TED2008: Ben Zander and one buttock playing

Ben Zander is introduced as the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra – he corrects Chris twice. He’s the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic, and you get the sense that people mix the two up a lot. (I heard him do the same thing over lunch today.)

He begins with a story: Two salesmen went to Africa in 1900s to see if there was any opportunity to sell shoes. One wires home, “Situation hopeless – they don’t wear shoes.” The other wired back, “Wonderful opportunity – great need for shoes.” There’s a similar situation with classical music, he says, “Either it’s dying, or you ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Sitting down at the piano, he offers a short piece, played as if by a seven year old. It’s a struggle. He offers other interpretations, as older and older students… and then finally as an eleven year old, plays it fluently. “It’s about impulse,” he explains. The young students are putting an impulse on every note, then on every other, then every fourth or eight. Finally, the maturing student puts on one impulse per phrase, allowing a fluent rendition.

As he plays fluently he finds himself tipped over to the side. “The music pushed me over.” When you move with a phrase, your body moves in front of the piano. He tells the story of critiquing a performer – “You’re on both buttocks. You need to play on one buttock.” An entrepreneur watching the class told him later he’d re-tooled his entire business to “a one buttock venture”.

He estimates that of the 1600 people attenting TED, 45 are passionate about classical music. A larger group probably doesn’t mind classical music. And an even bigger group never listens to it. Finally, there’s a group that thinks they’re tone deaf. “You cannot be tone deaf. If so, you couldn’t drive stick shift or tell an Englishmen from a Texan.”

Throwing down a challenge, he tells us he’s not leaving until we all love classical music. A leader can do this because he truly believes others will believe his vision. “Imagine Martin Luther King saying, ‘I have a dream – I don’t know if the others will buy it.'”

He plays a Chopin prelude, working throught the logic of the piece, the tension between the B and the C… the deceptive cadences at the end of the piece… the resolution that reminds us “we all know where home is.” He announces, “That’s one buttock playing.”

When he performs it, he asks us to think of someone we lost. Doing this exercise at a school in Ireland, during the troubles, he wondered if people would appreciate the piece. A young man came to us afterwards and said, “My brother got shot in the troubles last year. I didn’t cry for him, but when you played that shopping piece, I cried.”

He closes his presentation, telling the story about a woman who was taken to Auchswitz with her brother. On the train, she scolded her younger brother for forgetting his shoes. As it happened, it was the last thing she ever said to him. When she survived the camps, she declared, “I will never say anthing that couldn’t stand as the last thing I ever said.” It’s not possible, he tells us, but “it’s a possibility to live into – and that’s why we’re at TED.”


Zander has more tricks up his sleeve. Chris asks him back to the stage and he teaches us to sign Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, giving us a phonetic spelling of the piece on the screen. As we begin to learn the piece, he tells us a story about a student, who was auditioning for a cello job in Spain. He played well, but not well enough. Zander told him to let go, play with his heart, and he attacked the piece, sweating and thrashing and played beautiful. Zander told him, “Play that way.”

The student went to an audition and blew it. Zander asked what happened and he said, “I played the first way. But they I was so focking pissed, I went an auditioned for a first cello job in Madrid and played the second way. I got that one, for twice the money.” Zander advises us to “get beyond the fock” and sing with passion, and we all do.

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