I adore Commencement. We recently had ours at NEC and it presented that great mixture of excitement, energy, optimism and sadness at the passage of time and imminent leave-taking. As I stood on the stage of Jordan Hall looking down at that ocean of expectant faces it brought to my mind all the ideals needed to develop and shape our world and the enormous service that music can provide. If only we could harness the power in Jordan Hall at that very moment we really could change the world.
After the set pieces of introductions and remarks the first truly genuine event happened. And it was the one most looked forward to by the student body. The Student Commencement Address. The student speaker is chosen through a fairly exhaustive assessment process with essays requested and a final choice made of the best example. This year the chosen speaker was Robyn Bollinger, a young violinist completing her Bachelor of Music after studying with Miriam Fried. Robyn is the real deal. An astonishing violinist, one who can tackle all the Paganini Caprices from memory, but much more than this. A young musician who is aware of the world and music’s unique place in our time and who has a burning desire and mission to do things differently, to meet the challenges with contemporary cutting edge creativity. Here, she shares some of those aspirations as a set-up for her Commencement Address. I find her spirit and ambition to be an inspiration and something that we could all learn from.—Tony Woodcock
I am an NEC alumna. Wow, how strange that is to write!
My name is Robyn Bollinger. I’m a violinist, and I graduated from NEC with my Bachelor’s Degree with academic honors this May as a student of Miriam Fried. It has been a whirlwind four years; as I look back I’ve learned an astonishing amount, and not just about the violin. I’ve learned about people and about the art of performance; I’ve learned about the nuts and bolts of music harmony, history, and education; and I’ve learned about communication. But most importantly, I’ve learned about myself and my beliefs. Thanks to NEC, I’m beginning to discover what it means and what it takes to be a successful musician in today’s world, and I’ve developed the courage and curiosity to push the envelopes of tradition and expectations.
I’ve done many of the typical aspiring-soloist things. I’ve won prizes at international competitions, soloed with orchestras, participated in top summer festivals, and collaborated with great musicians. (If you’re curious, check out my bio at http://www.robynbollingerviolin.com/index.html .) I am profoundly lucky to have had such opportunities, and NEC has facilitated many of those experiences. But that’s not what makes me or NEC unique.
Two defining factors that have shaped me over these four years are first, I’ve had big, think-outside-the-box ideas; and second, the faculty and staff at NEC have done everything and more to help me realize those ideas. Their support doesn’t stop at my music education. They encourage my wildest dreams as an artist, inform my abilities as a leader and organizer, and guide my thought process and vision as my generation enters the performing workforce.
My classmates and I face a difficult work environment and decreased job opportunities. We are economically challenged. Music education in schools has been cut significantly, orchestras are folding or contracting, concerts are harder and harder to fund. Music performances aren’t drawing live audiences like they used to. Concerts feel impersonal and, at best, ritualized. In short, we musicians are not important to the majority of the general public. This is a tragic shift. Music is vital to society; it is essential to personal and social development, and it is the most effective way we as a species learn to communicate, empathize, and express ourselves. But sadly, the people who don’t have access to concerts or lessons don’t know that, and the people who get bored at symphony concerts have forgotten. My generation must change that.
Photo by Lauren Penizotto
During my junior year at NEC, I developed a program called “Project Paganini.” http://www.robynbollingerviolin.com/project-paganini.html My goal was to challenge the typical concert setting. In the performance, I combined a multi-media production featuring recorded and live monologues and historical images with my staged performance of all 24 Paganini Caprices. The presentation was designed to personalize Paganini, his music, and me as a performer. I wanted people to understand why I love Paganini and why I find his music fascinating and beautiful, and I wanted to do so in a way that didn’t feel like a lecture. I wanted a fun, interesting evening of multi-sensory stimulation, something that would keep people engaged and teach them about music. It worked; people loved it.
I’m grateful to say I’ll be back at NEC to pursue a Master’s degree, and I have some big ideas for the next few years. I’m hoping to develop another program à la Project Paganini (no spoilers!), establish an afternoon chamber music series for casual college-aged audiences, and write music myself. Below is a video of an encore piece I wrote this year, to be published on my website soon.
I guess if I were to summarize what I’ve learned from my time at NEC and what I hope to achieve for myself and for my colleagues, I’d say this: in order to reach as many people as possible and bring audiences to music, we as musicians shouldn’t box ourselves into one role. My hope one day is to be an active performer, a curator, an orator, a manager, a director, a classical-violin singer-songwriter, a collaborator, and most importantly, a teacher in the deepest sense of the word. I hope that by embracing our creative possibilities, we will remind our audiences why music matters, why musicians matter: because we make music not for personal gain, but for moral, global good.
I was honored to be the student speaker at this year’s Commencement Exercises. Below is the transcript of my speech. Thanks for reading.
I’ve been doing a lot of reminiscing about some of the experiences we’ve had in these four years- recitals, classes, auditions, maybe a few parties. One irony of these four years is that it seems like every year we’ve been here, Boston has had a mini-Armageddon that got us out of school for a few days. Freshman year it was the water fiasco, where the water supply for the entire city of Boston was contaminated; sophomore year wasn’t so bad, we just had a lot of snow days; last year we had the power outage that lasted most of a week, thank you NSTAR; and this year we had a hurricane and snow days to boot. But there’s one event that stands out in our hearts and minds, a day we’ll all remember forever, and that was the day of the 2013 Boston Marathon.
In the same way we are the generation of 9/11, we are the class of the Boston Marathon bombings. I don’t believe events like these define us, but they do unite us and bring us together as moments we all share in a horrible way. For both of those days – September 11th, and April 15th, – we all know where we were when we found out what happened, who we were with, what we were doing, how we felt. One thing I remember in particular from both days was the thought of how strange it seemed that such a terrible thing could happen on such a beautiful day – as though it would make more sense if it were raining.
Following the bombings, a quote went viral on my Facebook newsfeed. It was a quote by Leonard Bernstein, taken from a speech he gave following the assassination of JFK. He said, “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” It’s a powerful sentiment, especially for us as artists. It reassures us of our validity in this all too often terrible, destructive, political world, as if Bernstein is telling us today that even when we feel helpless, even when we are desperate to contribute and have no idea how, we are relevant and important and good.
But the more this quote popped up around me, the more I wondered what else it implied. “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” Surely it’s more than, “If I just keep practicing, that’ll make the world a better place.” Yes, practicing is intense; sure, from practicing we make things beautiful; and practicing definitely requires devotion. But that’s not what Bernstein meant, and just practicing isn’t enough in our world today. We can pretend that fixing that one technical obstacle or that one phrase is the most important task of the day; but in a practice room, we don’t have to face the world, or our difficult place in it.
I grew up backstage at the Philadelphia Orchestra. I was lucky to have constant, personal access to great musicians with such high standards. But always in the backdrop of these concerts, for as long as I can remember, were discussions about dwindling ticket sales and new PR strategies to reach broader audiences. Apparently it didn’t always used to be this way, but today it makes sense that our art is struggling. We live in a world where people live from one electronic screen to another. From Facebook to Instagram, who has the patience or discipline to sit still for two hours and be mindful of a beautiful phrase developing into something more? How can we possibly compete for our audiences’ attention?
In this age of iPhones, Reddit, Twitter, and others, we receive constant information and effortless stimulation. Oddly, our digital age has made it all seem personal to us; yet a solo recital or even an ensemble concert doesn’t come close to the same level of in-your-face input that we receive outside the concert hall. One way to address this is to update our performance formats to make them just even more engaging than the latest status update. I hope that when we gather for the next generation’s commencement, we give them a world that has a bigger place for music and a deeper understanding of what music can be. But for that to happen, we first need to find our audiences wherever they are and use whatever they have to connect them to our art. We have to find new ways to demonstrate what music means for society, what it means for us. I’m not suggesting that we turn our backs on the rich tradition of music, but I do believe we need to find a new way to draw people in. Maybe it’s in advertising, or education, or connecting with people about music offstage. Whatever the method is, let’s harness it and run with it; let’s embrace change and refuse leave things the way they are.
Music is both for and about people. It is something we do for ourselves and for each other; it is the most effective way we learn communication, empathy, and expression. We musicians have the power to transform a mundane, even ugly moment into something beautiful and meaningful. As we go forward from Boston, from NEC, and from each other, I hope our reply to violence will be to make music not just for ourselves but for the people who need it the most, especially those who maybe don’t know yet that they do.