Sparks: The best band you’ve never heard of

Sparks sing “How Do I Get to Carnegie Hall?” Click to listen!

On March 11, 2022, I watched the last episode of Season 4 of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. As Midge Maisel walked alone in the snow outside Carnegie Hall and the credits scrolled, some amazing music began to play with the hypnotic refrain “How Do I Get To Carnegie Hall? Practice, man, practice.” I had to hear it again. A little online research found the artist; a band I’d never heard of called Sparks.

That was the start of my exploration of the music and performances of a two-brothers band that critics describe as “your favorite band’s favorite band.” Sparks revealed their self-titled debut album in 1971—and they’ve been making music ever since! In their sixth decade, they’re still touring and releasing new albums.

Why I like Sparks

My musical tastes are diverse (at least when compared to most of my contemporaries). In my seventies, I love large swathes of classical, folk, rock, and electronic music. I’m drawn to complex rhythms, catchy riffs and harmonies, and memorable lyrics.

Sparks checks all these boxes. If you’re like me, you’ll find that many of their tracks are earworms, hard to get out of your mind. You have been warned!

In addition, Ron and Russell Mael have a film school background and create unforgettable videos to accompany their music. For example, consider this simple accompaniment to “Lighten Up Morrissey” (which Morrissey of the Smiths played before some of his shows).

Or this beautiful video of their evocative “Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)“:

Sparks are consummate musicians who make it look easy. In 2008, they performed Sparks Spectacular, a legendary series of concerts in which they played every single song from every one of the 21 albums they’d released on 21 (almost) consecutive nights in London, one album each night. “Approximately 250 songs, or for you musicians, 4 million, 825 thousand, 273 notes.” I think it’s fair to say that few bands could pull this off. I wish I’d been there.

More about Sparks

How have Sparks managed to release 25 albums to date and stay working for over half a century without falling apart like so many other bands? Perhaps it’s because they are brothers, who have played with a constantly rotating stream of excellent musicians over the years.

A great place to learn more about Sparks is their 2021 documentary The Sparks Brothers which you can watch here.

Although they’ve always had a cult following—I’m now a member—finally Sparks are achieving commercial success with their live performances of music (including the 2021 musical film Annette for which they wrote all the songs). Still performing with incredible energy in their 70s reminds me of Leonard Cohen‘s vigor during his Old Ideas World Tour playing over a hundred shows all over the world.

To sum up

Sparks continue to make remarkable, addictive music, that remains fresh and original and stands the test of time.

One final tip. Like a lot of ultimately catchy music, I found that sometimes the first time I hear a track there’s a part of me that says I’m going to like it, but I need to hear it a few more times before I get hooked. Check out many of their songs and videos for free, listen a few times, and maybe you’ll like them too!

Are you a Sparks fan? Share your thoughts and feelings in the comments below.

Can a rehearsal be better than a concert?

rehearsal concert Can a rehearsal be better than a concert? You be the judge!

Every summer since 1951, the world-famous Marlboro Music Festival takes place my small Vermont hometown. Last week my wife and I attended the free morning rehearsals for two pieces of chamber music — Mozart’s Horn Quintet and Dvořák’s Piano Trio No. 3 — played at the formal concert that afternoon.

The rehearsal

Around twenty-five people showed up in an auditorium that, in a few hours, would be filled with hundreds. We could sit anywhere! Naturally, we chose front row center.

Earlier Festival rehearsals are held in classrooms scattered around the Marlboro College campus. Many years ago, when I taught at the school, I’d wander around during the summer and hear beautiful scattered fragments of music. Auditorium rehearsals are the last before the performance, so they tend to contain long stretches of music, punctuated with only a few pauses and occasional repetitions at the ends of movements.

This rehearsal was no exception. The artists played both pieces through with little interruption. They conferred with each other on stage, but we couldn’t easily hear what they were saying.

After the rehearsal we noticed that several friends were present, and it was easy to stroll over and spend some time chatting.

Rehearsal versus concert

It’s interesting to compare the rehearsal and concert experiences. I think many listeners would agree that rehearsals are primarily about the music, though some rehearsals I’ve attended at other venues have offered fascinating glimpses into the ways in which musicians think and work together.

Concerts are, hopefully, primarily about wonderful performances of great music too, but they are also social events. Sometimes, I admit, I find the social aspects distracting and/or detracting from the performance. Audience coughs, rustling, and occasional clatter are inevitable. Navigating my way through crowds to take my seat, get a drink during intermission, or leave when the concert is over is sometimes irksome.

Paradoxically, we met and chatted with more friends at the rehearsal than we’d probably have at the concert, where it’s harder to physically move near people who you know.

Listening to a breathtaking musical performance with hundreds of others is also a unique experience, with the loud applause and, sometimes, standing ovations emphasizing the depth of feeling that the audience collectively shares and of which you are a part. The rehearsal, in contrast, is a subdued affair, with each audience member individually responding to the music and the performance.

Which is “better”? I’ll leave that as an exercise for you. (Feel free to share your perspective in the comments.)

Final thoughts — a performer’s perspective

For a dozen years I sang tenor with the Brattleboro Concert Choir. This involved many weekly rehearsals, followed by just two or three public performances. Like all musicians, we spent far more time rehearsing than performing.

As a performer I learned the wisdom of a mantra that has stood me in good stead over the years — after I slowly and painfully acquired it. “Process not product!” The frustrating, time-consuming, and taxing process of learning your part in a majestic piece of music and working to sing it really well with others is valuable in itself. Though there is the bonus of finally performing publicly to an appreciative audience, I did not spend my time and effort to be rewarded with applause. I rehearsed mightily because I love to sing for or with others. That, as an amateur musician, is sufficient reward.

Photo attribution: Mitsuko Uchida & Jonathan Biss from Marlboro Music

The importance of music in our lives

Adrian’s iPod

My ancient iPod now has only one job: storing my music library of 765 tracks. Some of these performances bring me to tears when I listen to them. Many are bound to experiences in my life, and hearing them connects me to those powerful memories in a way that no other sense — save perhaps smell — can equal.

You probably have this kind of relationship with music. Your taste may vary dramatically from mine, the intensity of your connection may be different, but there’s no argument that music is an important ingredient in most human lives.

Long ago, my father played drums in a dance band, Billy Merrin and His Commanders, on the weekends. A few years before he died, I tracked down a collection of old recordings of his band. I vividly remember his delight and animation when he began listening once again to music he had helped to create sixty years earlier.

“People haven’t always been there for me but music always has.”
—Taylor Swift

If/when I am old and feeble, unable to do much, I want to have my music at hand. (On shuffle, please.) I hope I will still able to listen and recall and remember. I want to sing along when the spirit moves me, and feel the intense wondrous emotions that music has the power to grant.

Charles, Lawrence, David Bowie, and me

My first public gig as a musician was at David Bowie’s Beckenham Arts Lab. From then on, my musical career was downhill all the way.

It was 1969. I was a prototype schoolboy nerd who was drawn to making music despite little talent, so I built a one-of-a-kind electronic music synthesizer out of discrete electronic components and army-surplus parts, including some monstrous electromechanical devices called uniselectors. The Beast generated impressively complex loops of sounds and was controlled by hundreds of unlabeled knobs and switches, which made me the only person who could play it.

my musical career
Uniselectors — a key component of early telephone exchanges. Lawrence’s description of The Beast: “Adrian Segar had built a synthesizer, which was also a sequencer before its time, which made a loud mechanical noise we had to drown out by playing loudly. It played bass as well as higher sounds. It looked like the controls of a spaceship.”

With this dubious achievement, I joined two friends, Charles Hayward and Lawrence Ball in a short-lived band named Snowfish. We had a few more gigs, including our entry in the annual British Melody Maker Rock Contest — where I recall we placed next to last, beating only a band with the memorable-but-not-in-a-good-way name The Revolving Sugar Bowl — but Oxford University beckoned, Charles & Lawrence stayed in London, and when I emigrated to the United States, The Beast stayed with a friend of Lawrence’s where it slowly fell apart. Sadly, no photographs seem to have survived of those days.

My musical career was over. But both Charles and Lawrence went on to become internationally known musicians: Charles a well-respected drummer, formerly with This Heat (“the Beatles of modern experimental music”), and Lawrence a performer and prolific composer who has collaborated with Pete Townshend since 2006.

The last time I saw Lawrence was in 2001 when he visited me in Vermont. But I haven’t seen Charles since we were at school together, though I’ve enjoyed many of his YouTube performance videos over the years.

So I was happy to discover (thanks Lawrence!) a recent talk/performance Charles gave to young students at the University of East London.

A few excerpts follow, but I recommend you watch Charles’ video as he shares, in an entertaining way, how a musician (and artist) thinks. One of the many things I like about the video is that Charles talks as he moves around the stage setting up his drum kit.

A few quotes and {impressions/comments} — but watch!

“The way I share myself with the world is primarily [through] music.”

“I’ve been playing drums since I was ten.”

“The first thing I always bring along with me is the chair…if I’m not sitting strong and stable [when I’m playing], all the bits are going all over the place.”

{Charles tells a story about how he turned a silly text he received from a kid “I’ve been watching you. Did I wake you up?” into a song (which he performs).}

“When [music] is really cooking, I’m obeying it. I’m just listening to it and it tells me what to do, and I do that thing…I have to keep myself open all the time so I’m ready to serve the music.”

“I know almost nothing, and that sense of not knowing means that it’s constantly a discovery—and also I can change, because I haven’t got anything to prove! What’s the next thing? I’ll find out what I need to know to make that next thing happen.” {I work the same way.}

{Charles talks about and demonstrates two drumming areas that he’s working on at the moment:} “…where I have the most problems—that’s the edge for me.”

His final demonstration/performance: “This is almost nothing but it’s great.” {Subtle work is often the most rewarding.}

My musical career was brief but memorable. Music is still important to me. I’m happy Charles and Lawrence got to continue with the music that they love.
Image of Charles Hayward by / Fergus, CC BY-SA 2.0

Why we shouldn’t (but do) play music at conference socials

music at conference socials Should we play music at conference socials?

Even though socials aren’t the best ways to meet new people at conferences, strong cultural pressure makes socials mandatory for most events. And if you want to make socials a maximally effective opportunity for interaction and engagement keep them music free.

Why? Well, you’d be horrified if loud construction noise invaded the ballroom at the beginning of your elegant pre-dinner mixer. Any kind of competing sound makes it harder for people to hear each other, reducing the quantity and quality of interaction. Yet plenty of meeting planners seem to believe that music acts as a kind of obligatory social lubricant when people get together. Jackhammers are not OK, but “background” music is, somehow, mysteriously exempt.

Why is music often inflicted on us during socials? While I don’t know for sure, here are a couple of misconceptions that may be to blame.

Music can improve creativity and enjoyment, so doesn’t it improve social situations?

Research indicates that the right kind of music can improve creativity when working and improve efficiency when performing repetitive tasks. For example, I find that listening to certain music helps me write, and improves my mood while stacking wood. So, some might conclude that playing music at socials could benefit the quality of interaction and engagement.

Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that social interaction is improved when music is introduced. Research findings of creativity improvements are confined to solo work. In addition, research suggests that positive effects of music depend on familiarity—i.e. music heard for the first time is not helpful—so it’s not possible to play one piece of music to a crowd of people and obtain uniformly positive results. Finally, music with lyrics is especially distracting to people trying to converse, and should be avoided.

Bars and restaurants play music while we drink and eat, so shouldn’t we have music during our event socials too?

Have you ever been to a bar where there wasn’t music playing or a TV on? Me neither. In my experience, the majority of restaurants play background music. Bars and restaurants are in business for people to meet socially, so surely they must have found that playing music improves customers’ social experience, or they wouldn’t do it!

Well, actually, no. Bars and restaurants play music, not for their patrons’ benefit but for their own! Background music that’s loud enough to interfere with talking to a friend but not loud enough to drive you out of the establishment increases sales. From a 2008 French study: “high level [sound] volume led to increase alcohol consumption and reduced the average amount of time spent by the patrons to drink their glass”. And 2008 British research concludes that “people do, at least partly, drink because they can’t talk to each other”. So the reason music surrounds us in commercial social spaces is not to increase social interaction, it’s to decrease it and have consumers buy more!

We also need to bear in mind people—typically older folks like me—who have hearing loss that impedes their comprehension of conversations. Anything we can do to provide a better acoustical environment at our events will help the auditory challenged to have a better experience.

When is it OK to play music at events?

Are there times when it’s appropriate to use music during conferences? Sure. Here are some examples, feel free to add more in the comments:

  • Sessions where music is as an important sensory, emotional, or learning component.
  • Parties! (Be sure to provide quiet spaces for folks who don’t like the loud music and/or just want to talk.)
  • Corporate social responsibility and sustainability activities, especially if they involve repetitive activities—e.g. packing toys for needy kids.

In conclusion, avoid reflexively ordering music background for your events. It’s a fundamental distraction that, apart from a few specific situations, reduces communication, connection, and engagement. And, if you cut out the house music during the mixer, you may reduce your food and beverage bill too!

Why traditional conferences are dying like music albums

conferences are dying like music albums 8447794421_fdfda28f9f_k Traditional conferences are dying like music albums.

Remember the Compact Disc [CD]? Or, if you’re old enough, like me, the long playing record [LP], aka “vinyl” records?

For many years, the music industry primarily sold “popular” (i.e. short form) music as rigid collections of individual tracks. If you liked something you heard on the radio and wanted to buy it, you were forced to buy the artist’s “album”, which often contained many other pieces of music you didn’t care for. Unless the track you liked was released as a “single” (for which you paid a premium) you couldn’t buy it by itself.

We all know what happened. CD ripping, and later the internet, made it possible for the music lover to pick and choose her music purchases one track at a time. Adore four tracks on a Manu Chao album? Just buy those four!

Why did this happen? Because great music albums that tell a compelling musical story from one track to the next are the exception rather than the rule. Most albums are disembodied collections that, apart from perhaps the artist’s and producer’s minds, have no perceivable flow from one track to the next.

Traditional meetings are also collections of disembodied sessions. But they have not changed in the same way.

With rare exceptions, we still buy a conference album: a rigid set of predetermined sessions and speakers. Yes, you can skip a session you don’t like, but you still have to pay for the whole thing. Attendees are interested in, at most, the content of less than half the sessions offered, and often the worthwhile percentage is much lower.

I don’t know how to increase the proportion of great sessions at traditional events, because it turns out that asking attendees and/or program committees the conference sessions they want to attend before the event doesn’t work.

But I and thousands of other meeting organizers do know how to create a conference program that maximizes the match between what their attendees want and need, and what is offered. And the steady rise in popularity of participant-driven conference designs like Conferences That Work continues all over the world.

Just as the album has been replaced as the unit of music consumption by the customized playlists created by each listener, participant-driven events build on-the-fly, crowd-created sessions that maximize learning and connection.

In addition, most participant-driven event designs includes a story structure, a conference arc, that turns the entire attendee experience into something coherent with an intimate beginning, middle, and end. So you can get the conference music you like in a framework that supports discovery and delivery of: a) relevant important learning, b) in-depth connection with relevant peers, and c) time to reflect and connect about what has been learned and what the community wants to do next.

LPs and CDs came from a time when the music industry ruled the roost. The industry was the gatekeeper of who made it onto plastic media; the underlying message was “we know what’s best for you—and you don’t have any choice anyway.” The music industry has been doing everything possible to hold on to this profitable message and delivery model for many years, and yet, as the world changed and it became possible for individual artists to get their music out without the industry’s help, the power of the music biz has shrunk to a fraction of what it once was.

The parallel holds for every meeting organizer. With rare exceptions, the traditional conference album is dying. Peer conferences offer anyone the opportunity to create events that truly meet participants’ wants and needs. The good news is that they still need all the logistical support of traditional meetings, together with a few new requirements: competent facilitation, different room sets, and new marketing approaches. So there are still just as many opportunities for meeting business; only the rules have changed.

You may want to familiarize yourself with the new rules. Otherwise, you’re in danger of trying to sell conference CDs when your market is buying playlists.

Photo attribution: Flickr user mariacasa

Creating something beautiful with others

creating something beautiful with others Brattleboro community chorus For the last three months I’ve been rehearsing for the Brattleboro Concert Choir’s performances this weekend of Ernest Bloch’s Avodath Kakodesh. Looking back, I realize that I’ve been singing with the BCC for the last ten years.

The first weeks of rehearsal of a new piece are not much fun. I don’t know the music well, and I’m not a great sight-reader. I usually spend a significant amount of time creating a soulless electronic version of my part. Precise tones with precise timings, which I share with my fellow tenors. I attend at least one two-hour rehearsal each week. All this work adds up to a large commitment of time and energy to the two, sometimes three, annual concert performances.

So, given the many other interests in my life, and the large number of attractive opportunities I reluctantly turn down, why do I choose to sing with the Concert Choir year after year?

Why I sing

Part of the answer is my pleasure, as the performance dates approach, of my ability to sing increasing competently at points in the music. Sometimes I experience singing beautifully. Even if it’s only a portion of a phrase that suits my vocal abilities. And feeling in harmony with the musical moment is emotionally satisfying.

But the major rush I, and probably all my fellow choristers, feel is the joy of creating. And being a part of, and sharing a beautiful musical experience with others. No one person alone, however talented, can bring our performance into being. To do so, our musical director, our soloists, our choristers, and our orchestra are all needed, and must collaborate effectively at many different levels.

At both performances this weekend, there were times when audience members were weeping.

The conferences I design and facilitate are not rehearsed, and what happens does not flow from a central musical score. But what the BCC performances and Conferences That Work share is the joy of connecting with others to create experiences that are meaningful, and sometimes profound.

I love being a part of both of these worlds.

And I hope you are lucky enough to be able to experience this connectedness in some way in your life.