The “Ring of Truth”
If the audience decides to clap, R.J. Tarrant was telling one of the student Commencement speakers last week, during their first outdoor rehearsal, “Just wait for it. Let it happen.” Relax.
They were standing on the half-built Tercentenary Theatre stage, looking out across Harvard Yard and imagining what would be the scene in just eight days: a podium and microphone, a stage full of robed dignitaries, an audience of 32,000 spilling backward to Widener Library and beyond. At the moment, the Yard was a riot of beeping and banging and rolling equipment carts and construction crews shouting back and forth, and amid all that din, Tarrant leaned in close to hear the careful, delicate enunciations he’d been practicing with the students since early April. “I love this part,” he said. By Commencement day, “all the nerves will be good nerves.”
The Pope professor of the Latin language and literature, Tarrant has coached Harvard’s student speakers through their orations for some 15 Commencements (or roughly that many—the years blur a bit, he says). But the 2018 ceremony will be his last: Tarrant is retiring to emeritus status at the end of this school year and relinquishing his role as director of the Committee on Commencement Parts, which chooses each year’s speakers in a speech-writing contest with auditions.
It’s a good year to go out on, he says—three strong speeches by students with something engaging to say: Latin salutatorian Phoebe Lakin, a classics concentrator; Senior English orator Chris Egi, a Harvard basketball player whose parents moved from Nigeria to Canada, where he grew up; and Graduate English orator Pete Davis, a civic activist graduating from the Law School.
“It’s important that these are the only speeches that are heard in the Morning Exercises,” Tarrant said. President Drew Faust and this year’s Commencement speaker, Georgia congressman and civil-rights leader John Lewis, LL.D. ’12, will wait for their turn in the afternoon. “So these students really do set a kind of tone,” Tarrant said. “Almost the first thing the audience is aware of is these three young people standing up and speaking.”
Competition for the three spots is increasingly intense; once upon a time, Tarrant says, he and other committee members granted auditions to every student who submitted a speech, a process that finally became untenable as the number of applications continued to rise. This year, the committee received submissions from 130 speaker-hopefuls, 85 for the graduate speech alone. The process of winnowing those down to auditions and then winners is daunting, he says, but gratifying. “We never know when we start this process what the speeches are going to be about.” As long as they are original, well-written, and carry some significant message in five minutes or less, “They can be about anything.”
That’s a far cry from the early days of this 360-year-old tradition, when the student speeches were more like thesis defenses, and they were delivered in Latin, Greek, or Hebrew. Only the Latin oration survived to the twentieth century, Tarrant says, and in his years as coach he’s seen the rhetorical balance shift from the strictly general toward the more personal and informal. People want to tell their stories, he notes. But still, adds Sarah Jessop ’03, Tarrant’s co-coach for most of the past several years, it’s important that the speeches have “teeth.” “What we look for is, does this have an internal tuning fork that when we ring it, it’s like ‘OK, yes!’” Tarrant is particularly deft at hearing the “ring of truth” in a speech and chiseling away the dross. Rhetoric, says the classicist, is key. But also: tone, structure, word choice, breath, voice, gesture.
Tarrant, she said later, has “the willingness to spend the time and care, for the students’ sake” to think about the speeches deeply: the text, the performance, the tuning fork inside the speech. “What’s fun about this and what’s beautiful is the artistry of it.”
Last week, amid the commotion of workmen and equipment, Tarrant and Jessop put Egi, Davis, and Lakin through the their paces. Used to practicing indoors for the past month and a half, the students were a little giddy and overwhelmed at the wide open air suddenly expanding all around them. “Don’t try to fill the space with your voice,” Tarrant reassuringly admonished. “The sound system will do that for you.” What if the students didn’t know what to do with their arms? “Don’t feel you have to do something all the time,” he answered, “but the gestures you do should be large.” Jessop reminded them not to lock their knees.
The students had their speeches all but memorized (and Tarrant stood ready with a prompt if they forgot a line), but mostly this day was about fine-tuning: how to breathe into a word in a way that would “bracket” it for the audience; how to make their words sound sweet, or sharp, or intimate; how to slow their voices and allow for a pause—to let the audience hear them think. “And remember when you move your arms that you will have a microphone in front of you,” said Jessop, an American Repertory Theater-trained singer and voice and speech specialist at the Bok Center for Learning and Development. But at the same time, don’t think too hard about it: “Gesture is the physical manifestation of meaning—trust what comes out of your body.” And on Commencement day itself, with those 32,000 excited people seated in the Yard, she added, the air will feel thick and wild. “Remember to open your posture,” she said, demonstrating on the bare stage. “When you step up to the podium, there is so much energy coming at you that you have to just open yourself to it.”
And that spontaneous applause. “If the audience gives you something—” Tarrant began, before Jessop finished, “—then you must receive the gift.”