The transformative power of classical music | Benjamin Zander


Probably a lot of you know
the story of the two salesmen who went down to Africa in the 1900s. They were sent down to find
if there was any opportunity for selling shoes, and they wrote telegrams
back to Manchester. And one of them wrote, "Situation hopeless. Stop.
They don’t wear shoes." And the other one wrote, "Glorious opportunity.
They don’t have any shoes yet." (Laughter) Now, there’s a similar situation
in the classical music world, because there are some people who think
that classical music is dying. And there are some of us
who think you ain’t seen nothing yet. And rather than go
into statistics and trends, and tell you about all the orchestras
that are closing, and the record companies that are folding, I thought we should do
an experiment tonight. Actually, it’s not really an experiment,
because I know the outcome. (Laughter) But it’s like an experiment. Now, before we start — (Laughter) Before we start, I need to do two things. One is I want to remind you
of what a seven-year-old child sounds like when he plays the piano. Maybe you have this child at home. He sounds something like this. (Music) (Music ends) I see some of you recognize this child. Now, if he practices for a year
and takes lessons, he’s now eight and he sounds like this. (Music) (Music ends) He practices for another year
and takes lessons — he’s nine. (Music) (Music ends) Then he practices for another year
and takes lessons — now he’s 10. (Music) (Music ends) At that point, they usually give up. (Laughter) (Applause) Now, if you’d waited for one more year,
you would have heard this. (Music) (Music ends) Now, what happened was not
maybe what you thought, which is, he suddenly
became passionate, engaged, involved, got a new teacher,
he hit puberty, or whatever it is. What actually happened
was the impulses were reduced. You see, the first time, he was playing
with an impulse on every note. (Music) And the second,
with an impulse every other note. (Music) You can see it by looking at my head. (Laughter) The nine-year-old put
an impulse on every four notes. (Music) The 10-year-old, on every eight notes. (Music) And the 11-year-old,
one impulse on the whole phrase. (Music) I don’t know how
we got into this position. (Laughter) I didn’t say, "I’m going to move
my shoulder over, move my body." No, the music pushed me over, which is why I call it
one-buttock playing. (Music) It can be the other buttock. (Music) You know, a gentleman was once
watching a presentation I was doing, when I was working with a young pianist. He was the president
of a corporation in Ohio. I was working with
this young pianist, and said, "The trouble with you
is you’re a two-buttock player. You should be a one-buttock player." I moved his body while he was playing. And suddenly, the music took off.
It took flight. The audience gasped
when they heard the difference. Then I got a letter from this gentleman. He said, "I was so moved. I went back and I transformed
my entire company into a one-buttock company." (Laughter) Now, the other thing I wanted
to do is to tell you about you. There are 1,600 people, I believe. My estimation is that probably 45 of you are absolutely passionate
about classical music. You adore classical music.
Your FM is always on that classical dial. You have CDs in your car,
and you go to the symphony, your children are playing instruments. You can’t imagine your life
without classical music. That’s the first group, quite small. Then there’s another bigger group. The people who don’t mind classical music. (Laughter) You know, you’ve come home
from a long day, and you take a glass of wine,
and you put your feet up. A little Vivaldi in the background
doesn’t do any harm. That’s the second group. Now comes the third group: people who never listen
to classical music. It’s just simply not part of your life. You might hear it like second-hand
smoke at the airport … (Laughter) — and maybe a little bit
of a march from "Aida" when you come into the hall. But otherwise, you never hear it. That’s probably the largest group. And then there’s a very small group. These are the people
who think they’re tone-deaf. Amazing number of people think
they’re tone-deaf. Actually, I hear a lot,
"My husband is tone-deaf." (Laughter) Actually, you cannot be tone-deaf. Nobody is tone-deaf. If you were tone-deaf,
you couldn’t change the gears on your car, in a stick shift car. You couldn’t tell the difference between somebody from Texas
and somebody from Rome. And the telephone. The telephone. If your mother calls on the miserable telephone,
she calls and says, "Hello," you not only know who it is,
you know what mood she’s in. You have a fantastic ear.
Everybody has a fantastic ear. So nobody is tone-deaf. But I tell you what. It doesn’t work for me
to go on with this thing, with such a wide gulf
between those who understand, love and are passionate
about classical music, and those who have
no relationship to it at all. The tone-deaf people,
they’re no longer here. But even between those three categories, it’s too wide a gulf. So I’m not going to go on
until every single person in this room, downstairs and in Aspen,
and everybody else looking, will come to love
and understand classical music. So that’s what we’re going to do. Now, you notice that there is not
the slightest doubt in my mind that this is going to work,
if you look at my face, right? It’s one of the characteristics
of a leader that he not doubt for one moment the capacity
of the people he’s leading to realize whatever he’s dreaming. Imagine if Martin Luther King
had said, "I have a dream. Of course, I’m not sure
they’ll be up to it." (Laughter) All right. So I’m going
to take a piece of Chopin. This is a beautiful prelude by Chopin. Some of you will know it. (Music) Do you know what I think
probably happened here? When I started, you thought,
"How beautiful that sounds." (Music) "I don’t think we should
go to the same place for our summer holidays next year." (Laughter) It’s funny, isn’t it? It’s funny how those thoughts
kind of waft into your head. And of course — (Applause) Of course, if the piece is long
and you’ve had a long day, you might actually drift off. Then your companion
will dig you in the ribs and say, "Wake up! It’s culture!"
And then you feel even worse. (Laughter) But has it ever occurred to you
that the reason you feel sleepy in classical music is not
because of you, but because of us? Did anybody think while I was playing, "Why is he using so many impulses?" If I’d done this with my head you
certainly would have thought it. (Music) (Music ends) And for the rest of your life,
every time you hear classical music, you’ll always be able to know
if you hear those impulses. So let’s see what’s really going on here. We have a B. This is a B. The next note is a C. And the job of the C is to make the B sad. And it does, doesn’t it? (Laughter) Composers know that. If they want sad music,
they just play those two notes. (Music) But basically, it’s just a B,
with four sads. (Laughter) Now, it goes down to A. Now to G. And then to F. So we have B, A, G, F. And if we have B, A, G, F, what do we expect next? (Music) That might have been a fluke. Let’s try it again. (Music) Oh, the TED choir. (Laughter) And you notice nobody is tone-deaf, right? Nobody is. You know, every village in Bangladesh and every hamlet in China
— everybody knows: da, da, da, da — da. Everybody knows, who’s expecting that E. Chopin didn’t want to reach the E there, because what will have happened? It will be over, like Hamlet.
Do you remember? Act One, scene three, he finds out his uncle killed his father. He keeps on going up
to his uncle and almost killing him. And then he backs away,
he goes up to him again, almost kills him. The critics sitting in the back row there, they have to have an opinion,
so they say, "Hamlet is a procrastinator." Or they say, "Hamlet has
an Oedipus complex." No, otherwise the play
would be over, stupid. (Laughter) That’s why Shakespeare puts
all that stuff in Hamlet — Ophelia going mad,
the play within the play, and Yorick’s skull, and the gravediggers. That’s in order to delay — until Act Five, he can kill him. It’s the same with the Chopin. He’s just about to reach the E, and he says, "Oops, better
go back up and do it again." So he does it again. Now, he gets excited. (Music) That’s excitement, don’t worry about it. Now, he gets to F-sharp,
and finally he goes down to E, but it’s the wrong chord — because the chord
he’s looking for is this one, and instead he does … Now, we call that a deceptive cadence, because it deceives us. I tell my students,
"If you have a deceptive cadence, raise your eyebrows,
and everybody will know." (Laughter) (Applause) Right. He gets to E, but it’s the wrong chord. Now, he tries E again. That chord doesn’t work. Now, he tries the E again.
That chord doesn’t work. Now, he tries E again,
and that doesn’t work. And then finally … There was a gentleman
in the front row who went, "Mmm." (Laughter) It’s the same gesture
he makes when he comes home after a long day, turns off
the key in his car and says, "Aah, I’m home." Because we all know where home is. So this is a piece which goes
from away to home. I’m going to play it all the way through
and you’re going to follow. B, C, B, C, B, C, B — down to A, down to G, down to F. Almost goes to E, but otherwise
the play would be over. He goes back up to B,
he gets very excited. Goes to F-sharp. Goes to E. It’s the wrong chord.
It’s the wrong chord. And finally goes to E, and it’s home. And what you’re going to see
is one-buttock playing. (Laughter) Because for me, to join the B to the E, I have to stop thinking
about every single note along the way, and start thinking about the long,
long line from B to E. You know, we were just in South Africa,
and you can’t go to South Africa without thinking of Mandela
in jail for 27 years. What was he thinking about? Lunch? No, he was thinking
about the vision for South Africa and for human beings. This is about vision.
This is about the long line. Like the bird who flies over the field and doesn’t care about the fences
underneath, all right? So now, you’re going to follow
the line all the way from B to E. And I’ve one last request before I play
this piece all the way through. Would you think of somebody who you adore, who’s no longer there? A beloved grandmother, a lover — somebody in your life
who you love with all your heart, but that person is no longer with you. Bring that person into your mind, and at the same time, follow the line all the way from B to E, and you’ll hear everything
that Chopin had to say. (Music) (Music ends) (Applause) Now, you may be wondering — (Applause) (Applause ends) You may be wondering why I’m clapping. Well, I did this at a school in Boston with about 70 seventh
graders, 12-year-olds. I did exactly what I did with you, and I explained the whole thing. At the end, they went crazy, clapping. I was clapping. They were clapping. Finally, I said, "Why am I clapping?" And one of them said,
"Because we were listening." (Laughter) Think of it. 1,600 people, busy people, involved in all sorts of different things, listening, understanding and being moved by a piece by Chopin. Now, that is something. Am I sure that every single
person followed that, understood it, was moved by it? Of course, I can’t be sure. But I’ll tell you what happened
to me in Ireland during the Troubles, 10 years ago, and I was working with some Catholic
and Protestant kids on conflict resolution. And I did this with them — a risky thing to do,
because they were street kids. And one of them came to me
the next morning and he said, "You know, I’ve never listened
to classical music in my life, but when you played
that shopping piece …" (Laughter) He said, "My brother was shot last year
and I didn’t cry for him. But last night,
when you played that piece, he was the one I was thinking about. And I felt the tears
streaming down my face. And it felt really
good to cry for my brother." So I made up my mind at that moment that classical music is for everybody. Everybody. Now, how would you walk — my profession, the music profession
doesn’t see it that way. They say three percent of the population
likes classical music. If only we could move it to four percent,
our problems would be over. (Laughter) How would you walk?
How would you talk? How would you be? If you thought, "Three percent
of the population likes classical music, if only we could move it to four percent." How would you walk or talk?
How would you be? If you thought, "Everybody
loves classical music — they just haven’t found out about it yet." See, these are totally different worlds. Now, I had an amazing experience. I was 45 years old, I’d been conducting for 20 years, and I suddenly had a realization. The conductor of an orchestra
doesn’t make a sound. My picture appears
on the front of the CD — (Laughter) But the conductor doesn’t make a sound. He depends, for his power, on his ability to make
other people powerful. And that changed everything for me. It was totally life-changing. People in my orchestra said, "Ben, what happened?"
That’s what happened. I realized my job was to awaken
possibility in other people. And of course, I wanted to know
whether I was doing that. How do you find out? You look at their eyes. If their eyes are shining,
you know you’re doing it. You could light up a village
with this guy’s eyes. (Laughter) Right. So if the eyes are shining,
you know you’re doing it. If the eyes are not shining,
you get to ask a question. And this is the question: who am I being that my players’ eyes are not shining? We can do that with our children, too. Who am I being, that my children’s eyes are not shining? That’s a totally different world. Now, we’re all about to end
this magical, on-the-mountain week, we’re going back into the world. And I say, it’s appropriate
for us to ask the question, who are we being as we go back
out into the world? And you know, I have
a definition of success. For me, it’s very simple. It’s not about wealth and fame and power. It’s about how many shining eyes
I have around me. So now, I have one last thought, which is that it really makes
a difference what we say — the words that come out of our mouth. I learned this from a woman
who survived Auschwitz, one of the rare survivors. She went to Auschwitz
when she was 15 years old. And … And her brother was eight, and the parents were lost. And she told me this, she said, "We were in the train going to Auschwitz, and I looked down and saw
my brother’s shoes were missing. I said, ‘Why are you so stupid,
can’t you keep your things together for goodness’ sake?’" The way an elder sister might speak
to a younger brother. Unfortunately, it was the last
thing she ever said to him, because she never saw him again. He did not survive. And so when she came out
of Auschwitz, she made a vow. She told me this. She said, "I walked out
of Auschwitz into life and I made a vow. And the vow was, "I will never say anything that couldn’t
stand as the last thing I ever say." Now, can we do that? No. And we’ll make ourselves wrong
and others wrong. But it is a possibility to live into. Thank you. (Applause) Shining eyes. (Applause) Shining eyes. (Applause) Thank you, thank you.

Description Benjamin Zander has two infectious passions: classical music, and helping us all realize our untapped love for it — and by extension, our untapped love for all new possibilities, new experiences, new connections.

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Author: dhobson