The Traditional Music of Graduation

May 13, 2016

According to some crazy expert at the London Philharmonic, the graduation march, otherwise known as Pomp and Circumstance, is one of the fifty greatest pieces of classical music. Seems to me it’s one of humanity’s fifty greatest sleep-aids. But you be the judge: (Music.) Please, turn that thing off! Thank you. See what I mean? Graduation is supposed to be a happy occasion. People have accomplished something, we’re trying to have a celebration here. Come on!

As a teacher and family member, I attend a lot of graduations. I have a couple of quick tips for graduation planners. Good graduation speeches are hard to write; famous authors usually manage to write only one or two really good ones in their entire lives. High school principals and college presidents should not assume every May that they can crank out an insightful, humorous five-minute piece of uplift, wit, and inspiration. That’s not going to happen. Get some other voices up there, please. And help the valedictorians with their speeches. Somebody will have told these young people that they should fill their three minutes with lofty cliches. You could tell them otherwise.

And have a care for the audience. They want to cheer and applaud, but they start out shy. Early on, you have to give the parents and kid sisters and grand-mamas permission to get a little rowdy so they know it’s okay. You want the crowd really rocking when their young people cross the stage, but that doesn’t just happen, you have to build to it. I suggest choosing music that lets people know that graduation is not a pompous circumstance. For example, when the faculty march into the hall with those black academic robes swinging around them and looking like Darth Vader on a Sunday, the orchestra should play this music really loud. (Music.) Doesn’t that feel a lot more like a party?

But the people who really need better music are the graduates themselves there at the end as they march out to begin their lives. Going up that aisle will be people who have quietly done something difficult and grand. You know the kind of person I mean—maybe you’ve been that person yourself. Some students start college with little more than a thimbleful of hope and a new moon sliver of a dream, not enough money maybe, not enough help with the kids, maybe not enough respect for learning coming from their employer or their friends. There are people in those robes and mortar boards nobody believed in at the start, nobody but themselves, and maybe they weren’t even sure. Some of them started with not enough academic skills and had to run twice as fast to catch up. Some had nothing but their own sweat-equity to bank on and a dedicated faculty member or two who might chip in as well. And at the end, there’s a completely new person walking up the aisle, proud because he knows he has made something substantial of himself, proud because she shapes her own life now and helps shape the lives of others. Tired old music like Pomp and Circumstance is nowhere near grand enough for these many and various heroes of higher education. You won’t know exactly which ones they are, but they’ll be there in the line of graduates. Out of respect, everyone should rise when they are passing by. The orchestra should launch into something fittingly grand. You know who you are. This song’s for you. (Music.)