What happens when every student gets an A?

Music conservatory professor Benjamin Zander, who is also conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, explains why all his students receive an A


| July/Aug 2005 issue

After teaching for 25 years at a music conservatory, I still run into the same obstacles. In class after class the students are so chronically worried about evaluations of their performances that they shy away from taking musical risks.

I started asking myself how we could reduce students’ fear of failure. Completely doing away with grades would only make things worse; the students would get the feeling they were being cheated out of their chance at stardom and would continue to fixate on their place in the rankings. In discussing the issue with my wife Ross, we came up with the idea of giving them all the only grade that would bring peace of mind-not as an assessment tool, but as a means to allow them to become open to any possibility. What would happen if you gave everyone an A in advance?

“In this class every student will get an A for this part of the curriculum,” I always tell my students. Then I let them know they have to comply with one condition to earn the grade. Within two weeks they have to write me a letter dated “May next year,” which should begin with the following words: “Dear Mr. Zander, I got an A because…” In the letter they tell me in as much detail as possible what has happened to them in the interim that merits this exceptionally high grade. In writing their letter they have to project themselves into the future, then look back and report on all the insights they have gained and milestones they have reached-as if all those successes were already behind them. Everything should be formulated in the past tense.

“But what I’m mainly interested in,” I tell them, “is the person you will have become next May. I’m curious about how this person looks at life, their view of the world now that they’ve done everything they wanted to do, or become everything they wanted to become.”

I got the following letter from a young Korean flutist, who raised several very heavy questions that performing musicians face in a culture marked by value judgements and competition:

“Dear Mr. Zander, my teacher,

I got an A because I worked hard and thought deeply about myself as a student in your class-and the result was truly magnificent. I have become a whole different person. I used to be negative about nearly everything, before even trying. Now I’m much happier than I used to be. Around one year ago I couldn’t accept my mistakes. I got mad at myself after every mistake I made. But now I actually enjoy my mistakes and I really learned a lot from those mistakes. There is more depth in my playing than there used to be. At first, I only played the notes, but now I’ve discovered something about the real meaning of all those compositions. Now I play with more fantasy. I’ve also discovered my own worth. I’ve discovered that I’m a special person because I saw that I can do anything if I believe in myself. Thank you for your lectures and classes because they made me understand how important I am and the true reason why I make music.

Thank you.

Best regards,

Esther Lee”

Edited and adapted with permission from The Art of Possibility (Harvard Business School Press, 2000): by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander.

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What happens when every student gets an A?

Music conservatory professor Benjamin Zander, who is also conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, explains why all his students receive an A


| July/Aug 2005 issue

After teaching for 25 years at a music conservatory, I still run into the same obstacles. In class after class the students are so chronically worried about evaluations of their performances that they shy away from taking musical risks.

I started asking myself how we could reduce students’ fear of failure. Completely doing away with grades would only make things worse; the students would get the feeling they were being cheated out of their chance at stardom and would continue to fixate on their place in the rankings. In discussing the issue with my wife Ross, we came up with the idea of giving them all the only grade that would bring peace of mind-not as an assessment tool, but as a means to allow them to become open to any possibility. What would happen if you gave everyone an A in advance?

“In this class every student will get an A for this part of the curriculum,” I always tell my students. Then I let them know they have to comply with one condition to earn the grade. Within two weeks they have to write me a letter dated “May next year,” which should begin with the following words: “Dear Mr. Zander, I got an A because…” In the letter they tell me in as much detail as possible what has happened to them in the interim that merits this exceptionally high grade. In writing their letter they have to project themselves into the future, then look back and report on all the insights they have gained and milestones they have reached-as if all those successes were already behind them. Everything should be formulated in the past tense.

“But what I’m mainly interested in,” I tell them, “is the person you will have become next May. I’m curious about how this person looks at life, their view of the world now that they’ve done everything they wanted to do, or become everything they wanted to become.”

I got the following letter from a young Korean flutist, who raised several very heavy questions that performing musicians face in a culture marked by value judgements and competition:

“Dear Mr. Zander, my teacher,

I got an A because I worked hard and thought deeply about myself as a student in your class-and the result was truly magnificent. I have become a whole different person. I used to be negative about nearly everything, before even trying. Now I’m much happier than I used to be. Around one year ago I couldn’t accept my mistakes. I got mad at myself after every mistake I made. But now I actually enjoy my mistakes and I really learned a lot from those mistakes. There is more depth in my playing than there used to be. At first, I only played the notes, but now I’ve discovered something about the real meaning of all those compositions. Now I play with more fantasy. I’ve also discovered my own worth. I’ve discovered that I’m a special person because I saw that I can do anything if I believe in myself. Thank you for your lectures and classes because they made me understand how important I am and the true reason why I make music.

Thank you.

Best regards,

Esther Lee”

Edited and adapted with permission from The Art of Possibility (Harvard Business School Press, 2000): by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander.

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