April 23, 2020
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Editor’s note: The following is a transcript of the address that Professor of Music Ted Buehrer ’91 gave to the Class of 2017 at a dinner in February 2017.
Two years ago this August, our family got a dog. This came after much pleading from our kids, but especially from our then-12-year-old daughter. Quite frankly, she wore us down over several months with her constant pleading and questions: “Why can’t we get a dog?” “Dad, if you got any dog you wanted what kind of dog would you get?” “Did you know that [fill in the breed] makes a good watch dog and they don’t tear up the furniture?” This culminated in her “101 Reasons We Should Get a Dog,” presented to me as a handwritten document that she had painstakingly researched and prepared. She may as well have hammered them to our door like Luther’s 95 Theses. To help ease the blow when one of our two cats died unexpectedly, my wife and I finally caved and said the six words she wanted to hear: “Yes, we can get a dog.”
We had planned to pick out a calm, friendly, adult dog, one who needed a fresh start in a new home. But that day at the Columbus dog shelter, we fell in love with a nine-week-old puppy who had been lost and brought in. We were told she was a “Beagle mix,” and Beagle was one of the breeds on our short list. She had a calm demeanor, and, I mean, how hard could it be to train a puppy, right? It can’t be that hard — we’re raising three kids, and they’re turning out OK. So, the next thing we know, we’re on our way home with a puppy.
Well, this dog — we named her Winnie — checked many of the boxes we were looking for: she’s gentle, she’s friendly to everyone — in fact, she makes a horrible watchdog. She was easy to house train. And she just wants to be everyone’s friend. All. The. Time.
But Winnie is no Beagle. And while she’s calmer now, she’s not calm. Turns out the day we met her, her calm personality was induced at least in part by the anesthesia that was still wearing off from being spayed the day before. And as she started to develop, she did not remain in that small frame. She grew up — long legs that need to run and hunt and exercise. Google searches convinced us she’s not a beagle at all — she’s a Harrier, bred to hunt hares and foxes. Listen to the way one source describes her breed: “A true hound, they are energetic, independent, self-willed and persistent. Harriers were bred to work absolutely all day long (covering 20-40 miles) out in front of hunters, to think things out for themselves, to never give up the chase no matter what happened. Harriers perform their function remarkably well; hares and foxes are known to collapse from sheer exhaustion when pursued by the tireless Harrier.”
We live in a neighborhood in Mount Vernon where the houses are pretty close together, so there’s not a lot of yard for our dog to roam. We take turns giving her multiple walks each day, but when we’re done with a walk she looks at us like “you’re kidding me, right? I’m just getting warmed up!” When we put her in the yard on a stake, she digs and digs, and our backyard looks like the final scene from “Caddyshack.” We love our dog, but ... she needs her exercise.
I tell you all of this about Winnie to help you understand how thankful we are for the dog park in Gambier and its acres of fenced open space. Taking Winnie to the dog park is a true win-win for her and for us. She loves it, because she gets to run and jump and dig and smell and play. And we love it because at least for while, it tires her out! And it was during a trip to the dog park on one of those warm days last weekend that I was thinking about a connection between Winnie’s happiness there and an aspect of human creativity. Winnie gets to experience pretty close to complete freedom inside the fences at the Gambier dog park. Within those four walls, she is free to do what she wants, with no rules about which piece of furniture she can be on, what she can chew or where she can dig.
I am a jazz musician and a music theory and composition teacher, and in my work I notice a similar principle. When I improvise, I am at my best when there is a known structure within which I can be creative. Jazz musicians practice their craft by learning and memorizing song structures — the chord progressions that underlie melodies like “Autumn Leaves,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” “Take the A Train” or countless others. Once those structures are known, the ability to improvise interesting melodies becomes much easier. By contrast, if I try to improvise a jazz solo without structure, it will inevitably be less coherent.
An approach to music composition is similar. When I arrived at Kenyon, my first composition assignment in Professor Rubenstein’s music theory class was to write a short piece of music in which I was only allowed to use six notes. I could use them in any order, any combination, any octave — I had complete freedom to explore, but only within the confines of those six notes. Similarly, my first composition assignment with Dr. Dzubay in graduate school was to write a solo cello piece using only three intervals — three differently-sized spaces between notes, like an octave, a major third and a minor seventh. I was free to do whatever I wanted in the piece as long as my melody used only those three intervals to connect one note to the next.
Far from feeling restricted or boxed in, these imposed limits gave me freedom to make creative choices from a manageable number of possibilities. Composers have been working under constraints for centuries. Consider J.S. Bach, who in the 18th century wrote more than 150 cantatas — multi-movement sacred works for a variety of voice and instrumental combinations, usually 20-30 minutes in length. The majority of these were written when he was the music director at a church in Leipzig, Germany, and responsible for writing, rehearsing and performing new music for Sunday services each week. His chief constraint was time, yet the cantatas are considered by many to be Bach’s most masterful compositions.
So I teach with this principle in mind. It is far easier for students to create something that is musically coherent when they have boundaries within which they are free to be as creative as they wish. Students currently in my music theory class will soon experience this first hand: over spring break they will be required to compose a Baroque or Classical style minuet: a dance piece that shares some similarities with a waltz, but that is in two large sections, and that changes key in the middle and changes back before the end. That structure will guide my students’ compositional choices they’ll have to make, and it’s far easier for them to be creative when they’re given the parameters within which they’re encouraged to do so.
But this principle applies outside of music, too. Psychologists have shown through a number of studies that well-designed constraints help us develop what’s called “global processing,” the ability to see the big picture and make connections between things that are not obviously connected, traits that are at the center of what it means to be creative. I’m willing to bet that each of you seniors here tonight has at least one and probably multiple success stories from the last four years in which the parameters of the project in front of you — that research paper, the math problem set, a public presentation, the lab experiment, that short story — allowed you to creatively address the problem. The constraints of the project helped you to get started, gave you a direction, and limited choices so that you could be creative within those confines in your approach to the finished product. It happens all the time around here; Kenyon students tend to be pretty good at this.
One of my favorite stories of Kenyon students doing what they do — coming up with creative solutions within the limitations of imposed restraints — happened four years ago this month. For those who don’t know, I direct the Kenyon Jazz Ensemble, a band of about 20 students that performs throughout the year. One cold February night in 2013, the power went out 15 minutes before we were supposed to perform in Rosse Hall. No power meant no light, no microphones, no amplifiers. Directors work hard to control variables, but this was one I couldn’t control. Should we cancel the concert? Two thoughts kept surfacing in my mind: “Can we do this?” and “This could be a disaster.”
But jazz is about improvisation, right? My students reminded me of this. Despite my apprehension, it was the students’ enthusiasm and creativity that convinced me that the show must go on. This wasn’t an obstacle, this was an opportunity. They went out into the dark, into the growing audience, and gathered smartphones to use as flashlights — 18 phones in all. A couple of additional flashlights and even a ball cap with LEDs built in were donated to the cause. We took the stage with these lights, balancing the phones on music stands to cast light on parts and scores, and those who weren’t playing helped shine lights where most needed.
The concert was far from perfect, but in my book it was a huge success. My students listened to and for each other like never before. The guitarist and bass players plucked until their fingers were practically bleeding, as the rest of the band played more softly to balance the unamplified rhythm section. Larger than life shadows out of a scene from “Fantasia” licked the auditorium walls. At the end, the audience rose in ovation. For me, this represents a quintessential “Kenyon moment,” drawing on the resourceful, fearless, creative, “we can do it” spirit that defines the best in Kenyon’s students.
Seniors, with the knowledge, skills and creativity you have developed over the last four years, you are well equipped to wrap up your college career, graduate in May and enter the Real World. And the even better news is that you are graduating into an alumni network that is more than 18,000 strong, alumni of Kenyon who have walked the same road you are walking — from college senior to college graduate to the next chapter of your adult life. Several of them are seated at the tables around you, and as you’ve hopefully begun to discover tonight, they want to help. Listen to their stories, ask questions, make contacts and learn from their experiences.
But they’re also here to welcome you into the Kenyon alumni network, and we all hope that you’ll join the alumni network with the same enthusiasm you’ve approached your studies here. One of the most important things you can do to be involved is to simply stay in touch with us when you leave. Let us know your email address, where you’re living and what you’re up to. The Alumni Office would love to invite you to regional alumni events, but they can’t do that if they don’t know how to stay in touch. Send us your good news and accomplishments — we want to celebrate your successes with you and share them with the wider alumni network in the fabulous (and, may I add, award winning) Kenyon Alumni Bulletin, to which you will become a free lifetime subscriber. You can do all of this online — alumni.kenyon.edu is the place. Register for events, update your information and stay connected.
We also hope that you’ll be involved, as those alumni who are here tonight and as so many others demonstrate, by giving back. There are lots of ways to give back, but all of them have one thing in common — a desire to share with the next generation of Kenyon students the same kind of opportunities that you’ve valued while you’ve been here. The internships and job shadows offered at Kenyon, the campus performances, lectures and workshops given by talented alumni, Kenyon’s reach at college fairs in high schools across the country — all of these are made possible because of our dedicated alumni who volunteer their time. This includes all of the people who journeyed back to Gambier to be here on a February night for this event!
Volunteer with the admissions office and staff a college fair near you or conduct alumni interviews. Get involved with career development — we have a robust Kenyon career network that helps connect you with potential employers and career-related opportunities. On average, I’m told that at least two students every year take jobs as a direct result of connections they made for the first time at this dinner. You could be that contact — that mentor — for a future Kenyon student down the road. Volunteer with one of our regional alumni associations. These groups have regional steering committees and hold programs throughout the year. And they can aid in helping young alumni find their way as they move to new cities.
Other volunteer groups, from the Alumni Council to the Greek Alumni Leadership Council to the Kenyon Fund Executive Committee, play vital roles in both the life of the College and the lives of our alumni. Finally, give to the Kenyon Fund! You knew this one was coming. Participation in the Kenyon Fund matters, and any amount, however large or small, is a vote of confidence in our mission. It says that liberal arts education matters to you, and it matters to you that future students benefit from it as you have.
You might also get involved in ways I haven’t even mentioned. Let the constraints in your life guide you to creative ways to stay engaged with the College. In his book titled “Orthodoxy,” G.K. Chesterton said “art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame.” You have thrived inside the frame Kenyon has provided. Your frame is about to get a little larger, but the limitations it imposes will spur you to wonderful, creative successes. Keep in touch.