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“Rediscovering Wonder”: Dean Blocker’s Convocation Address

September 12, 2013

This is the text of Dean Robert Blocker’s address to the incoming class at the Yale School of Music Convocation, which took place September 9, 2013.

Convocation-014“What is wonder?” asked the mind. “It is having your heart dazzled and your life forever changed,” answered the soul. WONDER—an ineffable word—a transcendent experience.

When did wonder visit you, capture you, envelop you, and squeeze you so tight that you were left breathless and gasping for air? Was it your first great performance at the age of five, the moment you heard a phrase shaped more beautifully than you could imagine, or when you were frozen in place as you entered one of the world’s great concert halls?

Did you encounter wonder at a museum when you were eight inches away from a Mozart manuscript or could see the finest brush strokes of a Renoir? Perhaps it was at the opera, when the artistry of the entire production lifted you from your seat and placed you in the midst of the scene on stage.

For most of us gathered here today, wonder unlocked a creative impulse that set us on a path of imaginative discovery. Each of us has been chosen by music. Our talent and will, aided by genetic wiring, compels us to create and re-create our art.

This evening, I want to think about wonder with you — acknowledging its presence, reclaiming its power, and sharing its joy. In some measure and fashion, a sense of wonder binds us to art, and we are called to ensure the birthright of wonder for a troubled world that so desperately needs artistic bridges of understanding.

We live in a techno-global world. Society has softened the boundaries of core values in virtually every walk of life, a circumstance that guarantees a constant assault on your sensitivity and sensibility. These environmental conditions are strikingly different from those of even five years ago —what does this mean for you and your artistic impulse? What brings you today to this place? Was it an “Aha!” moment, perhaps one from an inspired teacher whose passion for the wedding of text and harmony in a Bach chorale gave new life and meaning to something over 300 years old? At some point, your fascination with mystery, inexpressible feelings, and sheer amazement had to influence your artistic temperament and aspirations.

Yale is a dwelling place for wonder. The insight from a distinguished artist-teacher in a lesson, the treasures of art and historical artifacts in the galleries and museums, iconic architecture, lectures by global leaders, heads of state. Let us not forget the extraordinary libraries, an inspiring rehearsal, or the smile of your first Music-in-Schools student who just played a scale correctly. You can—and you must—rediscover wonder while at Yale. You are here to receive and give knowledge, to gain understanding and insight, and to seek and nurture your distinct artistic voice. Quite frankly, you are here to make sense of things.

Undoubtedly, wonder slipped quietly into your world from time to time, but how often did it escape unnoticed? Was it the seductive addiction to your iPhone that caused you to miss the performance of live music or the unrivaled beauty of a rainbow emerging from the clouds? Are you really too busy to look at the sculpture that sits in front of the entrance to Yale Art Gallery or the fading fresco on the Woolsey Hall ceiling?

Be assured that a plausible argument can be made for technological wonder, but I am speaking about something very different, an extraordinary place inside each of us that is ours alone.

There are other reasons we casually dismiss and discard the presence of mystery, of wonder. For some, it is simply frightening, a disturbance of our emotional safety. For many, the immediate access to any place and anyone in the world, accompanied by the mandatory sound bite, anesthetizes us from any human condition or experience other than our own. Consider practicing not only your instrument, but also digital detox!

Mary Oliver, beloved poet and Pulitzer Prize winner, poignantly describes wonder. She says that:

Ten times a day something happens to me like this — some strengthening throb of amazement — some good empathic ping and swell. This is the first, the wildest and wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.

Art wells up and springs from the attentive soul, and this is the source of our intellectual, ethical, and spiritual values. How are you to discover this profound wisdom, a gift awaiting you in the vault of your soul? I find four signposts to guide you in your Yale journey.

First, you must be curious and engaged enough to ask the right questions. “Why?” must be answered incessantly with “Why?” The right questions are derived from disciplined and thoughtful study, not careless and disinterested preparation. Always be mindful of the fact that truth without questioning is false, and that the small truth is infinitely better than the big lie which gives you a quick answer.

Second is a sense of humility and gratitude. By accident of birth, our lives are irrevocably charted under incredibly diverse circumstances. For example, we reside in a nation where freedom of expression, no matter how woefully uninformed or offensive, is protected. Others with more talent and innate abilities live in harsh, repressed conditions that suffocate, and yes, eradicate, creativity, independent thought, and life itself.

Talent is a gift to be cultivated, nurtured, and shared unselfishly. It is not our entitlement or right. Humility enables us to see and to understand that music is a sacred trust, and one’s approach to acquiring the necessary skills and, techniques for making and re-creating music is with a sense of expectation.

I have always appreciated the manner in which the Cistercian monks prepare for their daily chapel service. Resting their hand on the handle of the chapel door, they cleanse their minds in anticipation of the gifts they are about to receive. A Chinese friend in Shanghai confided to me recently that he greeted his piano each morning and asked what discoveries it held for him that day. A most unusual ritual, but one that demonstrates how humility elevates us and our work.

Third, and perhaps most important, is vulnerability. It is a window to the soul through which suffering passes. Actually, we suffer when things are bad and when they are good. Being vulnerable requires the courage to risk exposure of your pain, but more importantly, it leads you to a deep understanding of tolerance and compassion.

Those qualities place contacts on our eyes that illumine other points of view and exceedingly different opinions, earbuds in our ears that amplify another’s human condition — some so despicable that they are whispered. Being vulnerable means that we express emotions without trivializing them in any way. Brené Brown defines vulnerability as ”the cornerstone of confidence and the birthplace of creativity.” As such, vulnerability is an essential ingredient of meaningful artistic expression.

And fourth is receptivity — having an open mind, heart, and hand that will observe, sort, and absorb. William Sloan Coffin, arguably Yale’s most revered Chaplain, once commented that the longest and most arduous journey we take is perhaps the shortest distance — from head to heart. Too few travel this narrow path, for to reach your destination you must feel with your brain and think with your heart.

Stillness is necessary if you are to be truly receptive. The novel solution, the defining idea, and indeed your creative impulse are all fed by your stillness. The cacophonous clutter of mindless noise is ever present, and with increasing alarm, I find that aspiring young artists are reluctant to move from the tavern of conversation to a womb of silence. Receptivity needs both, and not always in equal portions.

Solitude opens the door to your attentive soul, and it provides the time for you to consider and ponder the world you carry within yourself. In this inner sanctum, all alone, you confront good and evil, insight and intuition, information and wisdom, love and hate, and from this comes a new openness, a remarkable receptivity.

Your time here will affirm or re-affirm your desire to be an artist. But being an artist is, to be honest, not enough. Educated citizens enrich their communities and the lives of those they touch. As custodians of the musical arts, we are conveyors of wonder. We build bridges of understanding between creeds, cultures, and ethnicities, between rich and poor, and between the educated and the illiterate. We possess an insatiable urge to communicate, to express in language, sound, and sight a profound utterance that gives hope to all who encounter our creative work. This profound utterance is wonder, and artists never know if or when their art and wonder touch another’s soul.

Glenn Gould, the eccentric and brilliant Canadian pianist, proclaimed that the purpose of art is the lifelong construction of a state of wonder. To do this, we invite and welcome wonder into our ordinary lives and days.

Ask “Why?” frequently and with humility, embrace your human vulnerability, and be receptive to joyful visits with wonder. You will then find that your life has become a source of inspirational wonder to others. And if fortune bestows on you a long life, your grandest wonder, etched in the wrinkles of your face, is likely to be a friendship that inexplicably survived against all odds and in so doing unmasked two kindred souls.

Wonder dwells here! Capture it, and you will discover your distinct musical voice.

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