Commencement 2002 | Shawn Madden's Student Speech

Commencement Student Speaker: Shawn Madden

 

 
  Shawn Madden
  Photo by Justin A. Knight
   

I stand here today in awe and gratitude for the honor and privilege of speaking to you on this joyous occasion. Today we celebrate the completion of a shared journey and prepare to embark on new paths to destinations known and unknown. My particular journey has been a long one. I began taking college classes nine years ago at a community college in Long Beach, California. At that time I never imagined that the finale of my college career would be to address the graduating class of 2002 at the most prestigious contemporary music school on the planet. I only knew that I didn't know a single thing about life beyond the little patch of ground where I was raised, and I had hopes and dreams that I knew a college education would help me to achieve. Today I claim victory for myself and congratulate all of you on your triumph: We did it, we're done, we've arrived, and it's time to celebrate before we move on.

 

In this spirit of celebration I'd like to speak about the power of commitment. As musicians, we all know how it pays to follow through on the commitment to daily practice—our chops get better, and our level of performance rises along with the personal satisfaction we feel in our playing. When we embrace commitment, when we look life in the eye, say yes, and refuse to look back, back down, or sell out, we electrify our lives with energy, freshness, and power that cannot be thwarted by even the most hardened cynic. When we commit, we make our lives divine. Early in the summer of 1999, I sat in the media center listening to a record that I had been familiar with at a young age. It was one of my father's favorites, and I thought of the many mornings during summer vacations when I would go to work with him. We would sing along with the tape in the car as we headed east toward the golden desert sunrise. I knew the songs well and enjoyed the nostalgia they inspired.

As I listened, savoring the pleasure of my reminiscence combined with the new musical knowledge I had begun to acquire here at school, a light switched on in my head, accompanied by a low rumbling burn in my gut, as though I were a furnace that had just been lit. I decided to do the album live, from beginning to end ("Something in the way she moves…"). The record was the Beatles' Abbey Road, and as I listened, the furnace began to blaze ("… attracts me like no other lover…"). I was ecstatic at the prospect of learning by imitation. Having no background in classical orchestration or big band arranging, I felt as if I'd been handed a magical key to the door where I would find the secret to the magic of my heroes. I set to work, studying the scores and parts and talking to players I knew, looking for people who were interested. I assembled a rhythm section—horns, strings, and a small army of vocalists—and over the course of that summer and fall, put it together for a café show. The night of the first rehearsal, I think we all felt a little overwhelmed at the sheer volume of music involved, and someone asked me, "Do you think we can pull it off?"

The silence that followed weighed a ton. The guys looked at me expectantly, and I looked at them each in turn. Truth be told, I was scared out of my wits. I had no idea if we could pull it off—there are 17 songs on that album, and for all I knew it was going to take a miracle to get that many musicians to get that much music together in the time we had. I took a deep breath and spoke slowly:

"There's not a doubt in my mind," I said. "I picked you guys because I know you can make this happen. We won't just 'pull it off'; we're going to make this thing live, and it's going to rock." The group shifted, collectively exhaled, and in true musician's fashion, someone seized the moment to crack a joke. The weight lifted, and six months later we performed Abbey Road in its entirety for an enthusiastic audience of approximately 250 Beatles fans in the Berklee Café.

I relate this story because, to me, it clearly illustrates the power of commitment—first of all to decide on a course of action and then to act, and secondly the strength and force of stating the affirmative in the face of even the strongest doubt. That simple statement of faith and of commitment, despite my own fears, had given the power of belief to the people who had pledged their time and energy to my vision, and made their commitment that much stronger.

As you walk out these doors today and into your lives as performers, writers, producers, teachers, therapists, arrangers, engineers, players, singers, and anything else you may decide you want to do with the talents that brought you here and the skills you've gained, remember one thing: You have the power of commitment at your command. Every one of us has fulfilled our commitment to a college education; we are all winners here, who can win again and again and again provided we use this most important tool. Remember also that anything is possible as long as you have faith—in yourself, in the people who choose to help you, and in the divine power of commitment to your greatest purpose. Miracles happen daily to those who commit to a greater purpose and work toward it. Do not fear that work. It is the essence of life itself.

Thank you for traveling and learning with me these past four years. May the divine power that gives us life be with you from this day on. I look forward to making music with you in the future.