This week on Off The Podium we will take a break from our regularly scheduled solfège episode for a collection of well-intentioned, wholesome advice. I hope this is helpful.
It’s May, and commencement season. As schools around the country struggle with how to honor their graduates and send them off to their next adventures while socially distancing, I remembered last May, when both of my children graduated – one from high school, one with a Master’s degree – and all of the speeches I witnessed (and gave myself). Here is an address I gave to a group of music educators last year, inspired by all of the unsolicited advice I imbibed that commencement season. Next week we will return to our solfège series!
* * *
This time of year I find myself attending many public events to mark and celebrate student accomplishments and transitions: award ceremonies, banquets, graduations. Due to my position, experience, reputation, (age? time of life?) – for whatever reason, I am increasingly being asked to speak at some of these events.
I always wonder what I should say. What do people want to hear? Why would anyone take my word for it?
At a ceremony I attended this week, several teachers – who were giving out awards to graduating seniors – gave what they described as unsolicited advice to those assembled, and I thought about what I believe it would be important to tell others about how to live their lives, if I were the sort of person who felt the impulse to do this.
This is what I came up with, on short notice.
Be present. No doubt you’ve heard this before: it’s crucial. Pay attention, right now. Far, far too often, we are distracted from what is happening right here, right now – by our own thoughts and feelings about the past and the future, and increasingly by our fascination with the proliferation of technological gadgets that have invaded almost every aspect of our lives. If you want to improve your life, embrace it with all of your faculties and live with wholehearted attention.
Cultivate depth in yourself. There is no one best way to do this – humans are multi-faceted beings and individuals with their own inclinations. Find ways that work for you, but find ways. Shallow people understand less, appreciate less, experience less, and contribute less than those who dedicate some of their waking hours towards at least being aware of the aspects of life that lurk beneath the surface.
Choose a few and explore on your own, or with others. If one of these paths draws you, go down it for a while and see if it takes you somewhere new and interesting.
Be careful with the religion path. It is important to know about the varieties of religious belief and experience if you wish to understand humans, but sometimes those who become deeply involved in the doctrines of one particular religion develop a tendency to dismiss, devalue, or be intolerant of the beliefs of others. While this is not true in every case, it is a common pitfall of the religious path.
An understanding and appreciation of science and scientific disciplines is very important for the cultured and educated person to acquire, but these fields do not in themselves provide the depth I am describing here. Many of our world’s most urgent problems (climate change, pollution, mass extinctions, nuclear armaments) result from the application of scientific knowledge without deep appreciation or understanding of the consequences of those applications.
Although it is sometimes necessary to become involved in the political process to advance social wellbeing and redress injustices, politics is not known as a field that encourages one to develop personal depths (rather the opposite).
Don’t say or do things you will regret.
The inverse of this is also true:
Don’t neglect to say or do things you will regret having left unsaid or undone.
This is a big one. We cannot see all the consequences of our actions (and words spoken are actions). Life is short, and we do not know when the time we have been given will come to an end: it could be tomorrow. Be careful. Regret is one of the hardest things to live with.
If you would like a brief and practical guideline for positive behaviors that can make a difference in your life and the world around you, I recommend:
- Mutual Respect
- Attentive Listening
- Best Effort.
Do your own research. In other words, don’t take my word for it, or anyone else’s. Most people take their cues from others – don’t do this blindly. Listen respectfully, but question the things that others say. Whether they are friends, parents, siblings, teachers, politicians and elected officials, religious leaders, coworkers, employers, reporters, social media influencers, celebrities, most are just repeating what others have said, and some say or teach things that are not true, lying either consciously or out of ignorance. In some cases, others only want you to believe or act on what they say or do in order to make a profit from your acquiescence. They’re playing you. In most other cases, they’re just sheep going along with the crowd. Think for yourself! If you examine the world around you, you will discover many things that don’t make sense. Find out why if you can!
- learn about yourself and the world
- develop your imagination
- develop your attention span and memory
- gain a broader and deeper perspective
- enjoy a quiet hour by yourself
No matter what field you find yourself in, in the majority of cases your ability to read and write will be crucial to your success. Reading needs to come easy to you, and the more you read good writing, the better you will write. Discover what you love to read and then spend a lifetime exploring it.
Cook. Your life depends on the food you eat. Take time to learn about it, and how to prepare it. Cook for yourself, cook for others. Cook, bake, brew, grill, whatever you love to eat: learn to make it yourself. Read cookbooks and shop for (and grow!) ingredients. Go to new restaurants and discover dishes you enjoy, then go home and learn how to make them yourself. Learn how to follow a recipe and learn how to cook without one. Develop a repertoire of meals you can cook for breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks. Invite friends over and impress them by cooking what they love to eat. Impress yourself by cooking what you love to eat. Bake cookies and send them to loved ones by mail.
Cooking is a creative act that connects you to your food, yourself, and others, and involves you directly in an unending process of interdependence that is the ground of our existence.
Walk. We were made to do this. These legs were made for walking, every day, everywhere. It’s ironic that although many of us travel greater distances in any given day than most humans ever did just a few generations ago, we do less and less of it with our own two feet.
Yes, walking is free exercise that you neither need to train for nor require equipment to do. But it is so much more – when you walk, your thoughts and feelings change from when you are still, you gain new perspectives, new ideas, and new experiences when you are in motion.
It might mean getting out of town at night to a place where you can see the stars.
It might mean canoeing on a quiet lake or riding a raft down a turbulent river.
It might mean backpacking for a week in the wilderness or it might mean taking an afternoon walk in the park.
Go outside. As often as you can, get away from man-made environments and remember where we came from.
Learn about other cultures. There are many ways to do this and many reasons why you should. Humans are interesting and have populated the world with a vast array of fascinating cultural traditions. An appreciation of the diversity of human experience contributes to the development of tolerant, compassionate, and knowledgeable individuals, no matter what culture you claim as your own heritage.
Learn to speak, read, and write another language. Travel to another country, perhaps even go live there for a while! Read translations of books originally written in a language other than English. Watch foreign films with subtitles. Patronize restaurants that serve cuisine from other cultures.
Meet people from other cultures and befriend them.
Don’t put off contemplating Death. We are mortal beings, and death will come for each of us. A hundred years from now, you and everyone you share the earth with today will be gone, and most of us will be forgotten.
An awareness of your own mortality will give you some perspective and appreciation for your life, even when times are tough.
There are many ways to go about this – grappling with Death is a central theme in many of the world’s religions and philosophies, and the subject of works by our greatest artists: William Shakespeare, Johann Sebastian Bach, Gustav Klimt.
If you have spent some time contemplating Death while you are alive, it is possible that you may be better prepared to face it when it comes for you than if you haven’t.
Do something you love every day. Life is a miracle. Ultimately, nobody knows why we have been given this experience – make the most of it. It is easy to get caught up in the mundane and not appreciate what we have.
Find small ways to celebrate being alive and do them, every day. Call a friend you haven’t seen in years. Bake cookies. Take a hike. Play the piano. Go surfing. Watch your favorite movie. Dance. Visit a museum. Have a beer. Go to a concert.
It’s your life.
* * *
This article is drawn from a talk given at the 2019 Tennessee Music Teachers Association Conference and Competitions, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, May 24, 2019.
©2019 Walter Bitner
Walter Bitner is a multi-instrumentalist, singer, conductor, and teacher, and serves as Director of Education & Community Engagement for the Richmond Symphony in Richmond, Virginia. His column Off The Podium is featured in Choral Director magazine, and he writes about music and education on his website Off The Podium at walterbitner.com.