A Note from our Music Director

Apr 10, 2013 1:00:00 PM / by Benjamin Zander

Benjamin Zander

Preparing Mahler 2nd over the last several weeks has been a revelatory experience for us all. The piece itself, its size, its technical demands, as well as its spiritual challenges have stretched us to our limits. But it has also been an uplifting and joyous experience. Every member of this orchestra adores this piece of music and desires more than anything to convey all that it contains to you, as a gift, this afternoon. They are also anticipating with immense excitement bringing the Mahler, the Schumann Concerto and the program we did last November, to Holland for our June tour – especially the final performance on June 27th in the hallowed Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.

The weekly rehearsals have continued in the way we began, with an hour of sectionals led by some of the finest musicians in the city – including several members of the Boston Symphony and the Boston Philharmonic – followed by three hours of full rehearsal. Delectable edibles were provided during the breaks by devoted parents. And, as usual, each rehearsal began with a short homily about life and an assignment.

While some of the members of the orchestra have been inspired and stimulated by the assignments, it became clear to me after a while that some of them were either ignoring them, or were simply bewildered. So I wrote the following email to them all:

There are some members of the BPYO who have expressed some confusion or bewilderment as to the purpose and value of the assignments that I have been giving out at each rehearsal.

At your audition I asked you some questions, which were designed to assess whether you showed some interest in a role in life, beyond playing your instrument – an interest in leadership and making a difference in the world. The fact that you became a member of the BPYO indicates that you must have said something that convinced me that you are drawn to something bigger in addition to playing the violin, the trumpet or the flute.

It is my belief that everyone can be a leader. I believe it is not an inherited gift, but rather something that each one of us can practice each day of our lives and in every situation, if we choose to do so. Indeed, I believe that every time we open our mouths it is an opportunity for leadership – a conscious decision to choose to speak either in the “downward spiral”, or in “possibility.”

This youth orchestra, for me, is about accomplishing things that most people don’t take on in their lives: the level of the playing; the repertoire we tackle and the places we go – it is not “normal” for a youth orchestra to perform Mahler’s 2nd Symphony in the Concertgebouw!

The assignments I give you are intended to develop your skill in an arena that most of your training does not call on. They are not ordinary assignments. You can’t take three steps and accomplish them. You have to come at them from a different place.

Take, for instance, “Come from the power of a child”. In that assignment I am asking you to decide what it is about a child that will help you to be a more effective grown-up. What kind of behavior of a child would be useful as an adult?

Most assignments in life are linear, as in: "if you do this, you will get that." They are shaped like a mountain with a sharp peak. The aim is to get to the top.

The assignments we take on in BPYO are open ended. They are shaped like two arms held open and outward. No two people are going to do them the same way. In regular assignments, you want everyone to come out at the same place. Our assignments call on your creativity, not your obedience or your willingness to fulfill an obligation. They ask you to develop your capacity to expand yourselves, in order to “accomplish” the assignments.

Be sure you are not looking for the right answer. These assignments call on different levels of YOU and not all are conscious. They ask you to make a non-conscious leap to get from where you are to what the assignment is asking. I believe they will help you in your life, because they bring out your intuition and strengthen your creativity and your courage – they invite you to take a leap.

If I say to you “Have the best day ever”, it may feel as though I have offered you a blank canvas – How do you know whether you have done so? Who is the judge?

This week the assignment was to “ATTUNE YOURSELF TO OTHERS.” There are a thousand ways you could do that – each one that you do will deepen your experience.

Here are two "white sheet" responses from that assignment:

“The idea of an assignment shaped like open arms really struck me. Having to take the assignment and come to different conclusions, that is a task I never get at school. Thank you for explaining the difference, I had never thought about it.” -Ella Belina (viola, grade 11)

“Today, whenever you asked us to be more attuned to what each section, our partners were doing, it felt to me as though we became a whole orchestra rather than just individual sections. It’s amazing what mindsets can do! That is what I enjoy most about this orchestra, the fact that we are not only playing great music, but we are learning how to be leaders, to radiate possibility! I really needed to come back to the world of BPYO this week. Over break it was hard for me to remember that it is not success that matters, but contribution.” -Hallie Smith (violin, grade 12)

Another week the assignment was:

CHOOSE THE EXACT LIFE YOU HAVE RIGHT NOW AND LOVE IT! Not wishing for something else; not scanning the horizon; not complaining; choose the life you have with all its richness, joys, anxieties and challenges.

“I can’t really explain how, but your assignment “choose the life that you have right now and love it” let me be freer – like some giant weight of pressure had been lifted off me.” -Mirella Greuser-Smith (violin, grade 10)

When we were hit with the massive snowstorm in February we were forced to cancel a rehearsal so I wrote a 26 page practice guide to enable people to cover all the bits in the Mahler that we would have covered. It was our first ever cyber-rehearsal.


Mother Nature has delivered a massive snowstorm to our area. It is a miracle of beauty and quiet. However, it has also disrupted our preparation of Mahler 2nd, because we had to cancel our rehearsal today. So, what to do? I have written a very detailed, almost bar-by-bar description to guide you in your practice. I can't wait to hear how you sound after this viral rehearsal next week. Maybe we will come to see this storm as a blessing. BZ

One of my former students – a member of YPO twenty years ago and now a distinguished conductor teacher – wrote:

“Please post the description here. So we can be a part of the journey too?” -Brad Chase

So I posted all twenty-six pages and apparently 1,316 people read the post! The orchestra sounded transformed the following week, so it turned out to be a miracle after all.

Around the time of the concerto competition, when 34 BPYO members entered to win an opportunity to play a concerto with the orchestra on our final concert, the assignment was:

COMPETE, BUT LET GO OF WANTING TO WIN. It is so natural to be obsessed with winning, but that is likely to take your eye off the purpose, which is to enjoy the process and open your hearts to be the most eloquent and passionate artist you can be. You might find that supporting your colleagues to be the best that THEY can be will free you to be even more expressive.

Here are a few of the “white sheet” responses

“I want to thank you for giving us the assignment today. At school I am surrounded by students that are driven by the idea of always winning. It's a shame that they aren't able to actually enjoy the journey they are on! I find myself with that mindset more often than not. Your assignment reminded me how flawed that mindset is. Today's rehearsal made me realize that Saturdays from 2.30 to 6.30 are rare times when all of us forget about "winning" and simply want to create the most awe-inspiring music.” -Hyunnew Choi (violin, grade 10)

Dear Mr. Zander,

This week’s assignment doesn’t make sense. To “compete without wanting to win” – it’s a paradox. But it’s perhaps the most important paradox for all of us who live and play classical music. Every student in this world knows from experience that success comes from competition; if you reject competing, you reject recognition, excellence and exclusivity. We have built our whole system upon it: something far too wonderful to destroy, but which consumes too many of us in its process.

I think your assignment hits upon the real key. We can’t just want to play – no, because playing purely for ourselves could mean avoiding all the hard bits, all the frustration and diligence and high standards. But we can’t want to win, either. What we have to do is want to compete. There has to be something valuable in the act of competing that is different than playing noncompetitively, but which does not necessitate winning. So what is that? I may sound crazy, but I propose that it is fun.

Let me explain – I know as much as anyone just how un-fun competitions can be. But what makes competitions stressful and scary and disappointing is the desire to win, and we’ve eliminated that already. What’s left is a game without its objective – why can’t we still enjoy the game? When we perform without audiences and critics, without the possibility of our art being adored and the equal possibility of it being hated, we lose track of the energy and vitality of our music; the stakes are gone, and we can’t help but care just a little less. But we don’t have to accept the detrimental aspects of competition along with the good. You know that nervous feeling of hearts-racing and hands-shaking and increased awareness of everything? We can keep that feeling, but eliminate the desire to win. And the intense, earth-shattering desire to affect our listeners, to make them feel something – we can keep that too! Anxiety without negativity is excitement. Competition without the prospect of failure can be fun.

I happen to be playing in the competition this weekend, and also to be playing a brilliantly fun piece. The last few times I’ve performed it, I didn’t enjoy it at all – and the piece lost half of its effectiveness. This week’s assignment helped me remember that the best part of competing comes before the winners are even announced, and that if we spend that part with our breath held in fear, we miss out on the point of competition, and the point of performing at all.

I’ll see you this weekend, and while I have no idea what will happen, I guarantee it’s going to be fun.

Anna (harp, grade 11)

The judges all remarked how joyful and relaxed the performers were during the competition. It was hard to choose from so many outstanding players, but eight (!) were chosen to play in the May 15th concert in Sanders Theater. I hope you come to the concert. The level of their artistry will amaze you!

The latest assignment was:

BE AN OPEN PIPE THAT BRINGS WATER TO THE DESERT SURROUNDING CLASSICAL MUSIC! There are so many people who would love classical music if only they knew about it, just as there would be so many flowers and vegetables in the desert if there were more water. You can put your passion and your enthusiasm to work to tell people about the music you love. Walk through the world as if you knew that EVERYONE LOVES CLASSICAL MUSIC, THEY JUST HAVEN'T FOUND OUT ABOUT IT YET! The people in your life will catch the spark and their lives will be changed forever.

“The idea that everyone loves classical music, but they just haven't found out about it yet, is my favorite idea ever. And it is so so true!” -Francesca Bass (violin, grade 12)

Topics: White Sheets

Benjamin Zander

Written by Benjamin Zander

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