Bienen School of Music alumnus Howard Reich (77)—an Emmy Award– winning filmmaker, author of six critically applauded books, and longtime critic and columnist for the Chicago Tribune—addressed the class of 2019 in Pick-Staiger Concert Hall at the school’s convocation on Saturday, June 22. 

“I believe that all of us in music and the arts are risk takers inherently, because there are a lot of easier ways to make a living than what we do—but few as thrilling or as meaningful,” said Reich. Sharing his own story of taking a risk as a teenager that made everything else in his life and career possible, he told of being admitted to Northwestern’s Medill School to study journalism. Against his parents’ wishes, Reich decided to pursue music, which led to a secret audition at the School of Music. 

“As I arrived at the old Music Administration Building, all the windows were open, and I could hear the pianists practicing Beethoven concertos and Chopin sonatas—it just sounded magnificent. And I thought, maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. But it was too late.”

Reich’s audition with piano professor Donald Isaak led to an offer of admission, followed by the realization that he would have to tell his parents the news. “I better wait until dinner,” he mused, as “everything is better with food. I told my parents, I’ve got some news—I’m not going to be a journalism major after all. They were euphoric! I think they had visions of me already in a lab coat with a stethoscope.” After he brought up the music school and his parents insisted he would never be admitted, Reich happily exclaimed, “I just got in.”

“Because of taking the risk of that audition, and that potential humiliation of falling on my face, I got to study music here for six years,” Reich continued. “That was the predicate for my entire career.” He contributed to the Chicago Daily News as a music journalist while still a senior at Northwestern and began covering music and the arts for the Chicago Tribune in 1978 while taking graduate coursework in music theory and history. Reich officially joined the Tribune staff as an arts critic in 1983 and has served in that capacity ever since.

“I believe that all of us in music and the arts are risk takers inherently, because there are a lot of easier ways to make a living than what we do— but few as thrilling or as meaningful.”

Reich then shared the story of another man—Chicago pianist Norman Malone—who took a series of risks that paid off spectacularly. Growing up in a poor family on Chicago’s South Side, Malone discovered his love of the piano at age five. He practiced until age 10 when, tragically, he was attacked by his abusive father and left paralyzed on his right side. Determined to continue his studies, Malone sought a teacher and was able to continue piano, successfully auditioning for the DePaul School of Music at age 18. 

“It took Norman nine years to get his undergraduate degree because he had no money, no connections, no clout, and one functioning hand,” said Reich. Malone completed his undergraduate and master’s degrees and then enjoyed a successful career as a high school choral teacher in the Chicago Public Schools. “He retired after this beautiful life, but he never told anyone—none of his students, none of his colleagues, his principals—why he was paralyzed in his right hand, nor that he still was practicing the piano and playing some of the most complex pieces ever written for left hand alone.”

After learning about Malone’s story, Reich interviewed the pianist over several months and published a three-part series in the Chicago Tribune. “Then an amazing thing happened. By now, Norman was in his late 70s, and for the first time in his life he started getting invitations to give concerts. And he started to take that risk. A few months later, he was offered the biggest risk of all; he was invited to play, with an orchestra in Connecticut, the Ravel piano concert for the left hand, which is probably the most difficult concerto for the left hand in all the repertoire. He took the risk—and he’s never stopped taking risks.” Reich is in postproduction on his third documentary film, Left-Handed Pianist, based on his Chicago Tribune stories about Malone. 

Reich concluded his convocation address with a final reference to risk—a quote from Studs Terkel: “Take it easy but take it.”

Among his many accolades, Reich has won two ASCAP Deems Taylor Awards, an Alumni Merit Award from the Northwestern Alumni Association, a Bravo Award from Dominican University, and the Anne Keegan Award and eight Peter Lisagor Awards from the Society of Professional Journalists. The Chicago Journalists Association named him 2011 Chicago Journalist of the Year. He has served four times on the jury for the Pulitzer Prize in Music. His writings on music for the Chicago Tribune have been published in two collections: Portraits in Jazz and Let Freedom Swing.

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