Lessons with Ben Zander #1: I'm diffident?

The kind of power I’m seeking is a personal strength. The ability to say this is me, and this is what I think and feel.

How one conducting lesson helped me see and unravel what had been holding me back, not only as a conductor, but as a person.

After my tumultuous lesson in April with Ben Zander, he asked me to write down how it affected me.

There are things in this post that might seem stupid to share with a public audience, particularly from a career point of view. But I know that are other people going through the same questions, revelations and struggles. Sharing this might in some way help us all to talk more openly about our challenges as leaders and people, both on and off the podium.

My first lesson with Ben Zander was like having a cold bucket of water thrown over my head. Shocking. Jarring. Surprising. Unexpected. And ultimately, a revelation.

What was revealed to me was...me. And I hadn’t had someone give that to me so directly, so explicitly and so quickly in a very long time. What Ben did was show me a mirror, and patiently but unwaveringly asked me to look into it. See what he saw. What was so eerie was that in just a few short minutes of knowing each other Ben could see everything. Or at least that’s how it felt. It felt like he was inside my head. Able to hear all the nasty voices I (and all of us) work to keep hidden from the world. The ones that say:

‘Don’t mess it up - again’

‘You don’t know what you’re doing’

‘You don’t know the music’

‘Your lack of knowledge is going to be revealed for everyone to see’

‘You need to impress him’

‘You need to be good’

‘You need to appear good’

‘Be a good conducting student now'

He in his study in Boston at night. Me in my basement in Melbourne. Meeting each other for the first time on Zoom. All that was seen by him in an instant, from the other side of the world.

To be fair, he probably read some of this between the lines of my painstakingly crafted email that proposed our online lesson. He could probably then already see my desperation to connect with him, my perfectionism, my desire to look good, intellectual, funny, accomplished. And also, that I didn’t think I was really worthy of his time or attention. What would he get out of giving little old me a lesson? It wasn’t money, because he’d refused that.

When the call first started I was busy trying to get over the fact that THE Ben Zander was on the other end of the line, talking to me, and me alone. One of my lifelong heroes. I was trying to contain my nerves that had been bugging me since I’d woken a few hours earlier for our 9am lesson. (I probably wouldn’t have been so nervous had I remembered that he was the inventor of Giving and A, and so undoubtedly would be conferring one to me!)

Why was I nervous? Why do we ever get nervous? I wanted it to go well, of course. I wanted to look good for him, to him. I wanted it to be worth his while. Because the last thing I ever want to do is waste people’s time, or feel like I’ve caused discomfort in any way. Boy was I about to get a lesson in what that posture has done to me in my life and career so far!

Right now, as I’m writing this in my note-taking program, I can see notes from recent conducting lessons I’ve given to others. I can’t help but laugh: ‘It’s not that he doesn’t trust others, it’s that he doesn’t trust himself. What will happen in his life when he trusts himself?’ Or ‘What do you think the character of the first note is?' All things I’ve helped others with, but didn't see were really about me.

This was one lightning bolt that struck me the day after my lesson. That everything I’ve been saying to others is in fact about me. I have two beautiful teenage stepsons that have come into my life quite recently. Parenting them has been the biggest interpersonal challenge I’ve ever faced. At home, my internal monologue has recently been dominated by:

‘Why can’t you show more gratitude toward me?

‘Why can’t you look after me for a change?’

‘Why do you do everything for yourself and not me?’

‘I give everything and am generous to you, and what do I get back - nothing’.

(I notice the parallels here with the girl Ben talks about in his TED talk - on the train to Auschwitz, admonishing her brother having no shoes: “How could you be so selfish?”.)

What I realised after our lesson, was that these words were actually about me - that I had beaten myself down so much, avoiding self-care and self-love that I was now taking it out on other people. All those phrases were me talking to myself. Desperate for some self-love, acceptance, appreciation and nurturing. Because, as Ben surmised, I spend most of my time trying to please and gain the approval of others. I don’t like putting people out, or upsetting them or making them uncomfortable. And the result is I’m slowly denying myself and who I am. It’s at the expense of the fullness of me. The fullness of me, is in fact, something I’m afraid of too - which we’ll get to in due time.

In my professional life, the unspoken words about others in my ensembles were:

‘Why can’t you play better?’

‘Why does no one put in any effort?’

‘Why can’t you let go and be more expressive?’

‘Why does it seem like no one cares about the music?’

‘Why am I the only one working hard here?’

When really, through my avoidance of doing the real work of preparing and knowing the scores I was the one who didn’t know the music. Wasn’t sharing everything fully. Everything I was saying to the players in my ensembles was really about me.

All this really came to the fore when Ben asked me to conduct. In my email to him I’d said I was ‘between scores’. The truth was I hadn’t opened a score since my last rehearsals and concerts had been cancelled a month earlier. I’d said in the email that I was starting to look at Beethoven 5 but wasn’t very far into it. I’d spent maybe 3 hours on the first movement, a few weeks earlier. So when Ben asked me to conduct the opening for him I felt a very familiar cascade of events happening.

Fear. Heart racing. Oh s**t, I don’t know this AT ALL. The same words I tell myself before every rehearsal and concert. The pattern I have worn into my life of: Avoiding score study before the first rehearsal. Doing a bit, but certainly not knowing the piece well. Being super anxious on the drive to that rehearsal. Faking my way through it OKAY. Having enough of a spark and intuition to maybe be mildly inspiring (hah - what a phrase)! Telling myself that I’ll do more prep before the next rehearsal. Maybe I would, maybe I wouldn’t. The concert would come and I would beat myself up. 'You’ve done it again. Got all the way to the concert with the bare minimum. You don’t really know the music. Why are you even doing this?'.

I’ve definitely got better at it this year, invested more time, but the previous pattern has 17 years of reps on the board.

Though this is a pretty mentally unhealthy pattern, one thing it has taught me to do is be able to put aside those voices when I step out onstage. To let go of the anxiety and worry and deliver ‘when it counts’. Which, by the way, shows what I’ve taught myself counts - the performance. Though logically and philosophically I know that I want every rehearsal to be magical, inspiring, breathtaking, electrifying.

Ben talked about this idea of setting the voices aside. I was conducting the opening of the Beethoven and feeling bloody nervous and like I kept messing it up. Patiently, but unfalteringly he would give a comment or suggestion then ask me to do it again. I felt like I had very little time to recompose myself before going again. To take in what he’d said. I think this was probably the idea! He could see right through my pausing as I tried to work out how to do it ‘right’. I desperately didn’t want to suck in front of him. I wanted to be a good student. Just at that moment, he of course then interjected with: ‘I can see you’ve gone to a good school, gotten good grades and been a good student and that there are so many things going on in your head right now’. While I was outwardly smiling at his astute insight, internally my mouth was agape as he seemed to read my mind and voice my thoughts aloud.  It was like being pierced with something. With his sharp insight.

He then gave a valuable pragmatic lesson: ‘When you hear the voices, you need to address them. They will always be there, but they need to be acknowledged so you can set them aside. Say "Thank you for sharing, I’m busy"'. The simplicity of it made me smile then, and I’m smiling now. There’s something funny about this. And also powerful. And what I’ve felt lacking in my conducting, and my life, is power.

Not the kind of power you wield over people to control them (though I know, as I’m sure Ben does, that control is another of my bigger demons). The kind of power I’m seeking is a personal strength. The ability to say this is me, and this is what I think and feel. From a conducing point of view, I’d also add the ability to say with conviction: 'this is what I think Beethoven thinks and feels because I’ve done my homework and am full of conviction about my ideas'. I haven’t had that power for a long time. It comes in bursts sometimes. A burst of bravery on the podium in a rehearsal or performance - sometimes fuelled by intuition that may or may not be true to the composer’s intent (Thanks Ben, when I wanted to do an unwritten crescendo!). Or on those scores that I have done more work on and do feel more confident with.

I know that knowing the music more intimately makes me better on the podium (and in my own head). So why don’t I do the work?

What I discovered, or rather was finally able to articulate this week following my lesson, is that I am afraid of scores. Afraid of the music. I think there are several layers to this. Partly it’s probably because I’ve had so many experiences of getting in front of people with little knowledge that I just am avoiding the whole thing all together. This would explain my recent, painful, yet increasingly frequent thoughts about quitting conducting all together.

I’ve also known for a long time that my perfectionist voice says ‘you’ll never know it’, or ‘there’s no end point to knowing it’. And that stops me from trying. Because I’m pretty attached to there being an end point. A box I can tick. Something I can measure for God’s sake. (Haha. So attached am I to the world of measurement!) The thought that I can never fully know a score inspires terror in me, rather than fascination or curiosity. And normally I’m about as curious and thirsty for knowledge as anyone I know. But in my main arena of work? I’m huddled in a corner saying ‘don’t make me look at that endless, bottomless thing over there’.

The other thing holding me back, is I’m scared to reveal myself on the podium. To do what the music requires. Ben latched onto this very quickly. ‘You don’t like to be angry. And there are plenty of things worth being angry about. You should practice being angry - tell your wife about it first. Practice stomping around and throwing your fists in the air’. Could he see straight through into my brain and the last months of being completely enraged about our teenagers and me, meekly saying nothing? Bottling up that anger has been so difficult. Funnily enough - when he asked me again to conduct the Beethoven and show the anger I thought of how I’d felt in previous weeks - it was certainly better. Method acting, anyone? : ) He knew though, as I know now, that it’s really hard to share that with an orchestra if you haven’t let yourself physically feel and experience anger in your life. My holding back in life was simply mirrored on the podium.

It’s so funny that I have seen this in so many conductor’s I’ve coached, and worked on it with them really effectively. But hadn’t shined the light on myself for a long while. Turned the mirror toward me.

I know where a lot of this holding back comes from. Though I usually have a very good memory for facts and images, I have only a few clear memories of my childhood. Two ones stand out probably because they have been replayed so many times if they were a VHS tape they would have worn out! I’ve chosen - invented - that these were important to hold onto, and they’ve exerted a strong hold over my thinking so far.

In the first memory I was in our driveway about 6 years old. I was telling our elderly neighbour, Mrs. Fleming, about something or other I’d done at school. I remember my mother winking and saying, over my head, to Mrs. Fleming: ‘Modesty is an unknown word’. I didn’t know then what modesty meant, but when I found out quite some time later I was mortally embarrassed. I was brought up to be humble, kind and not boast. The worst thing you could be called would be arrogant.

In the second memory I recall the only time I can ever remember my dad yelling at me. I was a teenager, probably being moody and wrapped up in myself - and, like anyone wrapped in their own thoughts - completely unaware of it! (I’ve since experienced a lot of this from the parent side of the equation!) My poor dad, at his wit’s end, exploded with ’You selfish bitch!’. Though I knew almost immediately he didn’t mean it, he’d never called me names before, so the thing that stuck was not ’bitch’ so much as ’selfish’.

These two memories have shaped how I am, and held me back from showing and being everything I can.

As Ben kept asking me to conduct the Beethoven I was kind of working myself into a mental frenzy, getting angry at myself for not being able to execute what he asked. However what was extraordinary about Ben’s teaching was at no point was there any judgement or admonishment for what I was doing. Just very clear statements of what he saw. He could probably see I had more than enough negative judgements for the both of us put together! These statements that he made were made so unequivocally. (A good example: It’s a cultural thing. Whenever you talk, you go up at the end of every sentence. It makes you appear weak. Don’t do it. Hahahaha. I cannot remember the last time I was spoken to like that! It was so refreshing!

It was the directness without judgement that really floored me and left me reeling for hours after we hung up. I hadn’t had someone be brave enough and selfless enough to give me that kind of feedback without some other kind of agenda, or sugar coating it to protect me. Not only did it shock me, it also showed me a model of teaching I’d never experienced - let alone practiced myself. How would my students be if I worked more to give them this kind of experience - full of kindness still, but with transformation always in centre focus? What would the ensembles I work with be like if I gave this kind of feedback? What if I stopped being nice and started being honest? It would certainly be a lot more fun than whingeing in my head about poor behaviour or persistent playing errors and never voicing them (just like the teenagers, but the orchestral equivalent!). Ben showed me that direct and honest doesn’t equal mean. Which is what my skewed perception and fear of upsetting others had previously told me.

It’s taken me a whole week to get to writing this reflection. It’s been a tough, rough seven days filled with many tears. I’ve found solace in my ‘morning pages’ - the daily journalling as part of ’The Artist’s Way’ 12-week creative recovery program that I’m doing for the second time. One thing Julia, the author, says to be aware of are ‘moments of synchronicity’. Through all the tears, I had to laugh aloud the day after my lesson with Ben, noticing that the week’s chapter was indeed called ‘Recovering a Sense of Possibility’. I hadn’t noticed it at the start of the week, before the lesson had been confirmed : )

I’ve taken lots of walks alone, and in addition to going inwards in my pages, I’ve consulted Ben's The Art of Possibility like a bible. I’ve been going over and over the ‘Giving an A’ chapter. Realising that I hadn’t been doing that for others - our sons especially - or for myself. In fact, the day before our lesson I’d written in my journal: ‘Why can’t they just be like me? That’s the bottom line. They’re not me. Annoying’. This is also how I’ve felt at times about my ensembles, colleagues. Winding myself tightly into a downward spiral of feeling attacked and without value, because I was choosing not to assert myself.

I laughed at my words, when just days later I heard Seth Godin (another Ben fan) say on a podcast a line I’ve read in his work and heard him say time and time again, which I had previously thought I understood and embraced:

Everyone, without exception, doesn’t know what you know, doesn’t want what you want, doesn’t believe what you believe, and might not even need what you need. And that’s okay. If we’re going to serve other people we have to connect with them. And if we’re going to connect with them we have to accept that they have a noise in their head just like we do, except their noise is different. And that has to be okay’.

Working on 'Giving an A' transformed our week at home. We had the best week we’ve had with our teenagers (when their previous time with us, just a week earlier had been our worst). I felt I was much more able to connect with them and who they are. Be more accepting of their uniqueness, and actually have fun meaningful interactions with them. In the past I had been scared to show them all of me. To be open and vulnerable, because I felt like they didn’t want to open up to me either. It’s chicken or egg to say how that pattern started, but I feel like I experienced something different this week. A step in the right direction.

I wrote in my morning pages the day after the lesson:

‘Well, I don’t even know what to say. The lesson with Ben Zander was very challenging and provoking. I feel like a beast that’s been sleeping (or caged) and someone has prodded with a stick. I’m confused. A bit angry, shocked and surprised…. I was very intimidated when he asked me to conduct. I was embarrassed to conduct. That’s interesting. Why was I embarrassed? About being seen. About being really myself. I don’t want people to see me because I think it won’t be very good….I am afraid of being powerful. Of exerting power over others. Afraid I might do it wrong or do damage’.

At the same time I also know the power is there, waiting to leap out. I know I have great potential, and so much to give. I get so frustrated in front of my ensembles when I feel I’m giving everything I have (with who knows how much knowledge behind me) and working to inspire them about the music, and I feel I get back about 10% of the energy. I’m throwing every gorgeous conducting gesture I know to them and feel like no one is seeing my contribution, or responding to what I’m communicating or trying to draw out of the music with them. Yet do I stop in the moment and ask for more connection? Yes, but only after I’ve been ignored multiple times and said nothing and then I can’t take it any more. Because I guess I don’t want to offend the players. (And now, after the transformation of my conducting in our short time on Beethoven, I wonder what I’m really giving and what they are really seeing).

A side note here, about what has to be the most funny ironic thing of the whole lesson. Ben kept using the word ‘diffident' to describe me during the lesson. He used it multiple times, and therefore I had multiple opportunities to tell him that I, in fact, didn’t know what that word meant. I laughed out loud when I later looked it up in the dictionary and read that it meant ‘hesitant in acting or speaking through lack of self-confidence. Reserved, unassertive’. I mean, come on. It doesn’t get more ironic than that.

For quite a while now I’ve wanted to work with professional orchestras, and been frustrated why my career hadn’t gotten me there yet. Not from a status point of view, mind you. But because I just desperately wanted players who could play the notes of the music. I can’t find the bottom of their abilities, where the music is such they can get beyond notes and rhythms to expression, shape and character. I feel like the further and further I acquiesce to their low technical abilities, the less fun I’m having and the less real music we’re making. This frustration with players (and at myself, for seeming unable to find the right music for them to shine) has made me hold professional players in higher and higher regard. If I could only get in front of people who could play their instruments well, then I could really shine! Needless to say I’m often unhappy when I show up to my rehearsals.

Right near the start of the lesson Ben had said ‘I don’t teach conducting. We can talk about the music, or we can talk about what’s holding you back from showing and expressing the music’. As soon as he said that it was like bells going off in my head. The second one. I need the second one, please now, right now! Be careful what you wish for! Look at all that has been uncovered, revealed, brought to light, confirmed for me - in just two short hours with him. (And seven long days with myself!)

At the start of the year I had the incredible opportunity to watch Alan Gilbert rehearse Bruckner 7 with the Stockholm Philharmonic. I learned so much about myself and why I was where I was in that 2 hours. What that showed me was the gap. The gap between where I am now, and where I want to go. The gap was, of course, knowing the music and being unapologetic about making it happen. Exactly what Ben identified as what is holding me back from expressing the music. I now know haven’t yet been able to do this with a community or youth orchestra - so how on earth would I fare in front of professionals!? I’ve known that gap since January, and though I’ve done more score study this year than ever before but it’s been a slow breaking out of those old habits. I know what I am capable of if I do the work. But I’m still stopping myself. And it’s all a bit compounded (and confounded) right now by COVID-19 and that I have no idea what I should be working on, or when my next rehearsal will be or on what repertoire.

So now I’m pondering the question of ‘Being a Contribution’. I still really, desperately want to work with professional players - or at least players that are capable of playing real repertoire well. How does that fit in with being a contribution to the people in front of me rather than reaching for ‘better’? I think I’ll ask Ben this in our next lesson, which I’m looking forward to - and also know will probably be equally provoking and challenging.

Right now, I feel like I’m a caterpillar that’s lived a very long time as a caterpillar. My whole first 35 years. Though it’s probably been happening for a while, I feel this week I’ve ensconced myself in my chrysalis. I can feel the transformation happening slowly. It’s not easy. It’s painful. Ben said that living the principles of Possibility is not easy. It’s a discipline.

Two interesting things happened this week that give me hope for change. Since the lesson I’ve played my horn every day. Not practicing, just playing for fun. Bach cello suites. I haven’t played my horn that many days in a row for…six years, since grad school. And tonight, before I sat down to write this, I opened up the Beethoven and delightedly dug into it for half an hour. Excited to see what I could discover.

I don’t know how long it will take for me to transform. For me to live and embody these ideas more regularly. Yet I also know that I am changing instantaneously every time I remind myself of the practices of possibility.

I’m letting go of the things that held me back. And also not letting go of a thing. Just letting go.

How fascinating!

(Written 29 April 2020)

Want to know the next simple thing I did to help me let go and change myself? It's here.

Check out the Expressive Conducting Workshop (July 4-5) where we'll be going deep, together, and becoming better conductors and people for it.

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