I Did It
Benjamin Zander

Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony starts off as though the music is making a joyful sprint toward a double handspring that catapults it to the high trapeze.  Mendelssohn gives the winds eleven quick steps before the violins make their first energetic somersault, but in one concert, while I was pointing to the winds, a single violinist came in with exuberance and gusto after just five steps!  It was the kind of confident violin playing you can't help admiring, but it left us out there in space, no trapeze within our grasp.  For the first time in my conducting career, I stopped a performance--in front of more than a thousand people.  I smiled to the orchestra, said to myself "How fascinating!" and began the piece again.  This time, of course, there was no mishap.

Afterward, someone associated with the orchestra asked me in a hushed voice, "Would you like to know who came in early in the Mendelssohn?"  Whether it was the slightly conspiratorial nature of the question that put me off, or whether it was that such a question was in disturbing contrast with the spiritedness of the music that we had just performed, I found myself saying, "No!" abruptly, and then adding, "I did it."

Not literally, of course.  I didn't actually play the violin.  But in that moment, in the context of the great music we had just made, it seemed absurd to me to consider handing out blame.  It could only divide us, and for what?

Certainly that player would never again come in early in the Italian Symphony, nor, perhaps, from this time on, make the mistake of a premature entrance in any performance.  And I myself would know to be especially careful in guiding the orchestra through those eleven steps whenever I conducted that passage again.  There was absolutely no gain to blaming anyone, and a real cost in terms of the blow to our integrity as a group.  Besides, I know full well that every time I step onto a podium, I take a risk that things won't turn out exactly as I anticipate them in my ear--but then, there is no great music without such risk-taking.

I think, in retrospect, that my "I did it" response represented even more than that--I was saying that I was willing to be responsible for everything that happened in my orchestra.  In fact, I felt enormously empowered and liberated by doing so.

The type of responsibility we are most familiar with is the sort that we apportion to ourselves and others.  Dividing obligations helps us keep life organized and manageable, as for example, "I'll be responsible for making the kids' lunches, if you feed them breakfast," or, "It wasn't all my fault that our check bounced; you forgot to enter other checks in the ledger."  We often use reward and punishment to regulate accountability--the carrot and stick, the bonus at the end of the successful year, the threat of being fired.  Approval and disapproval are also strong motivating factors, which rely for their effectiveness on the individual's desire to be included and to do well within the community.  Because the model is based on the assumption that life will be under control if everyone plays his or her part, when things do break down, someone or something naturally gets blamed.

Apportioning blame works well enough to keep order in a relatively homogeneous community that boasts commonly accepted values and where everyone is enrolled in playing his part.  It appeals to our instinctive sense of fairness.  However, its effectiveness is likely to be circumscribed in communities of divergent cultures and widely varied resources.  It is at this point, when everything else has failed, that you might find it useful to pull out this new game, the game of being the board.

In the fault game your attention is focused on actions--what was done or not done by you or others.  When you name yourself as the board your attention turns to repairing a breakdown in relationship.  That is why apologies come so easily.

In a lively, sensible manual for turning life's obstacles into possibilities, the Zanders introduce various "tools" for transformation, drawing on their extensive experiences with musicians, students and patients in therapy (Rosamund is a psychotherapist and painter; Benjamin is the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic).  They also emphasize practices such as thinking in terms of making a personal "contribution" rather than stark "success or failure"; "lightening up" in order to see a problem from a new perspective; and reassessing "frameworks for possibility."


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