June 10, 2014

CIM's 89th Annual Commencement Address by Nicholas Mann, May 17

CIM's 89th Annual Commencement Address by Nicholas Mann, May 17

The morning of Saturday, May 17, 2014, was a bit overcast with cool rain lightly dropping from time-to-time. But, inside the Cleveland Institute of Music, the atmosphere was warm, welcoming and bright as 140 excited students enjoyed the final notes in an early movement in this great work called life.

Among the undergraduate and graduate students, recipients of artist diplomas and certificates, was special guest Robert Mann – CIM’s 2014 Honorary Doctorate recipient – with his wife of 62 years and his son, Nicholas Mann who delivered the following commencement address honoring his father and inspiring our class of 2014:

It is a privilege to stand before you today and speak for my father, Robert Mann; 93 years old and a life of remarkable accomplishments as performer, teacher, and composer.

A storied life…that most would envy but, more importantly, a life in music that should be a model for all.

The vast majority here today have not personally experienced the magic of my father—his fierce musical integrity, the poetry of his musical expression and nuance.

It is a gift to know and experience such an inspirational man (who just happens to be my father). But, for those of you who have not been so lucky,let me try to tell you the essence of what he has taught me and those he has touched.

In one word – passion. My father's life is a life of passion. He often quotes Belioz who said: “Always be passionate.” And, when the music asks you not to be passionate, be passionate about not being passionate.

A passion not just for music but also for life and nature and love. A passion for his wife of 62 years Lucy, for the mountains of Glacier National Park, as well as Bach and Beethoven and (luckily for me) his children: my sister Lisa and myself.

CIM Commencement Ceremony: Mr. & Mrs. Robert Mann, May 17, 2014 (By Tony Gray)

He has taught me that the more of life you embrace, the more it will enrich your musical being, and it is the love of music that above all else will sustain you in your continuing musical pursuits and challenges.

My father, his whole career, strived to stay an amateur. Not an amateur in today's pejorative connotation, but in its true meaning.

Amour – to love – to do it for the love. And that is very difficult when building a career is constantly challenging your values. Yes, you must adapt and change, but my father has never compromised his musical integrity and core values.

And with a true passion for the music, there comes an intense motivation to understand the composer. A journey that begins with the discovery of the manuscript - the urtext, but it does not end with the manuscript, as that is only the starting point. You already know that the notes are your window into the magic of these great artists - but it is a life long pursuit and struggle to understand the composer's language - and what lies within the notes. I hope it is a pursuit that you fervently embrace.

For my father, the link between the composer and performer is absolutely vital. You will not understand the voices of the past unless you converse with, and are challenged by, the composers of today. Composer with performer – from creation to recreation – it’s a complete living cycle that you must experience.

I marvel how my father stayed relevant in the world of contemporary music. From the Juilliard Quartet's ground breaking Bartok String Quartet Cycle all the way to their performances, and advocacy of the Elliot Carter String Quartets. The JSQ must have commissioned over 100 works during his tenure.

Try composing...a cadenza, a solo work, anything...my father tells his students. Just the attempt will give you a greater understanding of the process. My father, true to his own word, has composed over 100 works throughout his life.

And don't stand still. Are you still using the same bowings and fingerings for that concerto you learned as a kid? Maybe there is another way, a better way to do it. Works my father had performed hundreds of times, each time, it was back to the drawing board – looking for the better way.

But don't spend all day in the practice room. I have learned from my father that to become an artist with greater understanding you need to expand your horizons. I've watched my father's unending desire to enrich his experience and understanding of the world, whether it was his studying of Indonesian Gamelan music or reading James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake.

Definitely, don't just spend all day in the practice room.

You have all converged here at this moment in time – everyone from a different starting point – something has keep you going despite the hours and hours of practice, the public judgments, and your own self-criticism.

I don't have to tell you it's hard to be a musician…but you are so very, very lucky. You have a special gift. You know what you want, and look what you have already accomplished. It is a blessing to have a calling.

Around the country, right now, thousands of students are graduating from hundreds of colleges and universities, but most of those students do not yet have a calling and many will never have a passion for their work.

There is no greater gift than a life in the world of music – a Mahler symphony, a Beethoven Quartet, a Schubert song. There is nothing to equal the magic of great music. I know my father's wish for all of you, as you continue onwards: keep the passion burning. Feed it, nurture it, and cherish it.

I would like to end with my father's own words, reminiscing about his starting point, when he discovered the magic and his passion for music:

I cannot recall one instance of a response to music before my eighth year. There was an upright piano in our house in Portland, Oregon. but it never occurred to me to strike a single key. We were poor, but on my parent’s urging I attended an inexpensive violin class once a week consisting of a teacher, seven little girls and myself.I was definitely not an ideal student. My teacher hardly noticed me. My parents wondered what was going on. If I practiced at all, I took my latest, thrilling adventure novel and folded the pages inside my violin exercise books.

“When will you practice?” my mother pleaded.

“I am practicing, mom,” I lied, “I am learning to read notes.”

After my initial violin debacle, my father relocated our family to a little community of nine hundred people in order to start a new trade. What good fortune, for I found myself in an earthly paradise, Tillamook, named after an Indian tribe. Here I discovered my first lifelong passion – my inspiration and my motivation. In this tiny town on the Oregon coastal lowlands, nestled cozily between thickly forested coastal mountains and a boundary struggle between rugged cliffs and pounding ocean waves, I became aware for the first time of the source of a meaningful life; not music – but the natural world.

Music of the Spheres. Oh how I loved the homework: ears and brain attuned to the dawn chorus of awakening birds, the cadenzas of preening roosters, the pedal points of humming bees and buzzing flies, the rhythmic staccatos of angry country dogs barking, the constant patter of large unceasing rain drops.

With every round trip of the sun, I discovered a new development section. Every change of the season added new dimensions to my musical vocabulary. Constant variations stirred my imagination with every furious storm, mysterious, darkened night, every hazy, sunlit horizon; the mountain to ocean continuity of water babbling, roaring and silent in deeper pools.

What better environment to develop a keen ear, a vital rhythmic control of the feet, and a sharp eye for alert response in chamber music teamwork.

My days in verdant, wet Tillamook were numbered as my father elected to return to Portland. I was thirteen years old. My father brought me before a Swiss gentleman, the concertmaster of the Portland Symphony, Edward Hurlimann. After I had displayed my somewhat shoddy musical tones on the violin, Mr. Hurlimann said to my father, “Mr. Mann, I must tell you that your son is no wunderkind. I know that you must have a scholarship and I will teach him on one condition: that you never come to his lessons unless I ask you to. He has some talent and if he works hard he will be able to earn his living with his music.”

Mr. Hurlimann knew what he was talking about. If he and a few other European musicians had not worked their musical magic on me, I would have become a forest ranger or at least a potato farmer in one of my favorite places on this earth’s surface, Idaho’s Salmon River country, beneath the rugged Saw Tooth Mountains.

But as a great teacher should, he made sure that I not only understood what was being revealed in music, but that I would and did incorporate what I understood in my actual playing. There wasn’t a nuance of phrase, an evolvement of harmony, an arc of structure that he didn’t gift to me with profound love for the violin and me.

And he was correct. I have earned my living with music.

CIM Commencement: Joel Smirnoff, Adrian Daly and Mr. & Mrs. Robert Mann, May 17, 2014 (by Tony Gray)


With those words ringing, hanging heavy in the warm air of Kulas Hall, Nicholas ended his address to thunderous applause for both his words and the words of his father – world renowned violinist, composer and educator Robert Mann – both men having touched hearts and minds of the audience.

For anyone interested, the 2014 CIM Conservatory Commencement Ceremony is avaialble for viewing in its entirety via Livestream.