Emmy Award-winning alumna tells UNCSA high school grads to never give up on passion for their art
Passion, perseverance, resilience and grit were the themes of High School Commencement at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA) on Friday. From the class president to the Chancellor to the Emmy Award-winning alumna who delivered the keynote address, speakers landed on a central message: the 122 graduates who crossed the Stevens Center stage are a special breed who share a drive to create and a determination to succeed.
Katreese Barnes, a high school graduate of the School of Music who won two Emmy Awards as former music director for “Saturday Night Live,” told graduates about Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a gospel singer in the 1930s who is said to have influenced the rock and roll sounds of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Little Richard.
Tharpe never got the recognition she deserved, Barnes said, until she was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this year.
“She performed in barns and lived on baloney sandwiches,” Barnes said. “But that did not stop her spirit, her drive or her passion. It was in her DNA to perform. She is an example of what artists will do for their passion.”
Barnes trained at UNCSA as a classical pianist and then embarked on a career in pop music, first with her brother in the 1980s band Juicy, best known for their R&B hit “Sugar Free.”
“We were a one-hit wonder,” she said. “We had hair spray, shoulder pads and a passion to never give up.”
Barnes taught herself to play the saxophone and moved to New York City. She performed as saxophonist, pianist and vocalist with artists including Roberta Flack, Chaka Khan, Carly Simon and Mariah Carey, and recorded with Billy Joel, Luther Vandross, Bette Midler and Diana Ross.
“That wasn’t part of my plan, but it was part of my passion,” she said. “I learned early on that you learn something from every job, and the more I learned, the more slots I could fill.”
Surviving in the arts today, Barnes told graduates, will require more resilience, perseverance and creativity than ever before. “You are going to have to be flexible and you will need tough skin.”
And, she said, “you will need to be a little bit crazy,” so when the tour ends, the gig is finished and the phone isn’t ringing, you can say to yourself, “I’m going to follow my passion because it is in my DNA. I’m going to create and I’m going to perform and I’m never going to stop until I make it.”
Student Government President Isabella Limouris also spoke Friday, recalling moments from her four years studying in the School of Dance.
“Resilience became a word commonly used in our vocabulary. Resilience is something that can be neither taught nor learned without experiences. Experiences we’ve had every day. We’ve learned the callboard or arts critique can be your biggest enemy or best friend,” she said.
Success meant seeing your name on the cast list, but failure might send you sulking to the dorm, she said.
“However no matter how down you were feeling about yourself you got up the next day, went to class and you worked harder than you did the day before because here at the School of the Arts that is what it takes; that is how we learn; that is how we rise to the next level of excellence. It’s hard work and it’s being resilient,” she said.
“We all came to this school with passion in our hearts, but here at UNCSA we’ve learned what true passion is -- the kind that gives you the chills down your spine when you see the curtain go up and feel the stage lights hit your face,” she added. “There isn’t any place in the world that teaches passion like this one.”
We all came to this school with passion in our hearts, but here at UNCSA we’ve learned what true passion is -- the kind that gives you the chills down your spine when you see the curtain go up and feel the stage lights hit your face. There isn’t any place in the world that teaches passion like this one.
Faculty Council Chairman Wade Wilson set the stage Friday by defining perseverance, grit and passion “straight from Miriam Webster.”
Perseverance, he said, means “continued effort to do or achieve something despite difficulties, failure, or opposition … steadfastness.” Grit means “firmness of mind or spirit; unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger,” Wade continued, adding “success takes a whole lot of grit.” And passion, meaning “intense, driving or overmastering feeling or conviction.
“Success takes a whole lot of grit,” Wilson said, and “we all know passion is essential.”
In his closing remarks, Chancellor Lindsay Bierman joked that parents might have hoped their graduating artists had chosen a different path. “Let’s be honest. Some of you took the news pretty hard at first. You might have hoped for math or science,” he said.
“But you knew, in your heart, that your child has a rare gift and passion that must be valued and nurtured. That success is defined by doing what you love, and loving what you do, Bierman continued. “That your child’s unique voice, discipline and passion would be more fully developed and appreciated in a collegial community of artists like UNCSA. And that being true to oneself, and listening to one’s inner voice, can lead to the richest and most rewarding life of all.”
A recording of the live-streamed ceremony is available online.