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As Long as We Remember...

May 18, 2011

In Search of The Meaning in Life

Kevin E. Dayhoff

Last Saturday was a study in paradoxes as I found myself sitting in the third largest university chapel in the world, the Princeton University Chapel, attending the graduation ceremonies of what must be one of the smallest and most unique college in the world, Westminster Choir College of Rider University.


Oddly enough, I have a long history with Princeton University. Many years ago when I raised nursery stock on a small farm and did landscape contracting, I made frequent trips to Princeton Nurseries.


Every trip included time to wander about the Gothic-spired leafy campus of Princeton University and imagine attending the campus that was once the home of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and writing scripts and lyrics for Princeton Triangle Club musicals or writing for the Nassau Literary Magazine and the humor magazine, Princeton Tiger.


The relationship of the Westminster Choir College and Princeton may seem, at first glance, to be the odd couple of academia. According to an old article, in my files, which I found in the Daily Princetonian, Westminster Choir College may seem “a world away from Princeton's politically charged lectures, quantitative study sessions and metaphysical precepts.


“However, Westminster Choir College's Williamson Hall is relatively close, at least physically, to the university — at only about four blocks north of the engineering quadrangle.


“Westminster is a small music college with an undergraduate program of roughly 330 students pursuing scholarship in music. Classes include music education, organ performance, piano, sacred music, theory and composition, voice performance and music theater.”


The article explained that the Westminster Choir College began in 1920 when John Finley Williamson established it at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Dayton, Ohio.


The college moved in 1932 “to be close to major cities with symphonic orchestras and to a seminary that would complement the school's study of sacred music.”


A pastor of the First Presbyterian Church and professor at the Princeton Theological Seminary, Charles Erdman helped the college move to New Jersey.


At the time, Princeton President John Hibben “also made the university chapel available for choral services and allowed the college to use university grounds for Westminster's annual spring festival. Close ties were forged between the university and Westminster.”


Last Saturday, a family member suggested that the Westminster Choir College graduation ceremony in the huge gothic chapel was more like a coronation, or an opera as it is literally a celebration of singing and voices that goes on for hours. Every once in awhile during the ceremonies there was a break for a few spoken words and, oh, they also handed out diplomas.


The keynote speaker at the commencement was the amazing and prolific composer, Dr. Stephen Paulus.


For someone with the musical talent of Dr. Paulus, who communicates his ideas using a musical language, his use of the spoken word was thoughtful, thought provoking, and inspiring.


Over the years his prolific output has included more than 200 works “in many genres, including music for orchestra, chorus, chamber ensembles, solo voice, keyboard and opera,” according to a press release from Rider.


In spite of the fact that I am an opera fanatic, I was only somewhat familiar with the work of Dr. Paulus by way of the music he wrote for a finger picking blues and folk acoustic guitarist, Leo Kottke from Athens, Georgia. Think, “Greenhouse,” released in January 1972.


Mr. Kottke commissioned Dr. Paulus to write “Ice Fields for Guitar and Orchestra,” which Mr. Kottke and the Fort Wayne Philharmonic premiered in 1990.


Dr. Paulus choose his words to impart upon the graduates wisely.


“Musicians don’t retire,” began Dr. Paulus. “We just go on and on like the energizer bunny – and then we just flop over.”


He challenged the students to understand that we are “living in an era of change… Change is nothing new, but what is different is that the pace of change is much more rapid.”


With words for the singers and musicians that any writer may understand, he took note of critics and criticism by sharing a story that emphasized that “critics have ruined many a breakfast, but never a lunch.”


He also touched upon the importance of music in words that I have also used, in the past, to explain the importance of art and culture in a materially oriented society.


The transformative power of music … “cuts across nationalities, race, and gender… binds audiences” by way of partaking in a common experience…” Dr. Paulus explained.


Then he shared that in spite of their enormous talent, “no matter how hard you work,” there will be setbacks. “There is no entitlement” that accompanies all the earnest endeavor of the artists in attendance.


At the end of his address he spoke of taking risks. He mentioned that in spite of all the job offers he received after completing his studies, he choose to strike out on his own. He described the decision to make a go of it on his own as somewhat easy, for if he failed it would have been a short stool to fall off of, after years of the meager lifestyle of a student.


He encouraged the graduates to take advantage of their youth and take risks. In consideration of the fact that he was speaking to artists who had decided to embark on a musical career in the middle of an economic downturn, he was literally and figuratively speaking to the choir.


Dr. Paulus mentioned in conclusion, that at a time when resources are scarce and budgets are tight; funding for the arts and humanities is tight and often the first on the chopping block. Why fund music and art when basic needs are going wanting in society?


“All human beings need three things, food, shelter, and meaning. Artists provide the meaning,” said Dr. Paulus.


Remember that the next time the local school board wants to shortchange music and arts education funding.


. . . I’m just saying…


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