A master class with Benjamin Zander

In November 2001, Benjamin Zander spoke about leadership to a group of students and faculty at the Ivey Business School.

I was a young reporter for the Western News and had not been assigned to cover his visit, but my curiosity got the better of me.

I did my homework and felt certain there was much to be learned from the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and faculty member at the New England Conservatory of Music.

Using nothing more than a grand piano and great storytelling he captivated his audience.

Afterwards, I introduced myself and thanked him for his talk. He told me if I was ever in Boston to look him up and gave me his business card.

Several years later I was visiting Boston for a conference… I pulled out that business card.

Within a couple emails I found myself invited to attend one of his master classes at the New England Conservatory.

My conference ended at noon on the Friday and on my way over in a cab I had no idea the magnitude of what I was about to experience.

Three students would perform three pieces – each receiving feedback from Ben and their peers – each taking up an hour of class time.

The first two performances were relatively uneventful. The third changed my life.

A young woman played a piece by Niccolò Paganini. When she finished playing Ben said, “You played that piece like you’ve never played the violin before.”

“If you’re going to play Paganini you need to know what he was about,” he said.

The students started telling Ben what they knew about the great Italian composer, to which he replied, “Don’t tell me, tell Terry.”

One by one the students began telling me what they knew about Paganini.

When they were done Ben walked to the front of the room and grabbed her music stand. He walked half way towards the back of the room and placed her stand directly beside me.

“Now that you know about Paganini play this piece for Terry,” said Zander.

I don’t know anything about music really but what I can say is that she played that piece on her violin more fluidly, and with more vigour and enthusiasm than any of the pieces played that day.

With tears in my eyes she finished the piece to thunderous applause from her classmates.

“Now, this Saturday (they had an upcoming concert) play that piece the way you played it for Terry,” said Zander. “And you will remember it for the rest of your life and Terry will remember it for the rest of his life too.” he added.