Graduations always hold the promise of new beginnings, but this time, it also meant the end.

Thirty-three graduates of McNally Smith College of Music gathered Saturday at the History Theatre for the downtown St. Paul school's final commencement, just two days after learning that the college will close. Tears started rolling long before the music stopped.

"You have your whole lives ahead of you, but this school that has been your home is dying," said keynote speaker Nina Archabal, director emerita of the Minnesota Historical Society. "Endings like this one hurt a lot, but what you have learned and experienced here will always be with you. Grab what was precious to you and carry it forward with determination."

The ceremony was a bittersweet end for a college that has taught undergraduates about all areas of the music industry — from performance to audio engineering to composition — for the past 32 years. Faculty members say the school's sudden demise will leave a hole in the Twin Cities music scene.

Amid declining enrollment, financial troubles plagued the for-profit college for several years. An unexpected e-mail announcing the closure Thursday evening came as a shock, leaving more than 300 other students scrambling to figure out how to finish their educations.

McNally Smith President Harry Chalmiers said administrators had worked to salvage the school by trying to convert it to a nonprofit institution but ultimately ran out of time.

"Change, as we know, is not always pleasant," Chalmiers said, asking students during Saturday's commencement to embrace the unknown. "I will always maintain that a music education is the finest education you can get."

Despite the likelihood they were out a paycheck right before the holidays, most instructors came to work this week anyway, consoled weeping students and urged them to carry on. The school plans to remain open through Wednesday.

Joe Elliott, who leads the guitar department, said many faculty members feel it's their "moral obligation" to make sure students finish the semester so they're able to transfer. He was notified about the school's closing on his way to a gig by emotional students who called him to confirm the news.

"It was quite a punch to the gut," Elliott said.

Members of a contemporary vocal ensemble wiped at their eyes during Saturday's final performance honoring seniors, to a standing ovation from the tissue-filled crowd. Student speaker Millie Gibson praised the close-knit community for using its last remaining resources to lift one another up. "The joy does not stop here," she said.

In an impromptu pep talk, music theory instructor Dan Musselman likened the school's closure to stumbling in a race.

"While were are on the ground we have a choice to make," he said. "We can stay on the ground and be sorry for ourselves, act with self pity; we can crawl to the finish line and be preoccupied by our own pain, or we can get up on our two feet and we can keep running this race.

"And I don't know about you, but I run races to win," he said.

Just before the final congratulations were made, Susan Brezny, McNally Smith's senior director of student affairs, made an unusual request.

"This is a little unorthodox, but if there is anyone out there who's a billionaire who can help us … " she trailed off. "Please."

Liz Sawyer • 612-673-4648