Before we start, I’d just like to address one point: I know that in my previous post, I said that I’d move away from topics that are quite general, or only relate to my own experience with and perspective on classical music. However, writing about more sensitive topics requires a lot of research, in order to craft sound arguments and thus do them justice. So for the sake of keeping the blog going on a semi-regular basis, I’ll be doing a number of more personal posts, while working on the more complicated ones in the background – I don’t want to mess it up, after all. So I hope you’ll enjoy a series of more reflective and personal essays, as I prepare the bigger articles that are on my mind.
Today, I would like to talk about what it was like to meet someone who more or less opened my eyes to viewing my profession, and role in this world, in a completely new light.
As I mentioned in my previous blog post, last year in July I was lucky enough to meet Benjamin Zander during the London Masterclasses, that year held at the RNCM in Manchester. I was there as part of the cello class with Hannah Roberts, but I snuck off to the conductors’ classes as often as I could manage.
I came across Benjamin Zander when I began to seriously think about what I was doing as a musician – I was at the end of a long stretch of massive self doubts and badly damaged self confidence, and for the first time began to venture past the horizon I had known until then: traditional performance. I realised that simply performing the same old pieces over and over for a comparatively small, hyper-critical audience wasn’t going to bring me happiness, in the long run. And in my eyes, it wasn’t going to do the music that I loved justice.
That is how the idea for this blog was born, back in 2015 (though I didn’t start to actually post anything until 2016). Writing my first post, I was searching the internet for videos and articles about classical music in general (I believe the exact terms I searched were “what is classical music”), and a listicle pointed me to a video titled “The Transformative Power of Classical Music” – the video that I’ve come back to many times since, and linked in many of my blog entries:
I remember crying long and hard after watching it for the first time, and not just because of the tragic story Ben tells towards the end. There were many points he made during his talk – not least of all the assertion that “if their eyes are shining, you’re doing it right” – that spoke to me so directly that it almost hurt. One of those statements is the following:
“I was 45 years old, I’d been conducting for 20 years, and I suddenly had a realisation. The conductor of an orchestra doesn’t make a sound. […] He depends for his power on his ability to make other people powerful. And that changed everything for me. It was totally life-changing! People in my orchestra came up to me and said ‘Ben, what happened?’ That’s what happened. I realised my job was to awaken possibility in other people.”
Let that sink in.
The conductor doesn’t make a sound.
He depends for his power on his ability to make other people powerful.
If you aren’t familiar with how the classical music industry has worked for the last 70 or so years, you may not realise how revolutionary this statement is. I’ll get to that in a moment. Right now, I just want you to imagine what it was like, meeting this man in person who seemed so improbable and fantastic to me as I watched that TED talk, and a few of his Boston Masterclasses (I will link them at the end of this post). What it was like to meet the man who more or less restored my faith in my profession.
First off, he’s exactly the same as in his videos. Larger than life, full of energy. But what really impressed me – and made me incredibly happy – was the fact that every day that I dropped into his classes to listen, he always stuck to what he was preaching in the many talks he’s held over the years. In musical terms, it was communication with and fantastic treatment of the musicians that he and his conducting students were working with. If you’ve never played in an orchestra, you might not fully grasp how emotional it made me to witness a conductor who really and truly empowers his musicians, instead of trying to mold them according to his vision. Here is a conductor who doesn’t hesitate to actively ask his musicians for their opinions, and sometimes even advice. I’d never seen anything like it. Playing with a good number of orchestras over the years, the most common relationship between conductor and orchestra that I’ve observed has been one of wary respect. Musicians usually follow instructions with sometimes more, sometimes less (usually internal) grumbling – depending on how well the maestro’s musical interpretation aligns with their own – and they’re quite quick to criticise the conductor. And believe me, I’m not blaming them. If there is something a musician doesn’t agree with, there usually isn’t a way to make their opinion heard. They just have to swallow it down and go along with whatever the conductor wants to do, unless one of the section leaders speaks up. That doesn’t sound like much, but imagine having your creative vision severely stifled on a nearly daily basis. Imagine having not even the slightest say in what you’re basically co-creating, and no way of giving direct feedback. Anyone would be worn down by this, and so it’s no surprise that a lot of orchestra musicians become disillusioned, and often very cynical. Sometimes this then devolves into a passive aggressive power play between musicians and conductors, which in the end benefits nobody.
If you’re a musician, you might now be wondering – how exactly does direct feedback between all musicians and the conductor work, without the work atmosphere becoming chaotic? Rehearsals have to be efficient, after all. Ben’s approach to this is simple, but effective: he relies on what he calls the White Sheet. At the beginning of every rehearsal, every musician will find a blank sheet of paper on their desk, which they are invited to use for whatever feedback they want. This can range from things such as phrasing and all kinds of technical details within the pieces that are being played, to simple requests such as “more light for us in the back, please” or “need a cue at figure 34”. At the end of the day, Ben collects those sheets, reads through them, and acts accordingly. In the book The Art of Possibility, which he co-wrote with his partner Rosamund Stone Zander, he also recalls an instance where he actually spoke to a violinist at one of the back desks, because he noticed her looking quite listless in her playing. Listening to what bothered her about the way he’d asked the violin section to play a certain excerpt of a symphony prompted him to change just that, and lo and behold, it gave him an overall much happier and more engaged violin section on the night of the concert.
I suppose that these things don’t sound so mind-blowing to people outside of the music industry – after all, giving and receiving professional feedback is quite common in other professions, and not having that kind of line of communication is seen as a sign of a bad team or corporation. Isn’t it all the more astonishing then, that so far, I’ve come across only one major conductor of classical music who believes in this kind of approach? And doesn’t it explain so much about all the other problems the industry faces – racism, sexism, elitism, and so forth? A strict hierarchical system such as this, upon which more or less all big orchestras of the world are built, stands in the way of addressing all those issues. If musicians aren’t even allowed to voice their opinions on musical matters, how are they supposed to speak out against discrimination of any kind?
That is why Benjamin Zander’s approach is so revolutionary. Watching him rehearse and conduct almost felt like my musical mind was breathing a huge sigh of relief. More than that, it made me emotional. It showed me that there is a different approach to tackling the difficulties of my profession. It showed me that I have the strength and means to speak up, and to make a difference in the world at large.
And the best part? During that masterclass, he taught his students the exact same thing. Knowing that there is a small (but hopefully soon growing) group of conductors out there in the world who are doing their best to follow this kind of philosophy, is so incredibly heartening. I hope that one day, I’ll have the pleasure of working with them as part of a professional orchestra – they all deserve to have that kind of success.
I am also very happy to say that, because of Ben’s very outgoing nature, I actually had the chance to have proper conversations with him – a fact that I’m endlessly grateful for. It can be so hard to speak to people you’ve looked up to for a long time and who seem unreachable; to realise that he remembered my name, and was interested in talking to me again and again during the days after our first interaction was completely mind-blowing and did wonders for my self-confidence.
At one point soon, I would also like to go into detail about Ben Zander’s aforementioned book: The Art of Possibility. The things he talks about in his TED Talk are part of his overall philosophy of life, and reading that book has made a lasting impact on me. Since he often talks about examples from his career as a musician and conductor to make his points, I thought it would be only fitting to write up a review for the blog, so watch out for that. 🙂
Lastly, I’d love to hear from you! Have you had a similar experience with one of your heroes? If you’re a musician, is there anyone who opened your eyes in that same way, someone who does their part to bring much needed change to the industry? Or if you aren’t a musician, is there anyone who you really admire for working to change something about the world? Let me know! It’s always encouraging to see that there are people who work hard to make a difference, so let’s make this blog entry a truly positive and inspirational one. 💗
Food for Thought
🎥 The Boston Philharmonic Channel – where you can find a huge amount of masterclasses Benjamin Zander has held. Even if you’re not a musician, I’m pretty sure you’ll find them very interesting!
💻 Benjamin Zander Center – read all about Benjamin Zander’s philosophy, projects, and more.