Anita Kruse – Commencement Remarks


Prepared Remarks of

Anita Kruse
Founder, Purple Songs Can Fly Project
Houston, Texas

Maryville University Commencement
Saturday, May 1, 2010 

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Congratulations Maryville Graduates!!

Thank you President Lombardi, the Board of Trustees, and all of the wonderful people at Maryville for inviting me here today. I am truly honored.

I play the piano.

For those of you who don’t play the piano or another musical instrument, there is a technique in music called a trill – two notes rapidly alternating. A trill can be any length, but when you play a long even trill, it sounds like you know what you’re doing. Since I was a little girl, my father has given me the same advice before every concert I’ve ever played. “When in doubt, trill.”

When I called to tell him I was going to be giving the commencement address to the graduates at Maryville and needed his advice, he said, “I’m not sure if the trilling will work too well in this particular situation. Is there a trill equivalent for giving a speech?”

Mark Twain said, “When in doubt, tell the truth.”

We’ll see what happens here, but if you experience a long pause in the next 15 minutes, the truth is, I’m imagining this podium as a piano … and the pause … is a trill.

So, how in the world did I get here?

Well, Maryville’s Vice President of Institutional Advancement, Tom Eschen, read an article about my Purple Songs Can Fly Project in The New York Times a couple of years ago, and came to Houston to learn about what we were doing with music in the Cancer Center at Texas Children’s Hospital. Tom visited my purple recording studio on the 14th floor, where I work with the children being treated for cancer and blood disorders and their siblings to write and record their own songs.

We talked about Maryville’s plans to create a similar program that would serve the children’s hospitals in St. Louis through the music therapy department here, and I couldn’t be happier that Maryville’s own Kids Rock Cancer Program was launched in November.

I was able to attend the kick off events last fall where I met some of your wonderful faculty and was reminded of my time in college and the significant influence my professors had on the course of my life.

I had an amazing teacher in graduate school at the University of Michigan. His name was Theodore Lettvin and he taught the doctoral piano students. I was fortunate to be accepted into his class as a master’s student and so blessed to study with such an incredibly brilliant pianist.

One of the most memorable lessons with him began with a discussion of the importance of projecting the sound of the piano and the intensity of the music out into a large concert hall.

He was preparing artists to go out into the world and perform on concert stages, with the goal of actually doing something that would cause an audience to listen.

He said that in his many years of concertizing, teaching and attending concerts, some of the most heightened moments in performance, when the audience listened most intently, were the moments when something went wrong.

The uncomfortable pause of a memory slip, the shock of wrong notes in an otherwise flawless performance, the distracting squeaky pedal or the creaking bench. It would be those moments when the audience would really sit up and listen because those moments were unexpected, and it was the unexpected that was exciting.

I can remember him saying, “As an artist, you have to do something in the making of the music that is more interesting, more unexpected, more alive, more real, and more riveting than any of your mistakes.”

He felt that most people really do want to be inspired, entertained and moved, and that people will be more likely to listen if something you do, if the sounds you make, are truly alive.

A month ago, I woke up at 4:30 in the morning with an idea for today’s address. I woke up with a word that kept repeating in my mind. The word was “LISTEN”.

I thought, “What am I going to say that will cause the audience to sit up and listen. What am I going to talk about that will be more captivating than my uncomfortable pauses, losing my place, fumbling over words, possible microphone feedback, or God forbid, passing out?”

Then I remembered that my teacher Ted Lettvin, had said “LISTEN” to me all those years ago, when I was planning to continue on after graduation and work on my doctorate with him.

At the end of my final year, I started dreaming music. I’d wake up with new music in my head, pieces of music I’d never heard before – songs and words and layers of harmonies.

The feeling of needing to LISTEN and get the music written down was stronger than anything I’d ever felt, and I was torn between continuing on my piano path to a doctorate and following this creative force that had a life of its own inside my unconscious dreaming mind.

I thought I would disappoint my teacher if I ended up choosing to become a composer, but instead he said to me, “Anita, you need to LISTEN. I think you need to take this next year and LISTEN to what is coming to you now. It’s coming to you for a reason.”

So, I listened, and the music never stopped. It led me to work with children and listen to them, and it led me to create Purple Songs Can Fly and listen to the voices of children being treated for cancer.

Of the many brilliant and insightful words of wisdom Ted Lettvin shared with me, probably the most significant was this:

“All that you do in the world as an artist, all of the concerts you play and whatever acclaim you may receive in your life, the most important thing you will ever do is to share your gifts in the community where you live.”

I listened to Ted Lettvin. I listened because he said things I’d never heard before, and he said them in a way that felt true. I listened because when he played the piano, I heard the music differently than I’d ever heard it before and it felt magnificent. I listened because the sounds he made and the things he said resonated with something inside me. I listened because he was inspiring and sincere, he loved music and it came to life in his hands.

I’m sure he is smiling down from wherever he is in spirit, knowing that he was right, and the path to a doctorate for me was not in following him, but in listening to my own creative voice. Could he have known that Maryville would invite me to commencement twenty-three years later, and honor me with a doctorate? Probably not, but I listened and I’m so thankful I did.

Listening to him give me permission to listen to myself profoundly changed the course of my life.

I have a neuroscientist friend, David Eagleman who teaches at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. He also writes fiction. David published a book last year called, Sum, Forty Tales from the Afterlives. David’s writing is inspiring to me because his world of imagination creates a way of seeing our lives with a wider lens.

This story, called “Subjunctive,” is all about our potential, possible lives.

“In the afterlife you are judged not against other people, but against yourself. Specifically, you are judged against what you could have been. So the afterworld is much like the present world, but it now includes all the “yous” that could have been.

In an elevator you might meet more successful versions of yourself, perhaps the “you” that chose to leave your hometown three years earlier, or the “you” who happened to board an airplane next to a company president who then hired you.

As you meet these “yous,” you experience a pride of the sort you feel for a successful cousin: although the accomplishments don’t directly belong to you, it somehow feels close.

But soon you fall victim to intimidation. These “yous” are not really you, they are better than you. They made smarter choices, worked harder, invested the extra effort into pushing on closed doors.

These doors eventually broke open for them and allowed their lives to splash out in colorful new directions. Such success cannot be explained away by a better genetic hand; instead, they played your cards better.

In their parallel lives, they made better decisions, avoided moral lapses, did not give up on love so easily. They worked harder than you did to correct their mistakes and apologized more often.

Eventually, you cannot stand hanging around these better “yous.” You discover you’ve never felt more competitive with anyone in your life.

You try to mingle with the lesser “yous,” but it doesn’t assuage the sting. In truth, you have little sympathy for these less significant “yous” and more than a little haughtiness about their indolence. “If you had quit watching TV and gotten off the couch you wouldn’t be in this situation,” you tell them, when you bother to interact with them at all.

But the better yous are always in your face in the afterlife. In the bookstore you’ll see one of them arm in arm with the affectionate woman whom you let slip away. Another you is browsing the shelves, running his fingers over the book he actually finished writing. And look at this one jogging past outside: he’s got a much better body than yours, thanks to a consistency at the gym that you never kept up.

Eventually you sink into a defensive posture, seeking reasons why you would not want to be so well behaved and virtuous in any case. You grudgingly befriend some of the lesser “yous” and go drinking with them. Even at the bar you see the better “yous,” buying rounds for their friends, celebrating their latest good choice.

And thus your punishment is cleverly and automatically regulated in the afterlife: the more you fall short of your potential, the more of these annoying selves you are forced to deal with.”

David’s story is certainly aimed at those of us who are fortunate enough to be healthy and capable of making good choices about the direction of our lives, those of us able to strive to our full potential in our own particular fields of endeavor.

Working with the children at Texas Children’s Cancer Center has given me a glimpse into the very difficult world of childhood cancer, a world where we don’t have to look very far to see a child’s potential thwarted by illness.

At the same time, what I’ve learned and experienced since beginning the project has given me a greater understanding of the strength and resilience that dwells in human beings.

For some people, that strength will only dwell as potential.

But for many, and most definitely for the children I’ve met through Purple Songs Can Fly, it is in the face of adversity, that our true strengths emerge, come to the front, and take the lead.

Helping a child to write and record a song at this time in their life has proven to be not only important for the child and their family, but also meaningful to everyone who hears it.

I’ve come to understand more fully the power of creativity and the reasons why music, songs… and the combination of words and music are so powerful and transformative in our lives.

As neurologist, Oliver Saks states in his book, Musicophilia, “Indeed, music occupies more areas of our brain than language does-humans are a musical species.

I’ve come to understand that songs and other forms of creativity activate our brains in very specific ways, and why the living arts have a place in medicine and are essential in our daily lives.

Quite simply – creativity is life.

We are all creating, all the time, and it is in the creating that we learn who we are, we get a glimpse of our true power, we realize the infinite possibilities of the mind, and we tap into what connects us all.

It is fascinating to me that so many of the children I’ve worked with in the Cancer Center have wanted to create a song of appreciation.

From, “My Mom’s the Best Mom in the Whole Wide World”, to “Strong Heart, Strong Mind”, a thank you song for a karate teacher.

In the one hundred and seventy songs written and recorded to date, not one child has wanted to write a ‘Poor Me’ song.

This reality has led me to think about the idea of perspective, specifically, human perspective from the precipice.

As graduates you are all standing on the precipice of new possibilities.

A child with a terminal illness or a life threatening disease is living on the precipice between life and death.

The fragility of life and the amazing insight and vision that seems to come when a child is living on that precipice has been revelatory for me to witness.

There is a perspective for them that is all about giving thanks.

Giving thanks for all that they DO have – not what they might lose, not what they’ve already lost, but what they have.

So, even if we are fortunate enough to be healthy today, not facing a life threatening illness, envisioning our bright futures, we do have the ability, through the great gift of the imagination, to stand on the precipice, and see our lives from that vantage point.

To see that we all have the power to give thanks for all that we have and all we have been given, for all of the support in our lives, our family, our friends, for our teachers and all of the many events that have led us to today.

To give thanks for the difficult times along the way where we found our true strength.

It is that strength & gratitude that will allow us to see the world through the eyes of the heart.

To see the beauty.

To feel the awe of being alive.

To listen to all that inspires us.

To listen to the words and the sounds that feel true.

To listen within.

To listen to our creative voices and find ways to share our gifts in the communities where we live.

To make the choices and to create the life paths that are not only in our personal best interest, but in the interest of our fellow human beings and our planet.

I leave you today with messages from the children at Purple Songs Can Fly, written for you, the 2010 Graduating Class of Maryville University.

From Zachary, a 15-year-old boy battling a life threatening blood disorder:

“Always look people in the eyes, you could be looking at an angel, even one in a suit. Life is a gift, have fun, live with gusto!! Learn the art of “walking in someone else’s shoes”, yours will never feel so comfortable. ”

From Fayatt, an 11-year-old boy in treatment for cancer.

“I know you have worked hard, you studied and took the right path. It’s been a long time and it will pay off, it will be a new world. I hope you know all you have accomplished and you should be proud that you are a graduate.”

And finally, from Alex, a 13-year-old girl and long-term cancer survivor:

“One thing I have learned from my experiences is that as you face difficult challenges in your life you must always stay strong and be true to yourself. Believe in who you are so that you can discover your own special place in this world. And remember to always keep your heart open, because you never know when a single moment will transform your life.”

Anita Kruse
May 1, 2010
Commencement Address
Maryville University