Blanca Uribe, Professor of Music
Spring Convocation, April 27, 2005
President Fergusson, members of the faculty, members of the graduating class of 2005, friends and guests: I am honored to be asked to speak at this, my last Vassar Convocation. I have to tell you right off that, no matter how many times I’ve done it, I find playing the piano for a large number of people a terrifying experience. Talking to a large number of people, something I am quite new at, is worse. Writing down something to say to a large number of people is the worst of all. If I had been asked in 1969, when I came to Vassar, to prepare a speech for delivery in 2005 I might be ready. I write slowly. When asked to take minutes in our music department meetings, I’ve always said: ’’Me no speak English.“ I guess I can’t get away with that this afternoon.
I would like to share with you a bit of my life history. I was born in Bogotá, Colombia. This is a country you may have heard of. If so, you’ve probably heard something bad about it. I want to tell you some good things. Colombia produces great coffee. There are 3,500 kinds of orchids. There are 14,000 species of butterflies. There are 1,815 species of exotic birds and 94 universities. We touch the Caribbean, the Pacific, we have jungles, the Andes Mountains, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and his Nobel Prize in Literature, and then — Orlando Cabrera and Edgar Renteria playing for the Medias Rojas, otherwise known as the Boston Red Sox. Colombia does have its problems—what country doesn’t—but I love it and look forward to returning there this fall. I should add that I became an American citizen years ago and plan many returns to my adopted and also beloved country.
I come from a family of professional musicians. Starting with my great-grandmother, and including my grandparents, numerous aunts and uncles and extending down to my much younger half-brother, nieces and nephews, we all play or played music. My father was the best. He played three instruments masterfully, was equally at home in the symphony, in a jazz band, in a salsa orchestra, or playing Colombian folk music. He made many recordings and was a greatly admired teacher. His students can be found prominently in orchestras throughout Colombia and elsewhere in Latin America. He was an inspiration to the whole family.
Now it seems a little ironic that it was my mother, the only non-musician in the family, who got me going on the piano. She arranged that her mother-in-law, my grandmother, should give me lessons, at age six, when she came each week to have dinner with us. My mother would sit with me as I practiced and could somehow tell when I deliberately skipped a passage in order to get done early. In any case, I made pretty good progress and within a year I entered the conservatory in Bogotá.
I said that Colombia was not free of problems. My first memory of a significant event is as follows: two weeks before my eighth birthday a leader of the poorest segment of our society was murdered. The ten-day armed conflict that broke out caused many to be killed, buildings to be burnt down; and one could buy nothing to eat for days. I remember to this day both the sound of firearms and of casings falling in our patio. We lived near the Presidential Palace amidst all the trouble. I was in a panic. When neighboring children excitedly ran out to see a tank rolling toward the church tower where snipers had positioned themselves, I hid under a chest of drawers. My mother could barely pull me out. Despite all this turmoil I was mysteriously asked to sleep one night apart from my mother. My father was trapped in another city where he had been performing and I had found comfort sharing her bed. I screamed in protest, but to no avail. The next morning I discovered a birthday present—my youngest brother had been born that night. I took the news of this gift very seriously and wanted to take complete care of this baby. I’m afraid I may have dropped him more than once. Despite that, he has turned into an excellent musician.
I made my concerto debut with the Colombian Symphony when I was eleven. Much was made of this in the press; but my brothers and sister saw to it that such attention did not go to my head. I thank them for keeping me grounded even to this day. I cannot say enough about the support they have given me. They have sat through my concerts with ice-cold hands, back pains, heart palpitations and all manner of other nervous manifestations. The only example I can think of resembling sibling rivalry is my dear sister Clara once complaining that I never had to wash dishes because my mother was protective of my hands. The truth is, my mother was protective of the dishes--which I kept dropping and breaking.
At one concert I played when I was twelve, a wealthy Colombian philanthropist heard me and offered to sponsor my education, including my dream of studying abroad. I benefited from his generosity for ten years.
You may not believe this, but in 1953, no one spoke Spanish in Miami-- except me, aged 13, traveling alone, and knowing no English. I was on my way to Kansas City, where my uncle lived. As I arrived in Miami, it was noticed that my papers said that I had a highly contagious disease. This was not true. A doctor in the Consulate back home had checked the wrong box on a form. I had two alternatives: either I go back on the next flight or I go for tests. If the tests were positive I would then be sent home immediately; if they were negative I was to go to a hospital for observation and more tests. The first tests were negative, and I wound up in a hospital in quarantine for one week. The worst part of this was that the new clothes my mother had bought me were, when sterilized, completely ruined. Everything else I could handle. But that was a tragedy.
Kansas City boasted a very well known piano teacher—a man named Wiktor Labunski—who was a main reason for my going there. I loved my lessons with him. At school, I turned out to be the only foreigner—which made me something of a novelty. The first day, the principal introduced me to the whole school, had me play for an all-school assembly, and then assigned the other kids the task of teaching me English. The words I learned on the playground, most of which are now--fifty years later--in fairly common use, didn’t seem to fit polite conversation at the time.
Kansas City had, in the 1950s, an excellent orchestra. Because of winning a competition at age 14, I was able to play as soloist with them eleven times—which was wonderful experience for a young performer.
Three years in Kansas proved happy but limiting. I wanted to study in the most famous music capital—Vienna—with the legendary piano teacher Richard Hauser. So, at 17, after a brief visit back home, I took an endless flight (no jets in 1957) from Bogotá to Paris and then on to Vienna the next day. Now the problem was, I didn’t speak German. And I had no assurance that Professor Hauser, or indeed any other teacher at the Vienna Academy, would accept me as a student. What could I have been thinking! I remember my father asking me over and over again: are you sure you want to do this? Well, I did.
Luckily, Professor Hauser said yes. It may have been because he was impressed by the long journey I had undertaken. I would like to think he saw a glimmer of hope for my playing. If he did, he did not let that show. His teaching method entirely lacked the element of “positive reinforcement“. He wanted to change a lot about my technique. This meant that, for quite a while, I showed no clear progress either to him or to myself. His favorite refrain was, “maybe I made a mistake in accepting you as a student.“ He was incredibly rough on all of us. And by us, I include Mitsuko Uchida who now enjoys a wonderful career worldwide. I hate to tell you how furiously I had to work to convince Professor Hauser that I belonged in his class. Somehow the experience turned out to be a happy and very productive one. Of course I had to move five times in one year, with a grand piano in tow. The Vienna Academy had no practice facilities, and the neighbors in each house I lived in would call the police rather than listen to me practice. I remember one landlady saying, “must you repeat the same thing so many times?“ I later heard her humming a complicated Bach Fugue—so I was really getting to her. Beethoven, also living in Vienna, moved every few months—and for much the same reason. That might have comforted me had I known it at the time. Thinking still about Professor Hauser, I wondered when I was invited back to Vienna to judge the International Beethoven Piano Competition (I’m doing this again this June) whether his ghost was paying attention. I hope so.
In Vienna I went to my first opera and fell in love with this kind of music. For the equivalent of twenty-five cents one could buy standing room. I went at least twice a week for five years. Today, my feet are killing me as a result. It was worth it.
Then there were the art galleries (I remember the Titians, Breugels but most especially the Rembrandts) and the theater, when I finally got enough German to comprehend it.
I entered international competitions and won prizes in a fair number; but I seem to remember mostly the ones where I did not do so well. In Munich I played in the morning, was eliminated by noon, and no sooner had I eaten lunch than I was evicted from my room. Out on the street with suitcase and nowhere to go. In Bolzano, Italy, having reached the finals, I noticed a television crew following me around. This seemed to be a good sign. Sure enough, of the twelve finalists, I was the only one to get no prize at all. Well, as I said, I did OK in quite a few competitions.
After Vienna, I received (through the considerable efforts of my mother) a scholarship from the Organization of American States to study at The Juilliard School in New York with the famed Russian teacher Rosina Lhevinne (whose student Van Cliburn had caused such a sensation). Alas, my mother died just as I was to audition for Madame Lhevinne. By the time I got to New York her class was full. It took six weeks and the intervention of her assistant and the Dean to get her to agree even to hear me. She found room for me in her class, and my first lesson was November 21, 1963. It went so well that, the next day, I felt like celebrating. Since I knew no one, this meant having lunch alone in front of the television. Those here of my generation or older will immediately recognize the significance of the date of this celebration: November 22, 1963. As I was watching television, the news came of President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas. This terrible event, combined with my mother’s death, the uncertainty of being in the piano class I had specifically come for, and the general loneliness, made for another rough beginning. You will think that I specialize in rough beginnings.
After seven years at Juilliard the Registrar there joked that they should give me a pension. I knew then it was time to leave.
And so I came to Vassar. Because my training had been in conservatories, and I had always lived in big cities, Vassar represented a really new experience. The beauty of the campus captivated me; the sixty-eight Steinway grand pianos overwhelmed me. There could be no excuse for not practicing in this place! And I loved the magnificent library—both the main library and the unusually fine music library. (Did I mention earlier that Colombia has 1100 public libraries? We like books.) But it is my colleagues and my students who have made the past 36 years so rewarding. First, my colleagues. They have been so supportive and have set such a wonderful example through their own playing that one could hardly not flourish in their midst. And, most remarkable, they all seem to get along. This can’t be said of every music department.
About my students, I can’t say enough good things. They have been intelligent, talented, curious, disciplined, fun, and-most importantly—warm and human. A number of them from past classes are here today, one coming from as far away as Seattle. Not all have gone on in music. As I approach my so-called golden years, I am counting on their expertise in medicine, law and finance to see me through.
You may notice that I’ve told you of a good many trials and tribulations. Please notice also that I have actually survived these trials and tribulations. Beyond all the help of friends, colleagues and family, that survival has happened in good part because my main activity has been something I’ve felt passionate about. The playing of great music has seemed to me a worthy purpose, something to dedicate one’s life to without regret. If I have any advice to offer the graduating class, and I think it might be part of my assignment in giving this talk to come up with some, it is try to find a comparable project, cause, mission or profession that you can bring yourself to care fervently about—so fervently that setbacks, missteps, misdiagnoses, disagreeable landlords and other troublesome people become minor irritations along the way. Toward that lofty goal, I want to wish all of you the most wonderful good luck.
Now, I have to admit that President Fergusson suggested, when she first asked me to give this talk, that I might play something. I will, but it is going to be very short. To send you out dancing, dancing not in Colombian style but in Argentinean style, I will play two of the Danzas Argentinas by Alberto Ginastera. The Dance of the Graceful Maiden and the Dance of the Shrewd Cowboy.