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Margins and Mirrors: Dean Blocker's Convocation Address

Robert Blocker, Dean of the School of Music, delivered this address to the incoming class at the School's Fall Convocation on September 6, 2012.


Tonight I want to think with you about the margins and mirrors that determine the course and quality of our lives.

Margins are measurements of time and space that establish borders and boundaries, and in so doing, can unleash a transformative DNA in our lives. Some margins are flexible while others are fixed. A margin is most frequently defined as the border of a printed page. For most of you, a more current application would be the white space surrounding text on your iPad. We make notes in the margin to expand or question the text. We extend the boundary.

I am reminded of Beethoven’s manuscript of the Grosse Fuge four-hand piano transcription. On two adjoining pages of the score, everything had been marked out – the pages were almost black. The margins were filled and also crossed out, with the exception of one boldly boxed measure. Here he writes a few notes on a handwritten staff surrounded by a bold black ink border in the furthest margin of the page where it could be seen. Beethoven characteristically stretched the boundary: one marginal measure survives from two full pages and margins of creative energy and output.

The financial margin is another type of special entity, assuring a level of security for the lender through increased collateral. For example, securities are purchased “on margin.” Perhaps these are best discussed in the School of Management

We speak of marginalized societies, usually meaning underdeveloped nations or disadvantaged populations, including many who reside in our city. Political polling saturates virtually all media in this election season, but the listeners and viewers are continually advised that the “margin of error” for this particular polling topic is X %. And of course, there are numerous examples of margins that measure time:

  • During a recent dinner, an appellate court judge laments a system where attorneys have a 15-minute margin to plead the case for a client’s life. A life held in the balance of 15 minutes.
  • Our physicians struggle to meet a seven-minute delta for each patient – read the chart, make a diagnosis, determine treatment, and communicate all of this information with patient, family, and nurse. Our health held in the balance of 7 minutes.
  • A professional musician takes a chair behind a screen and has 10 to 15 minutes to dazzle an unseen committee with excerpts that reveal a distinctive musical voice. Your future, a lifetime of preparation not withstanding, determined by a 10-minute audition.

Institutions have margins and mirrors. Fortunately for all of us, Yale’s intellectual margins have always been characterized by an adherence to its mission and a concomitant commitment to the world beyond its walls. Remember that Yale was founded by ministers as a conservative alternative to Harvard’s liberalism! But through the centuries Yale has expanded academic boundaries – its margin of success. You can be absolutely certain that an inclusive, diverse, world-renowned research university would not have emerged and could not continue to develop and explore new frontiers with fixed institutional margins.

Social margins also changed at Yale. Various traditions have been embraced, the most notable being the admission of women to Yale College. Certainly the margins of time and space at the School of Music have evolved substantially through the decades. A look at faculty profiles, curricula, ensembles, international programs, and facilities shows why a legacy of excellence has been and continues to be sustained. Since the 1970s and to this day, YSM is Yale’s international standard-bearer, with 40% of you coming from other nations. We have pushed beyond boundaries to new ventures that keep pace with the role of music in a global society.

Personal margins – more commonly called values – define who we are. This moment is a new beginning for you, a clean slate, a second chance, a time to reset your margins. Remember that character and integrity mold the artistic temperament.  

  • Will you be one of the select very talented performers and composers, or will you seek knowledge and insight that inextricably link practice and scholarship and enable you to be a complete musician?
  • Can your passion for music blossom fully without compassion and understanding for humankind?
  • Are you capable of disconnecting from the digital world and its addictive seductions for moments of solitude, solitary thinking, and even listening attentively to a live recital without texting or checking email?
  • Are your margins for tolerance, sensitivity, and sensibility properly framed?

Institutional and personal margins to which I refer are mirrors for how we see ourselves and how others see us. A cracked mirror has hung in the home of my dearest friend since the 1970s – much to the chagrin of his wife. I recently asked him, “Why do you keep this cracked mirror?” “Because,” he said, “I look in that mirror and immediately see that I am three inches taller and 20 pounds lighter.” I offered to buy it, but he quickly pointed out that the mirror does not correct hair loss. But then he turned serious and spoke wistfully: “Perhaps my reflection in the cracked mirror is who I want to be, but it poignantly says to me that I do not see myself the way others see me.”

Ideally, we would benefit from a two-way mirror that allows us to see ourselves as we want to be and to see ourselves as others see us. Such a view requires courage that few possess and fewer still are willing to risk. Harold Bloom, one of Yale’s eminent Sterling Professors, writes in his epic volume Where Shall Wisdom Be Found? that “what is best and oldest in you will respond fully to what you allow yourself to see. There is light in you….” That light in you, in each of us, illumines the mirror and frames the margin.

This is your inch of space and yard of time at Yale, at this wonderful School of Music. Look into the mirror and imagine who you want to be and what you want to do. Be guided by your personal and Yale’s institutional margins: we will support you, challenge you, and nurture you. But you – and only you – can determine your margin of success at Yale and beyond. Thank you…. and again, welcome to this extraordinary place.