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'Keep That Flame Alive:' SFCM Gathers to Celebrate Graduates with Germaine Franco

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SFCM leaders conferred 154 credentials to the Class of 2024; Franco was awarded an honorary doctorate.

May 17, 2024 by SFCM News

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM) waved farewell to its 2024 class of musicians with its Thursday commencement, conferring degrees to 154 undergraduate, postgraduate, and graduate students.

The ceremony, held at Herbst Theatre in the San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center, featured a welcome by Chairman of the Board of Trustees Timothy Foo, an address by American composer Germaine Franco (who also received an honorary degree from SFCM), remarks by SFCM President David Stull, student speeches, and numerous musical performances.

SFCM 2024 graduates.

SFCM 2024 graduates.

In 2021, Franco became the first woman to ever score a Disney animated film, writing the score for Encanto, which went on to win a GRAMMY award and an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Score. Her work on the film Coco also earned her an Annie Award for Outstanding Achievement for Music in an Animated Feature, making her the first Latina to ever win the category.

Franco asked students a number of questions they have surely been asking themselves: "How do you move forward now, without a routine, without a structure, without a syllabus and professors to guide you? ... You are heading into the real world, which can knock you down. Yet, your goal is to keep that flame alive and burning bright. That flame will sustain you! Keep going back to the flame."

SFCM President David Stull

SFCM President David Stull at 2024's commencement.

President Stull echoed Franco's sentiment of encouragement, adding to it, a message of optimism. "If I could take one thing today and put it into the hearts of each and every one of you, it would be optimism. It is the only point for our culture in which we can imagine positive change," Stull added. "As musicians, you can communicate and listen at the same time, you can also take on difficult emotional questions and within those, communicate and listen at the same time. Imagine if we could teach this to the world. Imagine what we could achieve."

Students selected Hannah Wendorf as the undergraduate-level student commencement speaker. And for the first time, the result of a voting tie, Rayna Campbell and Josh Choi were selected as graduate-level student speakers.

Hanna Wendorf

Hanna Wendorf

"Your gifts must be shared and used for good," Wendorf told her classmates. "Congratulations on all the ways you’ve grown. Keep your ears, eyes, and heart open, and then use your hands and your voice to make change."

In a shared speech, Campbell and Choi delivered a message of unity, "The more authentic love and dedication you put into a community, the more authentic love and support is then passed to each member, including yourself," Choi said. 

Rayna Campbell and Josh Choi.

Rayna Campbell and Josh Choi.

Campbell highlighted the importance of foregrounding one's true self: "There is power in what you present to the table, not only as a musician but as a human being," Campbell said. "There is power in vulnerability and allowing yourself to be true to who you are." 

Dog seated during SFCM 2024 Commencement

SFCM students and a friend at 2024 Commencement.

The annual Presser Undergraduate Scholarship—conferred upon a student entering their senior year, in honor of publishing magnate and musician Theodore Presser—was awarded to Vuyiswa Sigadi, studying with César Ulloa. Jolie Fitch, a flutist studying with Cathy Payne, was awarded the 2024 Dean's Award for academic achievement, while the President’s Award, given for academic achievement and leadership, was given to Tommaso Saturnia, earning his Master's in composition and studying with David Garner.

Read Germaine Franco's entire remarks below:

Thank you President Stull, student speakers Hannah Wendorf, Rayna Cambell, and Josh Choi, Class of 2024 graduates, students, family, friends, and loved ones, distinguished faculty, Board of Trustees, and staff. I am very grateful to you for the privilege and honor of speaking today. The Honorary Doctorate in Music is very meaningful to me and my mother, Alicia Franco! I am humbled by this recognition, thank you!

We are here today, to celebrate the extraordinary hard work, creativity, and talent of the 2024 graduating students of SFCM! Let’s give it up for your collective work! You completed this chapter of your musical career, putting in endless hours honing your craft and creating harmony in the world!

Graduates, you have been part of a flourishing community while at SFCM. You are joining a legacy of musicians, singers, and composers, who have taught, performed, and graduated from this conservatory. You are a continuation of the work that founders Ada Clement and Lillian Hodghead started back in 1917. You created hope, beauty, and love through your musical excellence. Ada and Lillian would be proud of your work!

I would like to give a special shout out to a few people who have supported me: my brothers and sisters, Theresa, Michael, and Christene, who kindly listened to me practicing xylophone in the bathroom, as well as drum set and piano in the living room. Back then, we didn’t have cool noise reduction headphones and Air Pods! Smart phones didn’t exist! I need to thank my son, Mateo and my mentor John Powell. I have some dear friends here today: Sunny Park, Charlene Huang, and SFCM alumna, Gabrielle Mandel, from Netflix Music. These powerful women have supported me with their friendship, work and collaboration throughout many projects!

As I pondered the multitude of topics that I might choose for my speech today, I settled on this: How can artists sustain their inner strength while pursuing a career in music? Yesterday, while outside, on the 12th floor terrace of the impressive Bowes Center, I noticed a quote printed on the steps. It read “Music is Life!” It’s so simple and yet so profound. We are like fishes in a sea of music. We breathe music. We can’t live without it. We can’t imagine our lives without playing, singing, or writing music. This unique quality about us musos (as they say in Australia) brings a set of unique challenges which we can balance with some basic practices.

Today I will share a bit of my personal history, and three practices that I use to maintain myself as a working musician, composer and mother. For me, the musical flame started with a snare drum and a piano. I was a young Mexican-American girl living on the border of El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. I was immersed in Mexican culture. I played piano, snare drum, and percussion in multiple ensembles throughout high school.

Let’s fast forward a few years, when I was in the same stage of my life as many of you who sit here before us today: When I graduated from Rice with both my Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Percussion Performance, I felt extremely lost. All of my engineering, architecture, and scientist friends had multiple job offers at Fortune 500 corporations. I had zero full-time job offers. Marimba concertos were not being programmed around the nation at that time! I wanted a steady income and stability. I decided I would go to work for Radio Shack and become a manager trainee. I figured I could get my MBA and make lots of money!

For six months, I worked at Radio Shack and was miserable! I learned that I need to do music no matter what! I went back to gigging and teaching. I see now that you can learn something from every job you hold. It’s important to learn what you don’t want to do in life!

How do you move forward now, without a routine, without a structure, without a syllabus and professors to guide you? As my son Mateo would say, with “no hand-holding mom,” you are heading into the real world, which can knock you down, and make you want to quit. Yet, your goal is to keep that flame alive and burning bright. That flame will sustain you! Keep going back to the flame.

In my nearly thirty years of working in music, I have found three essential practices that I have put into effect in my life which keeps me strong. I would like to share them with you today. They are:

1. Build Your Own Community Of Friends and Fellow Musicians
2. Develop Self-Care
3. Give Back

Let’s explore these three essential practices together.

1. Build Your Own Community Of Friends and Fellow Musicians
Although you are graduating, continue to learn about music. You will carry on your studies beyond what you have learned here.Your music education does not stop today. That’s the beauty of music; it's a lifelong endeavor. You will play in ensembles and groups where you will continue to immerse yourself in musical collaborations. Continue to take music lessons. Throughout my life, I have had supportive and inspiring teachers that have helped shape my outlook on music and life as a whole. They have guided me as I made strategic decisions on my career path. I consider my teachers part of my musical community. 

Here are some quotes from my music teachers and mentors:
Emil Richards: “You’re in the mix. That’s what’s important. Stay in the mix.”
Luis Conte: “When you are in the audition, you look them in the eye and say to yourself, “This is how it goes!”
John Powell: “Build a body of work!”

2. Develop Self-Care
This is an important topic for music nerds. I know because I am one!!! Here’s what I learned: Maintain physical exercise. We use our bodies daily. To keep it strong and flexible, we need movement. When on major projects, I swim or walk daily. Develop your mind through meditation or quiet sitting. We have too many distractions throughout the day, yes, including phones and the internet. Take time to step away from electronics and listen to your inner voice. As you develop your inner self, you will feel stronger and more confident when you need to make big decisions in life. Take the time to explore non-musical subjects or activities. While at Rice University, I thrived. In addition to the traditional conservatory curriculum, I enrolled in many non-music classes which provided the core, the grundgestalt, of my musical work in film. When I enrolled in professor Steven Tyler’s anthropology and linguistic courses, I had no idea that his teaching would deepen my thinking about Mexican and Indigenous music. While working on the film Coco, I was able to draw upon some of the key concepts about music and culture from his teachings. Who would have known?

Spend time in nature. This will renew your flame and soul. Take yourself to a place that you love, regenerate, don’t think. Be still. You can refresh your sense of being with this simple practice.

3. Give Back
Music is a communal practice. Along your journey in music, I encourage each and every one of you to give back to your community whenever possible.
Music education matters to me greatly, that’s why I am here with you today. I am on the Board of Directors at the Neighborhood Music School in Boyle Heights, in East LA. We teach over four hundred music lessons per week to students. At any given time when you are in our small, unassuming music school, you can wander and see young Latinos performing Bach as well as mariachi music. I believe that this is some of the most important work that I have done as a musician. Many of you have stated in your exit interviews that you would like to pursue teaching. I think that’s a wonderful pursuit and occupation. As you begin to grow your career I encourage you to give back, to donate your time and resources to initiatives that matter to you.

What do the 2024 SFCM graduates plan to do as you set off to change the world through music? I understand that many of you are seeking out work in the following fields: Orchestral Performance, Soloists Performance, Chamber Music Ensembles, Touring Performance, Sound Design, Concert Composition, Media Music & Recording Arts, Graduate Studies, Post-Graduate Studies, Teaching, Entrepreneurship In Music.

I want to thank you all for listening. I congratulate the 2024 San Francisco Conservatory of Music’s graduating class. You are heroes because you are forging your own path in the world. It takes courage, hope, faith, and humility to make a life in music. I look forward to seeing the positive changes in the world that you will contribute to humanity. I encourage you to take what you’ve learned at this amazing institution and put it to good use as you create and swim in that deep ocean of music.