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

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Tchaikovsky: Symphony no. 5 - 1st movement

Interpretation Class
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Michael Bukhman (conductor), Boston Philharmonic Orchestra

‘”Story telling. It’s all story telling.”‘

— Benjamin Zander

Video Transcript:

Ben Zander:

Great, okay, wonderful. I’ve seen enough so we can get to work.

Michael, welcome and thank you for playing the piano. You’re a wonderful pianist, turns out. You have been mainly a pianist?

Michael:

Yeah.

Ben Zander:

Great.

Michael:

I’m not really officially trained as a conductor.

Ben Zander:

No, but you are here as a musician, which, as you see, is the only thing that really matters.

Michael:

Yeah.

Ben Zander:

We have to begin at the beginning, really, you understand that with you.

Michael:

Sure.

Ben Zander:

You’re a very sophisticated musician. You have lots of ideas. You’re obviously a wonderful pianist, but it’s not translating yet into conducting. If you had a whole lot of string players, it would be very confusing for them. Let’s try and get rid of the confusion.

From the beginning. Very good. You’ve got two clarinets at the beginning. We’re not worried about the strings for a moment, just conduct the two clarinets. The reason there are two rather than one Do you know why there are two? Why didn’t he give that to one clarinet?

Michael:

It’s a different color.

Ben Zander:

It’s a different color. It’s a richer, fuller, more Russian color. Tchaikovsky loved the sound of two clarinets playing the same note.

Now, can you get into your body, the sound that you want from those clarinets? Imagine they’re over there and they are full and rich and warm chalumeau, you know that word, chalumeau? That’s the area of the clarinet, which this is written in, low with a very beautiful contralto sound.

Michael:

Mm-hmm.

Ben Zander:

Can you get that?

Michael:

Sure.

Ben Zander:

Now, one of the things you have to develop in order to be an effective conductor is a range of emotional gestures so that the orchestra players can see what you’re thinking because at the moment they’re wondering, “What’s he thinking?” When you’re playing the piano alone, that’s fine, but it’s not alone when you’re in front of an orchestra. You have to be absolutely clear at all times exactly what you want them to do and they’ll produce it for you without fail. But if you go They won’t know. Let’s do that opening clarinet solo.

Can I recommend that you don’t look at the music five times before you conduct? Because that looks like, “What is it? Which piece? Tchaikovsky?” They will lose all faith in you.

Michael:

All right.

Ben Zander:

Right over there, those two beautiful clarinets want to play a great sound.

You see, that won’t produce the sound that we were just talking about. It’s too timid. They want So they’re going to Just play the clarinets. If you can leave out there one.

And that’s a statement, that’s like an old man telling a story. And there are a lot of young people around. And then he says the next thing.

And what happens next? “Oh my God, I’m so sorry to hear it.” And again. And already we’ve got Russian sorrow in the room. That’s up to you now. All right? Try once again. Two clarinets.

I’m going to suggest you use this to be your breath. Before I conduct that, because they’re clarinets. I go That breath, when I do that, that’s the breathing in of the clarinet players. I go and by delaying the downbeat, I’m getting them to really settle into the sound because if I do this That’s not the sound.

Michael:

They don’t have time.

Ben Zander:

No, they don’t, but they want And you see, look, she went like this with her shoulders. And that’s what your clarinet is to do. You have a relationship. It’s as if there’s a wire going from you to every single player in the orchestra like that, directly from your heart to theirs and from that to the audience. It’s all transferred electronically by which I mean through the molecules. You understand that?

Michael:

Yeah.

Ben Zander:

Okay, do it again. Better.

And now do it less with this and more with breathing. Let’s breathe together. Yeah, there we go. Now let’s add the strings. Breathe in.

Now, I have an idea with this which you may not share, but I love this. Instead of going, “Dom, ba-ba-bam, ba-ba-bam.” Because it is a solo, it can be free. In that Russian style, the little, “Dom, ba-ba-bam, ba-ba-bam.” Where the two little 16s are a little free. Can you do that?

I would suggest rather than this, just stand still, imagine the clarinet and go But something has to happen to your face. They’re looking to you, you are telling a story. Imagine you have a lot of children around. Do you tell stories ever? You don’t have any children, do you?

Michael:

Not yet.

Ben Zander:

So sorry. But if you have a child, you say, “Whoa, da-da-dee.” And they’re looking like this, “What comes next?” And you say Your next phrase. So be a storyteller.

It still looks too plastic even before you come up, even before you start, you have to say, “I have a story for you, my dears. You, wait, this story is so beautiful.”

Now look, feel the sorrow. And again, you think more sorrow.

Storytelling. It’s all storytelling. Do you like this story?

Michael:

Yeah.

Ben Zander:

The story, you’re excited about it? Tell it. Let’s get these two kids up here. Come. You two, we need you. Could you come here? Just sit here. We need you both. Here. Perfect. Just sit on the floor. Great, thank you. Now. There. There. Instead of having a bunch of cynical orchestra players, you’ve got two.

Already you are a different person. Isn’t that amazing? Because you’re suddenly interested in these two.

Michael:

I think you’ve stumbled on something here.

Ben Zander:

Yeah. That’s great.

That won’t give the clarinets enough sound. It’s too little. It’s too restrained. Breathe. Breathe with them. Now tell them the next thing. Now, I’m so sad. Again.

Now.

Good. You’re doing so much better. It’s great.

When you have children, you’ll find that they get easily bored and you have to work harder to get their attention, they get distracted. Some of the gestures you are making are so placid. Not as much as before, but they’re so placid that you would lose the attention of-

Michael:

Of the children.

Ben Zander:

the children. Which means the players, right? So just more energy.

Do you know who I mean when I say Rostropovich? Okay. Rostropovich has never bored anybody ever. Because the energy, even when he’s not playing, he’s using huge amount Have you ever watched him play? When he’s not playing the orchestra’s playing alone. He’s so totally engaged in the music. That would be a wonderful model for you. Because you’ve got to convey so much information to these players, but you’re doing much better. I mean, it’s like it’s gone up. Can we go another whole level?

The trouble is you care what you look like. That’s the difference. I don’t care at all what I look like. I care about the music and conveying it. And you are worried about your appearance. Who cares? The highest compliment I was ever paid somebody said, “You have no pride.” Oh, great. Terrific. Thank you. Don’t have any pride. Just get the music through you, through your body, through your arms, through your face, and get it to the children, and then they’ll pick up something as well.

Here. Once again, from the beginning.

You know what Rostropovich would look like if you were playing, he’d look. You don’t need to do that, but do something.

Well, there’s a reason because the Russians suffer so much. They suffer more than You are Russian originally.

Michael:

Yes.

Ben Zander:

Well, so you should know. But you’ve said, “Oh, I don’t want anything to do with that.” Whereas she loves that. And when I give it her room to do it, she does all that stuff. The Russian, the real Russians want to be expressive. All right, so don’t suppress it. Once again.

You forgot to breathe.

Yes. There we go. And you’ve got a whole audience here, Michael. You’ve got a whole audience saying They all thought. They all got it. It’s great.

Here we go. Big breath. Yes. Good.

Look how she plays.

Now pull them in. Good. With weight. And we’re going to warn you about something. It’s getting slower and slower and slower. He’s very clever, he gave you a metronome mark. Do you know what it is?

Michael:

80.

Ben Zander:

Yeah, but you are way down, way, way, way below that. But it’s much better. It’s coming. You’ve got a few more minutes. We’ll get it. We’re going to get you out of this cage that you’re in.

Michael:

I’m loving it.

Ben Zander:

Now, noble and sad. Three. Tempo.

Heavy now.

This is like saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, please be together with me.” We don’t want those gestures. Never say to the orchestra, “You are not going to be together. So I have to look after you.” Don’t ever say that. Always say the music, always say what it’s about. They’ll play together. They want to play together.

That was very good. It’s much better. Do the last phrase once again.

Now the crescendo starts. Crescendo.

Be sad, sad. 2, 3, 4.

Now pianissimo for the first time. I want to tell you something about that. The bassoon comes in for the first time there. Do you remember? Very hard for the bassoon to play soft enough. Look at the bassoon and say, “I know how hard that is. I’m going to help you,” and they’ll be so grateful to you. Go right from there.

Yes. Good.

Now, something enormous happens there. Pianissimo and then mezzo forte and then it’s going to be forte, so it’s going to be built now, of course, you can’t make a crescendo on a piano. Incidentally, as a pianist, I recommend that when you have a crescendo on the note because you’re playing orchestra or you’re playing Brahms, because sometimes Brahms puts a crescendo on a single note on the piano. What’s he thinking? What you do is you make it louder and then you go like this with your head. Do it from there. Pianissimo.

Yes, exactly like that. Forte.

That’s actually a surprise. That’s not an attack because you don’t expect it. Do that Two, three. You expect this, and instead you have.

Surprise. Something to suggest. You are surprised.

That was very good incident. Much, much better.

Now, crescendo. Yes, good. Bravo.

Good, good. It’s come a long way. It’s come a long way. Well done. Bravo.

I mean, this is really your first time doing this, isn’t it more or less? More or less. So this is the first lesson I imagine. Very, very good. You’re doing beautifully and you are a naturally gifted musician. But by you think that playing the piano, you don’t have to do all these things.

You know? I watched Barenboim the first time he conducted the very first time. He was 14 and I was 15. I remember it very well. He’d never conducted, but he was a great pianist. He was already a famous pianist at 14, and I watched the first note he conducted and he was with the Torino Orchestra in Sienna in the festival. And he was standing there 14 years old. Zubin Mehta was also a student that same year, but he’d conducted already. But Barenboim never conducted. Egmont Overture, he went Like that. Wow. Everybody thought, “My God, he’s a great conductor,” but he was playing the piano. He was just going The same way he plays the piano.

If you think of yourself as a conductor at the pianist and think every composer was a pianist, they were all pianists. If you think of yourself as sitting at the piano, treating the piano like an orchestra, and then when you translate to being a conductor, you’ll be very effective. But don’t be restrained about it. But you’re doing really well.

Thank you very much. Beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful. Beautiful. Bravo.

Adrian Cressy
'I'm understanding what the purpose of the conductor is by watching this. The conductor has to be REALLY deep into the music to get the orchestra to playback the intentions of the composer. So many little nuances in classical music.'
Justin McKeown
'The Importance of Storytelling!'
Alexandre Civalli
'real transformation! Bravo!'
Ardalan Fryad
'I am not a musician, but this symphony just became my favorite because of this video, I love how Mr. Zander interprets it! Just love this'
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