What's holding you back? How one conducting lesson changed my life

So you've got to be willing to give up a lot...of control, of comfort, of politeness...Whatever held you back for all those years is not relevant any more, because it's not part of who you're going to be for the rest of your life.

What happens when you decide to ask a life-long hero for a conducting lesson on Zoom during a pandemic? Here's the story of how I met Benjamin Zander...

The first few weeks of lockdown were up and down for me, as I'm sure for everyone.

I spent a two weeks madly creating YouTube content before realising that my initial goal of creating a video a day was leaving me frantic and exhausted each night, pummelling myself toward the daily deadline. What I did learn though, in those early weeks, was the value of shipping my work (thanks Seth Godin). There's nothing like putting a contribution out into the public space every day for helping stamp out perfectionism! When the clock is ticking, I learned to live the adage of 'done is better than good'.

I then turned my head to how I could 'make the most of the opportunity' and applied my curiosity and creativity in helping you all teach ensembles online. I loved creating the Online Ensemble Basics eBook and talking with so many people over webinars, Facebook live and emails.

These interactions would buoy me briefly, before I crashed. I felt useless and of little value to others. As soon as the thank you emails petered out and the hands waved goodbye on Zoom it didn't take long for some high-quality self-doubt to settle back in.

As I stopped making myself busy (aka distracting myself), and the uncertainty of what lay ahead set in, isolation started to take its toll. Did you also find that being cooped up with your family was like having a huge magnifying glass being held up to your and everyone else's flaws? I was forced to confront the ways you relate I others that maybe don't work or were no longer serving me well.

But becoming aware of this doesn't automatically translate to changing long-held habits and behaviours. I spent a lot of time in that first month being frustrated at others around me, only to eventually realise I was frustrated at myself. Sometimes it was a direct correlation, as railed in my head at our teenagers: "Why don't you appreciate what I do for you?" I realised I was really saying that to myself. I was doing a lot of looking after others and not taking care of myself too well.

Other times, it was more oblique. "Why can't you keep the place tidy/be quiet/leave me alone?" was really my inner self crying out to be heard, seen and nurtured.

I started wondering if this was happening in other parts of my life.

I wondered about all the times I'd screamed over and over in my head (but never out loud) at rehearsals:

"Why can you just play the notes?" 

"Why can't you just play your instrument better? It's not that hard!" 

"Why don't you know the music?" 

"Why didn't you do any practice?"

What would those phrases mean if turned them toward myself? 

I realised that I was really just yelling at myself - at my long-held, recurrent insecurity of never feeling like I knew the music well enough. This fear, along with an over-committed schedule, nibbled away at me for years. The result? A growing avoidance of score study. Deep, knowing-it-in-your-bones, score study. And every time I got in front of a group, not far below the surface, was this unconscious fear of being found out as a fraud, a charlatan, a faker.

A lot of artists across many disciplines have their own version of this. Avoiding the work for fear of failure, fear of being found out, an imposter syndrome. Or even avoiding the work for fear of success. What might happen if it actually went well?

But what's the cure for this? Is there a cure? I knew that part of the puzzle was leaning into the uncertainty. Taking a risk. Putting myself out there in some way. That's what I'd felt posting those YouTube videos every day, the experience of bravely showing up. But that had petered out.

I was musing on the fact that ALL conductors, at every level, across the world, were sidelined by the pandemic. Like me, they no longer had schedules full of rehearsals and concerts. It got me thinking - maybe this is an opportunity to reach out and learn from people who wouldn't normally be available. Online learning had very quickly been normalised. I figured people might be open to an email from an unknown Australian conductor asking for a lesson.

So I emailed a bunch of big name conductors via their managers and webpages. The person I most wanted to meet, my biggest book mentor and hero was Benjamin Zander. I re-watch his stunning TED talk multiple times a year and share it with just about every ensemble I work with. Borrowing from his analogy about the shoe salesmen, I sent this email into the ether:


My name is Ingrid Martin and I am a full time freelance conductor working in Melbourne, Australia - and a HUGE fan of your work.

Two conductors are working in 2020 and COVID-19 hits...

Conductor 1: Terrible news, we can't have rehearsals, concerts or travel anywhere. :(

Conductor 2 in COVID-19: Fantastic news! We can learn conducting from anyone, anywhere, even in pajamas!

My wife and I were re-listening to the Art of Possibility audiobook yesterday (10+ years after my first read), possibility tapped me on the shoulder and said:

Why couldn't I just ask Ben Zander for an online lesson?'

How I got to asking this of you...

At age 24, when my conducting teacher showed our class a documentary about your work I sat transfixed, crying as you worked with a young blonde soprano (also crying!) mimicking the voices in her head - encouraging her to be herself, vulnerable and personal, to connect with honest and humanity to her audience. Voices I'd heard and told myself many times, having trained and worked as a doctor before pivoting to music. I felt illegitimate, unworthy and like I hadn't ticked the right boxes.

Reading The Art of Possibility that year (2009) led to my first truly profound musical experience with an extraordinary group of young students whose lives and community had been devastated by bushfires. We made 'million-dollar moments every time we play' our vision, and this happened.

Alongside your work, and that of the late mime-artist and conducting pedagogue Bud Beyer and many others, I've been working to make deeper, more human connections with and between musicians and audiences.

Revisiting your book this year has been refreshing and invigorating, and I'm helping others apply ideas like 'How Fascinating' to teaching and conducting.

Your work has transformed me as a person, and my life as a conductor, teacher and leader and doctor (when I was still practicing).

If nothing else, I would like to thank you (and Roz) for your generous and loving contribution to the world.

Online Conducting Lesson?

Like all of us, all my rehearsals and performances have been cancelled so I wanted to take the opportunity to further my learning.

Given we don't have our normal schedule of rehearsals and performances I wondered if you might have the time for a 60-minute online conducting lesson on Zoom/Skype/GoogleMeet?

I know you probably have plenty of other work going on - but why not ask?

I have specific ideas (musical and philosophical) I would like your advice on, but am also pretty enamoured of having a conversation and seeing where possibility takes us!


And 8 days later I was on Zoom, with THE Benjamin Zander. For 2 whole hours.

What happened in that one lesson has changed the trajectory of my life.

Early on in the lesson, after we'd made introductions and I'd talked about my background, Ben asked how old I was.

"I'm 35."

"Yes, that's exactly what I would have guessed." Then he went on...

"I don't teach conducting. One can teach music...and the other thing you can do is you can look at what stands in the way of someone realising these ideas."

I knew that was what I wanted and needed, but I was terrified of being seen, especially by him, my hero and idol (Oh, the irony).

We spent some time conducting the iconic opening of Beethoven Symphony No. 5, before Ben held the mirror up to me, unflinchingly:

"What is stopping you from communicating the energy Beethoven wrote?

"You're telling the story of this music to people who don't know it. So your job is to make this as intense, extreme and powerful as is humanly possible to.

"And you were brought up in a good family, with good values, went to a good school and got good grades and all of that, and that told you to behave in a certain way. And so that's preventing you from being available for Beethoven. So we have to to break through that. And if we can break through that you'll be able to reveal to the players you're working the world of emotion and experience and expression that they had no idea about. Then they'll learn to do it, then the audience will get it. And that's a beautiful thing.

"So you've got to be willing to give up a lot...of control, of comfort, of politeness. And you may not be able to do it right now. And what I'm saying to you is now is the time. And it's probably the last time, because 35 is the perfect age to put your youth behind you and say ok, now I'm facing who I'm going to be for the rest of my life. Whatever held you back for all those years is not relevant any more, because it's not part of who you're going to be for the rest of your life."

Want to know what happened next? Here's the next chapter. (Because this post seemed to be getting too long!)

And ask yourself...what is holding YOU back? What's preventing YOU from communicating the energy, emotion and power of the music entrusted to you?

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

Find a musical reason to improve the technique

Being told to play louder or softer is okay. Being told why is better.

Read More

Going beyond the notes: Conducting with Expression

Want to go from being a human metronome to embodying all the emotions in the music? We need to know the music, and know ourselves.

Read More

Learning Conducting from the Inside Out - Part 1: How & What To Observe

Improve your conducting while sitting in the ensemble as a player or singer? You bet you can! Here's how...

Read More