Francesca Tanksley |Commencement Address


This Commencement Address is dedicated to my late college professor, Murielle Kupferberg Odle, who, in a few simple words one day, gently and solidly, brought me back to my real self, and without whose wisdom, humor, and steady encouragement I would not be here speaking to all of you today.

President Bob Kerry, Jazz Program Director Martin Mueller, students, faculty, staff, and honored guests:

It is a privilege for me to speak to all of you at this Jazz Recognition Ceremony. I'm sure that those of you who are graduating are excited and happy to have reached the finish line. I would like first of all to congratulate all of you on completing your studies. This is not an easy program, and I know that, without exception, it took hard work, courage, and determination for you to arrive at this point. I would also like to express my appreciation to my esteemed colleagues - the New School faculty - who helped to make your education a success; to the New School staff for their tireless efforts in making everything run smoothly; to your friends, who encouraged you when you felt overwhelmed, and celebrated with you when you reached your goals; and finally, to your parents and elders, who first believed in your dreams of creating this music, and who gave you the priceless gift of treating those dreams with dignity and seriousness.

I was wondering what I might say to you on this eve of your commencement. To paraphrase the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy who once wrote that there are as many ways of loving as there are human beings, I think that there are as many ways of being a musician as there are musicians. I myself believe that the quality of my music depends upon the quality of my life; if I'm fit as a human being, then the music has a chance of happening on a higher level. And so I thought that you might like to hear about certain life practices that I have found to be helpful over the years.

First. Developing a conscious connection with a Reality greater than myself, and living in alignment with that Reality, have given me peace, inspiration, and compassion. Whether you might understand that to mean embracing one of the world's religions, or simply focusing on your breathing for a few minutes each day - I have found that there is much to be gained here. The key to maintaining my practice in this area has been honesty, especially honesty with myself. Whenever I feel disappointed about someone or something, and I am completely honest with myself about the situation, I begin to understand more, and I'm brought back to center; because the only way that I can be honest is to be in my heart. Being honest really helps my music; I know you can relate to that. When I play or compose music, a question always arises: "Am I being truthful? Does this music come from my heart?" Music that comes from the heart is alive; it has integrity. Critics can't touch it. So, as I choose to live life with my heart, the music is good. And when I choose to play music from my heart, my life is definitely good.

Second. Finding and keeping a strong community of good friends has been a source of both pleasure and vital support. And by friends I mean here anyone with whom I share understanding and trust. Being a jazz musician is not the easiest thing to be, and being human can be even more challenging. Both can be amazing, and both can sometimes be lonely. The key for me here has been to try to remember that, though I may have to do some things alone - like compose music, or fill out a grant application, or stand up here and speak to all of you - I am also not alone. For one thing, I have good friends, who will listen to a composition-in-progress and let me know whether or not it's making any sense, or they'll tell me we'll go to the movies when I'm done filling out my grant application. And, as I've gotten older, I've become a fairly decent friend to myself as well: When I feel that composing or practicing piano is too difficult, I try to find ways to invite myself to sit down at the piano and just enjoy; I encourage myself in challenging situations like giving a commencement speech; I spend time with the people I love. Most importantly, there's that Greater Reality that I mentioned earlier, which, provided I keep an open mind and a willingness to keep seeking, grants me the only thing that I ever really need, which is peace.

Third. I have found it vital to develop good habits if I want to live happily. If I want my life to be truly satisfying, then I need to forgo some things that offer excitement in the short term but only lead to suffering, and do things that bring good results instead. That's very easy to say: it's one thing to talk about changing my ways. It's another thing entirely, to do the right thing every day, patiently and deliberately, so that I can eventually do it as a matter of routine and with little effort. The most valuable habit that I've discovered and that I try to implement on a daily basis, other than practicing the piano, is that of focusing inward, with the willingness to try to understand - the Universe, others and myself.

So three things - being aware of a Reality greater than myself, good friends, and good habits - these are some things that have stood the test of time in my life.
I would like to leave you with some ideas that the great musician John Coltrane once shared. He said: "There is never any end. There are always new sounds to imagine; new feelings to get at. And always, there is the need to keep purifying these feelings and sounds so that we can really see what we've discovered in its pure state. So that we can see more and more clearly what we are. In that way, we can give, to those who listen, the essence, the best, of what we are. But to do that at each stage, we have to keep on cleaning the mirror."

Congratulations to the Class of 2008. I'm proud of you, and I wish for each of you a good life, as well as the willingness to "keep on cleaning the mirror." Thank you very much.

Below are some questions and answers from an interview that Woodstock Times editor Julie Gibbs did with me when my CD was released. With her permission, I've taken her initial questions and added more ideas to my answers, in order to give you a sense of what I've been doing.

When did you form the Francesca Tanksley Trio?

The current trio, with Clarence Seay and Newman Taylor Baker, has been a unit for about four years. My first trio concert took place a few years earlier, in Woodstock, NY, as part of what was then known as the FM Artists' Coalition, a group of artists from various mediums who co-created performances and shows of their work. My bassist and drummer on that performance were Rich Syracuse and Jeff Siegel. We played my original compositions, some of which are on Journey.

How long had you been contemplating doing your own CD?

About four years ago, I was performing in Denver with the Billy Harper Quintet. We were relaxing after the performance, and one of the technical staff played a CD of some piano trio music while they were packing up their equipment. As I listened, something struck me about the sense of intimacy and 'space' that can happen between just those three instruments, and I realized then that I wanted to record my own album. The decisions to be the leader and producer, and to record under my own label, just fell into place after that.

Where was the CD recorded? Are you self-distributing/promoting?

We recorded in Woodstock, NY, at Chris Andersen's studio, Nevessa Production Woodstock. I had researched quite a few studios in New York City, and at Nevessa, the piano felt good, and the room sound added a depth that I really liked, so I chose to do the recording there.

I am self-distributing and I also have a worldwide distributor, North Country Distributors, who will be distributing to larger stores like Tower and HMV, as well as to the smaller independent record stores. I'll be doing promotion myself, with the help of Helen Scott, who is also president of the Billy Harper Fan Club.

Can you talk about the experience of creating this, your first recording of your own work? Are you happy with it? Has it inspired you to pursue a career as a leader?

It's been a process of seriously focused activity - exciting, sometimes nerve-wracking, and definitely satisfying. It called for wearing many hats: bandleader, composer, producer, executive producer, and record label owner. With a lot of help from friends and colleagues, I learned what each of those jobs called for. I gained valuable experience along the way, sometimes in the School of Hard Knocks! It's been a humbling experience. I learned that if you keep a firm hold on what you feel is truly important - regardless of any difficulties - then what you wanted will be there when the project is finished. And seeing it there is a great feeling.

My engineers and I worked hard to get a certain warmth of sound in the recording. We recorded the music in digital format (done electronically), did the mix, and then converted it to analogue format (transferred it to reel-to-reel tape, the medium with which all recordings used to be made). As a result, the overall sound changed noticeably, becoming more refined, more musical to the ears. The sound of the drums especially, became smoother, while still retaining their depth. Each instrument seemed to gain a separate niche in which its own identity was enhanced. We then mastered the recording while still in analogue format, then converted it back to digital format, which gave it added clarity.

I'm also happy with how the artwork on Journey turned out. The printing of the photographs, which turned out to be more beautiful than we'd hoped for, was done at Fort Orange Press in Albany, NY, and the pressing of the discs as well as the final packaging was done through Magnetic North in Saugerties, NY.

Cooper Lake, a water reservoir just outside of Woodstock, was my place of refuge during this entire year of the CD's production. I went to the Lake before the recording, after the recording, during stressful snafus, and again when I sent everything off to be manufactured. While it's always been a special place, during this past year it became a sort of spiritual parent to me. Some of the photographs on the CD were taken at Cooper Lake; the others were taken at Nevessa studio. Incorporating both of these important places into the photography added a feeling of unity to the album.

What's it been like to be a woman in the jazz field, and now to be a woman who is leading a jazz trio? Does it pose distinct challenges? Can you discuss what it's like to be leading your own group?

It can be challenging. So far, women comprise about 10% of the musicians in the field of jazz music. Those numbers are increasing, and yet many women jazz musicians remain in the margins of the business. It's sometimes difficult when others haven't yet heard me play. My persona doesn't fit the stereotype of the jazz musician, so I'm sometimes met with skepticism. After someone hears me, though, they usually open up in a positive way to what I'm doing. And I've found musicians, male and female, with whom I really enjoy working, and where it is understood that we are all on an equal footing.

I like being a leader. I enjoy focusing on my own music and hearing it develop as it's played in the trio. It's a joy to be supported by such talented musicians as Newman Taylor Baker and Clarence Seay. I'm impressed by their complete willingness to work with me on getting the music to where I'd like it to be. I also enjoy working in a group led by someone else. I can lend my ideas of accompaniment to their music, and I don't have to deal with the responsibilities and pressures of being a leader.

What are your future plans for the trio and for promoting the CD? Will you be touring, and if so, when and where and for how long?

I hope to be working steadily with the trio and continuing to promote Journey, learning as I go. So far our next performance will be in New York City, on November 14. My goal is to start booking several performances in the Northeast, then moving on to the rest of the country, and eventually touring other countries. Who knows where the path will lead us? The journey continues!


Thank you's and Acknowledgements for Journey:

I am humbled to have been able to work with the talented people who contributed to this project.

My colleagues, Clarence Seay and Newman Taylor Baker, as well as our guest vocalist, Judy Bady, are some of the most dedicated musicians I know. My recording engineer, Sascha von Oertzen, and master engineer, Gene Paul, impressed me with their commitment to reproducing the special sound of acoustic creative music. My graphic designer, Susanna Ronner, deserves first prize for both her artistic vision as well as her consistently professional, friendly, and flexible manner, regardless of how many times I called her up with yet more changes to be made! Lian Amber, another talented graphic artist who is also, by the way, a wonderful vocalist and composer, designed my website in what seemed like no time at all, and patiently helped out with many other technical aspects of the CD production as well. Juliet Varnedoe, the photographer for the CD, gave us her special talent for working with natural light and for getting great shots of someone who feels uncomfortable in front of the camera. Musician friends and colleagues - Erica Lindsay, Sumi Tonooka, Colette Michaan, Billy Harper, Howard Johnson, Hal Miller, Bar Scott, John Esposito, Helen Scott, Ellen Sribnick - all believed in me from the very beginning when I first shared with them about recording my own CD, and helped me to see that it was actually high time that I did so. Some people I only recently met through this project, and some I had already known but grew to appreciate more by working with them - musicians Baikida Carroll and Deborah Weisz, and engineer Tom Mark, to name a few. I am truly indebted to my spiritual friends, who in my many phone calls to them gave freely of their time and emotional support. And finally, my grandmother, Franziska Mann, who encouraged me to practice the piano when I was young, and whose love continues to give me confidence.

To those whom I've mentioned and to those whom I have not mentioned: your generosity, along with your consistently respectful attitude towards me, encouraged me to see this project through to the end, and to become more of who I really am. Thank you.