David Foster's Commencement Address
May 11, 2002
First of all, let me say congratulations to each and every one of you. This is a very big day. Secondly, I would like to say, rule number one: pay attention to detail. I had no idea I was supposed to give the commencement speech till I read it on the invitation. I believe Gary Burton when he says we discussed it, but I just don't remember. Having said that, I did take this role very seriously. I wondered, What is it that you want to hear today? Or better still, What do you need to hear? What would resonate with you and stay with you? So let's start with this one: Exactly how special are you?
When my stepson was about eight years old he said, "Mom, I must be a great swimmer."
"Why? Why do you say that?"
"Well, because out of all the millions of sperm, I got there first!"
Think about that. Out of all the billions of combinations, you were born. Let's look a little further. Two billion people live on two dollars a day. One billion people live on less than a dollar a day. That's half of the population of the world. And that same half will never go past the sixth grade. Those same 3 billion people will never travel more than 50 miles from where they were born. Two-thirds of them will die before their 50th birthday, and almost all of them will work and toil harder than most of us here in this room. Makes you kind of wonder how important it really is when you can't find the right shirt to wear, or you're having a bad hair day.
I want to talk about myself for a minute, but not all that "Then I wrote this" and "Then I produced that" crap. If I had the exact formula for winning 14 Grammys (notice how I got that in), I'm sure you would all pull out your pen and paper and listen with great interest. But I don't. It would be a very important thing that I would say.
I grew up on an island in British Columbia. Like all of you, I had a great love and burning desire to make music from as far back as I can remember. I was making as much money as my father by the time I was 13. I was an average student and after the 11th grade, I quit school and moved to England to pursue my passion for music. I've never done any drugs. I don't drink. I've never been arrested. I've never been in a fight. I got along with my parents 99% of the time. I love my sisters. They love me. I love my children more than anything else in the world. I love my wife. And I love my work. I had the good fortune to find something that I was passionate about and that I was good at. I put the blinders on and from age 10 till this morning I have worked 24/7 to live my dream. I've never partied hard and I don't feel like I've missed out on a single thing.
Except a college education. Not just for music, but to be a more well-rounded person. I wish I knew more about Greek mythology or Roman history or the sky above us or the oceans around us. So be open to things other than music. Remember the first words you learned in grade school: Look . . . and . . . listen. God gave you two ears, two eyes, but only one mouth. So look and listen twice as much as you speak. Learn as much as you can about everything. Because knowledge is power.
Now, if you don't remember anything I've said up till now, that's ok. But try to remember what I'm about to say because I believe it comes with a guarantee, unlike the bit about the Grammys.
And here it is: Don't be a musical snob. Early on in my career I played in Chuck Berry's band and Neil Diamond's band not too long after that (not together, but—) I got fired from both gigs. You know why? Because I had no respect for music that only had a couple of simple chords in it. I came from a classical and jazz background and I thought that that music was way beneath me. These were two of the best songwriters of the last 50 years, but I didn't want to play no stinking C-F-G. There was no dignity in playing C-F-G. But C-F-G can be very dignified when played the right way and, more importantly, with the right attitude. So I made two mistakes at the same time. 'I have no respect for your music, but I'll take your money.' Don't be a musical snob.
Here's the bad news. I can go back to L.A. tonight and put together a big band with the greatest players in the world. I can have them play a rehearsal tomorrow all day and then play for my daughter's wedding tomorrow night from 8:00 p.m. till midnight. I can even have them play for my uncle to sing a couple of songs and he can't even carry a tune in a bucket. I'll pay them 300 bucks, and they'll hope that I give them the check that night. They'll get in their 10-year-old car and drive to their three-bedroom rental in the valley and hope that I call again. Why do some musicians get all the great gigs and opportunities and others get the weddings? It's not talent. It's attitude.
Probably every keyboard player here today plays better than I do. And although that's impressive, it won't take you to the top. But attitude will. And if you look at every single thing that comes your way as an opportunity, that will take you to the top, too. Here are a couple of examples. Dennis Quaid, Bruce Willis, and Russell Crowe all have rock and roll bands. None of them are very good. One of them has asked you to be in their band, but you don't like their music or the guys in their band. But they make movies and you want to score movies. You're not going to start scoring movies because you gave somebody at Warner Brothers a tape. You're going to get the break of your life because you said yes with great pride to Dennis Quaid's C-F-G band. And you and Dennis are going to write the theme song for that movie and you're going to love it.
Sting's 13-year-old daughter wants to play drums. His nanny is your neighbor. She knows you're a drummer. She doesn't know you're the next Steve Gadd or Jeff Porcaro. She just knows you're a drummer. She wants to know if you'll give Sting's daughter lessons. You bet you will. Even if you're a piano player. Because one day Sting is going to hear you play and one day his drummer is going to have the flu. And you're going to get the gig! What you say no to is just as important as what you say yes to. Either of these events could change your life forever. I don't need to give you more examples. You get the idea.
Don't be a musical snob. I guarantee you that Kenny G and Herb Alpert are just as fulfilled as John Coltrane and Miles Davis. All of them got to play their own music exactly the way they wanted and all of them got to maximize their musical capabilities. Don't be a musical snob.
I wanted to put a big band together as a present for Kenny G for his 10th wedding anniversary. He said no. He said those guys always look down on him and make him feel uncomfortable. Sixteen guys missed out on making their car payment because of their attitude.
Here's another thing. As you start having success, be humble and be grateful. Always have mentors and always try to be a good and kind mentor to others. One of the most memorable moments of my life was when I went to see Stan Getz and Gary Burton play in Vancouver. My friend and I were about 14, and we couldn't believe that we got backstage afterwards. To this day I have the photo of my friend holding Stan Getz's sax and me holding Gary's mallets. Gary is, as you know, one of the greatest and most gifted musical forces on our planet. He was so nice that day and so giving of his time. I was in awe. Little did he realize that he was laying the groundwork for getting me here today, some 38 years later. So be nice. You never know what effect it will have on somebody or how it may come back to you, tenfold.
You know, the message that I'm trying to get across obviously has to be tempered with your own integrity and instincts, but I hope I'm getting the point across. These musical choices that you're going to have to make—right or wrong, good or bad—are going to be determining factors in what kind of life you ultimately have. Weigh every decision carefully. If you don't know the answer, wait until tomorrow. I must confess that I've done my share of crappy gigs. I remember playing in this bar every night with this singer. One day at rehearsal I said to him, "Tonight, when we do that song, let's" (tells story).
But what we're really talking about here is some pretty basic stuff. Hard work, kindness, openness, opportunity. You can't count on that thing called luck. Someone once said, "The harder I worked, the luckier I got." I think luck is when talent and preparation meet opportunity. Actually, if you really get down to basics, we could all just follow the kindergarten rules and be winners. Share everything. Play fair. Don't hit people. Clean up your own mess. Don't take things that aren't yours. Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody. Wash your hands before you eat. Flush. Live a balanced life. Draw. Paint. Sing. Dance. Play and work some everyday. Take naps, and one of my own that I'll throw in: be nice to nerds because chances are you'll end up working for one.
At one time in my life, my dream was to go to Berklee College of Music. My dream got sidetracked, but yours didn't. For those of you that are here on scholarships, no words of mine can describe how you must feel today. For those of you whose parents paid for you to go to this school, I applaud you and your parents. For those of you who worked at night and on the weekends to put yourself here, you don't need to listen to my speech. You already get it. Getting an education at this incredible school is priceless, but Berklee or any other music school is no calling card for success. The folks that run the music business don't care where you got your education or even if you got an education. But let me give you some good news!
I think this is a great time to be coming into the music business. The people that complain about the business being too tough are people who aren't tough enough to be in the business. People my age say "I had to get out of the biz. It's gotten too hard." Well, they didn't want to get out. They had to get out because the business moved past them. Yes, it's tougher today for me at 52 than at 22, but it's not as tough as it's going to be at 72. Puff Daddy doesn't think it's tough. He's having the time of his life. That young jazz trumpet player that I saw on Leno the other night doesn't think it's hard. He's thinking he died and went to heaven. It can be done and you can do it.
The digital world is now penetrating lifestyles in a click of a mouse. The music giants are all fighting for a piece of this pie. I can tell you this: the people running the music business are smart. It will be settled. It will be cultivated. And the form of payment will get straightened out and you will be the beneficiaries of this phenomenal evolution. There are 500 TV channels and they all need content. There's ProTools. You can make an album in your bedroom now. And there's always going to be an audience for good music. You're the next generation of music makers and I believe it's all there for the taking. And we need you. But please don't worry about how many notes you can put into a bar. Worry about how long your music will be around after you're gone.
My final thought is this: there's a show on TV called "The Young and the Restless" and that's exactly what you're supposed to be right now. But there's also a saying that is truer than you could ever imagine at age 22: "Life is short." 22 turns to 32 to 42 to 72 faster than you could ever imagine. In fact, we call the TV show "The Young and the Rest of Us." So spend your time wisely. Don't dick off too much. Work hard. Play hard and do not get to your last breath and go, "I wish I had just—" or "I should have—" or "If I had only—"
You're living in the greatest time ever in the greatest country in the world, but for the first time in the history of the world—a few billion years to be exact—we have the technology to blow this entire planet to bits with one flick of a switch. So try to change that if you can and while you're out saving the planet, treat every day like it's your last one, because one day you are going to be right. Until then, three words from one of the greatest philosophers ever. Nike: 'Just do it.'