Thoughts on Ben Zander’s TED Talk on Music and Passion (Leadership and Possibility)

I am in the process of finalizing the reading list for my course next semester at the Yale School of Music on “Creating Sustainable Careers in the Arts” and am including Ben Zander’s TED Talk on Music and Passion. TED Talks originated from a conference with the world’s thought leaders in Technology, Entertainment and Design around the theme of “ideas worth spreading”.  The talks have broadened in scope to include inspirations voices that anyone can access for free online on the website. I have chosen this particular talk because not only it is an inspiration for today’s conservatory students to hear one of the world’s great proponents of classical music but also because it contains some powerful leadership lessons that transcend music and apply to all areas of life.

In this particular TED talk (which at last count had over 1.8 million views), Ben Zander, a conductor, master teacher, world-class speaker and author, speaks about Music and Passion.  What fascinates me about this talk is how multi-layered it is.  Zander shares his dual passions:  one for classical music and the other to awaken us to the possibilities for creating a vision that we want to live out.  His vehicle is the Chopin Prelude in E Minor, a beautiful and deceptively simple piece that illustrates these lessons through a variety of techniques.

Message #1: Why everyone should love classical music:

On one level, Zander is out to convince his 1600-strong audience about why they should love classical music, using a variety of techniques to tap into each person’s different “sweet spot”:

•    He appeals to our sense of aesthetics by choosing a beautiful piece.
•    He taps into our intellect with a cogent analysis of the harmonic progressions in the work. 
•    He invokes our emotions showing us what is “sad” about the notes and then asking to think of someone whom we love and who is no longer with us as we listen to the piece.
•    He utilizes kinesthetic learning techniques and appeals to our bodies, by showing us how using a lot of physical impulses gets in the way of beautiful piano playing, as well as invoking  the “one-buttock rule”, where you engage your entire body in the process of playing in order to translate your passion. 
•    And Zander adds in a good dose of humor to deliver his message.

He grabs our attention-and we are rapt as we listen to the piece and to the message.

Message # 2: Leadership stems from passion and vision:

Zander’s deep sense of conviction about the power of classical music comes through.  He does not have the “slightest doubt” in his mind that he can convince his tony TED audience members that they need to pay attention to this music.  And once he has our attention, Zander teaches us some important leadership lessons through his musical examples.

The first lesson is to focus on the “long line” or the vision.  Using the Chopin prelude, he show us the overarching meaning in a piece of music, that can easily get lost if one focuses solely on the individual notes.  Translate this into life:  if you keep your eye on the long line, you follow that vision, fueled by your passion.

And Zander’s entire persona—his mind, his heart and his body—stem from his deep passion for music and the fact that his job is to awaken other people to possibility:  both the possibility that they will appreciate classical music and then,  by extension to their own unlimited possibilities. 

Message #3:  Awaken to Possibility:

One more thing.

It is no accident that Zander chose a beautiful Chopin prelude to make his point.  As Zander says in his analysis of the prelude, Chopin could have written a little piece where the notes predictably came back to the home key– in which case, the prelude would have been over in a few short measures.  The power of this piece is that Chopin keeps delaying the resolution of the harmonies, subtly defying the conventions of his day.  This brave little piece opened up the possibility for music to evolve to the point that composers began to break openly with the traditional rules of tonal harmony and come up with new structures. 

As such, Zander chose wisely in selecting this Chopin piece for his underlying message is to awaken us to unknown possibilities.  Zander’s message is even more pointed: that once awakened, we need to trust ourselves—despite conventional wisdom—and pursue our vision.

Incidentally, this talk summarizes many of the lessons of his book, co-authored with his wife, called “The Art of Possibility:  Transforming Professional and Personal Life”, a must-read for anyone who is looking for a source of inspiration and a big dose of oxygen to fuel a personal search for fulfillment and success.

Using music as a metaphor, Ben Zander’s teaches us the following:

•    Keep in mind the vision and the long line in order to awaken your personal passion; and
•    As a leader, you role is to keep that vision in mind to awaken the possibility for others to find their vision.

So be on the lookout for your long line and find the passion to make that vision a reality.  In doing so, you, like Chopin, might just be opening up possibilities both for yourself and for future generations.  Now that’s what I call leadership!