"There’s no such thing as bad weather — only inappropriate clothing.” Such was the frequent refrain of Walter Zander, who, when piled into a World War II internment camp on England’s Isle of Wight, founded an in-camp, ad hoc university with 40 courses and a scratch symphony orchestra. He lectured on law and economics to the other inmates for more than 25 months and played in the orchestra with four men who went on to form the Amadeus String Quartet after the war.
Today his son, Benjamin Zander has adopted and restructured the same inspirational tools as conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra to draw out the absolute best from his talented musicians.
“The process for encouraging a person’s ultimate potential is remarkably the same in business, with executives, as it is with musicians,” Zander says. His best-selling “The Art of Possibility” has sold hundreds of thousands of copies and been translated into 17 languages. It has also placed Ben Zander into the dual role of globe-trotting speaker and guest conductor.
Zander, wearing both hats, comes to Princeton on Saturday and Sunday, October 3 and 4. On Saturday at 5:30 p.m. at Westminster Choir College Zander will present a free lecture in which he will outline the stories and exercises required in his approach. For details call 609-491-8515.
The following day Zander will conduct the Princeton Symphony Orchestra in Camille Saint-Saens Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, and Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 in G Major at Princeton University’s Alexander Hall. Tickets begin at $20. For details visit www.princetonsymphony.org.
Zander’s own musical bent came at age 10 when as a cellist he became the youngest member of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain. Summers were spent taking lessons from family friend and famed innovative composer Benjamin Britten.
After five years studying abroad, Zander returned to his native Great Britain to continue performing and earn his degree in English literature from London University, graduating in 1964.
In l967 Zander joined the faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music, where he has instructed ever since. Conducting the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra and teaching classes in interpretation has led Zander on 13 international tours and several PBS recordings. In 1979 Zander became the conductor of the newly forming Boston Symphony Orchestra.
“‘The Art of Possibility’ is not just another positive-thinking treatise,” insists Zander. “Rather it is about acting according to each situation’s fullest potential.” Basically, Zander views his approach as halting the downward, defeating spiral in which most of us toil — that inward, self-concentration which is all absorbed in meeting standards, competition, needs, and problems. Against this, he offers his alternative pathway.
Journey to A+. At the beginning of each term, Zander gives all of his New England Conservatory students an A. Each student is then asked to write a letter beginning with “Dear Mr. Zander, I got my A because …”. The letter is dated at the end of term.
“The key here,” Zander says, “is the absolute assumption that each individual can and will perform A-level work.” It takes away a huge obstructing weight of striving, grade-aiming, or desperate wishing. Students are assured that they have top potential. Your professor merely wants to hear the proposed avenue of your efforts. The field is fertilized for action. The students rigorously respond and grow.
Launching such disciplined initiatives reaches far beyond simple positive thinking. Zander cites the old story of two shoe salesmen dropped in a barefoot, primitive village. One wires back home that the situation is hopeless. The natives don’t wear shoes. The second wires back that opportunities are glorious. There are hundreds of feet requiring shoes. Such glass-half-full vantages are only positive thinking. And while this presents a good start, a regimen of disciplined exercises are necessary to lead our glorious opportunity salesman into a village of fully shoed natives.
Business’ bearing. Zander believes that each individual holds within himself a share of a vital, creative force, ever seeking expression. It becomes the leader’s role to constantly seek ways to unlock this ultimate potential. “As the conductor or executive makes the journey toward his own possibility,” says Zander, “he must carry his fellows along with him.”
This freeing of the creative force makes the journey of the leader a spiritual one. Rather than bludgeoning your team to meet exterior standards, the leader must delve in, find potential, and set the best possible environment for that person’s potential to flower. A major part of this comes from treating people as A-plus individuals.
“It is not a matter of persuading or arguing people to a theory of full potential,” says Zander. “You have merely to assure those around you that you yourself truly believe in their abilities.” When speaking to a group of prison inmates, Zander reduced the men to joyful tears. “It was the first time anyone had told them they were A’s, not E’s and F’s,” he explains.
Possibility’s calisthenics. In each chapter of “The Art of Possibility,” Zander tells some true story, then adds a particular discipline one must adopt to achieve the best outcome from a given circumstance. Co-writer and wife Rosamund Zander tells of her first whitewater rafting experience. As a solution to getting washed outside the boat, the mantra of “knees-to-nose, then look for the oar or rope” was drilled into her by the raft guides until she thought them slightly looney.
Sure enough, Zander did find herself swirling amidst the rapids’ rage, under the water, with neither surface, nor raft in sight. No reasoned plan or calming of intellect could have carried her into the boat’s safety. Fortunately, relying on the hammered-home mantra, the whitewater novice found herself assuming the best possible position and searching for the best possible aid. After what seemed years, the rope came and Zander was hoisted back onto a sensible course.
It becomes each individual’s strategy to prepare for life’s maelstroms and develop personal mantras of action that instinctively lead the body to the best practices, with the most hope of survival.
For more than a decade, both Zanders have carried forth their mission of awakening the possibilities in all people. Yet Benjamin Zander still feels that nowhere is this awakening more evident than in music.
“Music seems to penetrate all the built-up resistance toward fulfillment,” he says. “It stands as a universal metaphor for the very best humanity can achieve.”