A Tour of Possibility

Benjamin Zander's picture
Thu, 06/13/2013 - 3:57pm -- Benjamin Zander


By Ben Zander, inspired by Roz Zander


Imagine two worlds that are completely different in nature: the downward spiral and the world of Possibility. 


The Downward Spiral is the world we ordinarily inhabit. It contains all our fears, anxieties, successes and failures, expectations and disappointments. We are driven to measure and compare everything. It is where we experience belonging and not belonging; winning and not winning; success and failure. Everything good implies its opposite; everything bad conjures hope for change. It's a world of hierarchy where we compete and struggle to maintain our position in relation to others. In a word, it is the world of SURVIVAL. 


The World of Possibility prompts us to remain open because we recognize that it is all invented and so we can create a setting for anything that we say is missing in our lives. In other words, we TELL A DIFFERENT STORY. Instead of meeting events with anxiety, defensiveness or resistance, we remain joyful, openhearted, at ease and in a state of contribution. 


We could go to the Netherlands in either mode. However, I, as the leader of the group, have decided that it is going to be a tour of Possibility. That means we are open to finding partners, communities, miracles, because in Possibility, just by searching for them we will find them. 


In the survival mode a long bus ride, a delayed flight or a long lay-over in an airport is likely to be an irritation, a reason to complain. It's a foregone conclusion. In the world of Possibility it is an opportunity to have a wonderful conversation with new friends.  In Possibility nothing is either good or bad, it is our story that makes it so. 


Possibility is an ART. It doesn't come naturally. Downward Spiral DOES come naturally. You don't have to work at the Downward Spiral. It will happen automatically whenever things aren't going exactly the way you want. We DO have to develop the discipline of Possibility. It takes practice, lots of practice, just like learning to play an instrument, which is why we call it THE ART of Possibility. 


It is my intention, as the leader of this adventure, to keep practicing the Art of Possibility throughout the tour. I look to all of you to help me keep Possibility alive. 


Here are some of the main Practices of Possibility (you will find all the practices in the book The Art of Possibility): 




Story: The two salesmen are sent to Africa to see if there is any chance of selling shoes. 






The circumstances are the same for both men, what is "invented" is their response. So, the practice is to look at our own assumptions when we do not like what is happening and ask ourselves: "What assumption am I making here?” Then ask yourself: "What else might be going on?" 


The exciting thing is that our bodies (and especially our eyes) will reflect which mode we are in. The questioning of assumptions is a practice of possibility that lights up our eyes. 




Giving an A to someone is to speak to the best part of a person.  To speak to them as though they are willing and able to hear what you have to say. Talking to the part of the other person that is fully functioning, fully human. 


The A in this model is not a standard to live up to, like the grade you get in school, but a possibility to live into. That is a powerful distinction.


What grade are the Arabs giving the Israelis and what grade are the Israelis giving the Arabs? And how are they doing?   You might think of someone you know to whom you have been assigning a C minus, and then see what happens when you raise the grade in your mind to an A, not just for a few minutes, or a day, but permanently.  That person will appear in a different environment henceforth.  That is what I do for each of you when you come into the BPYO each Saturday afternoon. And that is why there is such an atmosphere of trust, love, exploration and fun.  Try it on your family and friends this week before we leave. You will be amazed!


When we set off on tour, we can give each of the 132 people on the tour an A and also everyone we meet along the way. If we do, we will talk quite differently to them. Think of how you feel in the classes in which YOU get an A. Have you noticed that teachers talk differently to students to whom they give an A than to the ones to whom they give a C minus? 




Most people focus on trying to be successful. Getting good grades, getting into a good college, getting a good job, getting a raise etc. Ultimately, success will be manifested in wealth, fame or power, and failure is the lack thereof. 


Being a contribution is a totally different game (remember it is all invented, so life is really like a game - you chose the game and then you get to invent the rules for the particular game you are playing). In the game "BEING A CONTRIBUTION" you define yourself as a gift or contribution, to others and they to you. So when you meet a new person instead of thinking "I wonder if they will like me" or "I hope I am good enough to impress them", you think what a joy it is to meet this person, "because I can't wait to give them what I have to offer and I can't wait to experience who they are." That is what this tour is really about. It is not about impressing the Dutch or competing with them or each other, it is about sharing our different experiences and accomplishments and being a contribution. 


I have long since given up the game of success/failure and taken up the game of Contribution full time. That is the real reason I conduct BPYO and go on tours to foreign countries with youth orchestras. I cannot wait to be a contribution in the Netherlands and be contributed to. I also look forward to having an opportunity to contribute to you all and being contributed to by all of you. 


NB Success and Failure are like the back and the front of a hand, and, of course, you cannot separate the front of a hand from the back. Success and Failure always go together. The nice thing about contribution is that it doesn't have a back of the hand, except being contributed to, which is just as satisfying and joyful as being a contribution. 




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 #6,” whereupon Peter is instantly restored to complete calm, apologizes and withdraws.  The politicians return to their conversation, only to be interrupted yet again twenty minutes later by an hysterical woman gesticulating wildly, her hair flying. Again the intruder is greeted with the words: “Marie, please remember Rule #6.” Complete calm descends once more, and she too withdraws with a bow and an apology.  When the scene is repeated for a third time, the visiting Prime Minister addresses his colleague: “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 #6?”  “Very simple,” replies the resident Prime Minister.  “Rule #6 is ‘DON’T TAKE YOURSELF SO GODDAMN SERIOUSLY.’”  “Ah,” says his visitor, “That is a fine rule.” After a moment of pondering, he inquires, “And what, may I ask, are the other rules?” He replies: “There aren’t any.”


This is the practice where you give up your pride, your fiercely-held opinions, the "shoulds”, “oughts”, “needs” and "musts" in your life, in order to MAKE YOUR WHOLE SELF AVAILABLE. 


This is a life-long practice. The trip to the Netherlands is a wonderful opportunity for all of us to practice this one. 


The conductor's version of Rule #6 is "Don't take YOURSELF so goddamn seriously, TAKE ME Goddamn seriously." Herbert von Karajan jumped into his limousine and shouted at the driver: "Quick, drive, go, go, go, drive, quick." "Very good sir, where to?" "Doesn't matter," snapped Karajan, "they need me everywhere!" 


My daughter's version of Rule #6 is "Dad, get over yourself." 


I will try to remember to get over myself on the trip. You all have permission to remind me if I forget. One cannot be a good coach unless one is coachable. 


It is good to surround oneself with coaches. Hence the White Sheets! Be good coaches to your fellow musicians and always REMEMBER RULE #6!




This is the art of lighting a spark of Possibility such that others generate the possibility for themselves. 


This is the main reason I love to go on tours with a youth orchestra. We get to enroll others in our way of seeing things and it often has a profound effect on their lives. I hear about it for years after. The stories of the effect we have had on others are legion and never cease to amaze and delight me. I know that the effect of our tour will be felt by the Dutch people for a long time to come and by us for the rest of our lives. 


For me the Downward Spiral is: the sense that comes over me sometimes that we will never be able to make a difference. Is it worth all the effort? 


Then I remember the story of the girl with the star-fish and I smile and go on dancing along the beach.  Here is the story from the Art of Possibility:


Strolling along the edge of the sea, a man catches sight of a young girl down the beach who appears to be engaged in a ritual dance.  She stoops down, then straightens to her full height, casting out her arm in an arc. Drawing close, he inquires into what she is doing. “I am throwing these starfish back into the sea.”  The man looks around and lightly mocks her: “There are starfish as far as the eye can see, for miles up the beach. What difference can saving a few of them possibly make?” Bending down once more she turns to him smiling, and as she tosses a starfish out over the water says serenely “It certainly makes a difference to this one.” 


Please join me in throwing starfish into the sea!


DISTINGUISH THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL: Listen for evidence of survival thinking – these will show up in opinions, comparisons, identities, warnings, predictions, and the use of the words: “you should,” “you ought,” “you need,” and “you must.”    I don’t know if you have noticed, but I rarely, if ever, use these words. It has taken a long process of practice to eliminate them from my vocabulary


As soon as you notice the Downward Spiral, you have stepped into the world of Possibility. The next step is to find a way of speaking that transforms the experience for others. 


SPEAKING IN POSSIBILITY: There is one guaranteed way of speaking in possibility:  precede what you have to say with a silent "I have a dream...." It will take you automatically into possibility. Try it out three or four times today and see what happens.

Try saying "What if....," "Imagine that....," "What would I like to see happen is....” Speaking in possibility is to tell a story that empowers all. What a glorious way of being on a trip across to the other side of the Atlantic with 131 other people.




Creating a Possibility for our work or our life that leaves no one out - that anyone could become enrolled in. 


If you ask yourself the question “Why are we going on tour to the Netherlands?” you might come up with answers such as these: 


To share what we have 


To learn from them and each other 


To give our music to others 


To represent our country 


To experience other countries and people 


To experience their food, their art, their architecture


To have an adventure 


To understand new people and cultures 


To step outside our comfort zone 


To get to know each other better


To get a better understanding of what an orchestra can be 


To make a difference to people in the Netherlands 


To learn to give great concerts. 


You probably could come up with a few other reasons.


All of these things together make up a vision for the trip. A vision is something that encapsulates all the purposes and ideals that we carry for our lives. You can’t accomplish them all.  You can’t say “Vision Accomplished!” In that sense it is different from a Mission.  That you can accomplish. A VISION IS A POSSIBILITY TO LIVE INTO FOR A GROUP OF PEOPLE THAT LEAVES NOBODY OUT.


The way to clarify a vision is by coming up with a powerful phrase that encompasses the idea so that everybody involved can know it, grasp it and embody it. The vision of the Boston Philharmonic, our parent organization, is Passionate Music-making without Boundaries.  That is a possibility to live into for all of us, and you notice that no one is left out.  THAT is a necessary part of a vision – it is for everyone.


Our vision for the trip to the Netherlands could be BRINGING THE SONG OF POSSIBILITY. That could have been on our T-shirt 


Here are a few additional practices: 


When someone says something that doesn't enhance the situation: 




Remember you don't have to get hooked on someone else's Downward Spiral "bait" 


NOTICE YOUR LANGUAGE (body-language as well) 


The Downward Spiral lives in our language. We can go into and out of the world of Possibility entirely with the words that we speak, even with a single shrug, grimace or smile. Let's help our audiences enter the world of possibility not only with our playing, but also with our body language.   Look out into the audience and smile! Greet people with warmth and appreciation.


A woman I knew who was in Auschwitz during the war told me that when she went to Auschwitz she was 15 and her brother was 8. 


Since the parents were nowhere (and never again) to be found, she was in charge. She noticed her brother had lost his shoes. "Why are so stupid, you idiotic child? Can't you keep your things together, for goodness sake?" she shouted. Normal, right? Except, unfortunately, it was the last thing she ever said to her brother, because she didn't see him again. 


When she got out of Auschwitz she made a vow. She told me herself. She said, "When I got out of Auschwitz, I made a vow. I vowed that I would never say anything that couldn't stand as the last thing I ever say." Probably it’s not possible to stick to that all the time, but it certainly is a possibility to live into!! Not a bad possibility to live into for our tour, wouldn't you say? 






For safety, legal and other reasons, you have been asked to sign an agreement concerning your behavior on the trip. Fundamental to agreements of this kind is the assumption that if YOU break the agreement we will withdraw the privilege of the tour and send you home at your family's expense. That is a normal arrangement in all organizations and lives in the Downward Spiral of: "people cannot be trusted to behave responsibly unless they have a threat of some kind hanging over them." Most relationships between countries are based on that kind of formula. 


In Possibility, it works quite differently. We trust that the value, purpose and pleasure of the trip and the musical demands made on you will draw you to behave responsibly and, of course, no one will be sent home. How can they be? We need every single one of you! 


Does this mean that you can say: "Aha! We can break the rules, because no one will be sent home?" 


No, it doesn't mean that at all. That comes from the world of the Downward Spiral. 






Anyone who indulges in ANY kind of drug activity has forfeited his relationship with the BPO. No further word on this subject is needed. Make sure you are clear about this before we leave. 




Since this is a mixed high-school aged and college youth orchestra we have decided that we will follow U.S. law. It doesn't matter if you drink at home or have permission from your parents to drink. On tour, students under 21 will not drink alcohol. 


Out of courtesy and to simplify matters, college students of drinking age please do not drink alcohol in the presence of underage students. Moreover, since the demands of the tour schedule and the musical demands of this repertoire are so great it is probably wise for those over 21 to avoid drinking for the 11 days of the tour. 


There are various other aspects of travel and living together that are pretty self-evident. 


Considerateness, timeliness, courtesy, observing quiet at night, neatness and cleanliness, quiet attention in rehearsals, are all ways we can acknowledge each other. Grace and openheartedness are manifestations of Possibility, just as are shining eyes. 


If someone goes off track and "breaks a rule," you can think of it as the whole group going off-track. You have my permission, indeed I request that you come to me and tell me about it. 


In the Downward Spiral it is called snitching; in Possibility it is called taking responsibility for the whole - naming yourself as the source of the enterprise. 


If there is a deviation from “the track” we will have a meeting to discuss it.  The meeting will take place in possibility.


We could step into the role of being representatives of this country, bringing possibility, dignity, open-heartedness and passion to the people of the Netherlands, where there may be different assumptions about America. We will behave impeccably, not because otherwise we will be punished, but because our vision calls us to such behavior. 


Stay Joyous. Stay Healthy. Help Dr. Sheckman with his task. 


I am very excited about the tour - excited about the Netherlands, about you all, about the music making, the great conversations we will have and the connections we will make. 


I know it will be an extraordinary opportunity for personal growth and development for all of us and for the Dutch too. I know that our eyes will be shining. And "I have a dream" that their eyes will be shining too. 


I cannot wait. 


Much love to you all 


Ben Zander


Monique van Meijeren's picture
Submitted by Monique van Meijeren (not verified) on

Thank you for all your inspiring words and ideas, and for the fact that you are so generous with them! My son and I enjoyed the masterclass in Rotterdam today very much. Warm compliments to the great kids who form such a wonderful orchestra. Hopefully, they will also and forever keep their passion for their music, and always see more possiblities than problems.

Jan van Es's picture
Submitted by Jan van Es (not verified) on

Yesterday I attended the BPYO-concert in Rotterdam and heard a very fine performance of Mahler's second symphony. I was surprised by the enthusiasm of the young musicians and by their skills. Thank you for an inspiring evening!