Teaching performance and teaching as performance

The world you live in is your own invention. You can wake up in the morning and hate the cold, and worry you won’t get your work done. Or you can choose to revel in the world’s possibilities. Seize the day! Don’t get bogged down striving for wealth, fame, or power! Spend your time making people smile!

These were the main messages of Benjamin Zander as he spoke to kids, parents and teachers at my daughter’s elementary school. He is the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, a teacher, an author, an incredible public speaker, and (lucky for me) a grandparent of a kid in my daughter’s school. I had never heard of Benjamin before, but it seems lots of people know who he is. His TED talk on classical music has more than a million views on YouTube and his book, The Art of Possibility has more than 300 reviews on Amazon.

The first part his performance that day at school was in hindsight similar to his inspiring TED talk which I encourage you to watch if you haven’t already. The second part was like nothing I’ve seen before. It started with one of the school’s sixth graders playing a piece by Bach on his violin, and while I have rather common tastes in music, even I could tell the kid was pretty good.

Benjamin also thought Matteo did a nice job and told him so. He proceeded to give him what seemed to be an impromptu 15 minute violin lesson in front of the whole school. He recognized that Matteo had practiced hard and knew the piece well, but that he was playing for himself. Benjamin wanted him to play for the audience. He physically forced Matteo to stand up and walk around and look into the eyes of the people listening to him. Seriously, Benjamin was dragging the kid around the venue like a manic Gene Wilder in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory! And I’ll be damned if it didn’t work. Matteo cracked a smile and you could hear emotion in the piece that just wasn’t there the first time around.

On the one hand, Benjamin’s message seems trite: The world is your oyster! On the other hand, he’s exactly right–A positive mindset is extremely powerful. He said it in his presentation and then he demonstrated it through his teaching. He had a vision for what Matteo could do, and then he swept Matteo up into the vision to make it a reality.

In many ways, Benjamin was just a different version of the weird third grade teacher I talked about a few weeks ago–They both stay positive in the classroom, they both put on a performance, and they both inspire their students to do things they had never imagined they could do. The difference is that Benjamin consciously tries to maintain this mindset throughout his life.

After Benjamin’s performance, I managed to stay mostly positive for about five great days. That’s how long Benjamin reports most people make it before they regress to their normal harried states. Staying positive is hard. Possibilities we imagine can fade away. Every day I have a vision for dropping my kids off at school on time, but then as the morning slowly unfolds, tardy becomes a more and more likely outcome. I also get excited and commit to doing more projects than I can possibly complete. Letting people down (including myself) is no fun.

I think the key is to focus on the possibilities of the present and future rather than dwelling on lost opportunities. Now that I know I can do it at least for a little while I’m open to the possibility of doing it again.