Voices of Simmons

Provost Katie Conboy: Take Your Passions Seriously

Provost Katie Conboy addressed graduating seniors and the Class of 2023 during her 2019 Convocation remarks.


Last January, in a fit of heady enthusiasm, I bought a mandolin. I’ve always loved the mandolin, always wished I could play it. But buying one—a nice one—and then finding a teacher and launching into lessons, well, all that was a bit of a commitment.  

I want to share how much I have learned from this new adventure—much of it humbling, and a reminder of how it feels to be a beginner, an amateur, a person choosing, perhaps foolishly, to do something just for the love of it—which is the literal meaning of the word “amateur.” I am a proud amateur.

But even though I picked up the mandolin—supposedly for the love of it—the first thing I learned was that I wasn’t used to doing things I wasn’t already reasonably good at. It had been a long time since I’d been a complete beginner. And I’m going to admit that there was a part of me that just felt this shouldn’t be so hard. I mean, I play a little basic guitar. I’m a decent singer. For heaven’s sake—I have a PhD—why can’t I just pick up a mandolin and play it?  

I actually had all these thoughts, and I secretly suspected that my teacher probably thought I should be better too. This, of course, was ridiculous. Nobody is a complete “natural” on a musical instrument. Sure, people have varying degrees of aptitude, but—like most things in life—real progress is about practice and persistence. Still, it’s hard to keep the passion alive when the focus is all about blood, sweat, and tears. And at age 60, seriously, why should I raise my hand to be voluntarily mediocre at anything?

Around the time I was starting to get frustrated about my progress, my teacher suggested a simple method for my practicing. And it was like a lightbulb switched on. Not that I suddenly got good at the mandolin—but I did feel a new level of control about the array of assignments I got each week and how much attention I should give to each of them. And it occurred to me that the structure for my mandolin practice also offered—yes, I’m serious—an approach to the rest of life, including our work together here at Simmons. I know that sounds like a leap, but bear with me. I do have a point.

So, here’s what my teacher told me. Divide your practice into four equal sections. If I had an hour, he said, each section should be about 15 minutes. And the shorthand for these four sections would be:

  1. Play tunes you already know
  2. Play tunes you’re learning
  3. Practice technique
  4. Improvise!

Now, let’s walk a little more slowly through this mandolin practice—or life practice. First, he said, play tunes you already know. This segment highlights accomplishment—the ability to play something, however simple, with ease. To make it new again. How many of you have learned something—anything really—and committed it to memory? Ever since I was in Miss Tatman’s High School English class in Leavenworth, Kansas, I have memorized poems, passages of plays, and other texts.

But memorization sounds so mechanical. I like another way of saying this: that I learned them by heart. The former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins writes about “the pleasures of taking on a poem as a companion by reading it over and over in such a way that it becomes inscribed on the mind, even though, revealingly, we like to call this knowing a knowing ‘by heart.’” And these were my companions: soliloquies from Shakespeare, the closing lines of Paradise Lost, Wordsworth’s sonnet “The World is Too Much With Us,” the last stanza of “Dover Beach,” Wilfred Owen’s war poems and Emily Dickinson’s compressed lyrics; poems of rage and despair, poems of love and hope.  

I could still sing you whole scores of musicals I performed in high school and college—not just the words to my own solos, but whole darn librettos: Oklahoma, You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown, The Music Man, Little Mary Sunshine, Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe. Keeping something I’ve already learned fresh and relevant seems to be my sweet spot, and I’d have happily spent my whole mandolin practice on things that were known and secure.  

I’m just in the first quarter of my practice, and it’s already kind of like life. I mean, we’re neurologically hardwired to live in the familiar, and not necessarily for bad reasons. We specialize, because we can get better and better at something specific that the world is looking for. We choose a major, choose a job, choose a partner, choose a place to live, and those choices foreclose other opportunities. We find ourselves playing the same tune, and we might even forget we chose it! Let’s keep ourselves open at Simmons to new possibilities. Playing familiar tunes—literally or metaphorically—is immensely satisfying, but it can’t be the whole of life. So, as Shakespeare wrote, “If music be the food of love, play on.”

And play on I must, since the second section of my prescribed practice involves practicing new songs, moving on to the unfamiliar tunes I’ve been assigned for my next lesson or melodies I can sight-read. I might play through the notes in the melody. I might play through the chords. My teacher recommends I choose small sections and play them over and over until they are perfect. I’m not a very good sight-reader, but I’m really good at learning by heart. And of course, I discover that by learning some new tunes in the second quarter of my practice, I keep adding more variety to what I might play in the first quarter of my next practices. The life-lesson here: attempting new things, however slowly and uncomfortably, opens us up in unexpected ways and ultimately adds to our repertoire of gifts. Let’s remember this, too, for our work—individually and together—at Simmons.

The third section of the practice, my teacher advises, should be about technique. Go through picking exercises. Work on striking both strings together and on holding the pick right. Check your posture. Practice a strumming or picking pattern. And—hardest for me—practice tunes with the steady (and sometimes maddening) beat of a metronome. In most areas of life, the repetitive drudgery of technique really matters in the end. It determines how well you hone your craft, and, in the case of music, how much you’ll be able to share your gift and collaborate with others to create something bigger than your own thin sound. This summer, my daughter’s boyfriend began strumming simple guitar chords behind my melody line on “Ashokan Farewell,” and my playing suddenly became something beyond what I could have imagined.

Make a deliberate attempt to break with habit, to see people and situations in a different light. Be a beginner. Be an amateur again. Fall in love with something new.

And the last quarter of the practice, according to this formula, should be improvisation. But how can this be? I don’t really know how to play. How could I possibly improvise? Well, I learned that I could take a tune I already knew and break it up in new ways. Try a different picking pattern over the same melody. Mix the use of notes and chords. Try playing triplets over a single note, making the texture of the tune richer. Or try playing both the note and the open string next to it. A mandolin is tuned in fifths so every open string will actually harmonize with the string next to it.

Improvisation is definitely the hardest part of my practice. But it’s an improvisational spirit that I think we most need in our world—and certainly here at Simmons. In my mandolin practice, I experience this as following something unplanned, inventive and intuitive, and I have to trust what I don’t really understand yet. Improvisation is economical—and even ecological—using only the small handful of strategies I have to work with. And it’s full of risk-taking and the possibility of failure. But what an exhilaration.  

I was reminded of that kind of exhilaration when I recently rediscovered the poem “Nightclub” by Billy Collins. You knew a poem was coming!  

I’d read this poem before and I’m intimately acquainted with the jazz tune it references: “You Are Too Beautiful,” from a 1963 album featuring John Coltrane on saxophone and Johnny Hartman on vocals. But the poem struck me in a new way this time. It seems to me that Collins perfectly matches form and feeling as he improvises his way through the entire poem.  “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove,” Robert Frost says about poetry, “the poem must ride on its own melting.”  So, let’s take the ride:

Nightclub

"You are so beautiful and I am a fool
to be in love with you
is a theme that keeps coming up
in songs and poems.
There seems to be no room for variation.
I have never heard anyone sing
I am so beautiful
and you are a fool to be in love with me,
even though this notion has surely
crossed the minds of women and men alike.
You are so beautiful, too bad you are a fool
is another one you don't hear.
Or, you are a fool to consider me beautiful.
That one you will never hear, guaranteed.

For no particular reason this afternoon
I am listening to Johnny Hartman
whose dark voice can curl around
the concepts of love, beauty, and foolishness
like no one else's can.
It feels like smoke curling up from a cigarette
someone left burning on a baby grand piano
around three o'clock in the morning;
smoke that billows up into the bright lights
while out there in the darkness
some of the beautiful fools have gathered
around little tables to listen,
some with their eyes closed,
others leaning forward into the music
as if it were holding them up,
or twirling the loose ice in a glass,

slipping by degrees into a rhythmic dream.
Yes, there is all this foolish beauty,
borne beyond midnight, 
that has no desire to go home,
especially now when everyone in the room
is watching the large man with the tenor sax
that hangs from his neck like a golden fish.
He moves forward to the edge of the stage
and hands the instrument down to me
and nods that I should play.
So I put the mouthpiece to my lips
and blow into it with all my living breath.
We are all so foolish,
my long bebop solo begins by saying,
so damn foolish
we have become beautiful without even knowing it."

What an amazing poem! It satisfies what Frost quite famously says a poem does: “It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down.” Kind of like an improvised jazz solo, “it runs a course of lucky events and ends in a clarification of life.”

Yes, like an improvised jazz solo, this poem offers many different forms of improvisation in just 46 lines. In the first stanza the speaker riffs on the idea of “you are so beautiful and I am a fool,” first claiming that “there is no room for variation” and then playfully offering multiple variations on the theme.

The theme leads him to one particularly beautiful version of the jazz standard—and Johnny Hartman’s voice provokes him to imagine the entire nightclub scene where such a recording might have happened: the cigarette smoke, the baby grand, the people leaning forward in their chairs, the ice clinking in their glasses. Never mind that the actual album was recorded entirely in the studio: the poem is an act of imagination; the poet can improvise.

And the most powerful improvisation is finally to imagine being handed the saxophone, that golden fish, by John Coltrane and then ardently blowing out a long jazz solo, the speaker implicating himself in the beauty and the foolishness.

In Billy Collins’s poem, the speaker says that he is listening to Johnny Hartman “for no particular reason.” But I have a particular reason for sharing this poem with you on the occasion of launching a new academic year at Simmons University, welcoming new members of our community, and continuing our journey together. I said at the outset today that I chose, perhaps foolishly, to take up the mandolin, just for the love of it.  And I’ve meandered through a lot of music and poetry to get here. Yet my message for you is straightforward. Dive into the things that interest you. Take your passions seriously, even if you feel, as I do, a little belated in getting started with them. Believe in yourself. And believe in each other’s vocations and avocations.

However much you enjoy your fluency with the songs you know, with the old stories, with the familiar patterns of work and study, try some new things. Learn some new tunes. Play your solo, but keep your ear tuned to the overarching harmony. Here at Simmons, fine-tune your gifts and then share them: collaborate with others. Make a deliberate attempt to break with habit, to see people and situations in a different light. Be a beginner. Be an amateur again. Fall in love with something new.

Whether you are a student, a faculty member, or a staff member, practice your technique and hone your craft. Put time and effort into the small elements of your work, and set your metaphorical metronome to a challenging tempo.  

And do the hardest part of the work. Improvise. Whatever your job or your course of study, take some risks. Put your heart into your learning and learn some things by heart. Then listen hard to the way you approach what you know or do; test some new strategies; find a little back-up crew; make it new. And when the large man with the golden fish around his neck hands the instrument down to you, blow into it with all your living breath. Give it all you’ve got. Play like your beautiful and foolish life depends on it. Because maybe it does.

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