Possibility: Part 3

Two prime ministers are sitting in a room discussing affairs of state. Suddenly a man bursts in, apoplectic with fury, shouting and stamping and banging his fist on the desk. The resident prime minister admonishes him, ‘Peter,’ he says, ‘kindly remember Rule Number 6,’ whereupon Peter is instantly restored to complete calm, apologises and withdraws. Twenty minutes later, they are interrupted again by an hysterical woman gesticulating wildly … Again, the prime minister says, ‘Marie, please remember Rule Number 6.’ Complete calm descends once more, and she too withdraws with a bow and an apology. A similar incident happens a third time, until the visiting Prime Minister can restrain himself no longer. ‘My dear friend, I’ve seen many things in my life, but never anything as remarkable as this. Would you be willing to share with me the secret of Rule Number 6?’ ‘Very simple,” replies the other. ‘Rule Number 6 is ‘Don’t take yourself so g—damn seriously.’ ‘Ah,’ says the visitor, ‘this is a fine rule.” After a moment, he asks, ‘And what, may I ask, are the other rules?’ ‘There aren’t any.’

Rule Number 6 is one of the most enlivening and amusing chapters in The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander.

Ben, the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic orchestra, tells a story of what can happen when we adopt Rule Number 6 in our own lives. It concerns a masterclass he was leading in the UK which was being filmed by the BBC, and one of his students, a young tenor named Jeffrey who had just landed a job at La Scala in Milan.


Jeffrey was to sing “Spring Dream” from a Schubert song cycle. The song is about a jilted lover in the “cold days of the soul.”  Ben describes the music thus:

some of the most intimate, soft, subtle and delicate in the repertoire. It depends for its expression on an understanding of the nuances of sadness, vulnerability, and never-ending loss.

When Jeffrey began to sing, however, “there was no trace of melancholy,” Ben says. Instead, “out poured a glorious stream of rich, resonant, Italianate sound.”

It was “pure Jeffrey, taking himself very seriously.”

He describes what happened after Jeffrey agreed to be coached:

For forty-five minutes, I engaged in a battle royale, not with Jeffrey but with his pride, his vocal training, his need to look good, and the years of applause he had received for his extraordinary voice. As each layer was peeled away and he got closer and closer to the raw vulnerability of Schubert’s distraught lover, his voice lost its patina and began to reveal the human soul beneath.

He continues,

At the final words, ‘When will I have my lover in my arms again?’ Jeffrey’s voice, now almost inaudible, seemed to reach us through some other channel than sound. Nobody stirred – the audience, the players, the BBC crew – all of us were unified in silence. Then, finally, tremendous applause.


Afterwards, Ben thanked Jeffrey for his willingness to give up “his pride, his training, and his vocal accomplishment” and for the “sacrifice he had made to bring us to a place of understanding.”

He remarked how it is always moving when someone gives up their pride to reveal a truth, and that even the cameraman had been crying. At the time he said this he hadn’t actually seen the cameraman crying; he had simply been expressing that no-one could have remained unmoved.

Later in the evening, the cameraman went up to Ben and asked how he had known he was crying. He said he had not been able to see through the lens for his tears.

When I was sent on this job from London, I had no idea that this music shit was about my life.


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