Commencement Exercises
June 5, 2001 

Valedictory Oration

Christine McLeavey

There is a solo piano piece, an Impromptu by the 19th century composer Franz Schubert, that begins with a single chord -- struck very loudly and held an exceptionally long time, according to the pianist's discretion. It's perhaps one of the scariest things to play -- with a single gesture you throw yourself out on display, and then you simply wait for what feels like an eternity for the sound to die away, knowing everyone is watching you -- what are they thinking? Are they already terribly bored? Are they laughing at me? And the natural reaction is to apologize -- I didn't actually mean to play that first note quite so forcefully, I'll just continue on and people will forget, they won't be offended.

Three years ago I was fortunate enough to study this piece with the renowned pianist Theodore Lettvin. The lessons would begin and I would sit down, play that first note, wait as long as I could, and then lift my arm as if to continue. And without fail, a hand would reach to stop my arm and I'd hear the familiar words "Dear girl, what's the hurry?"

It's such a difficult thing to learn -- to make a statement and then to wait and invite people to form judgments and never to cringe or apologize. It's of course also the mark of an artist, as I understand listening to Lettvin play, each phrase arising with an inevitability that comes from knowing it appears at precisely the correct time, never hurried.

Music possesses an amazing magic and conviction in Ted's hands &endash;- something he also conveys through his teaching. I remember one lesson he stopped me, explaining, "This note, picture your newborn brother, and imagine you are stroking his face. You must play the note like that." Another passage should sound like footsteps in a funeral procession, a third feel as if I were being tickled. Most often the music was about love -- winning a loved one's affections, the nervous anticipation of being naked in a lover's arms, the loneliness when the other is far away.

We would start the lessons early Saturday morning at his home, working for several hours and then joining his wife Joan for a lunch break. He would never let me pay for the lessons. "It's a pleasure," Ted would often repeat. And that is the amazing thing you learn from the man. Life is a pleasure, the music is a pleasure, the fresh tomatoes in the salad are a pleasure, and above all, other people are a pleasure.

Ted had a habit of telling every woman he met that she was beautiful. There was nothing at all improper in the expression and it had little to do with actual physical appearance. It's a remarkable thing to be told of one's beauty -- at first I hated it, as if it were somehow mocking, then as I became accustomed to it I grew to like it. Now I simply admire it greatly. It's amazing, this ability to see beauty and potential for beauty in every person. It's an ability we don't always notice, as it doesn't come with coursework and studies and isn't measured in grades and paychecks.

This past summer I again went to visit the Lettvins. They'd moved to New Hampshire and now Ted was in a nursing home, suffering from a form of Alzheimer's. The change was arresting -- from time to time I could catch glimpses of the quick, boyishly eager man I recalled, one who adored creating painfully bad puns. Mainly, Ted was quiet, uncommunicative, quite happy at one moment and violently angry the next.

Most remarkable was when he would sit at the piano. He repeated over and over the same Schubert Impromptu I'd studied with him 2 years before. As he did, I began to understand why that first note needs to be held such a long time, how as Mr. Cosby reminded us in style, we can move only when there is purpose to what we are doing, when it becomes our choice (that, and, we're all broke). I understood how much fear and resolve are in that note and it strikes me that it is this absolute commitment -- to a musical pause, to an emotion, to a political idea, or most importantly to one's own beliefs, whatever they may be, that allows us to be truly alive. For Ted, it is the passion for music that keeps him alive.

In closing, I would urge you all to look carefully at your lives, at the people around you. To create beauty simply by looking for it and to revel in that beauty. To notice the pride and love in your parents' eyes, the excitement and fear, the myriad emotions in your friends' voices. And, most of all, I urge you to ask, "What's the hurry?" Allow yourself the time to live with commitment to yourselves and your lives. We are such an exceptionally privileged crowd and we all have the chance to stand for what we believe, to see the beauty in life and not to worry what others will think.

Thank you and congratulations to you all.