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

The Red Hat and the Direction of Error

Benjamin Zander
Discussions — November 13, 2020


A story of liberation and confidence-building that also explores some issues of racism, affirmative action and the limitations set by ingrained habits.




I could have edited this story down to a fraction of its length to give the gist, but I’ve decided to let it unfold slowly through the labyrinth of communications, because Possibility doesn’t really live in gists. So, get a cup of tea, or hot chocolate, and settle down for a charming, sweet and enlivening story that happened shortly after Covid-19 closed us down and put us all into separate little boxes on a Zoom screen.

It began with a phone call from a pair of delightful ladies, who’re starting a summer school for Boston-area Chinese children. It had of course, like everything else, just been forced to go on online, but they had decided to persevere anyway. Would I be willing to kick off the proceedings with a key-note on the first morning?

A few days later they followed up with a letter outlining the plan. Mengmeng starts off by telling about her own daughter’s reaction to the story of the little 10-year-old girl who became deeply involved with Stravinsky’s ballet Petrushka. For that possibility story you will have to go here.


May 10, 2020

Dear Mr. Zander, 

We’d like to follow up with you after our phone conversation. But I’d love to first share with you a personal update if I may. 

I am attaching a picture that my daughter (coincidentally also 10 year old) showed me this morning. It’s on the back of a notepad that she drew yesterday. To give you a context, this is a girl who claims that she “hates drawing” and “hates playing the violin”. And to be honest, I do “force” her to go to drawing class and practice violin everyday.…. The immediate reaction after I saw the drawing was that “this is a miracle” and the miracle happens because, I think, Friday night and yesterday, we learnt about Petrushka together and listened to only 5 minutes of the concert and 5 mins (to be exact) of your soundcloud recording (she ran away afterwards). But only 10 minutes of listening enabled her to put a conductor, violinist and other elements in a drawing. It’s amazing. We will keep the 5 min listening everyday and see where it leads her (us). I really want to thank you for the great influence you gave to our family!

Now please allow me to switch gear to our summer school. Here’re a few things to summarize, all things listed here can be still evolving as you see fit:

  1. The key-note speech will be on July 6th 10:30-12:30pm, with 1.5 hr of speech and 30 min of Q&A
  2. The format of the class will be on zoom, there will be coordinators to coordinate the Q&A session
  3. Through our conversation, it seems there are 5 categories to talk about with the audience of Asian teenagers:

To open up and gain confidence
Searching for meaning of life
To find happiness
To find passion
To build leadership skills

(Several other paragraphs follow with further logistical details)

We are looking forward so much,


On May 22th, I gave a Zoom talk to the wider Boston Philharmonic community about the power of classical music, with special emphasis on Mozart’s art. I had invited Lynnelle and Mengmeng to listen to that talk so that we could see how to design the presentation for the Chinese teenagers. The next day I heard from Lynnelle.


May 23, 2020

Dear Mr. Zander,

Thank you so much for your talk and music last night. I was very surprised this morning that my daughter Athena asked me to send you the letter she wrote last night. She wanted to thank you by sharing her music with you. Here it comes.

Here is the link to her music recording.

Have a wonderful long weekend,



May 23, 2020

Dear Mr. Zander,

Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and love for music with us tonight. It really was very touching.

I can’t agree more with what Plato said that “Music gives a soul to the Universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, gaiety and life to everything.”

I would like to share with you a piece I wrote last December. Its original title was “Legend from the Far East.” I was inspired by this story and composed the music according to the Chinese legend – every year, at the Chinese New Year’s Eve, a monster will come to eat farm animals and village people. But in the end, the citizens find a way to defeat the monster.

My music starts with everyone tending the fields, chanting a merry tune. Together they work to the beat of the song. Weeding, sowing, growing, harvesting. All is well until suddenly a giant, tiger-like monster emerges from its dark cave. It tramples over their crops and devours all things in sight. People flee in terror and the animals shriek in fright. After the monster has ate it’s full, it lumbers back to its den. Soon the people emerge and brew up a plan, a plan to defeat this beast.  Red banners hang down from the walls; firecrackers explode filling the air with smoke and victory.

It’s my first orchestra piece. I finished it just a few days before the COVID-19 virus outbreak in China. I received the recording (from a virtual studio, I know your dad probably wouldn’t like it as it wasn’t recorded from a live concert) on Jan 31st 2020 and decided to dedicate this piece to the people who are fighting the Coronavirus, as for 2020, the coronavirus is like the monster in the story. We will have to persevere, but we will prevail in the end.

Thank you again for your story and inspiration,


Having nothing else of significance to do, I wrote back the following day.


May 24, 2020

Dear Athena,

Thank you for your letter.

I heard your piece (twice). I enjoyed listening. You obviously care for music very deeply. Of course, since it’s in a Chinese idiom I am not “at home” enough to want to comment on the music.

However, I will say something that I often find myself saying to young composers: IF YOU WRITE FOR ORCHESTRA, USE IT!

Think of it, you have a Tuba, you practice it for hours and hours, then you have to carry it to rehearsal (often two tubas) on the bus, then you open up the score of the next piece and you see 35 notes. Urgh!

Make a rule for yourself when you write a piece for orchestra: “this music must be exciting for everyone.” That doesn’t mean that they play all the time, but that at some point everyone has something exciting, challenging or beautiful to play.

That’s why orchestra players love Mahler and Strauss, because that music challenges everyone. I once got a “white sheet” from the 4th flute in a Mahler Symphony. She wrote: “I feel like the most important person on the stage!” Wow!

It is your first piece for orchestra so you are naturally being very careful, but you could also say: “It’s my first piece so I am going to be really brave and a bit wild!” Especially when you have a story involving a monster!!!! You could give those percussion players a real chance to bang around. And the triumph of the villagers at the end could be a grand brass chorale with a beautiful tune in the strings that everyone would leave the concert hall humming.

Listen to the battle in Ein Heldenleben of Strauss. It goes on and on and on and everybody in the orchestra is almost dead of exhaustion at the end of it! That’s why the players love playing it so much. They love to be challenged. How about you make your next piece really difficult for the players? You could practice first with a really challenging quartet?

Just a thought. You don’t need to take any notice of what I am saying, of course. You didn’t ask for comments.

But when I was your age I got a lot of comments about my compositions – including from Benjamin Britten and Imogen Holst (who was the daughter of Gustav Holst)! They always wanted the music to be livelier, more energetic, more exciting, more challenging.

Have you ever heard the Storm in the opera Peter Grimes of BB? It is wild and wonderful. I heard it a couple of weeks ago on the MET broadcast and I STILL have it ringing in my ears.

I look forward to meeting you one day. I expect you to be a really wild kid, with a big red hat!

Think of three wonderful things that have happened because of Covid-19. (Us communicating together is one, right there!)

Ben Zander


The next day came a reply from Athena’s mother:


May 25, 2020

Dear Mr. Zander,

Words cannot express how thankful I am. I am really, really touched by your wonderful email to Athena. She is just a 12 year-old child and you spent so much time on her music and gave her so many advices. I just couldn’t thank you enough. They are not only lessons on music composition, but also important life lessons for Athena (and me too). I realized that to run an organization successfully, I should also constantly remember how to make each of the team members feel that she/he is the most important one in the team. To make sure everything we do is challenging, exciting and rewarding.

Today, we watched Peter Grimes on YouTube.

Then we watched Yo-yo Ma’s live performance at WGBH at 3pm on YouTube. He played Bach for 2 hours.

After dinner, we watched BPYO’s Strauss Ein Heldenleben.

What a day! Athena said she will write to you tomorrow. I do hope your email will ignite her inner fire and encourage her to get out of the “safety box” and be wild, at least when composing. 🙂

Good night and thank you once more,


I wrote back the same day:


May 25, 2020

I remember which piece it was – Mahler 6th where the 4th flute wrote she was the most important.

You took my suggestions literally! Wow! What a day you had!  Buy her a red hat for July 7th.

Isn’t Peter Grimes unbelievable! I went on immediately and watched the version that you sent to me. It is the best. Thank you.

Ben Z.


Later that day:


May 25, 2020

Dear Mr. Zander,

I attached Athena’s letter below. Yes, I shall buy her a red hat right away. Wondering what will happen when she has it on.

Thank you again!


And then this from Athena:


May 25, 2020

Dear Mr. Zander,

Thank you so much for listening to my music (twice!) and I am glad you enjoyed it. Also, thank you for all of your comments and teachings. I will definitely apply your thoughtful advices when I write my next piece. I might also make some changes for this piece when I have more time in summer. I’ll keep in mind and take consideration of everyone who plays so they feel important.

I’ve listened to the pieces you recommended to me. I really enjoyed the opera (Mr. Britten was really amazingly talented) and I completely agree to your comments too.

I just finished a quartet, but it is a quiet piece about serenity. So, I won’t send it to you. I will write another one and try to be as exciting and wild as I can!

I also look forward to meeting you sometime. I’ll definitely be wearing a bold red hat!

Some positive things that have happened because of COVID are:

  • People have been more connected with each other even though we are isolated (like how we are communicating with each other via email)
  • There are more opportunities/resources available online
  • We can focus on the positive little things in life (like baking a Basque cheesecake in a grey day like today.

Maybe I will bring a Basque cake I baked myself to you at the summer concert at your flowering front yard – with my red hat on.

Once again, thank you for taking your time to respond to the email!

Hope all is well,


I responded to her mother later that evening. It is the sixth communication of the day with a family that I had never met. It was about the Red Hat.


May 25, 2020

It will change her mood and make her more ‘wild.’ Don’t spend a lot of money. It’s fun. Like fancy dress.

Also, she will always remember it.



May 26, 2020

That’s exactly what I want to see. What a wonderful idea! Thank you! Thank you!! Thank you!!!

I found an interesting website with all kinds of red hat under $10. I will buy one that she will love it and she will never forget. hahaha

Good night!


The lecture to the Chinese children took place on July 6th, as planned.


July 6, 2020

Dear Mr. Zander,

Words can not express our gratitude for your wonderful lecture this morning. I was so moved and Mengmeng said she was in tears. Indeed, you are giving our students life changing messages!

 Many students and parents are telling  us how inspired they are. One parent sent us a video of her daughter’s notes for your class and a photo of her (Bella) listening to you. With her permission, I would like to share them with you.

 Bella’s mom said she normally doesn’t like to take notes. But she said what you said today she would like to write down as much as possible, because they are worthy to be read again and again in the years to come.

 Thank you and Amanda for such a wonderful event! We are also looking forward to attending your driveway concert. We will be there after the summer school ends.

Thank you again,

Lynnelle and Mengmeng 

P.S. I haven’t shared the news with you yet. Athena got this year’s ASCAP Morton Gould Young Composer Awards in June.


I wrote back immediately offering to give another follow-up session:


July 7, 2020

Dear Lynnelle,

I had a wonderful time yesterday.  I am only sorry that I didn’t leave enough time for any discussion. I missed out on an important opportunity. “How Fascinating!”

Might there be a time when we can check in again, while the program is still running, so that we can have a bit of a follow up and I can answer a few questions?

Also, with Athena having a birthday, perhaps I could get everybody in the group to sing a Zoom Happy Birthday! What an amazing achievement to win the Morton Gould award.

Bella’s notes are amazing. What a touching picture.

What special kids that they could sit there for two hours and pay such close attention!

Much love,


July 8, 2020

Dear Mr. Zander,

What a heart-warming email! Thank you so, so much for your offer. Yes, we definitely would like to welcome you back (on zoom) to give our kids some discussion time.

As for Athena’s birthday on 14th, she suggested why not we celebrate together for all the kids whose birthday fell in these 2 weeks. And we do have a student who will be turning 14 y. o. on July 15th.  Let me know if July 15th morning works for you? Half an hour? Many thanks! 

Athena is a demure (but thoughtful) person, which reflects in her music. I hope the red hat will do magic.

I would also share a video (see the link below) Athena made for our summer school (we didn’t ask her to do it, she just did it for fun): click here.

Thank you again,



July 8, 2020

Dear Lynnelle,

Thank you for your letter.  What an amazing video! It’s beautifully made and very enrolling. You have collected many extraordinary people for this school. Congratulations to all of you.

I am going to be in Tennessee on July 14th giving a talk to 1,000 people, probably returning on July 15th in the morning. I am going in a private plane, so the pilot may want to turn around and come back that night. In that case we could do our session on the 15th.

Amanda will know very soon. I think 1/2 an hour might be a problem, because the birthday song takes time (15 minutes), so it would leave very little time for discussion. Is there a better time? I always do the birthday song for one person, because there can only be one name, but I can make it apply to more than one.

I have not done it on Zoom – that might be a problem. How can we get them all to sing together?

Amanda will talk with you about the plans.

Sending warmest wishes,


July 8, 2020

Dear Mr. Zander,

Thank you so much! Yes, we are so blessed to have many masters like you come to talk to our students. 

My best wishes for your speech in Tennessee on July 14th. Wow, 1000 people!!! You will see  a lot of shining eyes!

I will follow up with Amanda, let me know your available dates and times, I will make it work. Many thanks again from the bottom of my heart.

Lots of love,


July 13, 2020

Dear Mr. Zander,

All the best for your Tennessee talk!

Amanda told me yesterday about your schedule, that you will be available 15th afternoon or 16th or 17th. Will 11:30am to 12:30 on 17th work for you?

Again, thank you very much for your thoughtfulness that you offered to sing a happy birthday song with the students to Athena. What an honor! Both of us were so moved. We totally understand that you have 1000 people eagerly waiting for your speech on 14th!  May I ask you for a favor? Instead of a happy birthday song, would you mind to write a short note (email) to her to encourage her to be more confident and dare to make mistakes!

Many thanks,


July 14, 2020

Dear Mr. Zander,

Thank you so much for your email to Athena. She had such a wonderful day! (and the cake, we wish we could share it with you) 

How is your speech today? I am sure thousands of hearts are touched by your wonderful message. 

All the best,

P.S. Can’t wait to see you online on Friday! Have a safe trip home! 


July 21, 2020

Dear Mr. Zander,

Athena finally received her red hat today!

All the best,


July 21, 2020

Now that is a hat!


On August 23rd Mengmeng and Lynnelle drove from Andover to attend one of the concerts in my driveway: SAFE and SOUND  (for this possibility story click here.). We had gotten 55 copies of The Art of Possibility for each one of the students in the Chinese program


August 23, 2020

Good afternoon Mr. Zander and Amanda!

Mengmeng just came back home and we are very excited about your concert. So we decided that we will come to your concert this afternoon!

Will it be OK if we come over a little earlier? Say around 3:45pm to drop off the gift and pick up the books?

Many thanks and see you soon!



For Athena I had written out the music of the Ode to Joy


August 23, 2020

Dear Mr. Zander,

How wonderful to see you in person! Many thanks for signing all these books! 

Athena is so excited to open the book and singing the note you wrote all the way to her room and started reading.

I attached the flyer she made for her version of driveway concert in Andover with her friends.

Have a great week and hopefully see you soon! 



August 26, 2020

Lynnelle and Mengmeng,

It is so good to hear from you and it was lovely to see you on Sunday. I especially enjoyed our conversation in the garage during the rain storm!

The Brahms sextet will be played again on Friday evening at 7 p.m. I think it will be very special.  Perhaps you will bring Athena. I want to see her wearing her red hat.

Thank you for the paintings. Perhaps you could tell me more about them and the artist.  It is hard to connect fully if one doesn’t know the “language”.

I look back at the summer and count our connection and the experience with your summer-school as one of the great pleasures.

Thank you.



August 26, 2020

Dear Mr. Zander,

Yes. We really enjoy our talks in the garage last Sunday and said on our way back that;s the silver lining of the storm! 

Athena and I will definitely come this Friday, with her red hat and lawn chairs.

So looking forward to see you again and to hear the wonderful music on Friday!



August 29, 2020

Dear Mr. Zander,

Thank you so much for a wonderful concert last night. Both Athena and I really enjoyed it. 

Hope you like the cake she baked before we left for your concert. That’s one thing she learnt in Spring when school closed. 

Attached is the flyer of the 2nd driveway concert that she and her friends will put on this Sunday.

Hope you have a wonderful trip and hope your concert will resume when you are back. 

All the best,


August 29, 2020

Dear Athena,

I ate cake for breakfast. I never eat cake for breakfast, but there it was, cooked by you! So, I ate it.

Thank you. It was delicious. Together with a lovely cuppa (that’s English tea) and this tape of last night’s magical concert.

I listened with my best ear-phones and was amazed at how gorgeous it sounds. What a wonderful way to begin a new day!

Here it is for you (and your Mama). Do you have some good ear-phones?

Much love,
Ben Zander

(I was slightly hoping I would see the red hat last night at my driveway concert. Maybe next time!)


August 30, 2020

Dear Mr. Zander, 

Thank you so much for sharing the link of Friday’s concert. I shared it with my friends, they all enjoyed it very much. 

Today’s concert in Andover was also wonderful. About 40 people came; the  majority are young people.

Here is the link to the photos and video clips. 

Athena hosted the concert with the red hat.




August 30, 2020

Dear Mr. Zander,

Thank you, I wouldn’t have the courage to do it if it wasn’t for you who inspired me to do it in the first place! Thank you!

I feel as if I become a different person wearing the Red Hat, feeling much bolder than my past self. To passerbyes the Red Hat may just seem like a pretty accessory, but I become a different person when I wear it. I have one red hat at home and one red hat in my mom’s car, so I can wear it whenever I need to. I feel more confident now, which should be how I live my life from now on. I am very thankful for my mum and my teachers for supporting me.

The girl in the story at the beginning of the Art of Possibility does seem similar to how I became bolder, even our ages are close.

I do live in Andover, but the long drive was definitely worth it! The cello stood out to me. Personally, I enjoy how the cello sounds more than other instruments, but I’m not implying that the other instruments are not good!

I’m really glad I reached out to you during these tough times, one can always find the good within the bad. Thank you very very much for all the advice you gave me. Let’s keep in touch and hopefully we will meet again in your concerts.

Best wishes and have a perfect day too,



This shy 12-year-old Chinese kid has become a leader! She organized a concert series for kids of her age in her hometown and 40 people showed up. She struck up a friendship with a man 70 years older than she, giving credit, like Dorothy’s shoes, to the Red Hat. Covid-19 was the instigator, because I never would have thought I had time for such an extended correspondence with a little kid, not even a member of my youth orchestra. But the real hero was Possibility.  Like the astonishing story of Natasha and Petrushka, it is our assumptions that stand in the way of our growth and development.. I lived into the possibility that beneath the cautious, careful, dutiful, conscientious exterior of that little Chinese girl was a firebrand, bursting to tell stories of monsters and tales of passion.

What did Lynnelle and Mengnmeng and I talk about in the garage during the storm?  We talked about racism. I said that I believed that many people confuse racism and the recognition that there are characteristics of each society, group, race that are readily identifiable.

As individuals, all of us have a Direction of Error. This one is too careful, that one too adventurous, another too kindly. These are all fine characteristics in moderation, but counter-productive in excess. Part of growing up is to learn to recognize and then modify the excesses – to curb the Direction of Error.  

These tendencies don’t only exist in individuals, they are also manifest in whole societies.

Everyone knows the joke: Heaven is a place where the cooks are French, the lovers Italian, the police are British, the mechanics are German and the whole thing is organized by the Swiss.

Hell is where the cooks are English, the Swiss are the lovers, the Germans provide the police, the mechanics are French and the whole thing is organized by the Italians.

That is a joke about Direction of Error. It is dependent on there being recognizable tendencies in different groups that keep showing up and limit the effectiveness of those who manifest them

It is interesting to notice the 5 areas that Lynnelle and Mengmeng had asked me to address in my key-note to the kids in the Chinese summer School. 

They didn’t ask me to talk about: 

  • How to do do better in the SAT’s
  • How to increase the chances of getting into Harvard
  • How to have a greater sense of family connection
  • How to be more obedient and disciplined


Rather they called on me to help the young people: 

  • To open up and gain confidence
  • Searching for meaning of life
  • To find happiness
  • To find passion
  • To build leadership skills


No one should ever question that some Swiss people can be great lovers, or that Italians can be as organized as the Germans and certainly that many English people through the ages have been wonderful cooks. It’s just the traditions, the history, the values, of these people have often taken them elsewhere. The Italians have filled our hearts and ears with impassioned arias of love, jealousy, ecstasy and sensuality. Sometimes these concerns have veered off the path and are better kept to the confines of the opera house. The Direction of Error. Jokes are built on half truths at best and yet we continue to enjoy them if only in private these days.

Neither Lynnelle and Mengmeng nor I are racists. We recognize both the qualities and the Direction of Error in individuals and groups. We are passionate educators. We are dedicated to help young people grow as fully and richly as possible. We use every tool available to us – including Red Hats.




Click here to view a related Interpretation Class (Rieding Violin Concerto no. 2).

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