Commencement Address 2013 by Jordan Seavey, 06/08/123
Anyone endeavoring to manifest the ideals of Waldorf education will likely find him or herself studying the book How to Know Higher Worlds, by Rudolf Steiner. Steiner, as many of you know, was the originator of Waldorf education, establishing the first Waldorf School in Stutgart, Germany nearly 100 years ago. Early on in my first year teaching here at Merriconeag, which was also my first year as a Waldorf teacher, which was also my first year as a teacher, I too found myself in possession of this book. And early on in this book, there is a brief passage which has led me to think a great deal about what it means to be an effective teacher, and also, more importantly, what it means to be an effective student. In it—and I’m both paraphrasing and extrapolating here—Steiner conjures the image of a student waiting outside the door of a great teacher, someone the student, out of reverence and admiration, wishes to emulate. He proposes that the awe and wonderment experienced by this student could be something useful, a special feeling, something to continue to try and kindle throughout one’s life. I remember when I first read this passage; I began to reflect upon all of the wonderful teachers—and I’ve been blessed with many throughout my education—whose understanding of a subject, or whose way of thinking, or, simply, whose style and being I’ve looked up to. These teachers have helped me, encouraged me, inspired me, been patient with me, and perceived things in me I didn’t even know were there myself. And although many of them have been truly extraordinary, it was during the phase of my life analogous to that which all of you are about to enter in your own, that I met the one teacher who most palpably elicited this feeling of awe and inspiration in me: my college piano professor, Laura Kargul.
I remember it so clearly: the feeling of waiting outside her studio for my first lesson. How sure I was that she held the keys to something I knew I needed: the ability truly to unlock my potential on this instrument. What I didn’t realize at the time, though, was that she was going to unlock more than just that. As in all great lessons, the ostensible subject matter was only tip of the iceberg. She was also going to unlock my potential for something which, although an inextricable element of all artistic endeavors, also holds ramifications far beyond the walls of the music studio or concert stage or art gallery. What she helped me to unveil to myself was my capacity for presence.
Over the course of five years, I sat in her studio for an hour and a half each week, and another three hours per week in studio class, a class in which all of her students played for one another and discussed music and piano playing. I also sat in on other students’ lessons, not wanting my experience to end with my lesson alone. I found myself so completely engrossed, so present with her teachings and with the music that a remarkable thing began to happen: the music itself, and my interaction with it, started to become my teacher. I discovered that when I contemplated music with the same presence and soul disposition, if you will, that I carried into my lessons—a soul disposition borne of my reverence for music and for what I knew Dr. Kargul could teach me about it—that when I did this, the music, and the composers, truly began to speak to, and share their secrets with me.
Deep, far-ranging thought is not possible without presence. And so I urge you all to seek out the teachers, and the disciplines, that will catalyze your own capacities for presence. And I also encourage you all to use, or to continue to use, music as a presence-bringing force for yourself and for others. It won’t be easy. Our capacity for presence, if not under outright attack, is at least being significantly eroded now by more forces than ever before. Last week, the eighth graders at Green Meadow Waldorf School (the school where I now teach) travelled to Washington, D. C. and divided their time there between touring the sights and helping those experiencing homelessness. I was honored with an invitation to come along on this trip as a chaperone. On the last day there, we had the privilege of entering the House Chamber and seeing the 113th congress in session. The republican House Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, and a democratic congressmen, whose identity I couldn’t discern from his voice nor the back of his head, were debating in preparation for a vote that was to be held later in the morning. And as I peered around this great room—this birthplace of such legislation as the Child Labor Act of 1916, the Social Security Act of 1935, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, the Clean Water Act of 1972, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Civil Rights Act of 1964—this room in which the president delivers the State of the Union address—this room in which it is decided whether or not the United States will go to war—as I peered around this great room, it occurred to me that congress might just as well pack up and convene on the Las Vegas strip, so bright and many were the glowing iPhone and Blackberry screens. I feel it bodes poorly that presence, awareness of the moment, consciousness of attention, even in this temple of democracy . . .
At this point in the presentation—in a preplanned bit—Mr. Seavey’s own cell phone rang, and on the other end, Mrs. Thurrell, from her seat in the audience, began to express her excitement that Mr. Seavey would be visiting Maine for the weekend. After Mr. Seavey caught her attention to let her know he was actually right there on stage in front of her, he went on…
Well, if it can happen to Mrs. Thurrell, it can truly happen to anyone. Steiner also said that kids should laugh at least once in every lesson, so, there you go.
Your presence, in today’s world is at risk, but you are still in control. And as I said earlier, it is now up to you to find the teachers, the interests, the pursuits that will allow you to develop your capacities for presence and thereby your capacities to become the best possible versions of yourselves.
Before I end, I would like to ask that you all stand outside the door of one of my great teachers, a man I’ve never met in the flesh, but through his music alone: the great French composer, Claude Debussy, who lived from 1862 to 1918.
Perhaps some of you remember, from your music history block, when I said, “Debussy heard the gamelan, and music changed forever.” In 1889, Debussy attended the Paris Exposition, at which his ears were some of the first in the western world to hear the gamelan music of Indonesia. The gamelan instruments—consisting of various metallic, membranous, and string media—and their microtonal tuning—far afield of the twelve half steps that span the western octave—almost surely provided Debussy an entirely new experience of sound. I can only imagine the presence he music have felt in this moment. And this presence, this saturation of consciousness, allowed Debussy to imbibe so completely the sound of the gamelan, that he was then able to return to the twelve tones of the western octave and experience them anew, combining them in ways that broke down the rules of tonality that had governed western music for over two hundred years. Although they were all great musical innovators in their own right Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Chopin, Brahms, and a host of other composers, treated the twelve tones in the western octave in more or less the same way. There was syntax to harmonic progression that was rarely violated: a V chord, for example, almost invariably led to a I chord. Debussy heard, in a new way, these same twelve tones that had borne millions of pieces of music, and changed the world forever.
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