Gator Marching Band director speaks at doctoral commencement

April 28, 2017
UF News
photographer: Hannah Pietrick/UF Photography

Chip Birkner is an assistant professor at the University of Florida’s School of Music. Together with John M. “Jay” Watkins, he has directed UF’s Gator Marching Band since 2006. Birkner also is the director of both the Spring Concert Band and the Athletic Pep Band. His speech is below.

Good afternoon. I’m delighted and honored that President Fuchs has asked me to spend the next 2 to 2 ½ hours talking to you about my research. Of course, I’m only kidding. I know we all have dinner reservations, so I promise to be as brief as a Kardashian talent show.

If Dr. Fuchs’ decision to break from the traditional commencement speaker profile has you a bit puzzled, well, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re in a rather large group that includes all my friends and family that know I’m giving this address. And, if you’ve read my relatively brief bio in the program, I imagine you’re asking the same questions that my Mother-In-Law first asked my wife: “Who is this guy?”, “Why him?”, and my personal favorite, “Couldn’t you find someone more successful?”

It’s true. I’m not a celebrated author, politician, or titan in my field...yet. As a matter of fact, I’m constantly reminded that I’m not even the most impressive Dr. Birkner in my marriage! What I am, is a relatively recent doctoral graduate from UF - having finished just three short years ago, and I’m proud to serve on our faculty, working in our outstanding College of the Arts. 

I’m proud of the meaningful work we do every day to impact the lives of our students, our campus community, and indeed, the artistic world. But, like all of you, I’m more or less at the beginning of my professional journey.   And, because I would like to consider myself as still being in your age group, today, I won’t attempt to grace you with life-changing pearls of wisdom or the typical commencement clichés. Rather, I’d like to take a few moments to help you acknowledge the significance of today, as well as to highlight some of the traits that you’ve undoubtedly honed to get you to that most comfortable folding chair. Traits on which you will certainly rely in the years ahead.

I think you would agree that the final stages of the doctoral program felt like a whirlwind with countless deadlines to meet and boxes to check. If you were like me, the moment you electronically submitted that dissertation, you looked up expecting the heavens to open, trumpets to sound, and maybe even a standing ovation.

The truth is, there are several small moments of finality: concluding your research, submitting your dissertation, final edits, re-submitting your dissertation, final FINAL edits, and eventually shaking the hands of your committee members after a grueling but successful defense. It might have felt like there was no end to the end. This, today, should provide you that sense of finality. The closure you were looking for. Today marks the official end of your doctoral program and your commencement into your chosen field as a designated expert. 

We, on this stage, are certainly glad you chose to attend today’s ceremony. Frankly, the whole event would be rather awkward for us without you here. It’s a meaningful event, and one that you’ve certainly earned. Even so, commencement ceremonies are curious gatherings. Having likely participated in three previous commencements, this might be feeling somewhat habitual for you. Every few years or so, you’re asked to wrap up your studies, don your best 12th-century garb, and sit in a large room where strangers are asked to admire you.

Many of you have been looking forward to this day for several years. Some of you were absolutely required by your families to be here. Others might be looking to today as a cathartic experience – a ceremonial licking-of-the-wounds. But, for all of you, the importance of this event is undeniable. All of this fuss, planning, pomp and circumstance, has one singular purpose: to celebrate you. 

Today is about celebrating your research - your valuable additions to the body of knowledge in your many fields. While glancing through today’s commencement program and reading your dissertation titles (most of which contain words I cannot pronounce), it struck me: the amount of collective intelligence on that floor is truly staggering! You represent an incredible point of pride for our university. Because of your work, our world is enriched and better explained. And we thank you for the important work you’ve done, and that you’ll undoubtedly continue to do. 

Today is also about honoring those valuable relationships you’ve developed with your advisors and mentors, many of whom are sitting amongst you today. While you processed into this room as mentors and mentees, you’ll leave as trusted and respected colleagues, having forged an important bond that should be mutually beneficial for years to come.

Today is a celebration of tradition. The gown you’re wearing is different from the ones you might have worn in your previous commencements. Those three velvet bars on your sleeves are distinctly for doctoral commencements. I’ve looked into what those three bars signify, but even the mighty Wikipedia couldn’t deliver a conclusive answer. So, with your permission, we’ll assign meaning to them as the three most needed traits in surviving your doctoral program.

The first bar would, undoubtedly, represent sacrifice.

Your path to that seat took sacrifice - at times, immeasurable sacrifice. Numerous late nights, early mornings, balancing of responsibilities, and shifting of resources and priorities.

My wife and I completed our PhD coursework and dissertations at the same time, while both working, and raising two little girls. Obviously, our timing and planning are impeccable. I can tell you when the prospect of entering the doctoral program became a serious option for both of us, it took a lot of consideration and prayer. Together, we made the decision to dive in, make the sacrifices, and get through the programs before our children were old enough to remember mommy and daddy’s temporary insanity.  But, as Teddy Roosevelt said: “Nothing in this world is worth having or worth doing unless it means, effort, pain, and difficulty.” I think we’ve all firmly checked that box!

Each of you had a different path to get here, but I would venture to guess that all were somewhat complicated. Many of you had to sacrifice a great deal of time with your loved ones. Friends, family, spouses, and children, at times, took a backseat to studying, researching, and writing. Often, being productive came with a side of guilt. But you did it. You’re here. And many of those very same loved ones are here too, looking down at you and beaming with immense love and pride.

To the families and friends joining us today, I know these graduates would like to thank you as well. Thank you for being here today. Thank you for your enduring patience, your encouragement, and the sacrifices that many of you made that allowed them to be here today.

The second bar on your sleeve might represent purpose. Your sense of purpose.

I began my professional career as a middle school and high school teacher – and quickly realized all the same frustrations that most public educators face: long hours for somewhat uninspiring pay, intrusive standardized testing schedules, budget concerns, not to mention catching every single stomach bug and cold that makes its way through the school. 

I have a vivid memory of sitting in rush-hour traffic in Houston, Texas, on the way to teach at one of my middle schools. As some of you might know, the blessing of a long commute is not only that it gives you ample time to second-guess your life choices, but you can also analyze your fellow travelers. I would analyze the cars they drove, the clothes they wore, and their facial expressions. I would try to envision what career they were headed to that day. Were they happier going to their job than I was going to mine?

On one of those long morning commutes, I heard some pyramid-scheme guru refer to one’s work-life as “trading hours for dollars.” Seen in that light, the overwhelming number of hours required of a Texas High School band director certainly didn’t feel like an equitable trade. I, like so many young educators, began thinking about a potential career change. The juice, it seemed, just wasn’t worth the squeeze. But, it’s like George Carlin said: “Oh, you hate your job? Why didn’t you say so? There’s a support group for that. It’s called EVERYBODY, and they meet at the bar.”

Nevertheless, I felt like I wanted out. There was one HUGE problem. I love teaching. It’s in my core. I knew I needed to stay in education, but my exact sense of purpose wasn’t clear. It was perhaps, a moment of divine intervention, when on my birthday in 2006, Dr. David Waybright, Director of Bands here at the University of Florida, and my mentor, called to offer me the opportunity to return and teach here at my alma mater.

Over a decade later, I still occasionally return to that phrase “trading hours for dollars” when trying to keep my own work-life balance in check. Viewing my work schedule in terms of that simple transaction can be useful when I need a reminder to pump the brakes on my work and spend some time playing with my young daughters, who against all of my wishes, continue to grow up entirely too fast.

What this simplistic phrase does not account for is that, most of us, optimistically all of us, have chosen a field for which we have intense passion.

Those work hours, as numerous and sometimes tedious as they may be, are also filled with enthusiasm, discovery, fellowship, joy, and are driven by your sense of purpose.  

My passion for music and music education only intensifies with time. I feel very fortunate that my sense of purpose was sharpened by the doctoral process, as I certainly hope yours has been.

The third bar on your sleeve represents, what I would argue, is the most important trait for thriving in your doctoral program. Creativity. While you may or may not consider yourself to be a particularly creative person, I’m confident that each of you has exhibited notable creativity in your research. You undoubtedly had failures along the way, some small – maybe some large. Which reminds me of one of my favorite research axioms, which says: “If at first you don’t succeed, try two more times so that your failure is statistically significant.” To get over those research hurdles, you had to exercise creativity. You’ve taken intellectual risks and found alternate routes around roadblocks. And, in the process, you’ve developed innovative methods and new products. I simply can’t think of anything that better embodies the creative spirit.

As you move into the next phase of your lives, you must continue to employ that creativity. If there is one thing the recent job market has taught us, it’s the value and necessity of divergent thinking- to see the chessboard differently. We can’t expect to solve tomorrow’s problems with yesterday’s solutions. Perhaps that’s what Nietzsche meant in saying: “Our salvation lies not in knowing, but in creating.”

In his book “A Whole New Mind,” author Daniel Pink argued that creativity is now a 21st - century commodity and a core workplace requirement. Regardless of your specific field, if you expect to remain relevant, or even required, in today’s increasingly automated workforce, you’ll need to find ways to capitalize on the fundamentally human capacity of being creative.

Thankfully, that’s where the fun lies. It’s no surprise that research is continually showing links between workplaces that foster creative climates and more productive employees with higher job satisfaction. As UF graduates, I’m confident you’ll find, or create, work environments that are inspiring, energizing, and make your work so much more than trading hours for dollars. 

I’ll leave you with two brief thoughts: you’ll leave this room today as Dr. So-and-So. Use the title, and ENJOY the title. You’ve most certainly earned it. For me, the only people that have had a difficult time calling me “Dr. Birkner” have been my two daughters, but they’ll learn.

I’d love to tell you that, after today, your lives will finally slow down and get easier. But, I think you know better. You know that if you want to continue on this trajectory, you’ll need to continue to sacrifice, embrace your sense of purpose, and make a firm commitment to being creative.

Today, you’ve unlocked a door to incredible possibilities for yourselves and your careers. Your families, friends, and faculty are extremely proud of you. Congratulations, Doctors.

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