Senior Speeches: Ben Bian ’19

December 06, 2018

My personality and hobbies may sometimes conflict, but ultimately they combine to create my life. Without these counterpoints I am not myself. 

Each year, seniors at Shattuck-St. Mary’s School deliver a speech to their peers on a topic of their choosing in the Newhall Auditorium. Often equal parts clever and moving, emotional and personal, each speech offers a glimpse into the lives, experiences, struggles, and triumphs of SSM seniors.

Throughout the 2018-19 school year, we will share these speeches with the SSM community and hope that you enjoy the humor, wisdom, and powerful reflections conveyed by our senior students.

Counterpoint, in music, is the relationship between interdependent voices that are nonetheless independent in rhythms and structures. Developed during the Renaissance and popular in the Baroque period, counterpoint describes melodic interactions, often called overlapping melodies. Bach frequently employed counterpoint, especially in preludes and fugues. One I adore is “No. 9 Prelude and Fugue” from The Well-Tempered Clavier.

It begins with the main E-Major melody summoning happiness and joy, then the key shifts to A-Major as a different melody emerges, then moves back to E-Major, ending quietly and gently. With the second melody, the music becomes more harmonic and interesting, creating the fugue’s breezy joy. Counterpoint fascinates me, because it provides a sense of harmony as listeners feel melodious progressions. Chords in counterpoint compositions are often harmonic and consonant, delighting and refreshing listeners. More importantly, though counterpointed melodies sometimes ‘oppose’ each other, they eventually complement each other organically, making the music richer.

Over years of studying counterpoint, I have realized that maybe my own life is like contrapuntal music: different melodies overlapping. But musical counterpoint is not about “opposition,” it is about synthesis. So how can my life be like counterpoint, when many of my hobbies and traits seem to oppose each other?

For example, I participate in musical theatre and love it. The year before last year was The Sound of Music, last year was Oliver. It is highly social and I make a lot of friends; acting brings me joy on and off stage. The cast is like family. We support each other when rehearsing and performing. I love singing, and musicals let me perform in front of large audiences. But, I also greatly enjoy being alone, away from anyone else. I love staying in my room, listening to classical music or watching symphonies or piano performances. I relax, wandering in a solitary but imaginative musical world.

Singing, playing piano, and listening to music expands my creativity. When listening, I learn about famous pieces, including favorites like Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto, Schubert’s Standchen, and Debussy’s Clair De Lune, and about musicians like Herbert Von Karajan and Krystian Zimerman. Those who study music need to be instinctive, improvisational, and unafraid of spontaneous emotion.

But paradoxically, I am also fascinated by accounting and finance, which might seem like the exact opposite of music. Accounting requires logical, conclusive thinking, and great ability with planning, communication, and coordination. I want to improve these skills, and nourish the logical part of my mind for studying business.

This contradiction also applies to my personality. Sometimes I feel anxious, depressed, and stressed by struggles in life. I might quarrel with my roommate over his messy habits, feel overwhelmed with homework and activities, or receive an F on my homework because I had not “followed instructions.” I get stressed out and do not know what to do. At times like these, I isolate myself in my room and listen to music. Staying alone with symphony recordings distracts me from my problems. But hanging out with friends, rehearsing for musicals, or spending time with family also makes me feel happy. How can these traits co-exist?

Is my life contrapuntal music? I still think so, because these characteristics and hobbies are in fact overlapping melodies: they complement each other. Music and vocal performance require emotion and instinct, but also logic and precision: nearly every great musical work is precisely-structured, sometimes using mathematical logic. My personality and hobbies may sometimes conflict, but ultimately they combine to create my life. Without these counterpoints I am not myself. I think this is natural, for me and others, just as how multiple melodies combine into beautiful music surpassing its individual parts.

To sum up: Listen for the counterpoint in your own life. Embrace the oppositions. And make your own music.


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