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

BPYO - Rehearsal 6 - Recap

Benjamin Zander
Ben's Blog — November 14, 2020

I began with an update on my whereabouts and medical status.

WHERE AM I?  I am in the North End Rehabilitation Center. I have renamed it the Recapitulation Center, because my aim is to get back to feeling the way I did during the Exposition, before the disastrous accident that landed me in hospital and the very difficult and troubled Development section.

HOW AM I DOING?  I am doing very well and progressing faster than people expected.  I put on a pair of sweat pants today entirely by remote control i.e. with a kind of pick-up stick that you might use to pick up a pencil of the floor if you couldn’t bend your legs, which I can’t. Not even a little bit.

The Physical Therapist was dazzled by my virtuosity, which is just about the only praise I get around here, because there are no visitors allowed!  She also noted that the one of the reasons I am progressing so fast is that I have a lot of strength in my arms. That, of course, is because of conducting all that Mahler and Bruckner. Who knew?   That’s what I did it for?  I can actually lift my weight off the toilet, for instance, which apparently is difficult at the angle you are with your legs out straight, if you get the point!   Another reason they say is because attitude is everything in rehabilitation and I am truly gung ho about recovery!

The staff are wonderful. We are having a ball together. They petitioned to have me stay in my extremely spacious room for the next two weeks, instead of being relegated to another floor after the 2-week quarantine was over, because we are all having so much fun.  There are a lot of shining eyes. Only A’s around here!  And three of them are reading the Art of Possibility along with you! I had a few copies brought along just in case!

I can now get from my bed to a wheel chair, to the toilet and back to a recliner without help, which was unthinkable a few days ago. It’s a long haul, but I’ve seen a lot. One of the Nurse’s Aids is a beautiful, quiet man from Haiti, whose job is to basically clean up everything. That included me, before I could move.  We have become good friends.

There are two things about him that you probably wouldn’t ever guess:

  1. His name is Wagner (his mom loved music)
  2. He used to teach algebra and chemistry in a college in Port-au-Prince (in French of course)!

He came by today to say hello (he’s actually working in another part of the building) to tell me how much he’s enjoying chapter two and to discuss how he could start a business!

I could tell you other great stories about the wonderful people whom I never would have met, if I hadn’t……etc…. as well as some very difficult moments that tested me to the limit and once or twice a bit beyond it, but I think we should get on with what happened in the class.

Before we do, I want to acknowledge Alfonso, who came into our life because he was a friend of fellow Puerto Rican, Gerson (the stunning side-drum player in BPYO ’s Shostakovich 10th. Have you heard the second movement? OMG! It’s one of the most exciting 4 minutes I have ever spent in my life).

He’s a Graduate student in conducting at BoCo and was working at a pizza parlous, until Gerson told him that he might be able to make himself useful in our world.  It has been a Godsend, or more accurately a Gerson-send because in my present condition I can do virtually nothing for myself. So, thank you Alfonso on behalf of all of us. You are a worthy successor to our wonderful Ismael.

Without Alfonso I simply would have been able to continue our Saturday “rehearsals” together. No scores, no instrument, no help with technology. One of the nurses who was frantically trying to get me ready for this class said “You really shouldn’t be doing these classes while you are here.”  And it sounded more like an order than a suggestion.  But then I remembered the university my father helped to set up in the internment camp and knew we had to try to go on. Also, what about Ernest Shackleton and his 27 men. Weren’t they tested to the limits too?

I have thought quite a bit about the Shackleton story and wondered if it was such a good idea to set it as the context for our situation. Can anyone “get of the boat?” Will anyone lose their place, if they don’t play full out?

No, obviously. But it could be a useful metaphor for commitment, full engagement, getting over the usual resistance to participating fully, especially when there is no incentive like a grade, or credit to keep people “on board”.  Will you lose your spot in the Endurance if you don’t participate fully? No. Will you lose out? Definitely.   

It’s a good habit to get into: Saturday afternoons 2.30 to 4.30 – time with Mr. Zander and BPYO. Time for a possibility refresher.

Another good habit to get into? Write something. Anything; a comment; an observation; a point of agreement or contention, a greeting, anything. Did something move you, or inspire you, or did you have a new thought caused by the music or the conversation? Remember, we can’t see each other. I can’t see the shining eyes that I see at the end of rehearsal at BFIT, or for that matter the troubled looks either. I am back in my solitary room.

After the session with Bruce Coppock, in which I told the story of my youth with Benjamin Britten and Cassadó and my father’s experiences with Bruckner and Beethoven in the trenches in the First World War and playing under Nikisch and living next door to Reger, I was disappointed to see, when Elisabeth sent me the list of those who had attended the session, that Iverson hadn’t been there. Iverson? Really? The most passionate and dedicated, six-year veteran of BPYO and the one member who had declared his desire to become a conductor, largely because of BPYO, missing that session, of all sessions. Just blowing it off? Well, there’s a story, as Roz would point out.

Of course, that’s not what happened at all. As with most of the stories we invent about what other people do (or say), it was neither a good story, nor was it true. 

This what actually happened:

‘I really just wanted to say how powerful I felt last week’s meeting was, for many reasons. I had of course never heard the story of you speaking to that group of presidents and how that led to giving talks all over the world. It really inspired me, because I feel like sharing classical music, with all of its intricacies and beauty, is what I was meant to do. And nothing is more rewarding for me than sharing it with those who have never heard it.

Two weeks ago, I missed the BPYO meeting for this very reason. I was sitting at my apartment, waiting for 2:30 so that I could log onto the meeting. My roommate’s girlfriend (definitely not a musician) was wandering around the apartment (my roommate must have been out doing errands or something). She started making small talk, asking me about my plans after college. Well there’s little I hate more than small talk, as I’m sure you can understand, so I started talking about why I want to be a conductor. And she was very interested, she didn’t really understand what a conductor’s responsibilities were, or what I would even be studying. Instead of going into the technicalities of what it means to lead an orchestra, I showed her my “Aufersteh’n” tattoo on my wrist and I told her who Gustav Mahler was. I explained his life and how he lived with passion but also with tragedy. I told her about his siblings and his wife and his daughter and his career. She had never even heard of him, never even thought about classical music, but she was deeply invested in the story of this seemingly random man. And I told her about the 2nd Symphony and what it meant to me. And then she asked to hear it. And so, we sat together on our ratty couch and watched Chailly conduct the Gewandhaus Orchestra. She was blown away, I mean her jaw was really open the entire time. When the chorus came in during the final movement and the soprano separated from the texture I turned and saw tears in her eyes. She couldn’t believe how beautiful it was. Before I knew it, I had missed the whole meeting, but I felt like something important happened. Her boyfriend, my roommate, returned and they went off to do whatever, but I knew she had experienced a special moment. I’ve heard that piece over and over and over, and it always moves me most when I’m listening to it with someone who doesn’t know the first thing about orchestra. I promised her that when the pandemic was gone I would take her and my roommate to the Boston Symphony.

I suppose your story reminded me of that, both in that I was able to share this beauty with someone new, and that it was able to move me in a way that is somehow greater each time it happens. To see you moved to tears by the Stravinsky was a testament to how powerful this music is and how its effects will support me and fulfill me throughout my life. Yes, I loved hearing you talk about the tempi, I always do. But I think we were all touched by your passion in teaching us, even from your bed, even in a pandemic, even over Zoom. I can’t wait to pass that light onto more and more people throughout my life. And I’m forever grateful to you for lighting it in me in the first place.’

That’s the best “the dog ate my homework……….” story I have ever heard. Of course, Iverson was right to miss the class for “a higher purpose,” though it seems he had little choice in the matter, but the beauty is what he wrote to me about it, and now I am passing it on to you, (and others) because it is so inspiring. You don’t have to be Iverson.  Be yourself!

One other thing I addressed before we got on to the musical substance was the issue of the BPYO Mentoring program. It’s a brilliant idea and one that I am very excited about. Each BPYO member is being offered an opportunity to mentor a young music student in an underserved community. It would involve only ½ an hour, in one session a week (unless both are inspired to do more) and could be a conversation, a coaching, a practice session – anything really. But as Ms. Christiansen pointed out, it is a commitment that has to be honored like an obligation, because others are involved.  The beauty of the plan is that in addition to having this wonderful opportunity to share your gifts and experience with a less fortunate colleague (and think what stories it might provide for your college essay), you also can get some mentoring yourself from a member of BPO, who will be paid for that service, making up for the very serious financial losses caused by the pandemic. BPO has some of the finest musicians and teachers in the area and, at the very least, a session of discussion with one of them is likely to be very enlivening and fun.

If you are going to take this on, and what “conductor” would not grab at the chance, SIGN UP and then agree to STICK to the COMMITMENT.  Any lapse will cause undue inconvenience or irritation to Ms. Christensen or Derek Beckvold, whose own brilliant world-wide mentoring program TEACH TO LEARN inspired us to take this on.

If you are not sure that you can fully commit, wait.

Now, let’s get to the substance of the afternoon’s discussion:



It all began back in 1990 something, anyway about 30 years ago. (We can’t seem to pin down the date).

I got a rather surprising call: “Hello! This is Susan Abbondante from YPO.”

I gulped and said something inane like: “But that’s my youth orchestra.”

Well, it turned out that YPO was also the Young President’s Organization, a world-wide association of corporate presidents under the age of 50, who meet regularly to discuss business matters and most importantly to learn from each other and experts in many fields, not just business.

Periodically YPO holds a major meeting in a very special location for a large gathering of Presidents, sometimes as many as 2,000, for what they called a University.  No one is paid to speak, but everybody wants to be invited because of the amazing opportunities that can open up for speaking and consulting.

The next one was to be in Boston. The phone call was to ask me if I would be interested to come and talk about music.

I wasn’t very interested. I’d never given the slightest thought to business and I had little interest in meeting business tycoons, what were they useful for?   However, when Susan read out the names of the people who had agreed to speak, I became intrigued.  Julia Child, the famous Cambridge based TV cook was going to talk to them about French cooking; Derek Bok, President of Harvard was going to talk about running a major university; Norm Ornstein, one of the leading political gurus then (and still); Cicily Tyson the Hollywood film star and wife of Miles Davis and so on and so on.

As it happens, I had been gathering thoughts about the remarkable fact that certain pieces in the classical repertoire – very well-known pieces – had been misrepresented in performance for various hidden reasons.  I thought the blindness that comes from unfounded assumptions would make a good theme for corporate leaders.

I agreed and planned out my talk, getting more engaged as the date approached. On the day, I was told to go to a bar in the Copley Plaza Hotel (or was it the Marriot) where I sat with my tape recorder waiting for the one o’clock start time. The benches in the bar were all white and so, disconcertingly, was the rather beaten up baby-grand piano. Well, never mind, they were just business types, so they wouldn’t know the difference.

As one o’clock approached, I began to worry that maybe there would be a very small group and all the effort I had made might prove to have been unnecessary. As one o’clock actually struck and not a single person had entered the bar, I became alarmed, then irritated and finally downright pissed.  Not one single person came to my talk. Not ONE. Around ten past one, I packed up my things and was about to leave, and walk out forever, on the biggest single opportunity of my life, when Susan rushed in, in a flutter of profuse apologies: “I am SO, so sorry,” she said. “We forgot to put it in the book, so no one knew it was taking place.”

Well, at least I hadn’t been personally insulted by the world’s business community! So, we settled in one of the booths and I told Susan about what I had planned to reveal.  I talked about the Danse Sacrale from the Rite of Spring, where a girl dances herself to death as a sacrificial act, at a tempo quite unsuitable to the task; the end of the Shostakovich 5th whose true meaning had been hidden in a secret message from Shostakovich to the West; and Beethoven’s 9th where two crucial passages of the work had been misunderstood for 150 years because of two simple clerical errors by Beethoven’s nephew. As the story unfolded, Susan became more and more engrossed, until I saw her wipe some tears from her eyes. “If I can get a group for tomorrow would you be willing to come back and tell this story.” Well, the next day was complicated.

It was Thursday, the Boston Philharmonic rehearsal night. We had a particularly awkward rehearsal on the docket. We had recorded Beethoven’s 9th and a British recording Company, IMP Pickwick, had agreed to issue it because of its revolutionary take on the tempi. I had gone back to England to retrieve the recording and had taken it with me, to visit a friend in Aldeburgh, the scene of the family visits to Ben Britten and Peter Pears. Jet-lagged, I had gone out into the fields, around five in the morning to listen to the cassette on my Walkman. As I walked, I sang along on the top of my voice and found to my chagrin, that I kept coming apart with the recording. My sung version, which seemed to be extremely exciting to the rabbits who were scampering around in all directions, was a lot more convincing than what I was hearing on the about-to-be-published CD.  What would the critics say about a performance of B9 that fell far short in temperament and verve of a performance so lavishly acclaimed by the British rabbits?

The path was clear. I would have to go back to Boston and gather everyone together to rerecord the whole thing. Costs be damned! This was the most important work in the musical repertoire, how could I tolerate the idea that a lesser version would be unleashed on the public?

And there was something else. It had recently come to my attention that there was a single note in the slow movement that had been incorrectly played since Beethoven’s time. A D in the first violins had been played as a C for 150 years! Jonathan Del Mar, that paragon of rectitude and scholarship had unearthed the fact by looking closely at the manuscript in Beethoven’s own hand. Nobody could be blamed for playing what was clearly published in every edition of the work, but could I justify perpetrating yet again the same error, now that the truth had been revealed?  Who would notice? It’s just a semi-quaver – a mere 16th note, for goodness sake!  Well, of course now that it had been pointed out, every pedant as well every true music lover would notice and condemn such negligence.

But there remained one last burning question, could the Boston Philharmonic, a marvelous semi-professional band, consisting of some of Boston’s finest free-lancers, but an equal number of students and amateurs, be expected to realize the white-hot performance of B9 that had been given to the rabbits that early morning in Aldeburgh? It would take the total, unbridled passion and commitment of every member of the orchestras to pull it off.

And I had decided to give it one last chance in a rehearsal to see if we could reproduce the magic of Aldeburgh with the actual players of the BPO. The day of that rehearsal was the very day that Susan had asked me to give a talk at 5 p.m. to a bunch of business types.

“Well, if you can gather a big enough group, I’d certainly consider it.” “How many would you consider sufficient?”

“Oh, I don’t know”, I replied, “30 or 35.”

The next morning Susan called. She had 150 signed. She clearly had done a bang-up enrollment job!

Her leadership fired an idea in me. “How many busses would it take to get them all up to Brown Hall at NEC?”  “5 busses.”  “OK”, I shot back, “Hire 5 busses for 6 p.m. I’ll talk to them for an hour, then we’ll go to Brown Hall and watch the orchestra rehearse one of the pieces that I will discussing in the talk.”

One thing you can always rely on with YPO is that they will do ANYTHING to provide their members with world-class, unique and memorable experiences without regard to effort or cost.

I gave the talk, at the end of which 150 passionate music lovers, all fired up and ready to go, piled into the busses and drove to Huntingdon Avenue.

I told them to sit in the orchestra wherever they could find a space and shut up.  I told them that the stakes were sky-high for the decision to be made that evening and hoped that the presence of all the high-powered leaders from all over the world would inspire the players to reach deep into their technical and emotional resources.

Somewhere I have a letter from one of the YPO’ers saying something to the effect: “I have climbed in Himalayas, I have been in bucket hanging from a tall building; I have done deep-sea diving. NOTHING has compared to the experience of sitting in the middle of the second violins during the rehearsal of Beethoven’s 9th!” They were caught. All of them, hook line and sinker.

I barely said a word to the presidents during that first hour and a half of rehearsal, though I did explain about the wrong note in the third movement. At one moment, I remember, I stopped and said: “The thing that may look strange to you, is that I am not conducting what is happening, I am conducting what is about to happen. When you conduct along with a CD or the radio you are not conducting, you are dancing. It’s the same for you. You are not leading what is happening in your company, you are ahead, leading what is about to happen.” There may have been a couple of other such comments linking the two types of leadership It wasn’t exactly rocket science, but it caught their fancy. The rest of the time I put my total force and focus into bringing the BPO to a fever pitch of excitement and intensity in playing the first movement of Beethoven’s 9th. The rabbits would have gone beserk. The die was cast. The re-recording would go forward.

The presidents left at the break, but before they did I got three invitations to speak to different companies in far-flung parts of the world. Oh, and a very friendly Canadian gentleman came up to me and said: “How much would you guess it would cost to record that one note?” I replied: “Oh I don’t know maybe $5,000”. “Ok” he said, “here’s a check for $5,000.” We dedicated the note to him, it is written in the booklet: The Brennan note.

I joined a group of them for dinner after the rehearsal including Cicily Tyson and a man who became a very important figure in my life over the next many years.  Tony Buzan, one of the most innovative thinkers of the day, the inventor of Mind Mapping and Director of a world-wide Brain’s Trust. I have a fantastic story to tell about him and Mahler 9th another time.

During that dinner he invited me to come to Brussels the following month to give a talk for a conference of business leaders. “What shall I talk about?” “Just what you did this evening,” he replied. When he asked me what my fee was, I stammered something about if 10K would be possible. “No, no, this is at least $60,000 with all expenses paid. Leave it to me,” he said.

I had leapt with a single bound into a totally different world. This was a world in which, for the first time, I realized that we had more to offer to them, than the business people had to offer to us. They knew how to make money and create goods, but they couldn’t easily get access to the soul. To passion, to love, to expression and matters of the heart. Yes, to possibility! This is what they wanted for their employees for their children and above all for themselves. I knew nothing about business, but I knew Beethoven and Bach and Mahler and Chopin and how to infuse musicians with enthusiasm and energy and to release their own passions and joys. That’s what those presidents wanted more than anything in the world.  Roz devised a whole way of thinking about possibility that encompassed the emotional musical, message and we were ready. From that night on, I received a steady stream of invitations, sometimes 10 a month(!), to the far corners of the earth to speak to every kind of group, to business leaders, to religious organizations and schools. To billionaires and Presidents at the World Economic Forum in Davos. The message was leadership and possibility the means was music.  Every single event ended with the whole crowd, however large – I once spoke to 14,000 people at an Evangelical Christian conference – singing with all their hearts, on top of their lungs, the Ode to Joy IN GERMAN: “Alle Menschen warden Bruder” all mankind will be as brothers, as if they were determined to do whatever it took to make it happen.


When I was 11, I was swimming in the sea in Aldeburgh. A wave came and knocked me over. I remember that. Then another wave came and knocked me over again. The only person on the beech who saw me was Ben Britten. He raced over and dragged me out of the water and saved my life.

If I hadn’t met the great young Singhalese cellist, Rohan de Saram and discovered that we were born on the same day and must have the same horoscope, I would never have gone to Cassado to study in Florence and Siena.

If the Director of the Merrywood Music School hadn’t been looking for a conductor when I applied for a job teaching cello and chamber music, I may never have thought of conducting.

If I had walked out of the white bar at the Marriot at 7 minutes past 1, instead of at 10 past, I probably never would have become an internationally known public speaker, able to donate $300,00 a year to the BPO, support countless students and musical enterprises, make 20 commercial recordings and eventually buy a house on Brattle Street in Cambridge! Certainly we would not be together right now.

It’s not Fate, it’s Luck.  Be prepared!

See What Else is New