This is the final part of the series on possibility and The Art of Possibility, by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander.
I can’t take my leave of this glorious book without discussing what Roz and Ben call the practice of “Giving an A”. The practice was born when Ben, the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic orchestra, was about to start a new 2-semester course teaching 30 graduate students at the New England Conversatory of Music.
After 25 years of teaching Ben realised he was about to start another class with the same old obstacle in the way: that the students would be in such
a chronic state of anxiety over the measurement of their performance that they would be reluctant to take risks with their playing.
This time he did something different. He sat down with Roz, a therapist, and together they speculated about how they could move the students from the world of measurement – the world of right, wrong, good, bad, better than, less than, success, failure – into the world of possibility.
Ben describes what they came up with. “Roz and I predicted that abolishing grades altogether would only make matters worse … The students would feel cheated of the opportunity for stardom and would still be focused on their place in the lineup. So we came up with the idea of giving them all the only grade that would put them at ease”; the only grade that could “finesse the stranglehold of judgement that grades have over our consciousness from our earliest days.”
He announced it to the students as follows:
Each student in this class will get an A for the course. However, there is one requirement that you must fulfill to earn this grade: sometime during the next two weeks, you must write me a letter dated next May, which begins with the words, ‘Dear Mr Zander, I got my A because … ‘, and in this letter you are to tell, in as much detail as you can, the story of what will have happened to you by next May that is in line with this extraordinary grade …
In writing their letters Ben tells them to “place themselves in the future, looking back, and to report on all the insights they acquired … I am especially interested in the person you will have become by next May.”
The practice is a dramatic success, and not just with the students giving themselves an A. Because in exploring the idea Ben and Roz see it can be used in many different ways, including giving an A to others. There is so much more to say about the power and magic of the practice, and I could go on for posts and posts. For now, I want to end by including the letters written by two of Ben’s students and my own letter to Ben, from six months in the future.
Dear Mr Zander,
I got my A because … I changed from someone who was scared to make a mistake in case she was noticed to someone who knows that she has a contribution to make to other people, musically and personally … Thus all diffidence and lack of belief in myself are gone. So too is the belief that I only exist as a reflection in other people’s eyes and the resulting desire to please everyone … I have changed from desiring inconsequentiality and anonymity to accepting the joy that comes from knowing that my music changes the world.
Dear Mr Zander,
I got my A because I became a great gardener to build my own garden of life. Till last year I was intimidated, judgemental, negative, lonely, lost, no energy to do what-so-ever, loveless, spiritless, hopeless, emotionless … endless. What I thought so miserably was actually what really made me to become what I am today, who loves myself, therefore music, life, people, my work, and even miseries. I love my weeds as much as my unblossomed roses. I can’t wait for tomorrow because I’m in love with today, hard work, and reward … what can be better?
Sincerely, Soyan Kim
30 June 2012
I got my A because I gave my leadership project everything I had – my passion, my joy, my commitment – and I discovered I had so much more to give than I knew. I also finally discovered what you discovered: that people are always more important than the project or task I’m involved in. What I love about the person I’ve become is that I broke through the limit on my creativity and expression that I’d often come up against, and which was one of the reasons I started my blog years ago. Now the limit is no longer there and I have become to expression what Jacqueline du Pre was to music, “a conduit for music to pour through”. As you say of her, I have the
radical confidence about [my] own highly personal expression that people acquire when they understand that performance is not about getting your act together, but about opening up to the energy of the audience and of the music, and letting it sing in your unique voice.
Yours in possibility,
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