2010 Outstanding Alumnus of the Year

Donald George


Donald George

Originally from Franklinton, Louisiana, George is an associate professor of voice at State University of New York (SUNY) Potsdam’s The Crane School of Music. He earned his bachelor’s degree in vocal performance at Southeastern in 1969 and his master’s degree from Louisiana State University.


George has served as an honored professor at Shenyang Conservatory in China. He has taught as a master teacher at the International Performance Arts Institute and serves as director of the institute’s Opera Intensive Program, a program for developing and training young opera singers. He also has taught at the Bavarian Theater Academy, Hochschule fur Theater und Music in Munich.


He has performed with many of the famous orchestras and conductors of the world, including the Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, L’Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale Rai Italy, Radio France and the London Symphony and has recorded for Sony, Naxos, Phillips Classic and Bavarian Radio.

George is active with the College Music Society, the National Association of Teachers of Singing, Opera America and the Music Teachers National Association (MTNA). His original research presented at the MTNA 2008 national conference on the German language melodrama was voted the highlight of the conference and was published in the “American Music Teacher” journal.


Mr. George honored attendees of the Alumni Awards Evening with this amazing acceptance speech:


"Art isn't easy.
A vision's just a vision if it's only in your head!
It has to come to life!
Bit by bit, putting it together
Having just a vision's no solution
Everything depends on execution
Putting it together, that's what counts!
First of all you need a good foundation
Otherwise it's risky from the start
The art of making art
Is putting it together, bit by bit
Learning how to play the politician
Like you play piano, bass and drums
Art isn't easy
Every minor detail is a major decision
Have to hold to your vision
All they ever want is repetition
Bit by bit, Putting it together
Piece by piece, working on the vision night and day
All it takes is time and perseverance
With a little luck along the way
The art of making art
Is putting it together, bit by bit
Beat by beat, part by part
Sheet by sheet, chart by chart
meal by meal, shout by shout
And that... is the state of the art! 

And so goes Sondheim in that theater masterpiece--of Art explaining Art: Sunday in the Park with George, and now you have Friday Evening at SLU with George.

Art isn’t easy. You have to be creative and let yourself make mistakes. The Art of making Art is realizing the mistakes, throwing them out and keeping what is left:

That is Art. Art isn’t easy. You need Fantasy or imagination, which is our most wonderful treasure.

Did you know that experiments have shown that most children entering school are highly creative or right brain?
But, our educational systems place a higher value on mathematics, logic and language which are left-brain skills, than they do on drawing, music or using our imagination, so that only ten percent of these same children will rank highly-creative by age 7. By the time we are adults, high creativity remains in only 2 % of the population.

I welcome the remaining 2% right brains sitting here today! Congratulations!

Imagine that you not in this dining room but you are in a sand box playing with the unfettered joy of a 5 year old. Be a right brain child and still be able to brush your teeth, balance your checkbook and manage your love life.

Unfortunately, like the Panda, & the Whooping Crane, the dinosaur & the dodo, we 2% in this room, are an endangered species. We have to do all we can to save ART. The great Czech novelist Milan Kundra said that we are in the era of post-art, because the need for art and the love for it is dying. How many Americans can read music? Most Americans can read words, can understand a rap, can understand DWTS, can appreciate most visual art. They can grasp a poem by Maya Angelou or a story by Dan Brown. But where are Americans taught to understand and love music.

Music is in danger of becoming an orphan in our education system Americans, let’s give that waif a home in the living rooms and lives of the American people. Let us talk about the Art of Organized Sound, otherwise known as Music. Let us talk about the sound organizers of Hildegard von Bingen, Mozart, Beethoven, Ringo, George Gershwin, Lady Gaga, Bernstein, Cole Porter, Schubert and on and on.

These famous sound organizers somehow have hit on a nerve with the public reaching a kind of animal magnetism, a kind of spiritual exaltation, so we call them Wonder Child or Genius. We, the 2%, cannot all be geniuses in that fun sandbox of fantasy, but we can have pleasure in giving pleasure, which is the essence of all art. Don’t worry about being a genius or Wunderkind, don’t worry about achieving perfection (you’ll never reach it anyway) The difference between magnificent and mediocre lies in the detailscountless myriad details which allow us to transcend to something wonderful and spiritual and maybe animally magnetic.

Art isn’t easy. Remember. Musicians generally make music with the right brain: yet we read and analyze the composition as well using the left side. This calls for a simultaneous activity on the part of the brain which needs to be coordinated in .practice. As adults, research has shown we can concentrate for around 20 to 25 minutes then we need 2 to 5 minutes of time for the brain to process the learning, to download. In the best of all possible worlds, both brain halves work together for optimum mental ability.

This coordination may be the key to higher intellectual abilities. Tests have shown that children who learn music have a higher IQ and memorization ability, besides being able to socialize more easily than children who have no music training.

So not only are we in the remaining 2% we are also smarter and can retain more, AND we are also friendlier.

Congratulations again!

This is not new, as Martin Luther told us in 1530: “Music is a discipline, and a mistress of order and good manners; it makes the people milder and gentler, more moral and more reasonable. “

Besides in the same tests it was shown that listening to classical music makes cows give more milk! I thought you might like to know that fact. In most people, outside of our hallowed circles, however, the left-brain takes control, choosing logic, reasoning and details over imagination, holistic thinking and artistic talent.

So, feed and water your brain carefully. Drink lots of water and eat Brazil Nuts. But, dear 2%, remember, if you are not careful, the left brain will assert itself and dispense with fantasy, asserting its Mr. Spock-like logical dominance and the right brain will have to be content to find expression only at night in your pleasant and not so pleasant dreams.

Now, I hear you cry, what is Art with a capital A? And, why did I choose to sing for a living? Is singing Art?

“Singing is not sensible” said Nobel prize winner WH Auden. for people do not sing when they are sensible!” How true.

Art isn’t sensible, either, it doesn't say anything; it just exposes us to possibilities. Art opens doors. You can walk through any one that suits you.

I chose Opera as my door.

While singing at the opera in Paris I went to the celebrated Per Lachaise Cemetery to see and experience the graves and the atmosphere of the illustrious and great buried there: like the writer Oscar Wilde, Maria Callas, or the pianist Frederic Chopin, the tragic lovers and letter writers Abélard and Heloise, (real life predecessors of Romeo and Juliet) where people leave love letters in the hopes of their coming true, or Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, the inventor of the Guillotine, where no one leaves any letters, and also Louisiana’s own politician Judah P. Benjamin.

The most popular grave site by far is Jimmy Morrison’s of the rock group The Doors whose hit song Light My Fire has people still visit and remember him and play concerts At the cemetery! As I was leaving, a group of Australians with Didgeridoos and guitars was coming to play at his grave. Morrison was also a poet and wrote “I think in art people are trying to confirm their own existences”.

Those famous deceased in Paris no longer exist and are out of our reach, and the famous living are usually just as far from our grasp, even our friends cannot always be reached, except on Twitter or Facebook; but privately you can reach the greats; you can see a play of Wilde or listen to a mazurka of Chopin or Light my Fire by Jim Morrison (even with didgeridoos) and commune with their greatness at any moment - live or on CDs or DVD. The greats composed for each and every one of us. We are necessary to them.

Although the idea of music as essential and necessary in life is as old as music itself, the study of it seems to have become thought of as superfluous and unnecessary.

However, in the business world, some have started business manager training by sitting in an orchestra rehearsal to see how that orchestra works and comparing that to a business model. How do all of these men, women, flutes, violins, bassoons, trumpets with different tastes, different training, often different cultures and languages get together under one conductor and operate as one unit?

How indeed?

In El Sistema of Venezuela José Antonio Abreu has dedicated himself to a dream in which an orchestra represents the ideal society. He takes poor children and trains them on an instrument from elementary school on and puts them in an orchestra, because playing in an orchestra can bring, concentration, commitment, creativity, teamwork while raising aspirations and self-esteem.
In Venezuela the Inter-American Development Bank announced the granting of a $150 million loan for El Sistema.
Many bankers within the IDB originally objected to the loan on the grounds that classical music is for the elite. But then the bank conducted studies on the more than two million young people who had been educated in El Sistema. The studies link participation in the program to improvements in school attendance and declines in juvenile delinquency. The bank calculated that every dollar invested in El Sistema was reaping about $1.68 in social dividends.

Leaping across the Atlantic Ocean to the UK. In 2007, the British Government announced it would invest £40 million (around $62 million) over four years in a national singing program for schools. SingUp is the program and it wants to place singing at the heart of every school child's life, because singing can change lives and build stronger communities.

When we sing, our bodies surge with endorphins, making us happy and more receptive to new knowledge and experiences, which transfers to all our learning and studies.

And leaping even further across the North Sea to Finland, music became a center of national culture, in Finland music was put into the constitution and saved the country from dominance by Russia. The Finns have in 30 years set up 150 music academies, 31 orchestras and 45 annual festivals. Finland may be the only country in the world where the annual opening day of the Parliament ends with the legislators attending the Finnish National Opera. As Pitari Inkinen the 22 year old conductor said “We have the mentality for music, we have the discipline and we know how to keep cool, all of which makes us good leaders.”

Well, 2%, add that to our positive qualitieswe’re good leaders!

The Hungarian Zoltan Kodaly whose methods many teachers use in schools to teach music said: Only art of real value is suitable for children! Everything else is damaging. After all, food is more carefully chosen for an infant than for an adult. Ergo: Children need “nutritious” music.

Louisiana’s own: the great trumpeter Wynton Marsalis met a guy on a streetcar who gave him his first classical CD at age 14; a recording of Maurice André playing trumpet concertos. He was hooked and went on to win Grammys in jazz AND classical music. How many Marsalises are there who could get this nutritious music earlier in schools?

I am an honoured professor at the Conservatory of Shenyang in China where the government is pouring money into the arts in education in order to increase the creative abilities of the whole population. Imagine 20 million piano students and as many voice students! Trumpets, trombones! Mind boggling.

Michelle Obama has started the White House Music Series which will highlight American Music in Jazz, Country and Classical. The purpose is to support the arts and demonstrate the importance of arts education in America and encourage the ability to think creatively.

The first White House concert highlighted Jazz and featured NOCCA the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts. Michelle Obama said. “Jazz is an outstanding artistic model of individual expression and democratic expression. And there's probably no better example of democracy than a jazz ensemble: individual freedom, but with responsibility to the group."

All of these endeavors are raising the bar and making the lives of our children more fulfilling and improving our society. As a young NOCCA student explained: "Playing music helps me in all academics math, science especially, and it makes you more interested in the arts." He added, "I can’t live without the violin. Always wanting to be better, practicing you can’t stop once you start!”

You can’t stop once you starthow true...I haven’t! As Bono, U2’s lead singer said:
“There's no retirement for an artist, it's your way of living so there's no end to it.”

We all know the power of music.Music is used for important events, tragedies and high emotional moments in life. After 9/11 music was heard all across the land, after Katrina or the oil spill music was heard in our churches to help us through the grief and pain. Music fills some prime emotive area of our lives. There are theories that music came even before speech so that in turning to music we return to our roots.

Our left brain scientifically oriented minds seek to control reality, find explanations and bring it under the rule of reason, yet poets, philosophers, scientists or mathematicians delight in thinking about the unknowable.
Music enables us to experience the sacred or the Greek idea of ekstasis, that is, being able to achieve a deeper feeling than merely “feeling good”.
Music confronts us with a manner of thought that defies logical analysis and definite proof, which makes it inseparable from religious expression. We develop a different awareness for music as we do for the truths of religion. At such times of ekstasis we become more fully complete as human beings.

Our roots are in music and the arts. HoweverMany places are cutting arts and education because of the economic crises. Will everything be set right when the crisis is over? Wealth does not promote development; money does not produce ideas. The most valuable ideas cannot be bought with money. The greatest concern is not the emptiness of the wallet but the emptiness of the soul. Real art is one of the most powerful forces in civilization, and when we make it accessible to as many people as possible, it is a benefactor of humanity.

 I wish to thank so many people for making this evening possible. Many of you know my roots are in Franklinton in Washington Parish, but the President of SLU is also rooted in Franklinton and a near neighbor: he comes from the other end of Bickham Street where he and I grew up. President John Crain: thank you! Also I wish to thank Chris Bently and Susan Owens along with Kathy Pittman for all the work and effort they put into this evening. I want to thank my brothers and sister and nephews and nieces coming from such far away places as Mandeville and Texas, Germany and even Bickham Street; and of course my 2 daughters and my life’s companion, my ekstasis who helped open those doors with me - my wife: Evelyn Edwards Smith-George, formerly of North Cherry Street, Hammond Louisiana.

And now, once upon a time, on one late summer day long ago I left my end of Bickham Street and came here to SLU, which was SLC then, in order to audition for my future voice teacher Ralph Roberts. The memory is a flickering, black and white one, but, once again, standing here, I think of the young Franklinton boy from Washington Parish who walked by the Friendship Oak and pushed open the door of the music bldg and opened the door to all that happened in the future.

Here I met all of these brilliant music professors who started me down the path to where I stand today: Ralph Pottle, James Wilcox, Ralph Roberts, Gretchen Ott Magee (also from Franklinton, but not from Bickham Street) and many othersthis shows the high quality SLU has always had as a school of music. My class mate and friend Joy Ratliff returned here, to join Dr David Evenson and his faculty and staff along with many many others, to carry on this tradition of excellence and open those doors for other seekers of art.

That young, seeker of art and Franklinton boy has accompanied the man I have become throughout these years of the awesome quest for Art. And together he and I walk towards the future with extraordinary hope not only for music and the arts, which is exemplified by this most prestigious award, but also for a victory at Homecoming tomorrow."


Donald George

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