2012 MTNA Conference – Monday Morning – Keynote Address with Benjamin Zander

This is one of the sessions I’ve been most looking forward to, thanks to my student Luke who first introduced me to some of Mr. Zander’s insightful presentations via some YouTube video clips.

Despite an incredibly impressive list of credentials


Mr. Zander quickly grabbed the attention of the audience by walking around the room, pointing out the first arrivals who were all sitting in the back row. This led to an extensive discussion on the psychology of where people sit and why so many people choose the back row. He pointed out the complete absence of people in the front row and said he experienced the same thing when talking to a Fortune 500 group where every attendee made billions of dollars a year. Then he invited people to come to the front, stating that it was very important to him to have the front rows completely full. This was no problem since the room was packed with standing room only!

“Teachers are the highest form of human life.” Mr. Zander continued by introducing his plan of talking about two worlds.
Two shoe salesmen went to Africa in the 1800s to sell shoes. They responded very differently:
1 – “Hopeless situation. They don’t wear shoes.”
2 – “Glorious opportunity! No one has shoes yet!”

The situation is the same. It’s what is said about it that is different. And it’s not only words we speak, but ways we be. As teachers, we can choose every moment which world we will dwell in. “The world will show up for you entirely in the way you create it.”

He shared about a man he met on the elevator just a few minutes before. When asking how he was, the man responded, “Could be worse.” He rested his case. In contrast, when he asked a 15-year old years ago how he was, he responded “If I were any better I would be a twin!” Referring back to the front row discussion, he said it doesn’t matter where you’re sitting; it matters what you’re being while you’re sitting.

It looks like the first world is about failure and the second is about success. But it’s more complicated than that. The first world is about failure and success. The second world is not about winning and losing. He shared about a gorgeous young woman he observed whom he described as looking a little bit like Mary Queen of Scots before she was about to be executed. Upon inquiring he discovered that she was getting ready to play the piano for the piano competition. Again, in contrast, he told a story about a 5-year old who excitedly ran through the hall with her cello thrilled for the opportunity to play.

He was faced with this in his teaching at the New England Conservatory. The students are constantly questioning, “Am I better than her? Am I as good as him?” They are constantly measuring and comparing. When one of them comes out to play, it looks like there is only one person playing. But there are two. The one playing the instrument and the one behind them whispering in their ear, “You haven’t practiced enough. There’s that tricky passage you missed in practice. You’re going to miss it again.” If you ask, “What voice in the head?” That voice. Sometimes this voice talks so loudly that it drowns out the music.

Mr. Zander told about his book, The Art of Possibility, authored by his wife with whom he co-authored the book. 🙂 He said she couldn’t be here because she was busy writing the next book that they will be co-authoring. He read a brief excerpt:

“Artists, musicians, performers, painters, poets have rarely been in a position to speak to those directly engaged in business or finance…In our new society there are no compelling institutions that speak to the majority…this begs for creativity…it may be that the artist in each one of us has the unprecedented opportunity to set the path…”

He invited us to his class in September. He addresses the students, “Your grade is an A. It’s an A for the whole year. There is one condition. It’s not that you have to come to class. If you don’t come to class, I can’t promise the results.” In the last class there were 56 students in attendance; only 47 were enrolled. “People don’t go to a class to get a grade any more than people go to work to get money.” “I just invented that.” 🙂

The only condition is that they must write a letter dated May of the following year. It must begin with, “Dear Mr. Zander, I got an A because…” and then they must describe the person they have become as a result of taking the class. Then fall in love with that person that they have envisioned. He adds, ” You see, I only take A students.” You can give an A to anybody. You can give an A to your students. It’s a gift. It’s unconditional. He quoted a therapist, “If there’s a breakdown in a relationship, you’re not giving somebody an A.”

It’s only when you give an A to somebody that you can tell the truth to them. Another teacher assumed that if Mr. Zander discovered that a student wasn’t living up to his grade that he would modify it from an A to something lesser. He told of a young 15-year old girl who angrily responded that her name was Joy. Did her parents change her name because she wasn’t joyful? Of course not. You don’t give children a name as an expectation to live up to, but as a possibility to live into.

We are like priests in a general sense – religious leader. We only have one thing to care about: the spirit. Does that mean that competitions aren’t good? No. Competitions are great! He shared an anecdote: Two men were sitting together and one asked the other, “How’s your wife?” After great deliberation, he responded, “Compared to what?” The question was asked to invite a conversation about relationship. The answer was given in a downward spiral, as only a comparative. They were asked and answered in different places.

He asked a student once, “What does it feel like to get an A in the first class when you haven’t done anything yet?” The Asian students revealed that in Asia it’s important to be right, and the teacher is always right. The best way for a student to be right is to remain silent. Mr. Zander believes the opposite. You can’t learn anything if you don’t make mistakes. He encourages students to celebrate when they make mistakes.


It’s been said that you cannot play great music unless your heart has been broken. “I say, well then, let’s have more broken hearts and get on with it.” He told of an Asian student who told him that he had been number 68 out of 70 in his country’s university. Now Mr. Zander told him he was an A. It was very confusing. But eventually he decided that he was much happier being an A and decided to go with that.

While having breakfast with a friend in London he discovered that he didn’t have a knife. He called the waitress over, “I have a perfect life, but I don’t have a knife.” She went to get the knife and a young girl at the next table over thought it was hilarious. He smiled and winked at her. The next morning, Mr. Zander went over to greet her at her breakfast table and asked how she was. “Perfect,” she responded. He thinks she had discovered the secret of life. What is the secret of life? “It’s all invented.” When he discovered that, it changed his life. He had been leading a normal life when one day he had a shattering “road-to-damascus” experience in which he discovered that the conductor doesn’t make a sound. The conductor gets his power from his ability to awaken possibility in other people. How do you know if you’re doing that? Look at their eyes. If their eyes are shining, you know that you’re doing it. If the eyes are not shining, ask a question, “Who am I being that my players’ eyes are not shining?” We can do that with our children, our students, our husbands and wives.

He went even a step further. As a conductor, it’s different than being a teacher. Life in the orchestra is very difficult. But we are all conductors. As a teacher, if you’re sitting with an 8-year old child, you’re the conductor of that relationship.

[The audience was enamored with Benjamin Zander]

“This room is full of woman. Every company I go to, I can gauge the success of the company by how many women are in authority.” He shared briefly about his removal from New England Conservatory due to a scandal that happened 20 years ago not related to him. He has received numerous letters in appreciation of the influence he has had in many lives. Teachers have a sacred influence in their students’ lives.

It matters who we are being all the time, not just in the piano lesson. He shared of a time when he was at the airport and got upset because his ticket was given away. After expressing himself, a man close by said, “I’m sorry I saw that because I really enjoyed your talk.”

He said he would share with us what he always does in his talks. But he is used to talking to groups that have no connection to music. Usually there are maybe 7 out of 900 that have a personal musical connection. There’s another group, though, that don’t mind classical music. Most of the group is comprised of those who never listen to classical music all year long. A tiny group of people think they are tone deaf. It’s not possible. Nobody is tone deaf. If you were tone deaf, you couldn’t change the gears on a stick shift, or hear the kettle, or tell the difference between a lion and a bird or a Texan and an Italian. When your mother calls, you can tell not only that it’s her, but also what mood she’s in. In the Chinese language the same words can mean multiple things based on the tonal quality of how it is said.

Tone deaf is something that happened when you were seven years old singing in a choir. The teacher said, “Shh, don’t sing. Just pretend you’re singing so you don’t spoil the choir.” He wishes we could take out a malpractice suit against such teachers. That is the end of the musical experience for many people.

It will take eleven minutes to get everyone in the room to love classical music. He takes business leaders through this process:

We only recognize what we have a category for. Education is not the transference of information but the opening up of new categories.

Mr. Zander concluded his presentation with an interactive illustration by having the audience sing Happy Birthday to one of the attendees. He helped us figure out how to emphasize the appropriate part of the phrase (“you”), use gestures, sing with passion, and inform the face so that it reflects the emotion of what you are saying.

A few closing thoughts and musical demonstrations were designed to help the audience realize that the talk was not motivational, but transformational. “Motivational talks are like Chinese food. They taste good, but leave you wanting more in two hours.” A transformational talk is something you keep thinking about that changes your perspective and the way you approach life and teaching.

Classical music is for everyone. But our profession doesn’t see it that way. We are living too much in the first world and are caught in a downward spiral. It is up to us. “We are the priests. We are holding the flame that must be passed on.” Within minutes of leaving the session, he proposed that we would be engaged in a conversation that has the potential for downward spiral. But it doesn’t have to be. Who will enroll whom in the other’s world?

In closing, he referenced his book and said that he wouldn’t be surprised if someday you go to the hotel and open the drawer and there are two books…

The Art of Possibility. Possibility is always only one sentence away. Mr. Zander wrapped up his presentation by reading a short story of monks, rabbis, and the impending downfall of a monastery. After being told by a Rabbi that one of them was the Messiah, the monks began treating themselves and others with greater respect. All the visitors were drawn to the place because of their attitudes and treatment of each other. The monastery once again became a thriving order.

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