Relax, It’s Just 32,000 People
In one week, the three Commencement student orators will deliver their memorized speeches in a Tercentenary Theatre packed with about 32,000 people. For now, they’re reciting them to four, in a nearly empty Fong Auditorium.
As they perform, Erika Bailey, one of the two coaches for this year’s speakers, takes notes on her laptop, pausing to clap during major applause points. When they’re done, it’s time for minor adjustments for which Bailey—a lecturer on Theater, Dance, and Media and professional voice coach for the American Repertory Theater—is uniquely attuned.
The speeches are far better—textually and as performances—than they were on April 23, when 13 students auditioned for the three spots on the Commencement morning program. The pace is slower and more deliberate, but the range of emotions has expanded; the students now reach more soaring highs and quieter, subdued lows. Their words are better enunciated and their tempos shift organically, following the natural flow of their texts. Those texts have remained largely the same, but a few words added or subtracted have tied up loose ends to drive each unique message home.
Now it’s on to the little things: a sentence spoken too slowly, an ending lacking drama, a squint that made the speaker appear to have lost her glasses. Bailey and the orators discuss her notes after finishing. When the students repeat their speeches again, she smiles as they take her advice.
About 100 students from the University’s graduate and professional schools applied for the Graduate English Orator position, dozens of undergraduates applied to be the Senior English Orator, and a handful more applied to be the Latin Salutatory Orator. All nine members of the Committee on Commencement Parts, chaired by Jim Engell, Gurney professor of English and professor of comparative literature, read through every speech. They cut the group down to around 30 for preliminary auditions on April 16, and further reduced it, to 13, for final auditions a week later. In the end, the committee selected Lucila Takjerad, M.P.A. ’19; Genesis De Los Santos ’19; and Kabir Gandhi ‘19 for the Graduate English, Senior English, and Latin Salutatory Orations respectively. By the time Engell and Bailey began their coaching work, there was a strong base to build upon.
For Engell, who is in his first year as coach following the retirement of Richard Tarrant, Pope professor of Latin language and literature emeritus, there is no one-size-fits-all formula for improvement. The speakers bring their own ideas and styles. “There are many possible things that can be suggested about voice, pitch intonation, volume, pace, gestures,” he said. “But by and large, it’s to try to get the individual to relax.”
Getting the students to relax about orations they will perform without visual aids is no small order. The speakers have been working with Bailey and Engell about three times a week since they were selected. At first, it’s about clearing up and shaping the text itself, focusing it and making it flow better. From there, it’s more about memorization and ensuring the texts are performed as richly as they are read. Some students respond well to technical suggestions like “Slow down on this phrase,” Bailey said. Some speakers respond better when asked to imagine scenes or images that match their words, without worrying about mechanical changes in tone, volume, or speed.
Performance may be most crucial for the Latin oration, as few people know, let alone speak, the ancient language. Bailey approaches the oration in what she calls a “musical way”: “I want to be able to tell some of the story without knowing the words…in the rhythm and the resonance, in the pausing.” The gestures in the Latin oration also tend to be the most demonstrative. Phoebe Lakin ’18, last year’s Latin Orator, pulled out a wand three minutes into her Harry-Potter-inspired speech, deftly wielding it to drive her message home.
As Commencement approaches, the preparations grow even more intricate. A few days ago, the three speakers were brought to the exact spot where they will be performing, just to get a sense of its enormous scale. Next week, they’ll be reciting their speeches several times with all the equipment—the tents, the microphones, the sound system—in place. They will practice not only the orations, but the walk up to stage, the removal and handing off of their mortarboards, and, crucially, the adjusting of the microphone. “Those are the things that, if you haven’t practiced, start to fluster you,” Bailey said.
Engell, who fought for years to restore rhetoric to Harvard’s course offerings, is thrilled that the Commencement oration tradition continues, and that even in the age of the teleprompter, the speeches are still memorized. Though people once thought oratory would be wholly replaced by newspapers, he said, it’s clear today—because of podcasts, television, and all forms of digital communication—that the spoken word is just as important than ever, and maybe more so. “I think it’s a terrific part of Commencement,” he said. “I hope it will be forever.”