Giving an “A”

Boston Philharmonic conductor Benjamin Zander is, among other things, a noted interpreter of composer Gustav Mahler. But it’s his book, The Art of Possibility, that has had my attention the past few weeks. Zander and his wife Rosamund have collaborated to produce a manuscript that not only encourages the heart but inspires the soul to help others find their place, their gifts, and their talents in a way that the world doesn’t always let us do.

art-of-possibilityThe chapter “Giving an A” makes a convincing case that life is less about getting high marks and comparing ourselves with others, and more about helping others be successful. (The “giving an A” concept is also attributed to Garry Ridge, CEO of WD-40, by the way.)

Zander explains that his 30 graduate students at the New England Conservatory are charged, over a two semester course in musical performance, to learn the psychological and emotional factors that stand in the way of great music-making. As great musicians know, musical accuracy and precision are one of the hallmarks of great performances. But, more so, is musical interpretation—connecting with music on an almost spiritual level, finding the deep-seated meanings in the notes and phrases and executing them with passion.

Zander believes that the quest for accuracy often trumps the search for passion. So, he takes the accuracy requirement off the table telling students that they already have an “A” in the class. They are free to explore the composer’s works and soulfully decode the music for themselves. In turn, he tells them to place themselves in the future, look back, and report all the insights they gained in a letter to him, written as if the end of the second semester was behind them. “Dear Mr. Zander,” the letter is to begin, “I got my A because…”

The dozen or so letters he shares in the book are jewels of self-discovery. They are testaments to the importance of shedding judgment and grades and taking on the mantle of writing our own future, devoid of the expectation of always playing the right notes and never making mistakes. “All songs are beautiful,” Zander might say, “just let us hear you, let us hear yours!”

Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is the last completed before his death. It’s one of Mahler’s most musically challenging but also one of the most uplifting as it chronicles the composer’s life of triumph and tragedy.

It’s a test of technique, but mostly of interpretation and expression. It’s a little deep, a little dark, but also elevating as it shows how passion makes the best performance—in music, with family, at work, wherever.

If you already had an “A” in any subject in life, how would that change your performance? And, if you were to help people get “A’s,” how could it change their lives?

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