On June 10, Julia Bullock delivered the commencement speech at her alma mater, the Eastman School of Music.
Watch a clip of her address to the students:
Full text here:
“Good-afternoon, soon to be Eastman graduates of 2019, visiting families, friends, and distinguished and deeply brilliant faculty. I’m so happy to be here with you today. Thank you for the invitation, Dean Jamal Rossi, President Richard Feldman, Cathy Minehan and members of the Board of Trustees.
I’ve spent several months thinking –– well, mostly agonizing –– about what to say today and how to say it. I could share elements of my life story that pertain to music, my studies and my career, those defining moments of discovery and joy, the times when I struggled or felt challenged, the many instances of crippling self doubt, the various crises of varying degrees, how I’ve continued to work through them, and what I’ve learned in the process. But this is not a confession, it’s supposed to be a commencement address.
So then I thought, alright, I will speak about my work, since that’s largely the reason I was invited here to speak. And I know I’m being positioned to do this a little bit, because I was just given the “distinguished alumna” award.
I admit it is interesting and maybe even remarkable that it is at Eastman where my self guided work really began. In the first two or three weeks of school of my freshman year, my primary teacher, Carol Webber, compared me to a very famous, popular and successful entertainer who was notoriously exoticized, eroticized, objectified, and exploited. She was a woman of color… close to my color. The comparison itself was super interesting, and afterwards she added that I would be expected to sing exotic repertoire, because of the way that I looked ––because of my physical attributes. I first just nodded my head and accepted this –– even thought it to be true –– but then became perplexed, because I wanted to sing what I thought was interesting and was drawn to. I loved classical music; I loved many genres of music, and I didn’t want to be limited in anyway, and certainly not by expectations I would need to adhere to in order to be successful in the music ‘business’. I wrestled with those two comments and my feelings around them, which made me consider all of the reasons why those statements were so troubling to me personally. The truth is that I needed to do some work about my own identity and honoring all parts of myself. I had avoided doing that, because I was never confronted with it until this musical context. But how amazing that it was this early interaction at Eastman that drove me to focused research, and led me to explore more aspects of my voice –– not solely as a singer, but as a programmer and curator. But I don’t want to go on about my work any further, because a lot has been written about it, I myself, have written a lot about it, and today, is really about you all.
When I received the invitation by Dean Jamal Rossi to give the commencement address at Eastman this year, I was in Amsterdam, in rehearsals for a new opera by John Adams. I wanted to write back to Jamal immediately and say, “Thank you for the honor, but no thank you. I will not be coming. I don’t have a right to speak in front of these graduates since I only graduated from Eastman 10 years ago! Have you lost your mind? Warmest and kindest regards, Julia.” I had every intention of sending this email, but I had to go to rehearsal. So instead, I told all of this to the director and librettist of this new opera, Peter Sellars. I’m not sure how many of you are familiar with him, but he’s a wonderful person, intensely inspiring, and he has devoted most of his work to focus on projects that have to do with human rights. As I told him about my hesitation to come here, he said: “Of course you have to go there. Rochester, New York was the home of Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. You must go there to speak.” And of course I laughed, because I don’t hold myself in the esteem or realm of the activists Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglass, but it got me thinking about context. And I bring that up because contextualizing my work, and the music I sing, became really important to me after I left Eastman.
I remember when I was at Eastman in the throes of my studies and the music I was making. It felt like Eastman was the center of everything. But in truth, Eastman is a music school, one of many –– but I really want to emphasize the word school, because not all music education institutions are interested in education, some are more interested in promoting and presenting the students they donne to be their most exceptional –– but I always felt that Eastman put education at the forefront. Eastman prioritized the study and practice of music, and it happened to be founded by some truly extraordinary people. But Eastman is one school, in the city of Rochester which itself has an incredibly rich history, and beyond Rochester there’s the state of New York, then this immense and complex country, and then I have to consider the larger conversation happening worldwide about what is important and vital about the arts, particularly at this point in history.
Graduates: I don’t presume to know what you’re thinking, or where your heads are, but I remember sitting where you are 10 years ago, with my colleagues and my friends –– my hair smashed into the graduation hat, wearing that brilliantly tailored black polyester gown with the accented Pepto Bismal pink collar, and feeling really content, because I liked being a part of the community.
I had studied music for the past 4 years, at one of the greatest music schools in the country. I had been trained well in the fundamentals. I was getting better at listening and communicating so that I could engage in something that actually felt legitimate. But despite all of that, I wasn’t comfortable calling myself a musician… I had this idea that in order to be the best musician I could be, I had to buy into the philosophy that there was a great divide, or distinction, between those whose work I was interpreting –– the composers, poets, authors, writers –– those who really created, and myself.
I had submitted to the idea that there was a hierarchical model when it came to creating art, and certain voices or contributions were more valuable than others. I thought that my sole role as a musician was to be utilized as a tool or vessel through which these other minds––great minds–– could express their perceptions of the world, their thoughts, their feelings, and that my voice and person was somehow not quite as relevant. I don’t know if was just part of the culture at Eastman, or maybe it’s in the culture of classical music, but there were certainly conversations I had with my classmates in which we all agreed that the most admirable thing for us aspire to as musicians was to become ‘vessels’ for ‘whatever purpose’ –– as if modeling ourselves after inanimate objects was a life goal.
But we’re human beings, as were and are all of those individuals whose work we most admire. We can respect them, we revere them, but there is no need to abandon our own individual expressions, identities or perceptions in order to serve some higher purpose for making music, because that almost suggests that we have to divorce ourselves from our distinct and unique humanity.
It wasn’t until several years after graduating from Eastman that I felt I could put everything that I feared, everything I loved, and was confused about, confounded by, astounded by, into the music I was making –– that I could put it all into the words and the music I was interpreting.
And I think these great creative minds––at least the ones I love the most––, are after the same thing. They write these amazing, diverse, and intense expositions, not to create some sort of ultimate crystallization of beauty that can be admired from afar; their work exists so that we can invest ourselves, and even so they could invest themselves, in it: to more clearly look at who we are, where we are, what we’re doing, and then be able to increase our awareness of others. And I think whether you are listening, performing, or teaching: music helps us to find clarity, it helps us to be more conscious, to view ourselves within a larger context and more completely.
I spoke to my Eastman voice teacher, Carol Webber, a couple of days ago, the same woman who said those two statements during my freshman year. She didn’t know at the time what an impact those statements had on me, but we discuss it now. She’s retiring this year. Her portrait has just been hung in the Cominsky Promenade. Carol Webber never intended to become a professional singer, but did it to support her young family. When she was diagnosed with early onset arthritis in her twenties, she chose to gradually perform opera less and less, because she didn’t have the same physical facility, and couldn’t embody the roles the way she wanted to. But she continued to perform concerts and recitals, and I saw one of her last performances here in Kilbourn Hall. It was a speaking role, but she was truly an extraordinary performer. Carol has been quite ill over the past few years, and has lost the ability to play the piano.
We laughed a lot during our talk. She told me how proud she was that I had all of these gifts that I could now exploit. She said that nothing in life was how she had planned or expected, and she got quite weepy near the end of our chat. She told me: “Please only remember me as I was in the studio, as I was at Eastman.” But I told her immediately: “Carol, I will always remember how brilliant and difficult our hours were in your studio. How you influenced and guided me while seated at the piano. But I have to tell you, it’s really important for me as a musician who is still developing, and a woman who is still evolving, to not view a mentor, or any person I respect or revere in one particular way, or try to preserve them or hold them in one place in my mind, because it’s only through seeing the reality of you within the full context of your life that allows me to understand what kind of stunning and true person you are, and that having a life in music is what helped you to be that person.” And I didn’t hesitate saying this to her, because just ten minutes before she told me that even though she was feeling out of place and looking for a purpose at present, she was actively seeking where her services as a teacher, and her hyper developed skill-set as a musician could still be of use to the community in which she currently lives.
The words, “for the enrichment of community life,” were engraved on the façade of this theater when it was founded, this theater where we currently find ourselves.
That’s a huge and massively important statement, because that communicates that the world of the arts and buildings who house and present the arts do not exist to be self-serving, but to be outward looking.
I hope, for everyone in this theater, that you feel confident moving forward in your work. Today doesn’t solely need to be centered around your achievements here at Eastman and this point of arrival, because as musicians we all know that arrival points are just that. They can be magnificent, but they also lead onto the next moment. This is not a day of arrival, but one of launching. Hence the commencement address.
I’m so excited to stand amongst you today as a musician, even if some of you don’t yet know how to define what being a musician is. I hope you never feel that you need to silence yourself, or that your voice isn’t as valuable as another. There is no authority who should oversee freedom of expression, or determine who should be given the space to express themselves fully.
And if you do feel that should be the case, or you want to be that overseer, ask yourself: Am I really a musician? Because musicians don’t just want to be listened to, they leave space and time to listen to others, and to really hear them.