Speech by Karl Paulnack of Boston Conservatory

February 21, 2009 at 6:18 pm (Music) (, , , , , )

This essay by Karl Paulnack, the Music Department head at Boston Conservatory (my alma mater), is based on his speech to incoming freshmen.  It was forwarded to me by my co-Mabel from my last Pirates, Elizabeth Begnoche, and I loved it so much I wrote the author (who I didn’t know- a lot of faculty turnover since I graduated, it seems!) to ask permission to repost it, as it had been shooting around the internet by email but I didn’t see any *official* posting of it online.  He wrote me back a lovely email and granted me permission to post it, so here it is.  I hope this reaches you as much as it did me.


One of my parents’ deepest fears, I suspect, is that society would not properly value me as a musician, that I wouldn’t be appreciated. I had very good grades in high school, I was good in science and math, and they imagined that as a doctor or a research chemist or an engineer, I might be more appreciated than I would be as a musician. I still remember my mother’s remark when I announced my decision to apply to music school—she said, “you’re WASTING your SAT scores.” On some level, I think, my parents were not sure themselves what the value of music was, what its purpose was. And they LOVED music, they listened to classical music all the time. They just weren’t really clear about its function. So let me talk about that a little bit, because we live in a society that puts music in the “arts and entertainment” section of the newspaper, and serious music, the kind your kids are about to engage in, has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with entertainment, in fact it’s the opposite of entertainment. Let me talk a little bit about music, and how it works.

The first people to understand how music really works were the ancient Greeks. And this is going to fascinate you; the Greeks said that music and astronomy were two sides of the same coin. Astronomy was seen as the study of relationships between observable, permanent, external objects, and music was seen as the study of relationships between invisible, internal, hidden objects. Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things inside us. Let me give you some examples of how this works.

One of the most profound musical compositions of all time is the Quartet for the End of Time written by French composer Olivier Messiaen in 1940. Messiaen was 31 years old when France entered the war against Nazi Germany. He was captured by the Germans in June of 1940, sent across Germany in a cattle car and imprisoned in a concentration camp.

He was fortunate to find a sympathetic prison guard who gave him paper and a place to compose. There were three other musicians in the camp, a cellist, a violinist, and a clarinetist, and Messiaen wrote his quartet with these specific players in mind. It was performed in January 1941 for four thousand prisoners and guards in the prison camp. Today it is one of the most famous masterworks in the repertoire.

Given what we have since learned about life in the concentration camps, why would anyone in his right mind waste time and energy writing or playing music? There was barely enough energy on a good day to find food and water, to avoid a beating, to stay warm, to escape torture—why would anyone bother with music? And yet—from the camps, we have poetry, we have music, we have visual art; it wasn’t just this one fanatic Messiaen; many, many people created art. Why? Well, in a place where people are only focused on survival, on the bare necessities, the obvious conclusion is that art must be, somehow, essential for life. The camps were without money, without hope, without commerce, without recreation, without basic respect, but they were not without art. Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of the ways in which we say, “I am alive, and my life has meaning.”

On September 12, 2001 I was a resident of Manhattan. That morning I reached a new understanding of my art and its relationship to the world. I sat down at the piano that morning at 10 AM to practice as was my daily routine; I did it by force of habit, without thinking about it. I lifted the cover on the keyboard, and opened my music, and put my hands on the keys and took my hands off the keys. And I sat there and thought, does this even matter? Isn’t this completely irrelevant? Playing the piano right now, given what happened in this city yesterday, seems silly, absurd, irreverent, pointless. Why am I here? What place has a musician in this moment in time? Who needs a piano player right now? I was completely lost.

And then I, along with the rest of New York, went through the journey of getting through that week. I did not play the piano that day, and in fact I contemplated briefly whether I would ever want to play the piano again. And then I observed how we got through the day.  At least in my neighborhood, we didn’t shoot hoops or play Scrabble. We didn’t play cards to pass the time, we didn’t watch TV, we didn’t shop, we most certainly did not go to the mall. The first organized activity that I saw in New York, that same day, was singing. People sang. People sang around fire houses, people sang “We Shall Overcome”. Lots of people sang America the Beautiful. The first organized public event that I remember was the Brahms Requiem, later that week, at Lincoln Center, with the New York Philharmonic. The first organized public expression of grief, our first communal response to that historic event, was a concert. That was the beginning of a sense that life might go on. The US Military secured the airspace, but recovery was led by the arts, and by music in particular, that very night.

From these two experiences, I have come to understand that music is not part of “arts and entertainment” as the newspaper section would have us believe. It’s not a luxury, a lavish thing that we fund from leftovers of our budgets, not a plaything or an amusement or a pass time. Music is a basic need of human survival. Music is one of the ways we make sense of our lives, one of the ways in which we express feelings when we have no words, a way for us to understand things with our hearts when we can’t with our minds.
Some of you may know Samuel Barber’s heart-wrenchingly beautiful piece Adagio for Strings. If you don’t know it by that name, then some of you may know it as the background music which accompanied the Oliver Stone movie Platoon, a film about the Vietnam War. If you know that piece of music either way, you know it has the ability to crack your heart open like a walnut; it can make you cry over sadness you didn’t know you had. Music can slip beneath our conscious reality to get at what’s really going on inside us the way a good therapist does.

I bet that you have never been to a wedding where there was absolutely no music. There might have been only a little music, there might have been some really bad music, but I bet you there was some music. And something very predictable happens at weddings—people get all pent up with all kinds of emotions, and then there’s some musical moment where the action of the wedding stops and someone sings or plays the flute or something. And even if the music is lame, even if the quality isn’t good, predictably 30 or 40 percent of the people who are going to cry at a wedding cry a couple of moments after the music starts. Why? The Greeks. Music allows us to move around those big invisible pieces of ourselves and rearrange our insides so that we can express what we feel even when we can’t talk about it. Can you imagine watching Indiana Jones or Superman or Star Wars with the dialogue but no music? What is it about the music swelling up at just the right moment in ET so that all the softies in the audience start crying at exactly the same moment? I guarantee you if you showed the movie with the music stripped out, it wouldn’t happen that way. The Greeks: Music is the understanding of the relationship bet ween invisible internal objects.

I’ll give you one more example, the story of the most important concert of my life. I must tell you I have played a little less than a thousand concerts in my life so far. I have played in places that I thought were important. I like playing in Carnegie Hall; I enjoyed playing in Paris; it made me very happy to please the critics in St. Petersburg. I have played for people I thought were important; music critics of major newspapers, foreign heads of state. The most important concert of my entire life took place in a nursing home in Fargo, ND, about 4 years ago.

I was playing with a very dear friend of mine who is a violinist. We began, as we often do, with Aaron Copland’s Sonata, which was written during Worl d War II and dedicated to a young friend of Copland’s, a young pilot who was shot down during the war. Now we often talk to our audiences about the pieces we are going to play rather than providing them with written program notes. But in this case, because we began the concert with this piece, we decided to talk about the piece later in the program and to just come out and play the music without explanation.

Midway through the piece, an elderly man seated in a wheelchair near the front of the concert hall began to weep. This man, whom I later met, was clearly a soldier—even in his 70’s, it was clear from his buzz-cut hair, square jaw and general demeanor that he had spent a good deal of his life in the military. I thought it a little bit odd that someone would be moved to tears by that particular movement of that particular piece, but it wasn’t the first time I’ve heard crying in a concert and we went on with the concert and finished the piece.

When we came out to play the next piece on the program, we decided to talk about both the first and second pieces, and we described the circumstances in which the Copland was written and mentioned its dedication to a downed pilot. The man in t he front of the audience became so disturbed that he had to leave the auditorium. I honestly figured that we would not see him again, but he did come backstage afterwards, tears and all, to explain himself.

What he told us was this: “During World War II, I was a pilot, and I was in an aerial combat situation where one of my team’s planes was hit. I watched my friend bail out, and watched his parachute open, but the Japanese planes which had engaged us returned and machine gunned across the parachute chords so as to separate the parachute from the pilot, and I watched my friend drop away into the ocean, realizing that he was lost. I have not thought about this for many years, but during that first piece of music you played, this memory returned to me so vividly that it was as though I was reliving it. I didn’t understand why this was happening, why now, but then when you came out to explain that this piece of music was written to commemorate a lost pilot, it was a little more than I could handle. How does the music do that? How did it find those feelings and those memories in me?”

Remember the Greeks: music is the study of invisible relationships between internal objects. This concert in Fargo was the most important work I have ever done. For me to play for this old soldier and help him connect, somehow, with Aaron Copland, and to connect their memories of their lost friends, to help him remember and mourn his friend, this is my work. This is why music matters.

What follows is part of the talk I will give to this year’s freshman class when I welcome them a few days from now. The responsibility I will charge your sons and daughters with is this:

“If we were a medical school, and you were here as a med student practicing appendectomies, you’d take your work very seriously because you would imagine that some night at two AM someone is going to waltz into your emergency room and you’re going to have to save their life. Well, my friends, someday at 8 PM someone is going to walk into your concert hall and bring you a mind that is confused, a heart that is overwhelmed, a soul that is weary. Whether they go out whole again will depend partly on how well you do your craft.

You’re not here to become an entertainer, and you don’t have to sell yourself. The truth is you don’t have anything to sell; being a musician isn’t about dispensing a product, like selling used Chevys. I’m not an entertainer; I’m a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You’re here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well.

Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don’t expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we do. As in the concentration camp and the evening of 9/11, the artists are the ones who might be able to help us with our internal, invisible lives.


  1. Deb Coleman said,


  2. Joanna Messer said,

    I was lead to your blog from a link posted by a colleague – thank you for putting this up, and for getting permission to do so! I hope that many, many people read this and take it to heart as we go through our lives as musicians and artists, trying to make sense of what is happening in our world and our nation and to give others hope for the future.

    • Amanda White said,

      @Joanna I hope so too. :)

  3. Mike German said,

    I shared this with my students, and their attitude toward rehearsal and music making has dramatically changed for the better!

    • Amanda White said,

      @Mike Aww, that’s so cool!!!

  4. Karlan Judd said,

    Hi Amanda,

    Thanks so much for posting this gem. I am a music theatre composer and a fellow composer shared this with me. It’s very comforting and provocative!! I will share it with many friends who I hope will also enjoy it.

  5. ‘Meh’st Week Ever - March 1, 2009 « The Mouth of the Beast said,

    […] 3. Karl Paulnack […]

  6. David Greene said,

    I will be launching a blog/website soon devoted to music and would love to post this essay – with permission. I’ve tried to find Karl Paulnack’s email address without success. I don’t want to abuse anyone’s trust, but can you point me to a direct or indirect way to write to him for permission? Perhaps by forwarding this note to him with my email address? Thank you!

  7. Aleksandr Iliev said,

    A thoughtful offering … it is good to remind people of this… but some people need more reminding than others …

    In the west… music and the arts have not been valued for a long time…
    Music, in particular (in the practical sense) ceased to be a profession in North America after WW II.

  8. Rodolfo Vázquez, flutist. said,

    I had a similar experience in the early 90’s. I had been playing chamber music in the lobby of a beautiful downtown hotel in Columbus Ohio with my flute and my guitarist. We had just played one of Satie’s gymnopedies when a man who had been seating in the lobby listening got up and thanks us for playing that particular piece. He said he had been in France during World War II and every night he and the soldiers of his platoon would go to the tent to rest and listening to this piece over and over. It reminded them of home, of better times, of peace and prosperity. He was crying.

    Thanks so much to Karl for writing such an amazing speech.

  9. Princess Haiku said,

    Thank you for sharing this amazing speech. Is it okay if I post it on my blog?

  10. Music for a better world « The Grass is Always Greener said,

    […] essay (based on a speech) that has been floating around is “Why music?” by Karl Paulnack.  If you haven’t read it, I highly suggest you do.  It’s basic premise is that music […]

  11. Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit | Waitin' On a Moment - by Tim Gruber | Dallas Photographer said,

    […] you’re new here, you may want to subscribe to my RSS feed. Thanks for visiting!This essay/speech is by Karl Paulnack and was given to incoming freshman music majors at the Boston Conservatory. While the focus of the […]

  12. JMarra said,

    Very glad I found this and will pass it on. Thank you!

  13. Judy Watts said,

    Very well put! Thanks for sharing.

  14. Cindy said,

    Yes to all of this, yes!

    I, too, was in NYC for September 11th. I was singing at that time with a fabulous 40-voice chorus (Cantori NYC). Despite everything, that week our rehearsal went forward, and at the end our conductor pulled out, and we sang – sightread through – a Bach chorale. I don’t even remember which one it was. And, It was a moment in my life where it became so clear that the music connects us to ourselves, to others, and to our humanity. I have kept that thought and feeling ever since.

    Thanks for your great article. Am passing it along!

    • Amanda White said,

      Thanks for sharing, Cindy. I love hearing people’s experiences along these lines.

  15. Ritch said,

    This came to me through another website from a couple librarians. I didn’t have the link so Google gave me this one. I’ve excerpted on Facebook but referenced here for the full text of the speech. I believe the major audience was to the Parents of the entering freshmen class as he later tells them (the parents) the lines he will be telling their sons and daughters in a couple days during his welcome to them. Regardless, it’s very thought provoking. I’m certainly getting the pieces he mentioned and listening to them with new…internal listeners.
    Best Wishes.

    • Amanda White said,

      Thanks so much for the link! As far as I know this is the only version posted with permission from the author, so I’m glad Google pointed you in our direction. Keep on listening…

  16. Bill Cohen said,

    Well this was interesting.

    On the night of 9/11, I think it was a Tuesday, our group was set to play a jazz gig. However, we all decided that it would be in bad taste – sort of frivolous to fiddle while another part of the country burned, so to speak, so we cancelled the gig.

  17. simply put. » Music Will Save The World said,

    […] […]

  18. dana deluca shechtman said,

    I was one of those parents in the audience that day and this speech moved me deeply. I got home that night after leaving my beautiful songbird in the hands of Boston Conservatory and I wrote to Dr. Paulnack. I knew then that my daughter had chosen the best place to pursue her passion. She graduates in a few short weeks and is continuing on for her Master’s. Thank you Dr. Paulnack !!!!!

  19. Conservatory Supplier said,

    Great Speech !

  20. Why music and the arts matter! « The Walla Walla Symphony said,

    […] music and the arts matter! Jump to Comments Click here to read what Karl Paulnauck of the Boston Conservatory of Music has to say on the matter. If  you […]

  21. conservatory cleaning west yorkshire said,

    many thanks ! good post

  22. What Is Music For? « Ultrajc’s Blog said,

    […] Speech by Karl Paulnack of Boston Conservatory […]

  23. Marny Peirson said,

    Wonderful speech. I take a group of Seniors into Retirement homes every week to sing to and with the people. We hand out song books to encourage singing, and get amazing reactions from our audiences, who come to life with some of our songs.

  24. Paledrepsal said,

    For a second everything went quiet in the cab, then the driver said, “Look mate, don’t ever do that again. You scared the daylights out of me!”

  25. Kathy VanMaren said,

    I am a member of Sweet Adeline International, the Choral-Aires Chorus to be specific. We often have coaching and our last coach gave our board and music team a copy of this speech; we then had to real this speech aloud to the whole chorus. How powerful this speech is! As we go thru our daily lives we often don’t notice how music impacts our world. I cannot imagine a world without music and without music and singing in my life. Thanks for this wonderful speech.

  26. Terri Weaver said,

    I just read an article in the TAO (The American Organist) in the September 2009 issue. Wow!!! What an article and I felt compelled to send an note!

    Thank You! I truly feel playing music is expressing God’s joy and inspiring others. Your article/speech was awe inspiring,

    Terri Weaver
    West Grove, PA

  27. Jentri said,

    Thank you for this. So many of us artists wonder what the hell we are doing from time to time. We know deep inside, that to deny our passion is to deny ourselves, and perhaps others, true happiness. But we go through periods of doubt and confusion too – wondering when/if what we do will matter. This was a reminder to me that following our heart’s passion is not optional. And following our heart’s passion is the impetus for it mattering.

    Jentri Chancey
    Austin, TX

  28. Inspirations… Love this | forward MARSH said,

    […] Check it out here: Paulnack Essay/Speech. […]

  29. M Mark said,

    I would like a copy of the Copland work but cannot find which of Copland’s works is referred to in Karl Paulnack’s address. It is not the most referred to as his Piano Sonala because it was dedicated to Clifford Odets who died in 1963 of cancer.

    Help: the correct title and work .

    Thanks, Mcm

  30. Another music speech by Karl Paulnack « Not Just Another Pretty Voice said,

    […] I’ve ever published on this blog since it moved to WordPress (and probably before) has been Karl Paulnack’s speech on the importance of music, which I published with his permission.  When Mr. Paulnack emailed me his very nice letter, he […]

  31. Gary Anderson said,

    Very insightful and thought provoking.

  32. links for 2009-03-07 said,

    […] Speech by Karl Paulnack of Boston Conservatory (tags: music relationships) Published on Saturday, March 7, 2009 · Permalink Filed in Links […]

  33. Speech by Karl Paulnack of Boston Conservatory | in tune said,

    […] Go to Speech by Karl Paulnack of Boston Conservatory → Published on Friday, March 6, 2009 · Permalink Topics: music, relationshipsFiled in Bookmarks […]

    • lynn harrell said,

      One of the strongest and powerful expressions of art and it’s effect on the human spirit that I have ever seen . It should be on the bulletin board of every arts institution and read regularly. I am so thankful to have been sent Mr. Paulnack’s address. Lynn Harrell

  34. Pixote Hunt said,

    The list of all the things I am not can stretch from hear to eternity. I have to share that after reading this speech from Mr. Paulnack I remember when I was a very young man with a love of art and a neophyte’s understanding of music. It was someone very special who took the time to open my eyes to the power and responsibility of being more than a person that draws cartoons. This person always saw me as an artist. Then one day I believed it for myself. I was not just a cartoonist I am a healer putting smiles on the hearts and faces of millions. I guess this person taught me the most important note on the whole piano and that’s “middle see” the ability to see, hear, and touch the world to make a difference. I am now a director and art director in animation still reaching out to touch hearts and make a difference in this world because someone took the time to help me to understand “middle see”. With great admiration and respect I want to say thank you Karl.
    Maurice Pixote Hunt :O)

  35. Music As Medicine | Darin Wilson said,

    […] Karl Paulnack, music department head at Boston […]

  36. why i play classical music | rachel: in progress said,

    […] to feed starving children or cure cancer. (Okay, I may be proven wrong on the last one.) But, as Karl Paulnack beautifully told the incoming freshmen at Boston Conservatory, music does something beautiful for our souls. I don’t think it is silly for me to say that I […]

  37. Sheri said,

    Thanks for linking this speech to an NPR comment thread.

    I appreciate Paulnack’s remarks and it’s important to be reminded about the essential nature of art, and also about the way it transforms and connects those who remain otherwise remote.

    • Amanda White said,

      I wasn’t the one who linked it, but I appreciate the person who did. Sure got me a lot of hits! :D Srsly tho, I <3 NPR

  38. LB Johnson said,


    Karl, your parents were right: Society does not value musicians. Much less classical musicians.

    Your essay is airy-fairy. The truth is, most people expect musicians to perform for free. Or rather, most people are not willing to pay to hear you perform. They would pay a doctor, a therapist, a psychologist, etc. Not a musician.

    Your wishy-washy words fail to acknowledge the fact that music does not have the same effect on everyone. If one guy is moved by your performance, at least 100 other guys will find it plain boring. So, just because one guy among 100 was moved to tears by a particular piece, doesn’t mean that “society” as a whole cares about music.

    So, even if you think of yourself as ” a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, blah, blah blah…” Society as a whole does not see you like that. For most people you are just an entertainer. Someone who doesn’t want to work. A lazy fuck who just wants to do what pleases him and doesn’t provide value to society. Not the value that a lawyer or a doctor provide. And to some extent they are right. Because like I said, music does not have the same effect on everyone. You may “heal” one person while hundreds others will see you as someone who is not doing a damn thing other than doing just what you like and not wanting to do real work.

    In short, your parents were right and you remain wrong.

    • Amanda White said,

      Well, you are entitled to your opinion!

    • alain said,

      You probably don’t realize how many people wil read through to your deep sadness. Try to see that youself. Anger and bitterness completely turn over when I contact my pain and sorrow. And music helps for that purpose.

    • Erin Bell said,

      This comment is what happens when someone misses the point entirely.

      Paulnack was not talking about his own music specifically, or even that of Western culture. He just used it as an example because that’s what he knows. But every culture in the world, in every place, has created music of some kind. It is used in ritual, in celebration, in sadness, in all aspects of human life.

      You can have your opinion, but the facts just don’t back it up. Music is an essential human expression, and ignoring the history behind it is just plain denial.


    • Bob Saget said,

      cool story bro

  39. Shankar Ramachandran said,

    Thank you for sharing this. it is powerful and meaningful across cultures. I find myself sharing it with fellow parents and music teachers as well as musicians and other artists.

  40. Joyce said,

    I am a violin teacher in Texas. This was reprinted in the Southwestern Musician journal, TMEA’s magazine for members. I’m going to print a copy for each of my students and parents for Spring Semester.

  41. Feeling emotion through music? said,

    […] […]

  42. Bob Saget said,

    that was liek teh gr8est artical evar

  43. AMN Interviews: Ted Zook | Avant Music News said,

    […] excerpt from an address to parents of the incoming freshman class at Boston Conservatory, given by Karl Paulnack, pianist and director […]

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