“Free Thinkers” OSHER Lecture Series concludes with famed conductor Benjamin Zander

Benjamin Zander, conductor of The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, gave a lecture entitled "The Transformational Power of Classical Music" in the last installment of the OSHER Lifelong Learning Institute's "Free Thinkers" lecture series. Matt Schreiber / The Tufts Daily

Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra conductor Benjamin Zander closed the four-part “Free Thinkers” lecture series run by the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, a local community of adults continuing their education, by using music and its performance to explore alternative modes of thinking in today’s world.

Zander, faculty emeritus at the New England Conservatory of Music, where he recently received an honorary doctorate, and co-author of a book he published with his partner Rosamund Zander titled “The Art of Possibility” (2002), structured his lecture, “The Transformational Power of Classical Music,” by explaining each part of its name.

“I think we all agree on the meaning of the word ‘the,'” Zander said. “‘Transformational,’ on the other hand, is a very peculiar word. What on earth do we mean by ‘transformational’? I want to look at that. ‘Power.’ What do you mean by ‘power’? And ‘classical music’? Do we all agree on what is ‘classical music’? Actually, we don’t — we don’t know what it is.”

He began by having audience members from the back of the room move to the front row. By converting the people who were hiding in the back row into a group of engaged listeners sitting right in front of him, the audience members went through a transformative moment, according to Zander.

“A transformation is when you open up a category that was not open before,” he said. “We now have a new category called, ‘Sitting in the front row of your life.’ Because it is a new category, it stays there forever.”

Zander examined this mentality through the lens of the moving parts of a symphonic orchestra. According to Zander, musicians spend much of their energy striving to be the best. In the orchestral setting, this effort is rewarded symbolically by being given the first chair of one’s section. He explained that many musicians put in many hours of rigorous practice, but are utterly disappointed when they are placed in any seat other than first chair.

Zander believes, however, that a musician’s seating does not define his or her influential power within an orchestra.

“We have a distinction … in our book called ‘leading from any chair,'” Zander said. “Now, the assumption is that the only person that leads is the … concertmaster … [but] I trained my orchestra to be leaders throughout the entire orchestra. Every single player.”

This method, he said, was a transformation that changed how his orchestra approached its work.

“That’s a different way of being,” he said. “That’s moving from the connatural, everyday, competitive [mentality] … that whole mentality is thrown away, replaced with another totally different mentality that says, ‘It doesn’t matter where I sit! I’m going to lead this orchestra from wherever I am.’”

Zander then explained two designs drawn on a chalkboard. One was a series of downward spiraling lines meant to depict the normal world. This world is weighted down by thoughts of anxiety, pressure and series of successes and failures — a world Zander fears young people live in nearly all the time.

The design on the adjacent chalkboard depicted a circle with arrows radiating out of it, resembling the sun. This represented a world running on open-heartedness, contribution and community — a mentality that Zander believes is easier to recognize with age. For Zander, this symbolizes an ideal world with a mentality of “radiating possibility.” In fact, this way of thinking is what his book is about.

“This book is called ‘The Art of Possibility,’ and the book is about the art,” Zander said. “And it is an art … getting from [the normal world] to [radiating possibility]. It’s a book of practices.”

According to Zander, the idea for “The Art of Possibility” came in a moment of revelation — he realized that although his job as a conductor seemed to hold a great amount of power and authority over his orchestra, his responsibility was to give his players the possibility to be powerful themselves.

“I was only interested in one thing: am I awakening possibility in other people?” Zander said. “Do you know how you tell if you’re awakening them? You look at their eyes … If the eyes are shining, I know I’m in the possibility [mindset]. 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?’ Not ‘what’s wrong with these people’; ‘Who am I being?’”

According to Zander, the person we choose to be affects the everyday moments of our lives and how we affect others. He encouraged the audience to question themselves and their choices rather than blame their children or grandchildren during conflicts.

“Every time we open our mouth we have a choice,” he said. “Whether we speak … in [a] downward spiral or speak over here, radiating energy.”

Zander said he is encouraging this idea of “radiating possibility” in the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra to induce a transformative mindset.

“We are raising a generation of people who can distinguish between the downward spiral and radiating possibility and to know the difference,” he said. “Now does that have power? You bet that has power — [the power] to speak in possibility.”

Finally, Zander addressed the term “classical music” from his lecture’s title with the assistance of four musicians: sophomore Inga Liu and junior Kristen Hsu on the violin, Music Department employee Will Myers on the viola and first-year Mariel Kieval on the cello.

“Are all performances all transformational?” Zander asked. “They certainly are not. Most, unfortunately, are not. And one of the reasons [why] the classical music industry is in trouble, and it certainly is in trouble, is not because of the music — it’s because of the way the music is played.”

With that said, Zander proceeded to critique the four musicians, discussing their stylistic techniques and encouraging them to connect with the audience and with the music to create a transformative moment. This involved making eye contact with the audience, allowing the audience to empathize with the emotion hidden in the music and each player taking command of his or her part, whether the melody or the harmony. He urged them to play with passion, joy and “radiating possibility.”

By the end of the evening, the quartet was met with roaring applause and standing ovations throughout the auditorium. According to Zander, the Tufts musicians created a transformative moment through classical music that only musicians can impart to people.

“Let me tell you what [the audience is] clapping for,” Zander said in response to Kieval’s playing. “They are saying, ‘Thank you for taking us to a place we couldn’t reach without you.’”

In closing, Zander invited the audience to experience this transformational power again during the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra concert on Nov. 9.

“You will see what my whole life is about — the transformational power of classical music,” he said. “The kind of music making — the kind of being — that changes people’s sense of being human.”

At the conclusion of the “Free Thinkers” lecture series, Director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute David Fechtor shared encouraging thoughts about this year’s series and optimistic expectations for the upcoming lecture series.

“I think it was even more successful than the last series,” Fechtor said. “We introduced lots of new participants to our program who didn’t even know that we existed before. I look forward to not only having an even better series [next] fall, but we’re also going to be having a special performing series in the spring that will be something new for us as well.”