Aspen Music Festival And School


Scroll down for full text of Mr. Fletcher's  remarks.

Convocation Speakers
The Aspen Music Festival and School Convocation on Monday, June 26 marked the official beginning of the 2017 season for the 645 music students and 130 artist-faculty in residence this summer.
Alan Fletcher President and CEO
Robert Spano Music Director
Robert Hurst AMFS Board Chair
Steve Skadron Mayor of Aspen
Jennifer Johnston Vice President and Dean


Remarks from Alan Fletcher

In or about the year 1466, a young man named Leonardo came down from the little Italian hill town of Vinci to the big city of Florence. He was to be apprenticed to a great visual artist – Andrea del Verrocchio. We now know this teenager as one of the most compelling and memorable people in our entire common human history: Leonardo da Vinci. He is certainly among the greatest of all visual artists, ever. He has had incalculable impact on science, on aesthetics, on military history, on technology, medicine, literature, and engineering.

What you may not know is that, from his first days in the great city of Florence, he was primarily a musician. He sang, he played the lyre and versions of what we now call guitars. He earned his living as a musician. Much later in his brilliant life, he reflected that, of all his talents, music was perhaps the most important, or else second only to painting.

Now take a detour with me. We here on this stage, and the staff who are sitting with you throughout the tent, are all familiar with the following question: “Are we doing the right thing, encouraging young people to study music, when the chances of musical careers are so slim?”

There are more than five hundred official schools of music in the U.S.; thousands of musicians receive degrees each year. A tiny handful of openings come up each year in “major” orchestras; equally small numbers will be engaged to make debuts in opera companies; even fewer solo artists will gain management and embark on careers of international fame and fortune. Don’t even ask me about composers.

Or, on second thought, let me say something about composers.

My mother told my father when they first met – she was a teenager who had actually heard the Von Trapp family on their first U.S. tour in the late 1930s – that she wanted a big family, all musicians. By the way, the real Von Trapp family did indeed leave Austria during the Salzburg Festival and escaped Nazism, just like in the movie. However, they were really classical musicians, not amateurs playing with goat marionettes.

Anyway, back to my mother. She got her wish, and had six children, all serious students of music. I was the fifth among those six, and when I was five, I told her that I wanted to write music. Instead of telling me the truth about my career chances as a composer, she told me I’d need to study a string instrument in addition to piano and voice, and start immediately on theory and counterpoint.

Many, many years later, in my first summer as president of this festival, she and my father were visiting Aspen. It was a typically glamorous season – Yo-Yo, Renee, Fima, etc. Late one night, she said, “I’m going to tell you something I thought I would never tell you.”

Now, this is not a good lead-in, from your own mother!

Nervously, I waited for the revelation. She said, “I expect you remember when you said you wanted to be a composer. I hope I supported you.”

I said, “Mom, you did everything for me! No one could have done more!”

She said, “Yes, I hope so, because I meant for you to be able to do what you wanted so much. But I said to myself, ‘This one lives in the attic and eats Cheerios.’”

Then, a little more than ten years ago in our living room looking out over Aspen, over all this beauty, she said, “But this turned out OK for you!”

Stay with me. So far, we have Leonardo da Vinci, and a little boy who wanted to learn to write music.

And we have people who say that we should limit the number of people who are allowed to study music, based on some calculation of how many jobs there are each year. I am not exaggerating when I say there are serious people who think that we should calculate how many jobs there are for professional musicians and then limit the enrollments of music schools and festivals to exactly that number.

One such person recently told me that all I do is brag about how successful Aspen students are, singling out only a very few brilliant examples, and ignoring any kind of through-going data analysis about how many Aspen students become James Levine or Joshua Bell or Augusta Read Thomas. (That person is right in that I love to tell success stories, and, since I can’t resist it, let me tell you that when, this year, Musical America named its top five musicians of the year, the composer of the year, Andrew Norman, was an Aspen student; the ensemble of the year, Eighth Blackbird, was formed in Aspen by Aspen students; the vocalist of the year, Eric Owens, was an Aspen alumnus and frequent returning artist, and the Artist of the Year, Yuja Wang, was an Aspen student right up to the year we invited her back as a guest artist.)

I could really go on for the rest of the day about this kind of success, but it is not really the main subject I have in mind here.

My point this morning, rather, is that success is an elusive, even dangerous thing to pursue. It tricks you. It, when it comes, is almost certainly not going to be what you thought it would be. Some of what the world calls its greatest success comes with such a high personal cost that you may actually refuse it. Some of what you will call your most treasured successes will not be at all what the world thinks of as success, or what you today would think of as success.

My idea for today is that the study of music is such a wonderful, sustaining, engaging, demanding, rewarding thing that anyone who understands how hard it is, and wants to pursue it, should be congratulated and encouraged and supported and loved, just for that reason.

Just for the work of it.

Now, there has to be realism. How many of you have never been told how hard music is – as a discipline, and as a career? [Among more than six hundred music students listening, not a single one raises a hand.] How many of you think it is all going to be easy – because you’re so talented, because you have great connections…? [Again, no hands.]

How many of you are certain that, twenty years from today, you will still define yourself as a musician? [Reasonable number of hands.] I get that, because, at your age, I would have raised my hand. But how many of you are certain today that what you are doing here this summer is the thing you want most to be doing? [All hands up.] Good, because I’d be watching closely if you didn’t think so!

Here was my point about Leonardo. One of the greatest minds in our known history thought music was one of the most important things in his life. He did not make his career as a musician. But he did think that studying music engaged every aspect of his extravagantly gifted spirit. Would you like to have told him that he shouldn’t care about music, that he in fact shouldn’t be allowed to concentrate on music, since he was so unlikely to have a successful career in it?

I think we, on this stage, who have tremendous experience in the world of music, and experience both ineffably positive and often crushingly negative, do have an obligation to be honest about how hard a career in music is. I expect that not a single teacher in this program will sugarcoat for you what it takes.

But I think we have a much greater obligation, and opportunity, and challenge, to meet you who come to us full of determination and discipline and hope and talent – to meet you and show you how much you can do. We can help you see what you can achieve.

By the way, I often regret when people talk too much about “talent.” There are times when physical and intellectual and emotional and spiritual abilities combine to look like the thing called talent. But everyone who lives a life in music for very long knows that hard work and dedication and unflagging energy are the real things – I have never seen a career made and sustained on talent or promise, but I have seen astonishing careers built on persistence and practice and grit as hard as steel.

Another obligation I feel we have is to be clear that success takes infinitely many forms. You may think success is your winning audition with an orchestra or your title role debut or your prize-winning composition or your competition triumph. And those things are great, and we in Aspen will certainly announce these successes to the whole world.

But not everyone is going to have those experiences. I have a dear friend who is a singer. Around the age of thirty, she had finished her formal education and was living in New York with a mosaic of part time jobs. I heard someone ask her about success, and she said, “I am a success. Every day I sing. Every day I study music. Most days I make music with others. At least every week, I teach. I am not on stage in famous halls; I am not a glamorous star. But I have a real life in music, and that is my success.”

Here in Aspen we have many stories like this: there was once a young woman who was constantly told how talented she was as a pianist; no one in her home town was as accomplished as she was. She came to us, at age seventeen. Almost immediately, she realized she wasn’t on the level of many others in her Aspen group. Though she had come with the highest of hopes, and though she spent a whole beautiful summer working her hardest, she returned to her home town intent on rethinking her own career plans. Later, she became Provost of Stanford University and then Secretary of State of the United States. This was Condoleezza Rice, and, to this day, she is eloquent about how much she loved and valued her summer in Aspen. She is full of gratitude to this place for everything she learned here.

I am full of gratitude for the experiences other people made possible for me when I was a young person in love with music, worried about being in the attic eating Cheerios, hoping for something great, fully aware that any formula for success I could pull out of a shiny box would probably not come true for me. But there were always those who recognized a spark in me and saw that it was a good spark. There were always generous, wise people who gave me chances I didn’t even know I needed, starting with my mother.

We, now, are those people, for you. We believe that your choice to study music is a great choice, whether you end up as Secretary of State or as the greatest artistic genius in Western history, or just as a regular person who will always be grateful to have touched the lifeline of making great music, however that works out in your life story. We will help you have a summer here that you will never forget, that you will always value. Some of you will be honored by Musical America, or win top orchestra positions, or make title debuts. Some of you will not have the lives in music you are thinking of now. But my belief is that none of you will ever regret what you have given in your life in music so far, and we will never regret having been here, in Aspen, to help you.

Robert Spano, Music Director

Alan Fletcher, President and CEO