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

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Brahms: Cello Sonata no. 2 - 2nd movement

Interpretation Class
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Emma Fisher (cello), with Dina Vainshtein (piano)

“Don’t be perfect, be alive”

— Benjamin Zander

Video Transcript

Ben Zander:

Beautiful playing. Bravo. Very good. Beautiful. So, Emma, I’m very, very glad to hear you, you’re a wonderful cellist, beautiful musician. Thank you for coming all the way. I have two categories to talk to you about. One is musical, and one is extramusical. Let’s begin with the extramusical first. You are perfect. You’re perfect. You’re a perfect person. You’re beautiful, you’re beautifully put together. Everything is in control. You’re a wonderful representative of beautiful education.

Emma Fisher:

Thank you.

Ben Zander:

And that’s a problem.

I bet you got straight A’s in school. Pretty much. Yeah, all right, okay. All right. That’s a problem. Because Brahms was anything but perfect. Brahms was a deeply troubled soul, catastrophically troubled soul. And he had a horrendous childhood. He played piano in brothels, because his family was very poor and every child in the family had to go out and work. And he was a young kid. Imagine what that did to the psyche of a young man.

And he had terrible turmoil in his life, and deep affections, and deep fears, and huge passions. And being perfect is a protection against being available to those deep emotions. And that’s a problem. I’m really glad you came, because we’re going to break you out of that box, okay? And from now on, your life is going to be very imperfect. Can we get a clap?

Now, what was very interesting was you have a great musician as your partner, and she kept on trying to break out, but she couldn’t. And it was very funny. Right from the very beginning, you began, and immediately she said, “No, I want to get out of this.” And she tried, and she couldn’t, and we went back. So we want to join you up, all right? So, that’s number one. This is a huge thing, because you’re going to have to take some risks in order to go down the path. I can promise you a safe life, if you want it. I can promise you a beautiful home with a fence around the garden, and comfortable life and couple of kids and a lovely life, a lovely life in Canada, wherever you want.

The other thing I’m offering you is dangerous, and it may not be safe. So this, she’s not quite sure. All right. So, this is a big issue, and we’re not going to be able to deal with it totally in this short amount of time, but I wanted to bring that out.

The other issue has to do with what Brahms wrote. What is the time signature of this movement? Don’t look. Do you know?

Emma Fisher:

2/4?

Ben Zander:

It’s 2/4, but none of it was in 2/4, except occasional moments when Dina reminded you that it was in 2/4, and sort of spread it out. But every note was played even, so how do we get this piece in 2/4? There was one moment when you got it, which was the climax; when you were at the top, the pizzicato.

Emma Fisher:

Yes.

Ben Zander:

Would you just do that passage? Two. One. Two. One. Do you see how she’s playing it? Do you see how she’s playing it in two? It’s amazing. Just do that, play on the piano. Two. Between, and two. And two, and two, and two, and Now begin the piece the way you began it before, exactly the way you did it before. Four, one, two, three.

This is where she got impatient. She started to push it. Do you see? There was a conflict. So now we’ve got to solve that musical problem, and it might help to make you less perfect. Let’s see whether we can do it. So what I’m going to suggest to you is that the first note of this piece is an end of the previous music. And you play that first F# as if it was finished, and then you move, and you move into two. So let’s try that. We’re going to do it again from the climax. And that was great, and you were feeling it in two. It’s a desperate moment. It’s like Like that, and the piano, there’s a speed at which she cannot play it in two, it becomes four. So she’s at the limit. So let’s do that right on the climax. And when you get to the F#, play it as if it was the end, the low F#, as if it was the end of the piece, and then start moving. Okay, here we go, from the climax again.

Can you actually help her to feel it in two, right? Because she needs help. Everybody should feel it in two here. Two. Two. Two. And now she’s free. And now we’re in two, all right? So in a sense, you’ve solved the problem. And what I would suggest you do, instead of playing pizzicato like this. It’s one continuous line. Shall we try that? So think of it linear, very horizontal in feeling. And so we’re doing the beginning of the piece. Shall we do that? So I’ll give you one “bah” before you come, the beginning of the piece. Two, and. Yeah, that doesn’t sound like an end. Sounds.

Think of Brahms; Brahms was big. 275 pounds of him, you know? (Singing), two. And the thing to do is to get to that E#. F and then two F; that E#. And then she takes it over. Here we go, one and heavy. No, it’s bom, bom, bom. Let me show you. I’m not a cellist anymore, but I remember that F#. And then to E. And she’s completely free then. So don’t pull it like that, push it like that.

Still, you’re thinking of each individual note. Yeah, that was beautiful. It was beautiful.

Emma Fisher:

Thank you.

Ben Zander:

No, thank you. That wasn’t a compliment, that was a recognition of Brahms suddenly Was heard. So, a reaction. A reaction. Don’t be perfect, be alive. It’s more important to be alive than to be perfect. Okay? So do it again. And you know what you could say when you got to the end is, “Oh, thank you.” That, you could say that, because it’s such an incredible opening. Do one more time. Two, and. No. That first F#, it doesn’t sound like an end, it sounds like, “Oh, hello! Oh!” Yeah, the thing you’re not getting is how free that is.

I’m sorry, I couldn’t Once again. Say, “thank you.” Thank you. Would you allow your body and your face to say, “Oh, thank you?” Because that’s such an opening. That’s a generous You know he writes “affettuoso,” with love, right? That was pretty exciting. And she got really excited, did you see, she became a one-buttock player, with And you felt released, right? So, your job is to release her. Here we go. One, you don’t relate very much to her. She’s your partner, she’s your other half, right? So try again. So you’re going to have to think in a different way.

No, you’re stopping yourself. Play the top one. The high one. Yes. Aha, you got it, you got it. That’s the tempo. But you don’t play the beginning at that tempo, because it’s the same music! Right? Most cellists don’t, but it would be wise to do it, because it’s the same music. Now, begin at the beginning.

Okay, you’re too perfect, you’re stopping her. She’s struggling to get through. It’s your When I say you’re too perfect, I mean you’re in control. Don’t be in control. You should watch her body. She’s trying desperately to feel it in two. Do it in two. Alone. Now play, and say thank you.

Do you see, Emma, how much freer it is? Because she’s moving so much with you and giving you that freedom to sing and soar. But it depends on you doing it at the beginning. Shall we just try it once again, and instead of being so absorbed in your cello playing, you’re awfully far away from her. When I played cello recitals, I always used to sit here. Because then, if it was needed, I could play the top of the piano, right? But the enormous advantage of sitting here is you’re in relationship. You’re way over there.

Emma Fisher:

Oh, yes.

Ben Zander:

Come and sit here.

Emma Fisher:

Okay.

Ben Zander:

Okay. This is Dina. This is No, no, stay there, stay there. Stay there. Great, great, great, great. Now we’re getting it. Where’s my chair? Here. Sit in such a way that you really can be with her. Can you play the left hand of the piano with your left hand? Go back. I don’t mean you necessarily should do this when you play a recital, but I want you to feel what it’s like to be in a duo partnership with a great pianist. It doesn’t feel to me as though you adore Dina.

Emma Fisher:

I do.

Ben Zander:

You do! Great. Well, could you inform your face about it? All right, so that we all hear that you adore this pianist and you can’t wait to make music with her. We have some great models in our music world. When Yo-Yo plays with somebody, you know that he adores the person. Don’t you feel that, when he He lives up the road, incidentally, just a mile up the road. And when he plays, he always says, “I love you, I love you, I love you. I’m so happy to be with you. Oh my God, thank you for playing so beautifully.” And you’re in your world, right? So we want to get you out of your world. Do once again from the main melody after the “thank you”. Yeah. (Singing).

Look, look, look, look, do you see what Dina’s doing with her body? She’s making a circle with her body so that you can be free with your bow. It’s that beautiful thing. Look at her, and be conscious of that. Yeah. She also loves that, you see that? That G#, she loves the G#. So she gives a little bit of time. Shall we go from there? I can’t see, yeah, here. No, no, from right from the beginning of it. That’s right. Yes, here he comes. Yeah, that note is so beautiful. That note is so beautiful. I wonder whether it would be worth giving it a whole bow, would you think? That B double sharp? We want so much sound on that note.

Emma Fisher:

Yes.

Ben Zander:

But that was beautiful. And can you feel her surging underneath you in two? Do you get that?

Emma Fisher:

Yeah.

Ben Zander:

Great. Terrific. Okay, here we go once again. One, two, and. Yes. Now she’s happy. Do you feel that? Do you feel, you feel that? Because now the full musicianship, which she has inside, and she’s Brahms, really. Brahms was sitting at the piano. And she’s feeling now, “At last, I’m free.” And she can help you by giving you timings and so on. So we’re going to do it one more time. This time we’re going to do it from the beginning. So now, those are the sixteenths. They’re quite fast, aren’t they? Here we go, from the beginning. One, two, wait, one, and finish here, F#.

No, don’t get stuck. You’re stuck.

Yeah. Now, let me just say something. You’re worried about your cello playing. And I know because you’re looking at your fingers, right? Don’t be worried about your cello playing, that’s why you spent 10,000 hours in the practice room learning to play the cello perfectly. Forget about it, now it’s about love. All right? So don’t look worried, don’t look at your cello, don’t even think about the cello. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to think about Dina, and what she’s doing, because she’s great. And you’re held in yourself. That’s one of the greatest melodies ever written for cello. And it would be wonderful if we could feel that you love it and you love the triplets underneath you. I don’t know a more beautiful phrase than that phrase.

Shall we do it from here? And can you take all concern and worry about your cello, just forget you play the cello. I wonder if you could do it without the cello? Right, so play that passage. Here, I’ll take your bow. Play, play. Play.

Now use the cello, because it’s useful, but All right, it’s from there. Right, yeah. Floating in two. Beautiful. Now, the beauty of this, because you’re moving more, you can be much freer. Isn’t that amazing? Imagine you were telling a story about some knight in ancient France, you know? And then, with that freedom. Shall we try from there? Yeah, yeah, that’s right. From the F, here. And Dina, if I can place it, it’s like a recitative, do it again?

So, Emma. Something extraordinary just happened. Really extraordinary. People in the audience are saying, “Oh my God, what happened?” And the thing that I’m concerned for you is that you don’t seem to react to it. She exploded into high passion. And the reason she did it was because suddenly she was released into being in two and that freedom. And you were still worried about your cello playing. Don’t worry about the cello. The cello is just an instrument. It’s not the end, it’s not the reason we do it. The reason is so we touch the people there to be moved to the depth of their soul. Otherwise, there’s no point. Because there are a lot of good cellists. Don’t be a good cellist. Don’t even be a very good cellist. It’s not worth it. Too much work. Sit in a room and practice with horse hair and gut and What’s the point?

Unless you have something to say which the world feels touches their soul. These people came from Amsterdam to hear you play this Brahms sonata, not to hear you play a good cello. Do you understand that? There would be a huge breakthrough. It’s physical, music is physical. It’s on the face, it’s on the body and the shoulders and the hands and so on.

Get a little closer to her. So you really could play the left hand with your left hand. No, that way. I really want you to get this. Yeah. Kick, come really, yeah. Now, now. And let’s do that passage again, and find the incredible freedom that exists in this music, and allow yourself to react with your body, with your face, with everything. Okay, here we go. Just do the passage before the recitative.

Ben Zander:

You’re right. Can I say, when you move, move more. So you’re in two, don’t let it be in four, once again. And can you play her chords for her, so she knows exactly where to play them by the way you play? Do it again. Now, since you know you’re going to play that way, give an extra bow, so you have masses of bow for that. That was great. Once again, she’s still not quite getting where to play her recitative notes. Now the bow. Go to her. Two, now it’s in two. More! Two! Two. Thank you. Beautiful. That’s gorgeous. Yes. Fill the room with beauty, Emma, fill it.

Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here. Play that tune, from the D, and get who you’re playing for. All right? And she’ll be perfect because she loves you. Okay, so right from there. Okay. Emma. Emma. How old are you?

Speaker 4:

Six.

Ben Zander:

Six! You’re playing for a six year old! Who cares about your cello? All right? Okay, so play for him. Change his life. Because if you play this really, really beautifully, and give your heart, he’s going to grow up a totally different person. And that’s why his parents brought him. It’s a bit of a risk bringing a six year old to a music class, right? They thought maybe he’d get something. Okay, it’s up to you. Okay, here we go. That D, that D, that’s the most beautiful note on the cello, isn’t it? Play that note so that it’s the most beautiful thing you ever heard. Just that note. Yeah. More beautiful, more, more. More beautiful. Full. Show him that D. Oh, isn’t that gorgeous? Oh, now you play, ready? What about this one? Yes! Yes, I love you too! From Amsterdam.

Yes, she’s got it! She’s got it in two! There! Now. A great moment. Two

Beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful. So, you spend some incredibly valuable years making your hands play this instrument. Now is the moment for you to engage your soul in making the music available to all of humanity. That’s a big shift from hands to soul. And you did it, just now. You did it. And of course, once you got it into two, you both were free to do that. You didn’t even need to look at each other. Do you remember how I said you have to sit right next to the piano? Now you don’t even have to sit near her, because you feel it the same way. The way Brahms wrote it. And then you’re free.

And now if you, instead of practicing in a mirror, try and persuade some people to come off the street into your practice room to listen to you. Really. That’s what’s next for you. Sure, you’ve got to go on playing the cello and learning Duport’s Studies and all of that, that’s very important. But they are not interested in that. They didn’t come from Holland to hear you play the cello. They came from Holland to hear their hearts be moved, and they did. Right? Look at their faces, look at that face. You should take a picture of that face, put it on your practice. Isn’t that great?

Emma Fisher:

Yes.

Ben Zander:

Isn’t that an important discovery?

Emma Fisher:

Of course.

Ben Zander:

I think it might end up being really important for you. Always has to do with relationship. Everything you do is relationship, everything. Even when you get up in the morning, it’s about relationship. It’s about creating a relationship with the world that opens up communication and love.

This girl said something very interesting, she’s from Chile. And I said, “Do you think of yourself as Chilean or American?” She said, “I think of myself as Chilean, because I don’t like America.” And I said, “What are we going to do without you in this country?” We need the people, everybody who has reservations about our life here, to work with every ounce of energy they have to make this a place they’re proud to call their own.

And you have a great instrument and great music to do it with, and therefore a great life in front of you. And all these people will come and listen to you and thank you. That feeling of gratitude, gratitude is the source of it. Because there’s entitlement, there’s privilege, and the thing that separates entitlement from privilege is gratitude. And that’s what you were expressing, Brahms is gratitude. And he had an incredibly difficult life, but look what he made of it. What a gift.

And so now our role is to take the gifts we have, the abilities we have, the mastery we have, and turn it into a gift to the world as an expression of gratitude. And then you’ll make her proud to say, “I’m an American because I’m making a difference here.” And you have no idea what difference you’ve made in this He looks a little casual at this point, but you have no idea. He may remember this when he’s 31. You never know, right?

It’s so interesting, every time I give a concert, I think there’s somebody in the audience who’s never heard classical music, and there’s somebody in the audience who will never hear another piece of classical music. That keeps you on track.

Emma Fisher:

Yeah.

Ben Zander:

So this was important, I think, for you. And you weren’t here to impress us. You understand that? Most of the time, young people are trained, and prepared, and set up to impress; to win an audition, to get into a school, to get a job, to do all that. This is not about that. It’s about shining eyes, about looking around. Look at that guy! Look at his eyes! He doesn’t care whether you win or lose, he cares whether his eyes are shining. Isn’t that interesting?

Emma Fisher:

Yes.

Ben Zander:

So, that’s what we have to focus all our attention. And then practice like crazy in order to be good enough to do that. Doesn’t come by itself. So, that was beautiful. Well done. Thank you for coming.

Emma Fisher:

Thank you.

Ben Zander:

Beautiful.

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