Wake Up and Be Dangerous

It was a cloudy Thursday afternoon, the day before graduation. Our small class of 37, joined by faculty and most of our families, sat in the cozy and familiar recital hall, and waited as one of our well-loved theory professors made his way to the podium to deliver the keynote speech.

Generally mild-mannered, with quirky sayings such as “naturally, I think it’s the shiz,” and his typically monochromatic eccentric style of dress (one day he wore a camel mock turtleneck with khakis and cowboy boots), we all weren’t sure what to expect for his speech. We figured it would contain various allusions to musical literature, perhaps some Greek mythology, a reference or two to movies and movie scores – these usually all made it into his regular lectures. But what we hadn’t expected was one word that appeared nearly half-way through his speech.

“As musicians, you embody the music,” he said, looking around at us. “The music takes up your form, and in the same manner, you become the music. This is why music has inspired change for generations.”

He went on to say, “Music should be dangerous; it should challenge beliefs, inspire new ones, and rebel against popular form. I believe that today we have lost the ability to be dangerous.”

Dangerous? I questioned the word choice. Did I hear that right? Did he mean to use that there? And if so, what does that word entail exactly? What did he mean when he said that we lack the ability to be dangerous? And why did he relate that to music?

“Looking back through history,” our professor continued, “why do you believe certain leaders were feared or respected? They were regarded as dangerous. They demanded change.”

The word “dangerous” holds a multitude of meanings. Google it and you’ll find a list of common synonyms, with “hazardous” and “troubling” making the top of the list. A slew of others call into question our professor’s particular word choice: should music really be regarded as “perilous”? Should we, as musicians and furthermore, as recent graduates, be considered “hazardous”?

But then I looked farther down the page, to the antonym section, and saw this: careful, guarded, safe, secure, untroubled.

We live in a world that consistently feels less and less secure. It’s natural to seek safety and stability. Perhaps this can be seen as a reason why the current political campaign stands as it does. Donald Trump skillfully plays on the instability of people’s emotions as reflected by the seemingly increasing volatile state of the world. He offers a false sense of security to Americans, and this, ironically, is dangerous – in the most negative sense of the word.

“As you enter a new chapter of your lives,” our professor concluded that day, “challenge yourself to be unique, to play and compose and make music differently. Wake up and be dangerous.”

While that Thursday afternoon happened weeks ago, I find myself thinking about these words more often, and surprisingly, with more clarity, than before. The surprising results of an audition brought me to a summer orchestra festival, where I currently find myself playing more music with more focus than I have in a long time. I’m surrounded by people who have decided to make music their profession, at least for the time being. They are incredibly committed to their craft; there is a dedication to detail and perfection that borders on near fixation, and I have to wonder if, in this, we have found a way to be dangerous. If anything, we are constantly challenging ourselves to improve and to play in a way that hopefully inspires not only our listeners, but also ourselves. Endeavoring to “be dangerous” is perhaps the choice to create with passion and courage rather than striving for perfection.

But I wonder too if I am doing enough to be “dangerous” – to challenge myself, to go against the norm in a way that makes the world a better place. I don’t know yet if I can do that through music, and it’s a hard fact to admit to myself while I’m here surrounded by dedicated musicians. Maybe that’s what “being dangerous” means too: choosing a different path even when you’re not completely sure what lies down that road.

Our professor made a bold word choice in his speech, and he chose aptly. Being dangerous, in his definition, inspires and challenges. It holds an element of courage that builds inner strength. And that is truly “dangerous” in the face of intolerance.