Pass it on.

Graduation season is upon us and I’ve been hearing a lot of commencement addresses popping up on the radio. Some of them are admittedly terrible, but the good ones really sing. Some people find them saccharine and stilted, but I find them pretty interesting. (That being said, I did admittedly skip my college graduation. Sorry, Linda Wertheimer.)

Anyway, I especially love it when creative-types are generous with their time, talent and advice. One of my favorite examples of that is below, from Kurt Elling. Although it’s not a commencement speech at all – it’s from the FAQs on his website – it reads like one, with advice that’s so inspiring that it can be applied to mastery of anything, not just jazz.

Is there advice which you can give to the aspiring young Jazz singer?

Sing all the time. Develop your instrument – your voice – over time through practice and performance. Join a good choir and perform as much classical rep. as you can. Keep your eyes and ears open to what the instrumentalists do – both on and off the stand. Learn by watching respectfully first and try to get a sense of what s given situation is really asking for.

Many master class students seem to find improvisation a baffling problem – how do you practice, where do I go to find my own way of doing things, what did Kurt do to see and conceptualize the juxtapositions of word and note, of poem and lyric and song and band?

This is usually because they are in love with the idea of being a singer and are not in love primarily with the music, which answers all questions. Improvisation is nothing less than compositional thinking in front of people and in conversation with ideas other musicians are making. This cannot be learned without great struggle and discipline. When practicing, slow down to discover what you think sounds good in the music. Then you are consciously deciding what you like and it becomes yours.

As far as conceptual work beyond abstract music goes, I would say that one must live a full and creative life. Ideas come organically based on the imaginative input one has done by reading, seeing plays, falling in love, having long talks – and, most importantly, being alone and quiet for long enough periods so that one begins to hear one’s own voice speaking and singing from within. There is no faking this and there are no short cuts.

If one is truly an artist, all questions answer themselves through hard work over time and you might never need to ask for a teacher.

Be prepared to work harder than anyone you know – not just as an artist, but also as a businessperson. No one is out there throwing recording contracts around. Even if you land one, you will have to struggle to make the best possible recording on a tiny budget, struggle to get it heard, struggle to get many critics to feel it is important enough to write about, struggle to keep your band together, struggle to get gigs, struggle to get TO the gigs . . . Do not be fooled. This is no easy life.

As with any art form, I feel strongly that people do not “choose” to be artists. They are chosen to be – they have no choice. If this is so for any person, then that person will do whatever work it takes, engage whatever discipline, and overcome any obstacles in life to become what they are called to be. Above all that person will believe in the work, will accept the difficulties, and will be rewarded by the creation of whatever they are called to make. To be a professional is to have already crossed the finish line; it is to have already won.


More reason to love Mr. Elling.

And yet another offering for my NPR lovefest – their crazy app of the best commencement speeches since 1774. Yup, that’s right, commencement addresses are older than the US.

“Pomp and Circumstance,” not so much.


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