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2017 Student Commencement Speech: Alexandra Keller

Undergraduate jazz vocalist offered these remarks to her fellow members of the Class of 2017 at NEC's 146th Commencement ceremony on May 21, 2017.
photo by Eric Antoniou

Hello and congratulations to everyone in the audience! I want to thank every one of you. Thank you to the friends who came to support, thank you to everyone in my graduating class, and thank you to the family members who travelled from near and, in some cases, very, very far to celebrate with us today.

I look out on everyone here, and I feel the most amazing mixture of emotions. I see the love, the growth, and the immense support I’ve experienced over the past four years, but, to be honest, I also see the obstacles, the not-so-friendly reality, and the pain. The best way for me to possibly explain this amazing dichotomy is to start with a recent conversation I had with a faculty member, Professor Paul Burdick. He made me aware of one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned here at NEC. On one of his usual stops in the computer lab, Burdick sat down and told me and my shift mates a story about a Vietnam vet he had known briefly when he was younger. The vet was involved in a play that Professor Burdick’s parents were working on, and before the first show, he went backstage and found the vet hidden there, shaking and weeping. The vet said, “After Vietnam, I thought I’d never be scared again, but I’m petrified. And it’s so exhilarating to feel fear in this way.” Burdick went on to describe how intensely beautiful this encounter was, and how fear was one of the most profound indicators to show that we are alive and human and real. We need to understand and feel this challenge to be artists.

Now… I am scared. I am so, so scared to leave this safe, supportive, and at times infuriatingly small bubble of musicians and friends and structure and go out into the world as a musician, as myself. I’m kinda low-key terrified. But standing here, looking at all of you, teachers, friends, fellow students, I also feel so insanely alive. You have all inspired so many emotions in me: happiness, anger, love, hope, jealousy, awe, fear (I’m looking at you, James Klein). And I can’t thank all of you enough. This school has turned me into the musician I am today, but you have turned me into the person I am, and I take immense pride in both, as I hope you do as well. Because, for me, one cannot exist without the other. And I’ve had to learn that the hard way here. I’ve learned it through heartbreak, inadequacy, selfishness, and fear.

You’re probably scared too, to some degree. Let that fear inspire you, let it drive you, let it push you to try new things, to push your humanity and extend it to involve something greater than yourself. Isn’t that what being a musician and an artist and a human is about? Be like Farayi Malek and write painfully honest and fearless music about how it feels to be a black woman in a white, male-dominated nation, be like Mary O’Keefe, Iva Casian-Lakos, and Niki Forman and selflessly put your precious time and effort into a recital or show to raise money for the ACLU, be like Robbie Pate and juggle multiple day jobs while also playing gigs and STILL being integral to NEC’s black student union concerts and the Black Lives Matter panel discussion, be like Stephanie Munoz and not only speak out about overcoming extreme loss and pain but also rise above it and give back through music and teaching to the minority communities and heritage you proudly come from. Be like them and so many other fantastic students that I didn’t have the privilege of getting to know over the past four years. Let fear inspire beautifully human experiences and translate them through your music.

Also, we need to honor our past. We can have these experiences because of the boldly inspirational humans and artists that have preceded us. Be like Coretta Scott King, a leader of the Civil Rights movement. Be like Florence Price, the first African American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer. Be like Fred Hersch, a brilliant jazz composer and pianist, who is also a 25-year AIDS survivor. Be like Ju Hyeon Han, the first blind singer to be cast in a leading role in a University or Conservatory opera production. We come from a lineage of badasses who used the fear and pain and loss they experienced and channelled it into something so much greater than themselves. Because I’m sure you all know, it isn’t all smiles and rainbows here. This environment is hard, scary, and sometimes even cruel. Sometimes you don’t pass, your music is looked over or simply ignored, you don’t get the solo, people don’t like your composition, your teachers aren’t satisfied with your work, friends don’t come to your concerts. That’s reality. But it’s also subjective. Turn a different way or speak to a different person and the answer might be different. You find people who DO love your music and who DO listen intently, even in a small environment like NEC.

It took me a long time to realize that what I’d initially perceived as criticism and negativity was a result of my own stubbornness and inability to admit that sometimes I was wrong or even that I just wasn’t good enough. Because sometimes we aren’t “good” enough. But then we practice and we work and we make sacrifices and we support people other than ourselves and suddenly, it isn’t about being “good enough.” It’s about being human and being real and being a musician.

This is who we are at NEC, this is who you are, this is NEC. I know it may sound corny and saccharine, but I’m really being honest. You are NEC. And you have been my biggest inspiration these past four years. I could not be more proud to be a part of this graduating class. So wherever you are going, whatever you are choosing to do after you walk or sprint across this stage because you have a gig to get to… Be human. Be a musician. Accept your fear and embrace it. Your humanity was enough to inspire me; so elevate that and let it drive you to inspire others and yourself.

Thank you.