#TBT: The Hidden Value of Your Stony Brook Education in Music
One of my proudest moments occured on May 25, 2011 when I was asked by my alma mater, Stony Brook, to present the commencement speech to graduating class of 2011.
The Hidden Value of Your Stony Brook Education in Music
Presented by Leslie Kaminoff
2011 Undergraduate Convocation of the
Stony Brook University Music Department
May 25, 2011 – 1:00 PM
Thank you for that kind introduction, and good afternoon, Dr. Lockhead, esteemed faculty, friends of Stony Brook University, parents, guests, and graduates.
I begin, of course, with congratulations to today’s graduates and their families on this enormous achievement. Having gone through the process myself, although many moons ago, I can assure you that, as you move through life, you will be astonished by how the skills you have developed as a music student will impact who you are, how you think, and your ability to succeed in any field that you choose, or that life may choose for you.
No matter what anyone tells you, always remember that musicians are very special people. We have a unique skill set and a unique way of experiencing and influencing the world. As musicians, we are members of an elite community of passionate, talented individuals who, throughout history, have made remarkable contributions in all walks of life.
So let me ask you a question to get the ball rolling. What unites the following people: President Thomas Jefferson, President Bill Clinton, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, astronaut Neil Armstrong, genius Albert Einstein, basketball legend Oscar Robertson, author Stephen King, billionaire businessman Bill Gates, and – sorry, but I couldn’t resist – Larry Harmon, better known as Bozo the Clown? While I’m certain most graduates don’t even know who Bozo was, I am equally sure that their parents and most faculty members do. Bozo was a TV clown personality who basically raised a generation.
While you think about that question, let me remind you that I congratulated you earlier on ‘the skills you have developed’ as opposed to ‘the knowledge you have acquired.’ The skills of which I speak are precisely what make musicians special people. In a moment, we will look at those skills, which I refer to as the hidden value of our Stony Brook music education.
But first, let’s answer our question.
Thomas Jefferson, played cello, clavichord, and violin.
Bill Clinton is, as you know, an accomplished saxophone player who spent his summers developing his skills at a music program in the Ozarks.
Condoleeza Rice dreamed of becoming a concert pianist.
Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, plays the baritone horn.
Albert Einstein, Nobel Prize-winning physicist, played piano and violin.
Cincinnati Royals and Milwaukee Bucks basketball player Oscar Robertson played the flute.
Record-breaking author Stephen King plays guitar in the band Rock Bottom Remainders.
Microsoft founder Bill Gates plays the trombone and founded the Microsoft Orchestra.
And Larry Harmon, better known as Bozo the Clown, was not only a TV personality and shrewd businessman who produced and owned the Bozo the Clown franchise, he was also a percussionist who pursued music throughout his life.
All of these people reached the pinnacle of success in different disciplines. What unites them is not only their study of music but how they embraced music as part of everything they did. Nor are these isolated coincidences. The list of successful business people, inventors, politicians, writers, scientists, and others who refer to the benefits and advantages of music in their lives goes on and on.
You know, I gave a great deal of thought to the message I wish to share with you today. To be honest, when I was contacted to address you, I wondered at first what value I could possibly bring. Today is about each of you having reached a milestone in your passion for music, and I am just a guy who owns real estate companies and jams three nights a week with my friends. So I wondered what significance my words could hold for you.
But now that we are here together, I must tell you how grateful I am for having been given this opportunity. Because by being compelled to reflect on the direction I have taken since graduating from the Music Department at Stony Brook, I have come to see more clearly the influence that music has had on me, and the true value that my Stony Brook music education has had in my life. And that is the message I bring to share with you.
Like all of you, music was, and continues to be, my passion. And like many of you, I graduated Stony Brook with the desire to become a professional musician.
Upon graduation, I took my viola and began studying for a Masters Degree in Musicology. I became a teaching assistant while also taking private lessons and playing in various community orchestras. But I was not born into wealth, and because there were rent and bills to pay, I also took a part-time job as a billing clerk at a hospital.
You would think, as I did at the time, that being a billing clerk would have been uninspiring. But in hindsight, I now realize that a path was being shown to me.
Truth be told, I actually enjoyed the work. And apparently, I did it well, because within two years, I was appointed Director of Property Management at Mt. Sinai Medical Center. My professional fate was sealed with that appointment, and I made the decision to focus my life’s work on the business of real estate, all the while relying on music as my constant and loyal companion.
As you heard, since that time almost 30 years ago, I have founded seven real estate businesses that operate today in both New York and Florida, and I am proud to be able to provide jobs for more than 1,500 people.
For me to tell you that I focused my future in the real estate business, and then say that I did not abandon music, may seem at first to be inconsistent. But I will go to the grave thinking of myself as a musician first. And I have come to realize that everything I have achieved is intimately connected to how I understand the world as a musician. It is neither trite nor untrue for me to tell you that music has been the driving force behind every success I have had.
You may wonder how that can be. And it is precisely the answer to that question that is at the core of my message to you. For now I will reveal to you what has been made clear to me: the hidden value of our Stony Brook music education.
Let’s begin by talking about listening. Most people in the world hear. But I am often struck, as I suspect you are as well, by their failure to really listen.
As musicians, you have been schooled in the art of listening, in the ability to discern nuances, and to recognize and process subtle distinctions in shade and tone.
As a music student myself, the one word I heard most throughout my years here at Stony Brook was ‘Listen.’
As a successful business person, as a benefactor of various philanthropies, as a father, and especially as a husband, I can tell you that the most important skill I have honed in all my various endeavors is the ability to listen. Did I mention especially as a husband?
Seriously, you have no idea how important the skill of listening will be to your successes in life. For those of you who pursue a career in music, the importance of listening is evident. For those of you who move into other disciplines, you will quickly understand the edge that really listening gives you.
Having spent the last four years being encouraged to listen is a value I do not believe you could have gotten in any other course of study. The ability to listen – to really listen – is the first hidden value of your Stony Brook music education.
As a student of music, you are constantly challenged to be creative, to take a piece of music and make it your own, and to create music where before there was none. Because you are so gifted, I wonder if you truly realize how this ability sets you apart. Once you grasp the wonder of being a creative soul, you must realize how your creativity can be applied to everything you do.
Creativity is what directed me to develop and grow my businesses. In order to be an effective leader, be it at home or at work, at war or in peace, the ability create, to bring about a reality that previously did not exist, and to own the result, is what lends confidence and brilliance to decision-making and to leadership.
Having been surrounded by creativity, and having been allowed and encouraged to be creative, is the second hidden value of your Stony Brook music education.
When I say performance, no doubt you are thinking ‘musical performance.’ But as I’m certain you are finding out, life is full of performance opportunities. Speaking for myself, life as a business executive entails the demand to perform all the time.
The fact is, as a musician, you have gained an exceptional degree of performance confidence and poise. Approach a non-music major and ask them to present their inner-most thoughts, feelings, or ideas to a group of strangers, and most would not be able to do so. But we here in this room have been trained not only to perform before large groups of people, we have been encouraged to express our emotions through our instruments in front of total strangers.
The ability to perform, self-assured and with gusto, mistakes and missed notes and all, is an imperative for success in music, in business, and in life. It is the third hidden value of your Stony Brook music education.
Now, just as you must listen and be creative and perform, so you must conduct, in music and in business and in life.
As you go out into the world, each one of you will have countless chances to play the role of conductor. And if by design or fate you wind up in the business world, as I have, you will soon learn that the skill of conducting is essential for every effective business person and leader.
I still remember orchestra rehearsals with Professor Lawton. Back then, the music building had just opened and the rehearsal room was in the basement. The only performance space on campus was the lobby of the administration building. But the limited facilities did not hinder Professor Lawton’s ability to conduct, and I can still see his baton conjuring the magic of the music.
From that experience, here on this very campus, I learned that the art of conducting cannot be altered by the environment. It must adapt and transcend circumstance and conditions. It demands the ability to get all members to play in unison, and to maximize each player’s input by individual and section. It is the discipline to create each present moment while simultaneously looking moments ahead – in our case, measures ahead – in order to prepare for the future.
These are the same complex set of skills that are evident in the actions of every great leader. True leaders must recognize the potency and limitations of each player while leading and maintaining a focus on the future. These skills are the province of everyone who would lead, in music or in business or in life.
The ability to conduct is the fourth hidden value of your Stony Brook music education.
And so we come to passion.
As well you know, everything that a musician strives for is defined by passion. Technicians can play notes as well as any computer program. But true musicians infuse passion into mere black dots on paper, and convert those notes into a passion that can be experienced by every listener.
Passion for you and me is full engagement. It is the giving over of oneself totally to the experience. There can be no music without passion.
Likewise, there can be no success in any attempt without full engagement, without the need to succeed, the drive to move through trying times, and the reluctance to ever walk away from anything without having given 100 percent. There can be no success in anything without passion.
For me, passion is the alpha and omega of everything I do. And I can tell you without hesitation that the passion within me was cultivated during my time at this university. The passion that has been seeded in you is the fifth hidden value of your Stony Brook music education.
Look to the right of you, and look to the left. Next to you, behind you, in front of you, or even in the seat you occupy yourself, may be the world’s next Isaac Stern, Leonard Bernstein, President of the United States, Nobel Prize winner, or successful business magnate. Perhaps there is even a Bozo the Clown among us.
It is music that unites you and me and everyone in this room, and it is music that has inspired the great men and women of history, from the earliest time to today. That will never change.
I have shared a bit about myself and my journey with you in the hope that you take away from my presentation the realization of the true value of your Stony Brook music education and the unlimited doors it has the power to open for you. As for myself, I will keep a copy of today’s program so that I might pick out your names from future programs at Lincoln Center or articles in the Wall Street Journal. Neither of these are impossible dreams, as I myself am proof.
I will leave you now with a short, personal story. In the realm of music, jazz has become my passion. I have attended the New Orleans JazzFest religiously for the past 16 years. For the first few years, I always went with my wife or a friend. But I soon realized that, while I would be there at opening and sit until late, enjoying the music, my guests got bored and thought I was completely insane.
My wife helped me to understand. And I quote her: “Yes, you are totally insane, having nothing to do with the music” she said. “The truth is, not everyone else hears what you hear.” A friend of mine said something similar when I encouraged him to ‘listen to that bass line.’ His response? “I really can’t pick it out.”
But you and I will always be able to pick it out, to hear what others cannot hear. And that is precisely what sets us apart. That, and the phenomenal education and hidden values you have earned during your years here at the Stony Brook.
There will always be people who think that music should be played in the background. But not us. For us, music will always be at the forefront, in every moment of every day and night that we live.
So practice and listen. Keep your instrument tuned and in good repair. Infuse your lives with creativity and self-assured performance. Take the lead and be the conductor. Hold tight to the magic and the mystery that is music in the human heart and mind, spirit and soul. Embrace and apply the skills that you have learned here at Stony Brook. And bring your music to everything you do.
If you love your music and live it, your music will surely guide you to success on whatever path you walk.
Once again, thank you for this opportunity. And to each of you I say, Bravo!