. I am convinced that that crucial artistic moment when people slip into the work of art themselves, whether they expand their sense of the possible in Rachmaninoff or Radiohead, when they make that personal connection—that creative act, to make a connection—they engage in the action that matters. The research about classical music as I read it says clearly, that is what brings people back. It isn’t the quality of your playing that makes art; it is the quality of my connecting experience while improvising within your playing. You can play perfectly, but if I didn’t make a personally relevant connection, if my sense of the world didn’t expand, art didn’t happen. It is what happens in the liminal zone. And that’s why I am going to give you a new job title. Your job is not to go play the hell out of the music you will play for the rest of your years; your job is to be an agent of artistic experience. And playing the hell out of the music is just one of your tools of agency. All of us have the same job title—the musician, the conductor, the usher, and the marketing director. If this were a conference of the suits of the arts, I would make you take out your business cards now and scratch out the little line that says Associate Director of Marketing, San Francisco Symphony, and write in Agent of Artistic Experience. That’s our job, all of us. Just putting out the nouns, being a purveyor of art products, no matter how good they are, just isn’t enough anymore. Like it or not, that’s how it is. And we need you to put in your artist’s toolkit, and in your heart, and in your personal mission and habits of mind, a wider range of skills committed to helping people perform this act of consequence, which is making personally relevant connections. That’s what brings them back.

Now we are going to do a little arts activity together that I hope will illuminate this point experientially. Yes, we are going to have an arts activity in a commencement speech. To mark this anomaly, I am going to step away from the podium, and here is how it’s going to go. I will do something very familiar to you and this historic institution—perform a work of art. You do it all the time. You stand up, you perform, and you hope good things happen for the audience. I am going to perform the same piece four times, each time with a different preparation just before it. And our experiment is to see how the preparation influences your experience of each performance. Your challenge is to go through each preparation with me, and then when it is just you and me in the improv of performance, notice carefully how the performance is hitting you. And then we will look at the effectiveness of each preparation in enhancing the quality of the audience experience. The hypothesis here is that what happens in that liminal zone, when it is just you and me, and what we can both do with the verbs of art in this particular raw material, is crucial in creating the quality of your experience of art; and that there may be things we can do that actually enhances the quality of that experience. I propose there are things we can do that intensify the impact of our art. I believe we have a wider range of tools to engage audiences in ways that will bring them back, and not just those who already love the arts, but those who may be less familiar and enthusiastic. I’ll bet we have more than one family member here today who is not so convinced that art is the greatest thing going. This activity is for you.

So, for the first performance, I am going to provide no preparation, the way it is usually done in the arts. We just come out and let you have it. Your job—just to respond and notice the quality of your experience. First round.

“The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams

so much depends
upon
a red wheel
barrow
glazed with rain
water
beside the white
chickens.

Thank you. Take note. How did that go down in you? What did you actually experience during the performance? Here comes our second round. I wish I had that little gizmo they used in the film Men in Black, a tube that flashes and removes recent memory with a pop. I would use it now so you could have a fresh first experience of the poem. Pop, there, all gone. Here comes the second preparation, and notice the quality of your art experience after this preparation.

In a minute I am going to speak one of the most famous poems of the 20th Century, “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams. The poet was born in 1883 in Rutherford, New Jersey, began writing poetry in high school, and studied it at the University of Pennsylvania where he was also studying medicine. He struggled to decide if he should become a poet or a doctor, his parents urged the latter, and he decided to become both. He became a pediatrician and as a poet joined the Imagist movement, along with TS Eliot and Ezra Pound, but he eventually separated from them as he sought a more American idiom. He fell out of public notice in the 1940s, but was returned to popularity in the 1950s by the interest of the beat poets, especially Allan Ginzberg, to whom he was an active mentor. He continued writing poems until his death in 1963.

“The Red Wheelbarrow”

so much depends
upon
a red wheel
barrow
glazed with rain
water
beside the white
chickens.

Thank you. Pop. Men in Black. Here comes our third preparation.

In a moment I will speak William Carlos Williams poem “The Red Wheelbarrow.” The opening lines set the tone for the rest of the poem. Since the poem is comprised of one sentence broken up at various intervals, it is truthful to say that “so much depends upon” each line of the poem. Because the form of the poem is also its meaning. By the end of the poem, the image of the wheelbarrow is seen as the actual poem, as in a painting when one sees an image of an apple, the apple represents an actual object in reality, but since it is part of a painting the apple also becomes the actual piece of art. The wheelbarrow is introduced starkly. The vivid word "red" lights up the scene, and the monosyllabic words in line three elongate the line, putting an unusual pause between the word “wheel” and “barrow”—thus breaking the image down to its most basic parts. Using the sentence as a painter uses line and color, Williams breaks up the words in order to see the object more closely. Later the word “glazed” evokes another painterly image. Just as the reader is beginning to notice the wheelbarrow through a closer perspective, the rain transforms it as well, giving it a newer, fresher look. The last lines offer up the final brushstroke to this “still life” poem, with “white” used in stark contrast to the earlier “red,” and the unusual view of the ordinary wheelbarrow is complete.

“The Red Wheelbarrow”

so much depends
upon
a red wheel
barrow
glazed with rain
water
beside the white
chickens.

Thank you. Here comes number four—the last one, you will be glad to hear. I recently came across the true story of the incident that prompted Williams to write “The Red Wheelbarrow.” He was a pediatrician in the days when doctors still made house calls. And he had this one patient, a young girl, whose severe illness had her teetering between life and death for weeks. She lay in her bed all day staring out the window, and no one knew if she would make it. And one day after he examined her, he sat at her bedside and thought about what her long days must be like, day after day, and he looked down the length of the bed and out the window at the foot of it, that framed a farm yard on that rainy afternoon, and he saw a wheelbarrow, and some chickens, and he went home and wrote:

so much depends
upon
a red wheel
barrow
glazed with rain
water
beside the white
chickens.

All right, our experiment is done; let’s look at the results. If the experiment worked, you had a different experience of the artwork on that fourth reading. We met in a different way in the liminal zone, and, as the artist involved, I hope our improvisation produced personally relevant connections for you, something that rewarded your attention, something that makes you feel the value of an arts experience, and makes you want more of that feeling. Even if you can’t name what the personal connection was, maybe just a feeling, I hope you slipped into the work of art with me.

Remember back to the first performance, with no preparation? That’s standard operating procedure in music. You come out on stage, often not even being very warm to the audience, you lay out the artwork, not telling them how long it will be. The audience helpfully tries to orient toward it, during it, figuring out how to be in that piece with you. And in the case of this poem, as you tried to figure out how to listen to this thing, it was over. I did our experiment in an art form you are less experienced with—sometimes it is easier to see things when you are outside your area of expertise.

The second round with the poem is what often happens when musicians are “required” to speak before playing music; they rely on the comfort and ease of giving information. How did that information about the poet work for you in experiencing the poem? Did it open up the work of art, prepare you, help you enter the artwork and discover personally resonant connections? Many musicians assume that giving information helps people make strong connections—it can; those already in the art club can take information and translate it into enhanced experience, but the vast majority of the Americans can’t. Information doesn’t enhance artistic engagement for most people. I believe we can do better than that. And I hope your actual experience of an artwork after a spoken bio reminds you of that.

How about that third preparation when I came back to the formal podium and brought up all your hateful associations of pretentious teachers? Maybe it worked for some, but did telling you what to listen for, using my knowledge and critical insight, did that encourage you to undertake that act of courage to enter the poem and find your place in it?

Probably not.

And then there was the fourth round. In this one, I was working like a teaching artist. I took a chance for a way to bring you, experientially, into the world of that work of art. Authentically. Having identified the key entry point of that poem, which was a sense of what you and Williams feel might “depends on” the framed sight of the farm yard, I hoped to evoke that entry point experientially, in an activated way, so that we could meet in the liminal space together, as colleague artists. So that we could do stuff of consequence together in that liminal space.

The term I use for the person who thinks and works in this way is a teaching artist. That’s what I am. And in praise of NEC’s vision, let me say that I think this doctorate I have been given today is the first one ever given to a teaching artist. So this is a moment of history for those of us who share this work of studying and improving at, not just making the artworks, but also at taking responsibility for doing everything we can to bring people into hot connection with those artworks—to learn the artistry of the verbs that bring people into meaningful connection with the nouns.

And let me tell you, Graduates, we need you. We in the arts world you commence to enter need dedicated agents of musical experience who can play beautifully when the moment comes.. We need artists with this kind of passion, this curiosity, this set of engagement skills, to help people reach out and find what matters in our works of art. Because if we don’t, if we don’t have teaching artists who can open wider the range of Americans who can enter these artworks, and make satisfying and meaningful connections, we are going down. I was shocked to learn ten years ago in the LINC study from the Urban Institute that eightysomething percent of Americans think the arts contribute a lot to American culture. And 27% think artists contribute a lot to our culture. That’s how we’re seen. No, not by the 7% of Americans in what I call the art club; not by the people who comprise the NEC community, but by the vast majority of Americans who do not identify themselves as arts connected. We have to do better than that. It is this humble servant role, the role of the teaching artist, to think of every possible way we can open up every single performance, every opportunity that isn’t even a performance, that is my challenge to you today. Be poised to use, to experiment in every single opportunity. For each one, run through all the possible ways you might be able to excite and encourage not just the art club 7%, who know their way around inside classical music, love it already, know their way around jazz, are fascinated by contemporary improvisation, not just that 7%, but the rest who don’t yet know how excited we are to discover what it is we have got to share. We need you to expand your toolkit beyond the marvelous musical skills you have developed to make great music, to be irrepressibly curious, unstoppably experimental, in using all the tools and discovering more, to open up these works of art. New tools of teaching artistry are being found; the field is growing, we are sharing ideas. Teaching artistry is a dynamic way of not just settling for “OK, I can play the piece well, that is enough,” but hungering for more because that is what is going to bring the arts back to life for the individuals in the room with you that day, and for our culture. I have said to museum directors, and it applies to musical works too, that paintings are tombstones that mark locations where significant acts of aliveness once took place, and they await fresh verbs to bring them back to life.

I want to name a few of these verbs of art as we draw to a close here. There is the verb of attention. We live in a time of permanent partial attention, and full attention is required to make a satisfying connection to a work of art. We need you to provide the skilled encouragement, the guidance, and the living example that brings people into the pleasures of full attention. You know the difference in yourself, in rehearsal for example, between partial and full attention; and we need you to model that and bring people into the satisfactions that become possible only with full attention.

The verb of connecting. We need to open the ways people can connect, beyond the logical connections of simple identification—“yes, I recognized that the piece was in sonata form as you told me”—pffft! Who cares? I want something that matters to me. If I am going to pay attention—look at the idiom, it costs me something—I will pay full attention only in expectation of a good experiential return on my investment. If I am going to work that hard, I want to get a connection that matters to me. And the research shows it’s true. The number one reason a subscriber renews a subscription to a symphony orchestra season is because they had a significant emotional or spiritual experience inside the music. That’s what brings them back, and back to chamber music, and jazz, and contemporary improv. In our “Red Wheelbarrow” exercise, if I succeeded as a teaching artist on the fourth hearing, you were more able to connect to the poem, not intellectually, but viscerally, as you and Williams together began to sense the importance of what could depend on ordinary farmyard objects. Without my teaching artist experimentation, the art doesn’t happen with that poem today. The chance is missed. And if I rely on old habits of giving information or telling you what you should think is important, the connecting gets strained or choked, and the occasion is not only lost, but you are less likely to want to come back to a Williams poem some day. Yet, it is possible, as the story I told hoped to accomplish, to add to the power of the good performance. You have learned to give great performances here at NEC—and I want you to remember that more is possible. More is essential.

There is one final verb I want to mention, the most important one. The first way I will describe it is influencing people’s motivation. We need to bring out in audiences the wish to try to reach out into that uncertain liminal zone—for their own reasons, because they think there is going to be something of value for them in reaching out. The term I use for that is yearning. Yearning—that innately human desire for more of that which you most care about. And here’s the most important sentence I will say today: you may not realize it, but as agents of artistic experience, you are in the yearning business. Your job is to wake up the yearning in individuals who live in a culture that is diabolically designed to squelch it everywhere. To wake up that yearning and guide it into activities and experiences that produce the satisfaction, the reward of making connections that expand their sense of the world and makes us hungry for more. The pleasure that brings them back. This is the only thing we have got that entertainment can’t beat. And it is valuable enough to warrant pricey tickets, but only if we can deliver the goods, the awakening and satisfaction of that yearning. And if you, along with the other thousands of teaching artists who are also getting better at bringing people into the liminal zone, can succeed as agents of artistic experience, the arts will come roaring back, one motivated listener at a time.

I want to read a quotation about yearning because I think it’s so important. It’s a pretentious quote, so you’ll have to forgive me. It’s pretentious because it is a quote from me, but if I don’t read it, I always botch it. It’s from my book The Everyday Work of Art.

“People are shaped by what they extend themselves into. We must be very careful with the objects and opportunities we present to ourselves, and to our audiences, and to our children because we are changed by them. Art lends shape to yearning. Art is the best container for yearning because it is so rich, so human, so satisfying on so many levels. Art gives serious outer shape to serious inner yearning. And if these yearnings are informed by less rich objects, they go to sleep, they die, or eventually express themselves in the harmful symptoms of search that fill the pages of the daily newspaper.” That’s the stakes, and that’s the opportunity we are given.

There’s one word I want to offer in closing. We have redefined art. You now know your job is to make things you care about and experiment relentlessly in ways to bring people inside them ever more powerfully, as agents of artistic experience. And I say experiment every time. For every single performance I encourage you to think as committed agent of artistic experience about every opportunity as your creative disposal. With students I sometimes explore all the possible ways in which they could support someone’s nascent yearning. And we brainstorm dozens of possibilities for every performance: what happens outside of the building, in the lobby, what’s in the program, what materials are posted, what communication happens the week and day before, and the day and week after; what can you say or do in the lobby and before the performance and during the performance, and so forth. Experiment in some new way every time to activate the quality of their attention. And it is going to take determination and courage to do it.

So here is one word I want to focus on in closing, and it is about courage. It is a word beloved to us in the arts. It’s the word “bravo.” Let me give you a little history. When the word was first used in the English speaking theater, it was not yelled out in recognition of great virtuosity as it is now. Say a great tenor, such as George Shirley being honored here today, let’s fly with an incredible aria, and audience members yell out “bravo” to mark the accomplishment. When it was originally called out in the English theater, it was called out in recognition of great courage. When a performer took a chance, even if it weren’t completely pulled off, the act of consequence that deserved to be recognized was going for something extraordinary in a public, high-risk opportunity. That’s why I want to end with the word “bravo.” To celebrate the acts of courage that brought you to this day; the acts of courage in this little liminal time when you have been willing to entertain a new job title and an expansion of your responsibilities to do things that you might have preferred you didn’t have to do, to be an agent of artistic experience, as performer and as exploratory teaching artist. And bravo for the ongoing, relentless experimentation you are going to undertake from this point on; and bravo that you will share your learning and encouragement to others through the Alumni Association, and with your teachers and colleagues, “Here is some of what I have learned lately about bringing people into active engagement, and here’s the kind of heat we created in this event.” So, for all of your future acts of courage in and around performance, and just to say it for your good work here at NEC that we honor today, let me say to you all, “Bravo.”

ABOUT NEW ENGLAND CONSERVATORY

Recognized nationally and internationally as a leader among music schools, New England Conservatory in Boston, MA offers rigorous training in an intimate, nurturing community to 720 undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral music students from around the world. Its faculty of 225 boasts internationally esteemed artist-teachers and scholars. Its alumni go on to fill orchestra chairs, concert hall stages, jazz clubs, recording studios, and arts management positions worldwide. Nearly half of the Boston Symphony Orchestra is composed of NEC trained musicians and faculty.

The oldest independent school of music in the United States, NEC was founded in 1867 by Eben Tourjee. Its curriculum is remarkable for its wide range of styles and traditions. On the college level, it features training in classical, jazz, contemporary improvisation, world and early music. Through its Preparatory School, School of Continuing Education, and Community Programs and Partnerships Program, it provides training and performance opportunities for children, pre-college students, adults, and seniors. Through its outreach projects, it allows young musicians to engage with non-traditional audiences in schools, hospitals, and nursing homes—thereby bringing pleasure to new listeners and enlarging the universe for classical music, jazz, and contemporary improvisation.

NEC presents more than 900 free concerts each year, many of them in Jordan Hall, its world- renowned, century-old, beautifully restored concert hall. These programs range from solo recitals to chamber music to orchestral programs to jazz, contemporary improvisation, and opera scenes. Every year, NEC’s opera studies department also presents two fully staged opera productions at the Cutler Majestic Theatre or Paramount Theatre in Boston.

NEC is co-founder and educational partner of From the Top, a weekly radio program that celebrates outstanding young classical musicians from the entire country. With its broadcast home in Jordan Hall, the show is now carried by National Public Radio and is heard on 250 stations throughout the United States.

Contact: Ellen Pfeifer
Public Relations Manager
New England Conservatory
290 Huntington Ave.
Boston, MA 02115
617-585-1143
Ellen.pfeifer@necmusic.edu


IF YOU HAVE TO ASK WHAT JAZZ IS, YOU'LL NEVER KNOW. LOUIS ARMSTRONG