Sometimes, circumstances dictate that the words burning a hole in your heart stay there for a little while longer. Maybe you’ve just moved your firstborn into his college dorm and want to tell him what his first 18 years of life have meant to you - but, perhaps, in front of all of his new roommates, now is not the time. Or perhaps you’re at a wedding, and you know that an illness or death in the family is weighing on your friend, and you want to offer your ear for her deepest sorrows - but, perhaps, now is not the time.
I had this experience last weekend when I was invited to perform and speak at Harvard Law School’s Bicentennial celebration. HLS had set aside two days to celebrate the contribution of the HLS community in the arts, and I had been invited to represent some aspect of that contribution. The organizers requested that I both perform and talk about my time at HLS and how it influenced my life. I had 15 minutes total.
I spent days wrestling with how to summarize my personal journey of the last 10 years into just a few moments. Also, with the smattering of classical piano’s greatest hits I had chosen, these remarks also had to serve as an effective transition between a Percy Grainger transcription and a Scriabin Etude… After much hemming and hawing in my head, I came up with the statement at bottom, which I clocked at about 5 minutes.
Of course, I ended up skipping most of it. As is sometimes the case, you show up at a performance to see that it is not at all what you had imagined. Hundreds of law school students, staff, and faculty swarmed the performance area, lured and kept there by free food and drink (a genius move on the organizers’ part). Other performance acts on the program included hip-hop artists, rappers, drag queens, and parody singers. My time on the schedule was now listed at 11 minutes. They introduced me as “Juliana Han and the Faculty Fiddlers,” which I had never heard before, and ushered me on stage abruptly after an A/V hiccup stalled an introductory video about who I was.
On stage, with the glare of spotlights and law’s brightest minds on me, I decided that, perhaps, now was not the time. I gave an abbreviated version of the remarks, more casual, more focused on the benefits of my legal training. And I was grateful for the opportunity to be there at all, and to share a tiny sliver of my art and what gives my life meaning.
Someday, there will be more time for the remaining words.
[P. Grainger: Free Settings of Favorite Melodies. Fauré: Après un rêve.]
Hi, my name is Juliana Han and I am a proud graduate of this law school and very honored to be here for this celebration. About 10 years ago, I was a student at this fine institution. 5 years ago, I was a corporate associate at the law firm of Cravath, Swaine and Moore, working on high-profile mergers and acquisitions. Today, I am finishing my doctorate at Juilliard and building a career as a concert pianist. As someone recently asked me, how did it go so wrong??
Well, it’s hard to go wrong attending HLS. As most of you here already know, legal training can serve you well in LIFE generally. Being a lawyer means knowing how the world works. My musician friends often come to me with problems, like when a friend spent her life savings on a violin she didn’t actually want, or when someone’s bathtub broke and her landlord wouldn’t respond, or when a colleague had a question about his immigration status. As a BigLaw lawyer, I could say to them: I’m sorry, did you have two public companies you wanted to merge? No? Hm.
Kidding aside, I draw upon my legal background constantly in the arts, particularly in leadership roles, such as in my position as director of the Piedmont Chamber Music Festival. And the deeper I get into the arts world, the more I realize that the sort of legal training I have is exactly what the field needs more of. Questioning and structuring and changing the status quo are not skills that necessarily come naturally to musicians, but they are trained into the sort of person, like you, who goes into the legal profession.
But why be a pianist? Why not be an arts lawyer, or an arts advocate, or a patron of the arts? While I value all of these roles, for myself and for others, the key difference is in the practice we choose for our lives. By practice I mean something you do every day with a directed intention of becoming better at it than you were yesterday. Over the years, I have found that having a practice gives my life greater purpose. If the practice of law is what gets you up in the morning, excited to become a better lawyer than you were yesterday, then you are in the right place. Today, I spend my time in the practice of music, which, like the practice of law, requires long hours of intense work. The difference for me is that the subjects of my practice are some of the world’s best music. These days, I jump out of bed to go practice, to spend hours crafting a piece of music to its most profound extent. The first piece I played for you, a setting of Gabriel Fauré’s song, Après un rêve, is one of those searches for greater emotional depth and profundity.
My next selection is an etude, a study that is designed to teach the pianist some element of technical or musical proficiency. Like all of the best piano etudes, whether by Chopin or Debussy or Liszt, these etudes are not just technical exercises but works of art. I’d like to play for you now an etude by Russian composer Alexander Scriabin. You could spend a lifetime practicing this piece – and greater pianists than I (am) have done just that. I hope this provides some insight into the practice of music. This is Scriabin’s Etude opus 8 number 5.
[A. Scriabin: Etude Op. 8 No. 5.]
To end my set and to transition into Professor Crawford’s presentation of classic Broadway tunes, I’d like to play a transcription of Gershwin’s timeless song, “Embraceable You” by the piano virtuoso Earl Wild, a snippet of which you saw in the intro video. I feel incredibly lucky to both create music and support it with my legal skills. Now that I’ve been on both sides, I see more than ever that art needs (and has always needed) all the help it can get to survive. So I ask of you: If art enriches your life in some way, if it presents to you visions of beauty, if it tells you something about your place in this universe or your relation to other souls in this world, if it moves you - then fight for it, fight against cuts in arts education, fight against the elimination of national funding, fight for people of all economic backgrounds to have access to expression through music. Fight for it, and I’ll be right there with you. Thank you.
[E. Wild: Virtuoso Etudes on Gershwin Songs; “Embraceable You”] (video of previous performance here)