“I realized that my job is to awaken possibility in others.”

BPYO - Rehearsal 4 - Recap

Benjamin Zander
Ben's Blog — November 10, 2020

I was delighted to welcome you “into” my music room on Saturday, especially since many of the new BPYO members have not yet been in my home and none of you have been able to enjoy the lovely colors in the garden this Fall.


Back Garden


Front Garden during the last concert


We all observed social distancing and wore masks, except when I was speaking directly from the distance of my leather arm-chair. The French doors were open to provide sufficient ventilation, which explains why we had a fire to counteract the bracing Fall breezes, which greatly added, along with the aroma of burning wood, to the pleasant atmosphere.


Music Room


I began by introducing the guest musicians: Dina Vainshtein, familiar to most of you as resident pianist of the Interpretation Classes and ubiquitous collaborator with many of you; Velleda Miragias, one of the BPYO cello coaches and Associate Principal cellist of BPYO; and Matt Vera, also a BPYO coach and a member of the first violin section of BPO. Dave Jamrog caught the event on his 4 cameras on tripods and Alfonso was at hand to help with all the Zoom technicalities.

It was a special joy for me to welcome BPO and BPYO into the same space for the very first time.

I promised I would try to bring the three guests up to speed with what we had been doing since we “set sail” on September 26th.

I began with the Assignments.

I asked everyone to take on the idea that our instincts live in the Downward Spiral. There is, of course, nothing wrong with our instincts – on the contrary. Our instincts are part of our wiring. We are wired to eat and drink and to pro-create.  And we are also wired to be competitive; to go for pleasure and comfort; to be combative; to love. Parents love their children instinctively. They don’t have to think about it. “It comes naturally,” as they say.

In Radiating Possibility, we are conscious of our wiring. We don’t fight it, or deny it or try to overcome it. We think about it. Then we can embrace the possibility of choice, as to whether to limit ourselves to our instincts – for an American family with children to adopt a refugee child, for instance. Celibate monks are practicing the possibility of what they take to be a more perfect communion with God than they could have if they were also to marry and have children. These are not instinctive decisions – they require thought.

It is that kind of thought that we have been bringing to our musical discussions in BPYO. It is instinctive to feel an urge to get louder when music goes up and vice versa when the music goes down. We all have a natural desire to lead to a long note. Repeated notes always want to lead. Bum bum bum Baaaa! There is no thinking needed. “It comes naturally.” And composers take for granted that musicians will do that and they don’t feel they have to mark it into their scores, (until composers like Strauss and Mahler felt they had to mark everything into their scores).

But there is another thing that composers of the classical and romantic era didn’t have to mark into the music – namely the natural division into “heavy” and “light” impulses. It is natural, instinctive and assumed. They also didn’t need to mark that the natural division of music is into 4 and 8 bar phrases. It is wired into western music just as firmly as the 4 beats of a 4-beat bar. It didn’t have to be discussed or argued about. When the pattern is changed the composers might feel the need to inform the players. “Ritmo di tre battute,” wrote Beethoven in the Scherzo of the Ninth in order to warn the musicians (including the conductor) that it was going from 4 bars in a phrase to three. And then there is another even stronger counter force: a sequence, where the same pattern is repeated, takes precedence over, and therefore temporarily suspends, heavy and light impulses. As soon as the sequence is over, like with cruise control, it falls back naturally into the pattern of heavy and light.

What we have been exploring in the BPYO rehearsals so far, is the addition of consciousness: To be able to make a conscious decision to override the wiring. Not by denying it, but by incorporating the conflicting forces into a single complex idea, because that is what the composers are doing all the time. So, in a four-bar phrase, a composer might want the performer to deny the tendency to make a crescendo when the music goes up, in order to achieve the surprise of accenting a weak bar.

I told everyone that I had been discussing all this with Roz over the phone in California earlier in the day and that she had come up with a beautiful assignment for the coming week.



Remember that when you are acting according to your wiring it is not a surprise. You can surprise yourself (and others) by getting up and going for a 2-mile walk at sunrise; you can surprise yourself (and others) when you don’t look at your iPhone for a day. Or you could surprise yourself (and others) by being brave – make a brave decision, which you are NEVER wired to do, by definition. Overriding our wiring is exciting.

You received the first chapter of The Art of Possibility a week ago. The version you got didn’t have the solution to the Nine Dot puzzle. Here it is:

The next Chapter will come next Tuesday. Be sure that have read the first chapter and have absorbed as much as you can. Pick out a couple of sentences that struck you particularly, as Gerson did on Saturday.

Page 59: “Throw yourself into life as someone who makes a difference, accepting that you may not understand how or why


Now to music making.

We have seen that a bar with 4 beats has heavy on one; light on two; heavy on three, but lighter than one; and light on four). There is no argument about this amongst musicians. The same holds true when it is a four bar phrase, although many musicians have not realized this.

Let’s revisit this one more time to make ABSOLUTELY sure:

Sing The Joy theme, conducting along in 4/4 with a leisurely tempo.

You can easily feel the heavy impulses on every other note.

Now speed it up until, instead of 4 beats in a bar, you can begin to feel a broad 4, with each bar acting like a beat.

It is still heavy light, heavy light, but with longer phrases.

That is what Beethoven had in mind when he established the metronome mark “half-note = 80.”

You could even take it one step further and feel one impulse for each 4 bar phrase (though you wouldn’t ever conduct it that way).

We have also identified some the forces that can threaten the primacy of the heavy/light principle, creating ambiguity or tension.

– Rising lines
– A long note
– Repeated notes
– Dynamics
– Dissonances

It’s also important to remember that sequences are always more powerful than the heavy/light principle and always take precedence.




Now, imagine you are the baritone, sing and conduct the Schiller’s “Ode” from Beethoven’s 9th with the German words:

Freude schöner Götterfunken
Tochter aus Elysium
Wir betreten feuertrunken,
Himmlische Dein Heiligtum.

Joy, beautiful spark of divinity
Daughter from Elysium,
We enter, drunk with fire,
Oh heavenly being, your sanctuary!

It would be a good idea to learn these words from memory. You will not regret it.

There are certain things you just have to learn from memory:

“I love you!” for instance.

The next 4 lines contain the heart of the message of the Ninth Symphony:

Deine Zauber binden wieder
Was die Mode streng getheilt.
Alle Menschen werden Brüder
Wo dein sanfter Flügelweilt

Your magic binds together
what habit and fashion have torn apart.
All mankind will be as brothers,
where your soft wings do waft.

Here it is in phonetic English:

Froy-der, sher-ner getter-foon-ken
Tochter ‘ouse E-lyse-ium,
Veer be-tray-ten foy-er troon-ken,
Him-lee-she, dine high-lish-tomb!
Dine-er tsow-ber binn-den vee-der,
Voss dee mo-der shtreng ge-tile’t;
Alla menschen vear-den brood-aire,
Vo-dine zanf-taire floo-gel vile’t.


Conducting the 9th


Take a big breath as you raise your hand for the up-beat. Conduct the phrase in 4 with each bar being a beat in a 4-bar pattern. Give a big impulse on the first F# and then, as it goes up to the A, actually intensify the sound, but make sure it feels as though it is getting its energy from “Freude” (i.e. coming from the one).

The next impulse is on the E – “Tochter,” (though less that the initial F# because it is all one phrase from the beginning). Then make the same shape on the second phrase. Again, resist the temptation to lead up to the long note on “Lysium,” but rather come from the impulse on “Tochter.”

Find the freedom in the music, so that you and everyone around you can feel the sweep of the idea of universal Brotherhood.





Happy Birthday is the most frequently performed piece of music in the world. It is usually abominably sung. You have my permission to intervene to lead the song at birthday party that you attend, even if it is happening at another table at a restaurant. Everyone wants to be inspired, especially if it is in celebration of someone that they love.

Here’s a story:

In 2008 I noticed that Barack Obama had a habit of letting his voice go down at the end of almost every sentence. I found it so annoying, and likely so destructive of his candidacy, which I favored, that I tried to contact him. It turns out it isn’t that easy to reach these people. When I heard that he was coming to Boston for a fund-raiser, I decided to buy a ticket. It was $15,000! Well, I had just become an American citizen and I considered this by now, in August, to be a very urgent matter. Patriotism kicked in. August 4th happened to be his 47th birthday, so I called the organizers and offered to lead the Happy Birthday. They explained that they already had Harry Connick Jr. doing it, so I satisfied myself with just attending with the hope that I might run into Obama sometime during the evening and tell him about his vocal habit.

There were 850 people there that night, (do the math! They raised 5 million dollars in one evening) some on the floor, where I was, behind a rope and another larger number in the balcony. The evening went well, with brilliant speeches by John Kerry and Governor Deval Patrick. Then out came Obama. He cut the cake and Harry Connick Jr. sang Happy Birthday together with his 9-year-old daughter standing just in front of him. Then came Obama’s speech. Almost every sentence ended in a falling cadence.

That was it. That was the end of the evening.

Well not quite. I stepped over the rope, went up to Obama, took his microphone out of his hand and turned to the audience:

“Harry Connick Jr. is a great singer,” I said, “but he’s not a conductor. I am a conductor. We are now going to sing Happy Birthday to Barack Obama, and whether he becomes President or not depends on how we sing today!”

Then, after a few moments of coaching, I led the wildest performance of Happy Birthday I’d ever heard – 850 Democrats, unleashing 8 years of pent up frustration. It was magnificent! I gave Obama a big hug and returned his microphone. “That is the best birthday I have ever had,” he murmured.

For $15K you get a photo. When I reached the front of the long queue, I said: “I don’t need a photo, but I would like to ask you two things. Don’t let your voice go down at the end of the sentence and remember that EVERYBODY in the choir has got to sing!” “I get it,” he replied. I handed him The Art of Possibility, which he promised he would read on his upcoming holiday in Hawaii.

That was the end of the story.

Except for this: on February 22nd, 2009, there was a party in Washington celebrating Senator Ted Kennedy’s birthday. Everybody there knew it was his last birthday – he died of a brain tumor in August. Half way through the evening the Master of Ceremonies announced that a very special person was going to lead the Happy Birthday. Out came President Obama to lead a rousing performance, doing, according to two friends who were there, a perfect imitation of my conducting at the fund-raiser in Boston, with all the wild gestures and off-the-charts enthusiasm.

I wrote a letter to the White House congratulating my “student” on his alleged stellar performance, but I didn’t get a reply.


(The head of the secret service said I had risked my life that night. I said I felt sure that the five agents lined up on the stage sensed that I had a higher purpose.)




Here’s a little coaching, in case you find yourself conducting at a birthday party.


Pieces in three are really always felt in one. People aren’t used to singing it that way, so you have to impose it by force of your personality. Make sure that you launch the phrase in such a way that everybody feels the bars as beats. There is a huge impulse on “BIRTH” launched by a big up-beat on “Happy.” Don’t make the first bar an up beat to the second, rather pull the warm intensity out of the D of “Birth” and deliver it to “YOU!”  Never forget that the point of the celebration is “YOU,” but the heavy beat is still on the first and third bar.

The effort it takes to pull the two bars together and keep the intensity all the way to the long note contains the love we all feel for the birthday celebrant.

The 5th bar is the highpoint – a very heavy bar with a light bar for the name of the person, to be delivered with tenderness and deep love, and then an enthusiastic finale with the emphasis on the A of “Birth” (7th bar), falling naturally and satisfyingly to a warm-hearted “weak” bar at the end (bar 8).

Remember that for the person who is being celebrated it can be a life-changing moment.

Dina’s performance was terrific!

I am grateful to Dina for the wonderful way she played those little pieces by Mozart, composed by a small child of around 6 (I checked and found out that the little pieces were written between 6 and 7!).

Minuet in F
Air in Eb

My Dream is that children will be taught to play that way, by teachers who care as much as these two brilliant teachers the fabulous twins Marielisa and Mariester Álvarez.

Here are two films in which I am doing my best to teach little kids to play on one buttock.

Bach: Gavotte in G Minor
Handel: Royal Fireworks Music – La Réjouissance

Have any of you found yourselves passing on or practicing the ideas we have been exploring in the class? Let us know about it.

I was pleased to get this note from Sarah, one of our trumpeters:

Hi Maestro Zander,
I have been trying to incorporate what we have discussed with four-bar phrasing into my teaching. I have explained to my students that four-bar phrases are much like four-beat measures; there is a strong beat on 1 and 3, and a weaker beat on 2 and 4. My older student has been working on an etude that has a great deal of four-bar phrasing, so I have been demonstrating the concept for her and having her play it back. We frequently break this down into just the downbeats of each measure, or other smaller concepts. This has helped her gain a better understanding of phrasing. It has been harder to do with my younger student, because she is still struggling to remember how to play the notes. Although I think that teaching musicality from an early age is crucial, it is hard to do when the notes do not quite exist yet. I have tried to apply the concept of four-bar phrasing to the music she is working on, but it can be tricky. Perhaps I will find some slightly easier pieces for her where there are fewer notes to remember, but there can be an emphasis on the phrasing. I plan to try some of your coaching methods, and I am trying to figure out how to make this work over Zoom.

Thank you,


Figaro and the birth of the sforzando.


Figaro is measuring the enormous room that the Count has made available for him and his bride, Susanna. He can’t get over his luck that they have been given this prime piece of real estate. Susanna, like all of Mozart’s female characters, a great deal smarter than the men in their lives, explains that the reason that the Count has been so “generous,” is because he wants the couple close by, so that he can get easy access to Susanna during the day, while Figaro is working.

Everyone in the audience would have known that what is being referred to is the “droit de seigneur” the appalling right enjoyed by lords that gave them access to the sexual favors of young women on their estates, especially on their wedding night.

When Figaro finally “gets” what is going on, his mood suddenly changes and we hear the brewing anger of the servant class against the abuses of the aristocrats.

To make his point, he takes the most iconic aristocratic dance the elegant Minuet and ladles it thick with sarcasm:

“If you want to dance, Mr. Count it will be me playing the guitar.”

Instead of the gentle, light 2nd beat that would have been normal in a true Minuet, Mozart expects the angry Figaro to attack the word “Si!” (YES!) with a mixture of suppressed fury and disgust.

That “Si!” – a violent attack on the second beat of a courtly aristocratic dance launched the French Revolution! Well, in a manner of speaking! It is worth remembering that the play on which Mozart’s opera is based, Le Marriage de Figaro, by Beaumarchais, was banned from performance because it showed the aristocracy in a bad light. Mozart – after all, a member of the servant class, entering the house through the back door, gave way to Beethoven, the first composer to enter through the front.

I told the story, of Beethoven and Goethe, standing together in the park when Prince Lichnowsky passed by. Goethe bowed deeply, as was required, Beethoven stood firmly erect.  “But Beethoven!” exclaimed Goethe, “you didn’t bow to the Prince!” “Nah” replied the composer, “when Prince Lichnovsky is long forgotten, everybody will know Beethoven!”

Beethoven took that angry “Si” and turned it into a corner-stone of his style. (video)


Theme From G.F. Handel’s Oratorio Judas Maccabeus


“See the conquering hero comes”


Beethoven took Handel’s theme and turned it into a quite different piece (notice the dedicatee) from Handel’s noble conception. This is altogether more humorous and charming:

It is full of surprises. However, the surprises only make their effect if the basic shape of the 4-bar phrase is firmly in place.

It is in 2/2, which makes it easy to feel the first two bars as one gesture with the second chord in bar 2 the weakest beat.

Bars 3 and 4 have two elements that could cause musicians to lead to the 4th bar – a long note and the two quarter notes that, though not identical, have the same effect. Most musicians would, without thinking, lead to bar 4, which is, of course the weakest beat in the phrase.

The second phrase has the surprise on the second bar (bar 6) where the sf should be experienced as a surprise, NOT the result of a crescendo leading to it. Bar 7 is heavy (as usual) while bar 8 (another long note) is weak. The second group (bar 9-12) is a falling phrase over 4 bars (starting on B and falling B A G F#). A phrase like this benefits immensely from a faster tempo, so that it can be felt as one melodic gesture over 4 bars. That’s why I used the image of whipping cream, or stirring batter to fit the turn in the melody. If it becomes too notey that idea will be lost. (Dina’s performance the first time through had that static feeling, whereas at the end it was wonderfully buoyant and horizontal.)

Bar 13 should be a heavy bar, complete with an energizing up beat at the end of bar 12, but the crescendo fork changes the whole direction, making the whole bar feel like an up beat to the climactic first inversion chord at bar 14. Then comes the startling repeated f , which has the effect of turning the second chord in bar 14 into an up-beat to the coming cadence in 15 and 16. If there is any doubt left that Beethoven is treating this theme humorously, in the manner of the theme of the Diabelli Variations, it must swept away when the cadence, which is crying out for climactic grandeur, instead is suppressed by the diminuendo and a rolled chord in p on the weakest bar of all.

Now we are ready for the final 8 bar phrase. It starts the same way as the beginning, but now f. Instead of a weak beat on the second beat of bar 18, there is a rest, which gives Beethoven a chance to set up the best joke of all.  The anacrusis into the heavy bar 19 f makes that bar feel especially strong. And this time there is no crescendo fork to the sf in the next bar as there was in bar 13. Beethoven wants to give the strongest kick in the pants (his version of Figaro’s “Si”) as a surprise in bar 20. It is a very thoughtful musician who can resist the temptation (and I use the word advisedly) to LEAD to the sf long note in bar 20. Instead they could create the illusion that it is going to fall to a weak bar 20 (much helped by the falling C B A in the top voice) only to be up-ended by the hilarious sf on A.

The A# passing note gives the illusion of insouciance, leading to the final 4 bar phrase: will it be charming and elegant? Or is there room for one more kick of surprise on bar 22, which should not be signaled by a crescendo up to it, but rather a complete shock, because bar 21 has been kept soft, perhaps especially soft. The final two bars are, of course, heavy/light, as it falls to the final long note G (d c b a g) in piano.

All of these surprises are entirely dependent on the joke that we know which bars and beats should be heavy and which light but our expectations are constantly frustrated or undermined.

Here’s a final thought. Wouldn’t practicing the piano (or any music) be much more fun and engaging, if even quite elementary players were encouraged to put their focus and intelligence to work on creating (and practicing) surprises, instead of “mindlessly” going through the motions with only their instincts to guide them?

That, you might say, is an awful lot of words to describe a single page of apparently straightforward music. You would be right. However, I felt it was worth doing once, to show how this system works.

Next we stepped into one of the great works in the repertoire to show how this approach can play out. All the surprises were addressed in the work we did on the Archduke Trio, so the best thing is to simply put up that section so that you can observe it again. I will only dwell on the first few bars to underline the effectiveness of this kind of consciousness.


Archduke Trio


The first bar is heavy. The second is light although most pianist treat the first bar as an up-beat because of the long note on the second bar.

Listen to the recording of a well-known trio

The pianist sets a too slow tempo, so we can’t really tell whether the first bar is a down-beat or an up-beat. And, by the way, too slow a tempo to be considered an Allegro.  There is the usual instinctively motivated crescendo in bar three, which eliminates any sense of the surprise of the extraordinary sf on the 4th weak bar of the phrase. I don’t need to go on – the remainder of the performance is less probing and less convincing than that achieved by Dina, Matt and Velleda, who were playing the piece for the first time, without any rehearsal!

I watched the video of our work together and think it is worth sharing with you.

Archduke Trio Coaching


Ligeti Cello Sonata


Eric (19) joined BPYO in 2013. He was a member of the National Youth Orchestra USA in 2018 and is a sophomore at Tufts. What he wrote on his audition application in May explains why he has returned to BPYO for his 8th year:

Playing in the BPYO has had tremendous impact on my life, musically, socially and spiritually. I remain a member of the organization because of the exciting experiences it offers me and the knowledge that I gain from interacting with its leaders.

Eric introduced and then gave a beautiful performance of the Sonata for solo cello by the Hungarian composer György Ligeti written between 1948 and 1953.

Here is that performance

In the discussion that followed we heard many interesting observations.  Iverson gave a beautiful encomium to Matt Vera for his performance of the solo part in Ein Heldenleben with the BPO in 2018 at 3 days’ notice.

Iverson’s comment is worth hearing

Here is that BPO recording of Strauss Ein Heldenleben.

(Matt’s solo begins at 7:10 but I think you would enjoy the whole of this stirring performance)

One moment that I especially cherished was Matt’s answer to the question: “How does it feel for you professionals to be coached?” Matt said: “Oh it’s just like a BPO rehearsal.”

That gets at a very important point: conducting is essentially coaching.

The conductor/coach conveys through his body his understanding of what the composer intended. That is why I think that every one of you can take on the idea of approaching music from the point of view of the conductor during this bizarre period in which consciousness about music can replace the usual experience of playing music.


View all the Rehearsal Recaps in the BPYO during COVID Collection.

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