|Articles by Colgrass
Letter to a young composer (New York Times)
Letters from children
A New book by Colgrass:
University of Illinois School of Music Commencement Address
When I saw Smith Music Hall today my memory floated back to my first days as a music student in l95O, which were a disaster. I was mainly a jazz musician then and played 6 nights a week at Katsina's on the Campus, which was at the corner of Wright and Green. I would get to bed around 3 A.M. and come sauntering to school about 11, and I'd say "Hey, man, what's happenin'?" "Well - man - your theory class happened at 8 and your music history class happened at 1O." In my first semester I flunked hygiene, phys ed and band, and my music theory teacher told me "Michael, I'm giving you a D because I think you really tried."
When I returned second semester, my percussion teacher, Paul Price, said, "Oh
no, he's back." In a last ditch effort to turn me around, he urged me to come
to a percussion ensemble concert to hear my colleagues play, right here in Smith
Hall. After the concert we met out in the lobby and he asked me what I thought of
this concert of Varese, Cowell, Cage and Harrison. I said in my at-that-time typical
upstart manner, "Well, I really admired the skill of the musicians but I thought
the music was terrible." So he said, "Well, if you don't like what you
heard why don't you write what you'd like to hear?"
At that moment I experienced what the Sicilians call The Thunderbolt. Me? Write music? I thought you had to be dead to write music. But he was serious and I was hearing perhaps the biggest "call" of my life. I responded to this call with great enthusiasm, wrote a piece of music, which Price performed soon thereafter, and I walked out of this building after that concert saying to myself, "I'm going to be a composer."
I wonder how many of you have heard your call. And how many of you have responded?
When I say "call" what do I mean exactly? Many of you know the name
Joseph Campbell, from the television interviews with Bill Moyers called The Power
of Myth. A theme of Campbell's became famous through that series: "Follow your
bliss." This advice has often been quoted, and I'm sure it's been said many
times at commencement addresses. But I find that few people have actually read Campbell's
most important book, Hero With a Thousand Faces. In this book, he summarizes the
history of myths and folk tales from cultures all over the world and through all
recorded time. And from these stories he identifies one basic theme that runs through
That theme goes like this: the hero - Alice in Wonderland, Jack in the Beanstalk,
Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Jesus, Muhammad, Buddha - hears a call to adventure,
responds to the call and crosses a threshold, acquires a guardian, encounters demons
in his or her quest, and then returns to share the experience with others. Campbell
calls this sequence "a truth of the mind," because it has recurred so consistently
all through time.
"The Frog Prince" is such an adventure story, about the princess who
drops her ball in the river and of the frog who suddenly appears and says "I'll
get your ball for you if you invite me to dinner at the castle." "Okay,"
she says and the adventure begins. It's a courageous act to set up a relationship
with a frog. Imagine what her friends thought. But the decision changed her life
and the frog's too - she got free of the castle and he turned into a prince.
You have already crossed some big thresholds in your life. Deciding to come to college was one of them. Some of you are married and have started your own families, and that's a big call. Others among you have faced personal hardships that called upon you to cross new thresholds. Today's commencement ceremony is intended metaphorically to be a threshold crossing, but it is not necessarily. It may be just the receiving of a piece of paper on a given Sunday afternoon. For today to be a call you need to be ready to respond, and to truly make a crossing.
Refusal of the Call
Campbell relates another version of the Frog Prince, where the princess agrees to invite the frog, he gets the ball for her, and then she turns her back on him and never invites him to the castle. He calls this "The Refusal of the Call." Perhaps she was afraid of what she didn't understand. Or maybe she thought an offer from a frog was just a joke.
When I was sitting where you are now, 45 years ago, uncertain about the future
and about my own abilities, I didn't know what to say about calls and responses and
thresholds. But today, many thresholds later, I can tell you a lot about them.
The most important thing I will say to you is to listen to that voice deep inside
you. Many people will tell you - including friends and family - to do something other
than what you really want to do. They want the best for you of course, but they may
not truly understand your needs from your standpoint. "That sounds good in theory,"
you might say, "but how do I know what's going to happen when I cross this threshold?"
One of the wonderful things about threshold crossings is that you meet people you would not have met had you not taken the step. And among these people is one or more guardians who help guide you. Think about the thresholds you've already crossed and some of the important friendships you've formed, and mentors you've acquired, as a result. These are the people who understood what you need, and these are the people you need to meet.
And you've encountered demons, too, have you not? The demons who say "you can't" or "you shouldn't." How often I have I been told, "You can't just do what you want, you have to face reality." But then I ask myself: Whose reality should I face?
"Give the Public What it Wants"
I recall my first meeting with the "Demons of Commercialism." When I had my own band at age fifteen playing be-bop jazz, the remark I often heard was "What kind of music is this? If you want to succeed you have to give the public what it wants." But I soon I realized that among the best musicians and listeners, the truth was just the opposite: follow your own creative inspiration and eventually others will be attracted to it.
"Get Something to Fall Back On"
Another big demon was the Demon of Security. "If you want to be a musician
then get something solid to fall back on, like accounting." How often have musicians
been told that? Isn't it a shame that Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie
didn't become accountants? They might have really made something out of their lives.
As it is, they only became the cornerstone of American music. But can you imagine
how many times these giants were told they could never make anything of their lives,
especially in white America? The Demon of Security will really get after you if you
want to be a composer: "You can't make a living as a composer," I was told
repeatedly. "Get a DMA and teach." But I wanted to compose and for that
I felt I needed to be free of full-time academic obligations. And writing for Hollywood
or TV jingles, while financially rewarding would have been, for me, creatively and
psychologically stultifying. It took me 1O years of professional struggle to work
all this out, but gradually things started to fall into place and I have been making
my living as a symphonic composer since l967. And other composers I know are starting
to do the same.
"But we're not all performers or composers," you might say. "I
just want to teach school in a little town." To my way of thinking, teaching
is the broadest form of creativity, because a good teacher needs not only knowledge,
but patience, insight and generosity. So let me ask the teachers present: Are you
satisfied with the educational system as it is? What will you do when you encounter
the Demons of Bureaucracy who will tell you, as they were told and as they believed,
"You can't fight city hall?" Who wants to fight city hall anyway? How about
creating a new city hall?
Consider educator Mathew Lipman. He responded to a call from inside himself and
from thousands of others who were desperate about today's teaching standards. He
created something called "Philosophy for Children," where 5-7 year-olds
read stories that emphasize questions of morality, ethics and civics and then discuss
them with the teacher. Videotapes showing his trainers from Mount Clair College in
New Jersey working with children in the schools have stirred the imagination of educators
everywhere and his methods have already been used experimentally in over 5OOO schools.
And in Toronto I know three people who started their own alternative junior high
school, which enrolls a total of 75 students. Their school meets the educational
requirements of Ontario, but allows teachers to teach these subjects their own way.
Not many people are aware that you can create your own school in the United States
and Canada. Our son
One of the most important teachers of all to me was a woman named Gladys Hickes,
who ran a class in grades 4-8 in our school in Brookfield, Illinois, that she called
Auditorium. In this little rectangular room with a stage at one end she would encourage
us to get up on the stage and perform anything we wished: read a poem, tell a story,
act out a scene from a play or a movie, do a monologue, sing a song, or just talk
about what you did on your vacation. She would never criticize, just applaud, and
everybody in that class got the chance to express themselves freely. She created
that class. What prevents you from coming up with ideas just as worthy and unique
that you might implement wherever you go?
Contrary to common belief, demons will not stop you. Demons, I found, are neither
good nor bad - they are just forces, who, depending how you respond to them, become
either enemies or allies. Paul Price was a demon in my mind at first - and Gladys
Hickes used to pull my hair to shut me up in Auditorium class. She was a real demon
when you disturbed others. But I learned to respect and work with these and many
other "demons" who formed the foundation of my personal development. In
large part, destructive demons are a reality you create for yourself.
People are distressed today as they witness the crumbling of many of our public
and private institutions, not just in America but all over the world. I think of
this so-called "crumbling" as a call for re-structuring. Many of our schools
and symphony orchestras have been operating on outdated principles, and these institutions
are crying out for re-organization. This is the most exciting time you could be living
in, because you have the unprecedented opportunity to create something new. But it's
not going to be effortless. Instead of simply stepping into a slot left empty by
a retiree, you may have to design your position - but that's the best part, because
you can design it to your needs.
It has been said that you may be the first generation in America to not have the
materialistic comforts of your parents. Thank God! Finally a generation who might
be free of excessive preoccupation with the toys of materialism, and who might give
at least equal attention to human values. At the basis of the American Dream is the
myth of security, and this security is usually quantified in terms of material things.
The desire for this mythical security is the basis of all that well-intended advice
I got and you'll get from good people who say you shouldn't do what you want to do
- because you are supposed to go for this mythical security that was central to our
immigrant forefathers' dream.
So I'm here to tell you today, go for your dream and create your happiness, because
that's the only way you can be of value to yourself and others. Remember the words
of the airline stewardess: "In the unlikely event of a sudden loss of cabin
pressure, an oxygen mask will drop down in front of you. If you are traveling with
small children put on your mask first, then help them with theirs."
So I wonder how many of you have already heard your call? And when you are approached by that frog, will you beg off or will you embrace it, warts and all? Because, as I said, it ain't gonna be easy. You'll make sacrifices, you'll work very, very hard and at times you will want to throw in the towel. But how much value is there in something easy? The fun is the challenge, and the satisfaction is that you've made something of your own.
"Wait a minute," you might say to me, "maybe all these people you're
talking about, who created something of their own, are the exception." Sure
they're the exception, just like you. Folk singer Willie Nelson says to himself every
day when he wakes up, "Proclaim your rarity." So, I'm asking you: What's
your rarity? Find that rarity and you create the exception.
And I might add a word to the parents who are here today with their graduating
sons and daughters. You may think you're about to lose a son or daughter, but you're
about to acquire a larger phone bill, because they really need you now. And what
they need from you most is encouragement - not only the usual, "Hang in there,
baby," but the true encouragement you can give by letting them do things their
own way. Let them be free to follow their bliss. Trust their intuitions and encourage
them to follow their hearts. Advise them on practical details, help them articulate
the minute particulars that will be necessary for them to carry out their dreams,
but then step back and let them do it - do what they want to do. In other words:
Set them free.
I might leave you with a small story that deals with - what else? - frogs. Do you know how they make frog soup? If they put the frogs in boiling water the frogs will just jump right out of the pot. The solution? Put the frogs in cold water and heat the water gradually and pretty soon you have frog soup. So my parting question to you is: How many of you are going to sit in the water - unaware of what's happening to you - until you become frog soup?
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