Friday, January 18, 2013

Interview with Benjamin Zander

Hi everyone, I'm very excited to post this first interview!  I had the great pleasure of meeting Ben at the El Sistema Symposium back in early December.  For those of you that do not know anything about Ben or his work, I hope you'll consider checking him out!  He's an absolutely wonderful man and one of the most positive people I've ever met in my life.  Find more info about him here:

Ben's website 

Ben's very famous talk at TED

An Interview with Benjamin Zander:

Seth:  Hi Ben, first of all, would you mind introducing yourself?

Ben:   I have been the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra for 34 years and am now also the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, which was founded last September.  I also have a career speaking to corporations and organizations across the world about leadership.  I am the co-author of a book with my former wife and partner, the psychologist Rosamund Zander, called The Art of Possibility, which has been translated into 17 languages.

I began the cello at 9 but started intensive study at the age of 15 when I left school in England and went to Florence, Italy and Cologne Germany for five years studying under the great virtuoso cellist, Gaspar Cassado.   I taught at the New England Conservatory for 45 years and was the Artistic Director of the joint program between NEC and the Walnut Hill School in Natick, Mass for almost thirty years

Seth:  Do you think of yourself mainly as a conductor, a teacher or as a speaker?

Ben: Well, I think of it all as one package.  When I'm rehearsing an orchestra, teaching a class, or speaking to 1500 corporate executives, it's all the same thing. It's about creating a community of people that are open to possibility.  It's about enabling people to break through the barriers and assumptions that keep them from being all they can be.

Most of the time, we are limited or stuck because of the assumptions we are making and don’t realize that we are making. For instance:  “The little old ladies who love classical music are all dying, so there won’t be an audience for classical music” is an assumption:  The “grey-haired” argument about the future of classical music holds sway with many people, including people who are responsible for planning, and funding classical music education.  But it’s just an assumption.  We live our lives through the stories we tell and since the stories are invented, we can always create new stories.  Here’s one: “there are more people listening to classical music in the world today than ever before”.  “You ain’t seen nothing yet!”   Look at China, where there are 30,000 pianists and 10,000 violinists, and Venezuela, where 750,000 children have gone through El Sistema, which is now spreading all around the world, or Boston, for that matter, where there are more people playing instruments than ever before and there are three thriving separate youth orchestra programs overflowing with young players!

The story we are telling will determine how we behave and how we speak.   Also, whatever we put our attention on will grow, so we should be careful what we put our attention on!  If we meet someone, we immediately invent a story about our relationship with that person.  It's nothing more than a story and since it is a story, we can reinvent it and retell it. We always have this opportunity to reinvent ourselves and the situations we are in.  And since we can always do that, life can be seen as a creative act that is in our control.   Roz Zander says “Possibility is always only one sentence away!”

Seth:  Could you talk a bit about your experiences with creating your own opportunities in all of your various professional endeavors?  And more specifically, how the experiences in music, speaking, and writing have worked together?

Ben:  Well I recently had a very dramatic experience.  I was fired from a job that I had had for 45 years and a youth orchestra I had conducted for 39 years. The circumstances aren’t important, suffice it to say that it was not because of something I did myself, but rather because I supported someone who had done something wrong twenty years ago. I'm 73 years old.  Many people would just retire after something like that happens, but it never occurred to me to retire. Instead I thought "What else can I do?".  So I and a couple of colleagues started a brand new youth orchestra from scratch.

Founding an orchestra is quite a big challenge, especially these days.  First you have to find the players and then a place to rehearse.  We found a place, but it was acoustically unusable, so we brought in an acoustician who redesigned it.  Then we brought in mattresses, acoustical panels, and now, mirabile dictu, it's an ideal space for our rehearsals!   We have a home!   Now we needed chairs and stands for 117 players, timpani, percussion instruments, harps and music.

Seth:  Could you elaborate as to where you obtained the resources to acquire all of these things?

Ben:  Oh yes, the funds!  We started fundraising and spreading the word.  Some people who had studied with me in the past helped out with generous contributions and other gave small amounts.   People are inspired by our vision and they want to be part of it.

We don’t charge tuition, because we don’t want to make a distinction between those that could afford it and those who couldn’t.  Also, we are not just teaching these students to play wonderful music.  We wanted to create an institution with a purpose beyond playing an instrument.  The story we are telling is that “it is not enough just to play a violin or a trumpet, you have to be a leader who can make a difference in the world”.  We are setting out to create future leaders through music.  That's our raison d’etre.  It’s a wonderful story that we are telling.  And lots of people, including many of the parents, are coming forward who want to support that.  Incidentally, in the process, the bad feelings and upset over the fact I was fired have dissipated into thin air. 

Every Saturday is a thrilling experience, eagerly awaited by every member of the orchestra, most of all by me.  I give them assignments every week: transformational assignments that ask them to take a leap from where they are in their normal lives:  such as “Come From The Power of a Child”.  That asks them to think about what is it about a child that will help them to be a more effective grown-ups.  “Attune yourself to others”; “Throw yourself into life like a pebble into a pond and watch the ripples”.  These are not assignments that they can accomplish in three steps.  They call on different parts of themselves. Doing these kind of assignments will help them in their lives because they bring out their intuition and their creativity.

We have “white sheets” on which the students comment about the music and the process at rehearsals and a website and Facebook and we are constantly engaged with each other over the social network,
So, you see, all the aspects of my life are combined in this one venture.

The first concert in November sold out Symphony Hall in Boston and was chosen by the Boston Phoenix as one of the ten best musical events of 2012!   They played Ein Heldenleben in two months. It was really incredible!  One very experienced concert-goer told me he couldn't remember a concert where the excitement in the audience was as great as that on the stage!  I think that is because we're constantly going beyond the playing and bringing to life the meaning of the music and empowering the players to release all their passion.  

Now all of this came from a disaster.  I was fired.  Should I have quietly retired to the country to raise chickens?   Of course not!  We started something new and launched a new story about what a youth orchestra can be.  Now we are planning a tour to Holland in June with a performance of Mahler’s 2nd in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and we are intending to help reinvigorate music education in Holland!  Who would have thought it?  We just went past the assumptions and the reservations and invented a new story.  It’s so exciting.

Starting something new involves many levels.  Most important is a clear vision.  Once we had the idea of an orchestra of kids from 12-21, which was about developing future leaders, everything else fell into place: fundraising, chairs and everything else. We are run by a clear vision - run by the desire to make a difference in people's lives.  

Seth:  Do you have any advice you could offer to the next generation of musicians and artists?

Ben:   The main thing is to bring enthusiasm and passion to what you do.  The word enthusiasm contains the word theo, meaning God.  So enthusiasm means being “full of God”.  Of course that doesn’t mean you have to believe in God – it’s not about religion.  For me, God is simply the power of possibility - the power to create something where nothing exists.  So if you have a great desire to make a difference, the opportunities will arise.  The energy which we need to accomplish the things we dream of comes from possibility thinking.  That’s a story, of course, like everything else, but it’s one that gets me up in the morning.

My other piece of advice is to suggest that if you are going to compete in life, give up needing to win. I myself have given up the success/failure game. I have invented a new game:  it’s called I am a Contribution.   Now I have a new definition of success:  for me success isn’t about wealth and fame and power, it’s about the number of shining eyes I have around me. If young people can shift their attention away from the usual measures of success (competitions, auditions, grades, reviews, orchestral seating, etc) and focus on a life of contribution, they are likely to be surrounded by shining eyes.