Here’s a secret I’m going to tell you right off the bat: When your alma mater asks you to give a keynote address, you will panic. You will immediately question your qualifications and your life choices, which is a great way of being reminded that your work isn’t done. I’m a musician. But I’m also a writer. I’ve written classical compositions; I’ve scored movies; I founded and played in an art-rock band for more than 18 years. I’ve written instrumental music for ice cream trucks and fearful flyers. I’ve published three books. And I’ve hosted a PBS video series for kids. Which is all to say, I’m still trying out new things. Still exploring what makes being an artist interesting for me.
That said, I’ve always been terrified of change. Some of you might not like change either . . . which is a bummer since graduation is all about transitioning from what you know to what you don’t. But the way I see it, you have two options: (And here I’ll insert some metaphors, as one does in a graduation speech.) You can either duck under the waves, or you can ride them to wherever they may take you. As a Virginia Beach kid, I learned to do both. The real trick has always been deciding which waves to duck, and which ones to ride.
VCU is a special place for me, even though a lot has changed. I met my wife here—she was a modern dance major, and I was an accompanist. How’s that for romantic? I met one of my main musical collaborators here, and we went on to make eight albums together. I also met a lot of the anxieties that governed and shaped my ride to the place that I’m in now. Let’s face it: making art can be scary. It’s all about taking risks and testing yourself, but also just about making use of what’s around you. I can’t say I ever actually had a solid game plan for my career. Back when I was skating around campus with my cassette Walkman, checking out bands at Schafer Court, and sipping coffee at the Village Diner, I never imagined that one day I’d be handling Chinese Giant Salamanders for PBS and playing at Carnegie Hall. But that’s what riding the wave is all about. (I hate to beat this metaphor into the ground, but you get the idea.) When you leave this place, you’ve got to make sure you are open to everything the world has to offer.
Here’s a few examples: Several years ago, I was in my studio in New York, working away, and I kept hearing this ice cream truck drive by, playing the same song over and over again. I thought, man, somebody really needs to write some new music for these guys. It occurred to me that somebody was probably going to have to be me. While I was working on the album, my wife even asked, “Why are you doing this? Who’s going to be your audience?” These were good questions. I wasn’t totally sure, but I knew I needed to keep moving forward. Well, it landed me on NPR’s Fresh Air, the Today Show, and major newspapers all around the world. Parents bought the album to use as lullabies for their kids. Hipsters bought the album to play in their coffee shops. And amazingly, ice cream truck drivers even bought the album. Turns out they too were sick of the music they were playing. And today there are ice cream trucks all over the world using my music!
That PBS show I mentioned earlier? It didn’t start out that way. I simply wanted to write some songs inspired by strange animals, using some of my strangest musical instruments. My goal was to release this as a book/CD combo with basically a page for each song. Unfortunately, I couldn’t convince any publishers to do this. One publisher, however, asked if I might be willing to write a bigger book about Unusual Creatures. This was not what I had in mind. It sounded like a ton of work. But, why not give it a shot? I could still release the album on my own, and both items could essentially piggyback off each other. Turns out the book ended up doing even better than the album. It’s since been reprinted four or five times, and translated into several foreign languages. And to my surprise, I was asked to write more books. Suddenly I was a children’s author!
About a year after the book came out, a film editor asked if I’d be interested in making a fun, educational video for one of the creatures in the book. Sure, why not? We could even use my music! We made the video, put it up on Youtube, and amazingly it gathered enough views to convince PBS to offer us a ten episode series. Now, I’m a children’s author and the host of a PBS video series!
A good friend of mine in New York, a French Man, once told me that the only way to learn a foreign language (as an adult) is to be willing to make an ass of yourself. I think his theory can be applied to just about anything in life that requires some sort of assertion. Especially in the arts. The truth is, although I took one music class after another, studied theory, and even performed in student ensembles, the real bulk of my learning came from simply getting out there and making things happen. Ultimately, I learned to play music by playing music. I learned how to score films by scoring films. And I learned how to write books by writing books. I also, hopefully, learned how to become a better person by being a better person. There is no substitute for doing. You can theorize all day long, but until you actually start doing, it’s impossible to get anywhere. Whether you’re an actor, a musician, a painter, a photographer, a sculptor, a dancer, whatever your discipline . . . you simply have to get yourself out there. The odds are pretty good that nobody else is going to do it for you.
Which brings me to one of my favorite words, “drive.” You have to be driven. There was a time that I thought I could simply write music, record it, and put it in the hands of the right people, and soon enough I’d be in LA collecting my Grammy. And in fact, this might have worked for a fraction of a fraction of the artists out there. But for the vast majority of us, it takes a ridiculous amount of elbow grease. And by elbow grease, I mean all the nitty-gritty, non-artistic stuff it takes to actually get art out into the world. For every album I’ve released, for every book I’ve written, for every show I’ve performed, there have been endless emails, phone calls, and meetings. And among all of this, there’s been plenty of failure. It’s absolutely inevitable. There is nothing easy about spending a year (or five) on a project only to see it not get any attention. But eventually, if it’s your true passion, chances are you’re going to get back up on your feet and work on the next project. We live in a time where it’s easy to look at Facebook, Twitter, and other social media, and see all your peers seemingly full of success, and you can’t help but feel like a failure in comparison. But just remember, all those posts are very highly curated.
I’d like to tell you a quick story about my time here at VCU. In order to graduate with a degree in music composition, I was required to assemble a senior recital that showcased my skills at writing music for several types of ensembles. For one of the pieces, I had a madrigal group sing a work I’d first conceived in the middle of the night with a 103-degree fever. It was called, Animals, Countries, and Grocery Stores. For the first movement, the group sang a list of animal. “Oxen, horses and bears. Tigers, llamas, and hares . . .” For the second moment, they sang the names of countries, one after another. “Cuba and China. Turkey and Greece . . . “ And for the final movement, they sang a list of every major grocery store around the country. “Piggly Wiggly, Food Lion, Pathmark . . .” They were fairly well-crafted compositions, but totally absurd. I also had a piece in the recital were a performer walked to center stage and played solo cello for 5 minutes—someone who had never actually touched a cello in his life. There were three faculty members on the jury. Two of them gave me As, the third gave me an F. (Here I will not reveal names.) I was baffled, but ultimately I didn’t care. I was done. Graduated. And frankly, 2 out of 3 was totally fine by me. I did, however, bump into that professor a few weeks later, and he asked, “Don’t you want to know why I gave you an F?” I said, “Not really,” but then sat down with him on a bench. He went on to explain how the concert had been a mockery, making fun of my education. And to some extent he was right. But at the same time, this was me becoming an artist. Figuring out what worked and what didn’t. Finding my individuality. This was also how I knew that I was probably ready to get out there into the real world.
Bottom line? Follow your heart, but bear in mind that not every dream comes true. That said, if you work hard, it’s inevitable that things will happen. Perhaps dreams that you hadn’t even meant to dream will come true. Along the ride, there are always lulls, moments when you feel like throwing in the towel. Second-guessing yourself. But the longer you stick with something, the more opportunities will come your way. It’s sort of like The Fan here in Richmond. You start at VCU, and as you walk west, your life fans out to more and more opportunities. (How’s that for a hyper-local metaphor?) Go west young men and women! Occasionally you will need to close your eyes and take a huge leap of faith. For me this included quitting my day job, moving to New York City, getting married, and having a kid. The idea of getting old, however, and never having given things a shot, by far outweighed my fear of change and failure.
And just to go back to that failure thing one more time, really, what is failure? While working on my most recent book, I spent some time researching Biosphere 2. You remember that giant enclosed glass structure in Arizona where eight scientists attempted to live for two years, growing their own food, making their own oxygen? Ultimately, on several occasions, outside assistance was needed, including pumping in extra oxygen. The media and people around the world were quick to call Biosphere 2 a “failure.” (My guess is that these people probably watched a lot of reality television.) But we know that that’s not how life really works. Most scientists would agree that Biosphere 2 was not a failure. It was an experiment. And an experiment is a success, so long as we learn something. Can’t we apply this to life in general . . . especially with art? Of course we learn from our mistakes. It’s important to be vulnerable at times. Admit our weaknesses (and our strengths). And simply do the best that we can.
And be nice! Seriously. What’s the point of attitude? It’s good for ballet, I suppose, but that’s about it. I’m pretty sure that my 22 year old self—newly graduated and overly confident—thought that a little bit of attitude might give me an edge. Not so much. I’ll tell you what gives you an edge . . . being a good person. It makes a huge difference. Especially now more than ever.
Most importantly, no matter how busy you get, take some time to breathe and have fun. I promise, it will only help your career. A little bit of perspective goes a long way. Make time for your family and friends. Call your parents. Call your brothers and sisters. There’s no good excuse for not making time to be with friends and family. Sometimes you just have to turn off the computers, and tablets, and smartphones, and take walks through the woods. Hop the rocks on the river. Drive down to the beach and float among the real waves. Because ultimately there’s nothing more important.
Thank you, and congratulations!