Benjamin Zander, noted conductor, leadership teacher, speaks at Watchung Hills Regional High School

by Eleanor Mathews

Tuesday September 08, 2009, 6:31 PM

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Courtesy Eleanor Mathews

Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, who is also a leading proponent of new, improved motivational practices, spoke before an audience of faculty and Watchung Hills district community members on September 1. After his presentation, he autographed copies of his book, “The Art of Possibility,” for enthusiastic audience members.

WARREN TOWNSHIP, NJ — An audience estimated at 550 heartily singing the stirring climax of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony — in German.

That was the conclusion of a unique presentation given on September 1 in the Watchung Hills Regional High School Performing Arts Center by Benjamin Zander.

That feat was also proof of “The Art of Possibility,” the theme of the speaker, a highly regarded figure in the world of music who has attained equal respect in the areas of leadership, motivation and creativity.

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Courtesy Eleanor Mathews

Ben Zander autographs copies of his book, “The Art of Possibility,” for “fans” from within the faculty and the community after a two-hour on-stage appearance on September 1.

The program was intended as the kickoff event for the Watchung Hills faculty. However, Dr. Frances Stromsland, Hills’ Superintendent, felt that Zander’s philosophy and insights were so universally applicable that persons other than Hills’ staff would benefit from his presentation. The audience thus included municipal officials, community leaders, members of various service organizations and clubs, police personnel. The address, moreover, would be the basis for the 2009-2010 academic year — “The Year of Possibilities,” Stromsland said. ‘During Zander’s fast-paced presentation he shared with the audience practices that are transformational, practices that shift our experiences, perceptions, beliefs and thought processes. Never standing still, he moved into the aisles, up and down the steps on the stage, stepping up to flip charts and grand piano, sharing experiences from his 70-year vantage point. In his slightly British accent, he related anecdotes from his careers as conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, director of the Youth Orchestra of the Americas, teacher at the New England Conservatory, the Walnut Hill School and teaching music to students ranging from high school age to would-be conductors. Intermingled were personal memories of Holocaust survivors, comments from famous conductors such as Toscanini and Van Karajan, visits to prisons and senior citizen centers. Zander’s beginning anecdote led the way to the theme of possibility: Two shoe salesmen were sent to Africa in the early 1900’s to scout the territory. One telegraphed back: “Situation hopeless. Stop. No one wears shoes.” The other telegraphed: “Business opportunity. Stop. They have no shoes.” The first response illustrates the “downward spiral.” We perceive only the sensations we are programmed to receive and we are restricted by them. The second response indicates an ability to adapt by rejecting previously-accepted “truths” that restrict and confine. Do we want “downward spiral” or “glorious opportunity?” He also illustrated the point by using the Nine-Dot Puzzle, which requires that one join all nine dots with four straight lines without taking pen from paper. The framework in our minds defines and confines, but by enlarging the box–taking the lines outside and beyond the box–we create another, enlarged frame. When we create the enlarged frame, new opportunities appear. As part of this see-it-in-another-way model, Zander called to the stage a volunteer from the audience, one Jennifer, whose September 3 birthday fell closest to the day’s presentation. He had the audience sing the conventional “Happy Birthday to You” ditty. “It didn’t make an enormous impression,” Maestro Zander said, and he had the audience sing it twice again with “warmest love,” then standing, using hands and faces until it became “the most joyful Happy Birthday rendition New Jersey has ever seen.” Teaching is like that: it can full of great possibilities — love or resignation (or even anger) or with great possibilities. Zander also spoke of “giving an A” to every class member. The “A” is visualized, not as a measuring tool, not as an expectation, but as a “possibility to grow into.” He spoke of many of his music students who were so anxious about their performance that they could not take risks. Once freed of the strain of living up to (someone else’s) expectations, they were free to develop and expand, accepting themselves, free to make mistakes, learn from others (rather than competing). They could determine their outcome rather than “please the boss.” Giving the A produces the possibility of partnership and team work; it can be transforming and enhances relationships–teacher/student, student/student. Not completely without strings, however, the practice of “giving the A” requires that students write a letter on the theme , dated May of the following year, “I want (deserve) my ‘A’ because…” Taking to the piano, Zander used a Chopin prelude to illustrate the several stages in the learning process., from the beginner’s labored, almost tortured, picking out of notes to the fluent, rippling stream of melody, lovingly played, after five or six years of study. How to judge whether the pianist has learned to play as beautifully as he is capable, and whether learning is a joy or a burden? “The eyes are shining,” Zander says. That is the sign that the teacher/leader has awakened fully all the possibilities in the learner.” In all of this enabling of others, good leaders (whether CEO’s of large companies, leaders of civic organizations, teachers, and, most particularly, conductors) should adhere to the “Rule of 6,”which is, succinctly phrased, “Don’t take yourself too g.d. seriously.” The “Rule of 6” has popped up on desks worldwide in the form of little plaques which serve as a reminder to “lighten up.” Humor and laughter are the best way to get over ourselves, the childish demands, the rigid rules and entitlements that characterize the “calculating self” in contrast with the “central self” that leads to productive results and collaborative solutions. The exuberant speaker, still untired after an almost two-hour presentation, and rewarded by applause and a standing ovation, later autographed copies of his book, “The Art of Possibility” (Penguin Books, 2002) written in collaboration with Rosamund Stone Zander, an executive coach and family systems therapist. Community members who attended the presentation expressed their appreciation for the invitation to attend the event. Sgt. Herb Hentschel of the Warren Township Police Department said he found the concept of motivating “positively” rather than negatively a useful idea. ” Motivating internally is definitely a different way of teaching,” he said. Watchung mayor Albert Ellis, said it was a “very exciting day, an enthusiastic, warm, positive experience,” and he was pleased to have been invited. Just as the printed word, facilitated by Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, has gradually been overtaken by Google as a means of communication, so must “modern” concepts supplant worn-out leadership and motivational techniques. An audience of non-German speaking persons lustily singing the poet Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” in its original tongue. Their eyes were shining. Part of that phenomenon was due to the magnetism of a vibrant speaker. Mostly, however, it illustrated “The Art of Possibility.”


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