Convocation 2018 — Student Remarks and Highlights

Mary O'Keefe at NEC podium
Student Remarks by Mary O'Keefe '17 '20 MM Oboe Performance

Convocation 2018 took place on Wednesday, September 5, 2018 in Jordan Hall. The program included performances by students, announcements of the Presidential Scholarships and Presidential Distinction Awards, staff awards, and the introduction of new faculty.

Mary O'Keefe '17 '20 MM Oboe Performance gave the student remarks:

Hello everyone, and welcome to the New England Conservatory. I have to start by offering my sincerest congratulations to all of you who are here today. Not only have you been accepted into one of the most prestigious musical programs in the world, but you are awake and out of bed at 9:30am. I’m truly impressed with your dedication and talent in getting here to NEC and to getting here this morning.

My name is Mary O’Keefe and I am starting my graduate degree in oboe performance. I am standing here today because NEC is my musical Disney World. I had the pleasure of going here for my undergraduate degree and I love this school and community with a passion.

NEC offers an incredible number of resources, but the number one tool you have at your disposal now is your peers. The only inspiration you will ever need lies within the people surrounding you during your time here. NEC offers a unique opportunity to develop your education through our three different programs: classical, jazz, and CI. Throughout your time here, you will make friends outside of your major, gender, race, sexual orientation, sports fandom, religion, and more. I’ve learned crucial parts of my education from my classmates and from the incredible variety of concerts available. This is an incredibly diverse school where students spend as much time discussing Beethoven symphonies as they do the developmental progression of Kanye West albums.

It’s a huge honor to be the student speaker today, but I want to be the first to admit that I was not chosen because of any great talent or success; in many ways, I am a failure. Luckily, failure has led to the biggest lessons I’ve learned in life which I now consider my greatest successes. Through those failures, I now have a new teacher, a new instrument, and I’m starting a new degree. After graduating in 2017, I took a gap year and worked 6 jobs in order to stay in Boston and study privately with my teacher, John Ferrillo... while completely reworking my embouchure. Each job presented different opportunities for mistakes, and months of MMA-style fighting with my oboe. To sum it all up simply, I learned a lot about failure this past year. Unfortunately, a lot of the world still believes that taking time off of school equates to failure, that walking the path less traveled is embarrassing. I’m here to stress that your journey is your own and success is yours to define.

But honestly, part of your time at NEC will be constituted into failure. At various points, you will show up late to rehearsal, gain weight, fail a test, play a wrong note, and disappoint your teacher. However, every challenge you face here at NEC is an opportunity for musical and personal growth. I wouldn’t have come back if I didn’t firmly believe this. And as Yoda says “The greatest teacher, failure is.”

As musicians, we are given a unique education in failure. We spend hours every, every day in practice rooms, listening for mistakes so that we can correct them. Failure is the only guaranteed experience in our career. Luckily, musicians are taught from an early age to tackle fear and perform; to be afraid and therefore to be brave. You all have made it here today because this school has chosen you, recognizes your sacrifices, and believes in your potential.

I cannot stress this enough; music is a privilege. Attending NEC is a privilege. These next few years here are yours to treasure, or to disregard. The choice is yours, but as young musicians, our very existence and professions are more important than ever. Our government has proposed to eliminate the National Endowment of the Arts in 2019. Not cut, but eliminate. We are living in a period of great political and social turmoil; a time when the arts are more necessary than ever. To paraphrase Sir Ken Robinson, “music and art develops humans in ways that would otherwise be left untouched”. Music is our greatest weapon and greatest healer in times of disparity and our greatest representation of free speech. NEC’s mission statement declares the following; “We believe that the study of music builds human capacity, elevates the soul, and prepares our students for lives that enhance the public good.” We are here to learn and strive for greatness but not just for ourselves. We are called to push the very limits of creativity, to use our uniquely expressive voice to cut through the daily noise of our world.

During the past year in particular, we’ve seen the takedown of powerful men in film, politics, and music. As the wreckage clears, women are surging to the rescue and taking over in record breaking numbers. 2018 has been dubbed the Year of the Women in a nod to 1992 when the number of women in Congress doubled. So far in 2018, 72 women from 66 districts have been nominated for the House; a significant increase from the 41 nominees in 2016. NEC is taking a major step forward and following suit. I am so incredibly proud to be an alumnus of NEC as we welcome a new, female president; Andrea Kalyn. Our FIRST, female president who will join us in January 2019. This new milestone is particularly significant for its impact in the realm of music. I can only speak accurately for my own field, but the world of classical music is still largely run by old white men playing music by dead white composers. From my own personal experience, ushering here at Jordan Hall, a patron once asked me which instrument I played. He was shocked and told me, “I thought men usually played oboe”.

NEC is working hard this year to meet the needs of students and work towards an even more supportive environment. This is the beginning of a promise towards progression and a dedication to equality. Taking from our mission statement again,  “Understanding that music is one of the transcendent expressions of human civilization, NEC aspires to ensure it a central place in contemporary society.” In addition to our new president, NEC has strived to meet this statement by opening a new building, the SLPC, and adding a plethora of practice rooms. These examples of change are a direct result of the power held by us, the students and NEC’s recognition of our needs. We are young, but we are strong and our voices are worthy of being heard.

I entered into NEC as a husk of a musician who relied on natural talent and potential for success. My identity was relatively vague; “Hi, my name is Mary, I have big hair, and I play oboe”. This school has developed me into the well-rounded person and musician that I am today. I can now say “My name is Mary, I have big hair, I’m from the beautiful city of Cleveland, I hate the current political climate, and plan to use my oboe to change the world.”

NEC is yours for the taking. You only have a few years here and the rest of your life to regret the risks that you were too afraid to take. So be bold, be brave, and create. Explore, drink some bubble tea, and eat your veggies. I’ll leave you with one last quick quote from Steve Jobs; “stay hungry, stay foolish.”


Tom Novak ringing bell to start the new year
Interim President Tom Novak ringing the bell to start the new school year
Feng Niu playing piano and Annie Wu playing flute
Feng Niu and Annie Wu performing Grande Fantaisie on Themes from "Mignon"
american roots ensemble performing
Olivia Greene, Thomas Abbott, and Matthew Okun of the Contemporary Improvisation American Roots Ensemble

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