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It all began about 30 years ago. 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.” 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 from experts in many fields, not just business. Periodically YPO holds a major meeting for a large gathering of Presidents, sometimes as many as 2,000, for what they call a University. No one is paid to speak, but everybody wants to be invited because of the opportunities that can open up for speaking and consulting.
The next one was to be in Boston. The phone call was to ask 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. But when Susan read out the names of the people who had agreed to speak, I was intrigued. Julia Child, the famous Cambridge based TV cook was going to talk about French cooking; Derek Bok, President of Harvard University 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 that the blindness that comes from unfounded assumptions might 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 the White Bar in the Marriot Hotel where I sat, waiting for the one o’clock start time. One o’clock struck and not a single person had entered the bar. Not one! I was not best pleased.
Around ten past one, I packed up my things and was about to leave – and walk out on what turned out to be one of the biggest opportunities of my life – when Susan rushed in, in a flutter of profuse apologies: “I am SO, so sorry” she said, “we forgot to put your talk in the book, so no one knew it was taking place.
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 Stravinsky’s 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?” 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. But I had come to the conclusion that the recording would not do. The tempi were not quite right and there was one note that had been played wrongly for 150 years that was also wrong in my recording. What was needed was to start again – to re-record. I was going to present this to the orchestra at the next rehearsal. The day of that rehearsal was the very day that Susan had asked me to give a talk at 5 p.m. to a group of business people.
“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 up. 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 New England Conservatory.” “Five busses.” “OK”, I shot back, “Hire five 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 be 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 the Himalayas, I have been in a 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!”
It seems that they were hooked.
I barely said a word to the presidents during that first hour and a half of rehearsal.t. 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 one conducts along with a CD or the radio one is not conducting, one is 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 rocket science, but apparently it caught their fancy. The rest of the time that evening 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 die was cast. The re-recording would go ahead.
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 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. 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 whether $10K would be possible. “No, no, this is at least $60,000 with all expenses paid.”
I had leapt with a single bound into a totally different world – a world in which 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 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. My (then) wife Roz devised a whole way of thinking about Possibility that encompassed the emotional musical, message and we were ready. (It later became our book The Art of Possibility which sold millions of copies and was translated into 22 languages.)
From that night on, I received a steady stream of invitations, sometimes ten a month, to the far corners of the earth to speak to every kind of group, to business leaders, to religious organizations and school, to billionaires and Presidents of countries at the World Economic Forum in Davos.
The message always was leadership and possibility; the means was music. Every event ended with the whole crowd, however large – once 14,000 people at an Evangelical Christian conference – singing on top of their voices, 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.
If I had walked out of the White Bar at the Marriot at 7 minutes past 1 o’clock, instead of at 10 past, I probably never would have become an internationally known public speaker, able to donate $300,000 a year to the BPO, support countless students and musical enterprises, make 20 commercial recordings and buy a wonderful house on Brattle Street in Cambridge!
You may remember that I mentioned that I was invited to speak at a conference in Brussels a month or so after the first meeting of the Young Presidents in Brown Hall. Well, on the way back to Boston, I stopped off in London to visit my father shortly before his death in his mid 90’s. My brother Michael warned me: “Dad is not doing well. I would suggest 15 minutes is all he could take right now. Go back tomorrow for another 15 minutes on your way back to the airport.”
Whenever I asked my father in later life, how he was, his reply was always, with that slightly mischievous voice: “Somewhat reduced.” It was no different this time. He was sitting in a chair which dwarfed him, with a woolen hat at an angle on his head. He was doing his best imitation of one of the Niebelungen dwarfs. My brother was clearly right about his state.
After a general greeting, Dad asked: “Where are you coming from?” “Brussels”, I replied. “What were you doing there?” he asked. “Giving a speech”, I said. “What about?” By now at least 4 minutes of the allotted time had elapsed. “Well”, I began, wondering how I could encapsulate the extraordinary events that I had just experienced into a few minutes. “Well”, I said again and then I began to tell – about the choices in possibility, about playing the final section of the Rite of Spring and Shostakovich and Beethoven 9th, how we had sung the Ode to Joy altogether in German and how one could choose the game of contribution instead of focusing on success and failure, winning and losing. I knew he was listening because, although he was completely blind, he would occasionally raise his eyebrows.
When I got to the end of the story – more than an hour later – he said, as he often did, enunciating the word with utmost clarity and with his still pronounced German accent, lingering on the first syllable: “Fuscinating!” We sat quietly for a while.
Then my father said: “Is there a tape of such a talk?” “Yes”, I replied. A few minutes later he said: “Do you have a tape with you?” “Yes” I replied. And
then a few minutes later: “Could we listen to a bit of the tape?”
I wondered if my brother would think I was being irresponsible, but I took out my Sony Walkman and put a pair of enormous earphones on his ears. I wish I could have taken a picture of this shriveled man, with the black earpieces engulfing his whole head. He listened to the whole tape and then he said a remarkable thing: “We didn’t know anything else.” What I think he meant was that he had been brought up in the Goethian philosophy – happiness lay in striving, work and success. The reason I think he must have been thinking that is because of what he said next: “But if your life is about contribution, why would you work?” I replied: “There is no contribution in a mediocre performance of a Mahler Symphony.”
I left Croham Leigh two and a half hours after our conversation began. Mysteriously, unbelievably, possibility and music had kept my father engaged and alert. And so it has proved over and over. We have all had this experience. When the greatest music and possibility are involved, time seems to stop and there is a deep healing power at play. A well-respected TV doctor, Christiane Northrup, wrote in a review of the Art of Possibility: “One of the most inspiring, practical, and uplifting books I have ever read. The very act of reading it with an open heart and mind will improve your health!”
Click here to view some of Ben’s work in the world of Possibility.