NEC's 150th Commencement Celebrates Optimism and the Power of Music

With remarks from Mavis Staples, President Andrea Kalyn, student speakers Esther Tien and Robbie Bui, and others, NEC's 150th Commencement honored the classes of 2020 and 2021 with messages of hope and resilience.

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Esther Tien ’20 MM flings confetti while congratulating the Classes of 2020 and 2021 on their achievements during a difficult year. Watch the full Commencement replay above.
President Andrea Kalyn speaks from the Jordan Hall podium. She is smiling, and floral arrangements are on stage. She is wearing Commencement regalia.
President Andrea Kalyn praised the fortitude, creativity, and vitality of 2020 and 2021 graduates.

Commencement is always a joyful moment in the year, but never more so than NEC's 150th Commencement, which took place yesterday, May 23, 2021.

At the end of a challenging pandemic year, the NEC community came together to honor both 2021 and 2020 graduates.

“Your passion and vision, your commitment, your hard work, your courage, your creativity, and again, your optimism—

a quality that is inherent in the very idea of making music in the first place, especially in a global pandemic—

these have been the hallmarks of you as individuals...of your work and of your person,“

said President Andrea Kalyn to the graduating students gathered in person from Jordan Hall while families and loved ones watched via live stream to accommodate social distancing requirements.

Diana Ortega ’10 welcomed graduates on behalf the the NEC Alumni Association.

Warm Wishes from Alumni

The ceremony included warm wishes from alumni: the processional, Elgar’s Pomp & Circumstance March, op. 39 no. 1, was originally recorded by alumni last year as a gift to last year's graduates, and Diana Ortega ’10 shared a welcome to all graduates on behalf of the NEC Alumni Association, saying,

“While the future may be uncertain, trust your emotions; trust your training, education, and instincts. Use these as forces to drive you.”

Confetti, Dark Tunnels, and the Future of Music

Instead of one student speaker, the community heard from two: Esther Tien ’20 MM represented the graduating class of 2020, while Robbie Bui ’21 spoke on behalf of 2021 graduates.

“Class of 2020 and 2021: we made it!”

Side by side image of Esther Tien and Robbie Bui. Esther smiles and raises her arms triumphantly overhead while wearing a graduation cap and gown and standing at a podium. Robbie smiles and looks into the distance at the podium.
Esther Tien and Robbie Bui offered encouragement to the graduating classes of 2020 and 2021.

cheered Tien, while throwing a handful of confetti and raising her arms joyously overhead. Tien also reflected on the difficulties of the past year, and questions of whether she was on the right path:

“In those [“dark tunnel”] moments, I remembered my passion, my desire to share love through music. Not being in control is scary, but fighting for control hinders growth...yes, we will fail. But the love and passion which began it all will fuel our journeys.”

Bui celebrated a year in which he heard works in concert by marginalized and under-appreciated composers, and a vision for the future of music:

“Especially this last year, we strived for a lot: we were bolder, we were madder, fiercer; we demanded and fought for reform...but what did we do behind these conservatory walls as artists?

“Well, here are some names that I saw on concert programs this year... Clara Schumann. Jessie Montgomery. Unsuk Chin. Samuel Coleridge Taylor. Kaija Saariaho. Earl Kim. Fanny Mendelssohn. Anna Thorvaldsdottir. William Grant Still. George Walker. Pamela Z. Florence Price. And countless others.”

“Among those voices, imagine discovering those that offer new insights, different visions, nuanced approaches, and those that strike you differently and make you say, 'It sounds like the future of music.'”

Portrait of Mavis Staples on overhead projector, while Hankus Netsky stands at the Jordan Hall podium wearing Commencement regalia.
Mavis Staples' Commencement address was read by Hankus Netsky.

Commencement Address and Honorary Degrees

Gospel and soul singer Mavis Staples ’21 Hon. DM wrote the Commencement address, which was delivered on Ms. Staples's behalf by Contemporary Improvisation Co-Chair Hankus Netsky due to an urgent family matter that prevented Ms. Staples from attending.

In her address, Ms. Staples told of growing up singing with her family, and how she came to understand music as a powerful tool for change:

“One day, Pops went to go see Martin Luther King speak. He came home that night and he told all of us “I really like this man’s message. And if he can preach it, we can sing it.” And that started our journey singing message songs. Songs that we used to try and make a difference in the world...

Deborah Borda, Emmanuel Ax, Carl Atkins, and Wu Man smile while wearing Commencement regalia
Honorary degrees were conferred upon Deborah Borda, Emmanuel Ax, Carl Atkins, Wu Man (left to right) and Mavis Staples (in absentia).

Ms. Staples went on to exhort graduates to use the power of music and their own voices: 

“So, as I sit here today in front of all you young people, I want to just tell you – when we started singing our message songs, I was just in my 20s. Probably just like you. So remember, that music is powerful. Your voice is powerful. And if you put the two together, you can change the world. And I hope you do.”

Honorary degrees were conferred upon Staples, as well as Carl J. Atkins, Former NEC Chair of Afro-American Studies and Jazz Department; Deborah Borda, President and CEO of the New York Philharmonic; Wu Man, pipa virtuoso; and Emanuel Ax, classical pianist.

Wu Man also gave a surprise performance of “White Snow in Spring,” a traditional work that first appeared in 1895 (Qing dynasty) as a hand-written score by pipa master Li Fangyuan.

Honors and Awards All Around

Provost Tom Novak was honored with a memory book in honor of his final Commencement.

Graduating students were not able to walk the stage due to social distancing requirements, but each was highlighted by video, to enthusiastic applause. Students who studied remotely this year and were unable to attend in person were also individually cheered and applauded via slideshow.

The ceremony closed with the moving of tassels and a hearty round of applause for all graduating students, in Jordan Hall and abroad.

Congratulations to all!

Graduates stand in Jordan Hall to move their tassels.


A group of graduates holds balloons that spell out "2021"


A smiling group of graduates wearing kente cloth stoles


A smiling group of graduates


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