Lessons from Lennox: Commencement 2013

Annie Lennox, the most successful British female artist of all time, delivered a hit speech at the 2013 Commencement of Berklee College of Music. Best known for her international success with the 80’s group Eurythmics, she is a 4-time Grammy winner, hit songwriter, and stunning soul singer. Along with legends Willie Nelson and Carole King, she is the recipient of an Honorary Doctorate from the College this year.

With a brief introduction by Berklee President Roger Brown prompting her to share “the stuff sweet dreams are made of,” Lennox took the podium.

She began her speech congratulating graduates, professors, and families for their accomplishment and commended Berklee students who played at the concert the night before. In her words, the performance was of the “highest standard.” Humbly thanking the College for her doctorate, she admitted, “Never in my wildest dreams would I have ever imagined…I would be the recipient of such a prestigious award.” Annie is a warm, modest individual.

Her message had a central theme: unorthodoxy. As seems to be her personable style, she shared her own story of how her route to success was completely outside of the box. Growing up in a working class home in Aberdeen, Scotland, she began singing in a choir at age 7. Her parents, who recognized their daughter’s musical inclination, made sacrifices for her to take piano lessons. At 11, she took up the flute, practicing on a broken instrument. Annie recalled the first time she ever tried to produce a note on it: she passed out.

When she was 17, Lennox was accepted to the Royal Academy of Music in London, her ticket, as she saw it, out of her provincial hometown. As soon as she arrived, she was chided by her teacher for her poor playing technique. The next three years were dismal, and she dropped out at 21. Thinking her parents would never understand, she called home and told them everything would be fine. On the inside, she was treading water trying to find herself.

Annie took the audience back to when she was a 14-year-old girl soaking up the popular culture of the late 60’s and early 70’s. Groups such as the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Supremes, and Kinks had a tremendous influence on her. Listing musicians that inspired her, she sang snippets of songs by Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, and Carole King, and recited lines from Glen Campbell’s “Witchita Lineman”. This, she explained, was the music that she really loved and sorely wanted to be a part of.

She attributed her path to success to her willingness to reject the values of her parents and to take a leap of faith at a time when female singer-songwriters did not exist. In order to develop who she really wanted to be, Lennox claimed that she first had to unlearn everything she was taught. Fusing talent with passion and an open mind, she did her “own thing in [her] own way” and cultivated a unique style while supporting herself as a waitress. One day she was introduced through a friend to Dave Stewart, her music partner-to-be of Eurythmics, whose encounter sparked “a whole new series of mad adventures.”

Her speech concluded with a final tribute to the outside-of-the-box life: “Enter into [music] wholeheartedly. Make it yours.” In other words, seize your passions, rock what you have, and keep an open mind because what appears to be an end may turn out a new beginning. Her heartfelt, personal story is a testament of success for anyone who has failed, changed career paths, or had less than optimal opportunities growing up. As a 2013 Berklee Commencement speaker, Annie Lennox delivered more than fitting final words for graduates who must now go forth and make their way in music.

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