Shiny Eyes

If someone had told me a month ago that I’d be writing a blog about Benjamin Zander, director of the Boston Philharmonic, I would have called that someone crazy. While individuals are entitled to their own opinions, I’m not an avid fan of his orchestral performances. And I played in one of those performances. However, I knew from past experience that Zander is extraordinary when it comes to speaking about music – especially to people outside of the classical music field.

Someone told me recently to check out his online TED lecture, and I watched it today while researching a new blog topic. He touches on some serious issues about classical music engagement, which I believe can be easily applied to other forms of music. And so a blog topic was born. The issues that jumped out at me most in the video were ‘tone deafness,’ ‘impulses,’ and engagement, which he called ‘shining eyes’ or ‘one buttock playing.’ So if you haven’t seen the video yet, check it out now and then meet me below for a post-performance analysis.

Tone Deafness

Almost every time I speak to a student or a friend who isn’t comfortable with music yet, he (or she) tells me that he is tone deaf or that he can’t sing. When I was younger I may have, from time to time, taken that claim at face value, or even cringed when someone not ‘blessed’ with the power of song, well, sang. But as was evidenced in the video, people can sing, and people can hear pitches.

Any good music educator can make a student – or friend or family member or boyfriend or girlfriend – sing in tune in seconds of instruction at least and minutes at most. This isn’t to say that there aren’t exceptions to this claim: panic (extreme shyness or anxiety) and a number of other physical or mental blocks can make singing in tune difficult. Oliver Sacks’ book called Musicophilia is a great source for all sorts of conditions pertaining to music.

In general, however, the self-diagnosis of tone deafness is inaccurate. I applaud Ben Zander for pointing this out, and anyone interested in learning music should not be dissuaded by the idea. In fact, (shameless A Street Music, LLC plug inserted here) we conveniently have lessons for anyone interested!


I knew from the moment he played the Chopin Prelude what he was going to talk about. But before I get to ‘one buttock playing,’ I’ll talk about emphasis or ‘impulses.’ All of my musical life, teachers have told me to play longer phrases, and I think it’s one of the cornerstones of musicality. Students come to me and either don’t think about rhythm at all or think of it like a metronome (read mathematically or boringly).

The concept of wider, more distantly spaced impulses develops over time in students, the same way the concept of plot in writing grows over time. First it’s listing: I went to the store. I bought some chocolate, I went home. I ate chocolate. But over time, plot structure begins to reveal itself in writing. Students elaborate on their characters’ motivation and think of conflicts to be resolved in the story. This same direction and development is evident in students of music (feel free to insert shameless plug for music lessons here by yourself).


The ability to engage in music comes from healthy learning and good guidance. Once any preconceived notions about musical talent are put aside, fundamental musical concepts, like ‘impulse’ or ‘direction,’ can be developed. As they develop, musical engagement becomes more meaningful and lasts longer. ‘One buttock playing’ and ‘shiny eyed’ listening will occur more frequently. So learn music, play music, listen to music, and if you already do all of those things, teach music.

The next blog will not be about Ben Zander. It will be about our bass and guitar teacher, Chad Gray, and specifically about his persona as a composer. In the meantime, comment on the blog. If nothing else, it’ll make me happy.


About Justin Stanley, Teaching-Artist
I'm a musician and educator based in Boston, MA.

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