The Bienen School of Music celebrated the class of 2020 with a virtual convocation ceremony presented in conjunction with Northwestern’s 162nd annual Commencement on June 19. The school’s ceremony included several student performances, messages from faculty, individual recognition of student achievement, and an address by Grammy-winning composer Jennifer Higdon, 2018 winner of the school’s Michael Ludwig Nemmers Prize in Music Composition. 

Northwestern’s virtual Commencement began with two video performances by Bienen School students: Wagner’s “Festmarsch” from Tannhäuser, recorded by the Symphonic Wind Ensemble, and Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance, performed by class of 2020 Bienen School orchestra students. Commencement also featured Olivia Prendergast ’20 singing the national anthem as well as a recording by the Bienen Contemporary/Early Vocal Ensemble of the Alma Mater as arranged by Kevin Vondrak ’17 MMus.

In her remarks, Dean Toni-Marie Montgomery commended graduates for their adaptability in adjusting to remote instruction during the spring quarter. “Everyone viewing today’s virtual convocation recognizes how particularly challenging the past several months have been for you,” she said. “The loss of in-person instrumental and vocal lessons, academic music classes, ensemble rehearsals, and degree recitals will not define the Bienen class of 2020. The silence resulting from the loss of live performances and music making only emphasizes the essential need for music and the arts in our everyday lives. 

“Despite these current and numerous challenges, I remain confident that the future is yours, and yours to change for the better,” Montgomery continued. “You possess the skills and are prepared not only to cope with difficulties that will arise along the way, but to take advantage of the many opportunities that await you.” 

Following Dean Montgomery’s remarks, Higdon encouraged students to lead an artful life and be open to all experiences. Winner of a Pulitzer Prize and three Grammy Awards, Higdon is one of America’s most acclaimed and frequently performed living composers. 

“The silence resulting from the loss of live performances and music making only emphasizes the essential need for music and the arts in our everyday lives.” - Dean Montgomery

Higdon declared that no matter what the graduates ended up doing in their lives, their presence in, knowledge and practice of, and enthusiasm for music would be “a win-win situation. There is no downside to sharing an art form that touches every single person who walks this planet.” 

She also urged students not to wait until later to tackle things they feel passionate about. “Life is not a predetermined route. It’s never what you expect, but that’s what makes it possible for you to scale the mountains of experience and to actually reach the stars from time to time.” 

More than 70 Bienen School faculty members also shared advice and messages with the class of 2020 in a video salute to graduates. “It has been such a tremendous privilege and honor to share in your educational experience, and I hope this is something you will carry with you forever as you go forward in your lives and in your careers,” said director of bands Mallory Thompson. Associate professor of composition Jay Alan Yim added, “Take care of each other, and keep your ears and your minds and your hearts open to the amazing power of music to touch other beings in ways that no other endeavor can even begin to do.” 

The virtual convocation ceremony recognized each Bienen School graduate individually with a slide and web page highlighting the student’s degree program, major, and—for doctoral candidates—dissertation and adviser. Assistant deans Linda Jacobs and Patrick Zylka and graduate studies directors Mark Butler and James Giles read the graduates’ names to further personalize the virtual experience. 

Northwestern hopes to invite all 2020 graduates back to campus on June 12, 2021, to honor their accomplishments, subject to confirmation as public-health guidance becomes clear.

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