Benjamin Zander, Creating, Innovation

Lighting a Spark


The Zanders are great story tellers. Ben starts by telling how his father made a long trip just to talk to someone face to face. He took the same stance when he wanted to hire the great cellist, Mitislav Rostropovich. When he couldn’t get past the gate-keeper secretary he simply got on the train to Washington and arrived unannounced. By making the invitation personal, he got exactly what he wanted and benefited in other ways from the association.

I can remember a personal encounter with the great Canadian broadcaster, Lister Sinclair. I needed to hire him for a workshop and the association I worked for could offer a $500 fee. His stated fee was $5,000. When I approached him personally, he decided he wanted to do it because he knew he was exactly the right person to inspire others on his topic which was one that he loved.

The metaphor of lighting a spark comes from the middle ages when those who needed to start a fire carried a hot coal at the ready. Sometimes that’s all it takes and a sudden change of direction works. Rosalind Zander relates a tale of getting a flat tire and having no change to access a gas station coin box to use the pump. She asked for change from another customer but no one had any. She suddenly changed her request to “Will you give me 50 cents so I can use it?” The customer smiled and immediately handed it over.

Ben’s final triumph came from inspiring a corporate sponsor for an event with the London Philharmonia Orchestra. He got a polite refusal from the major accounting firm for his request, but conversation turned to the company’s involvement with education in “failing schools”. So he decided to use that angle as a means of enrolling the company in helping in the area where they already had interest and involvement. Not only would he take a full symphony orchestra to the school for a performance, he would also ask them to bring 200 students to the famous Royal Albert Hall afterwards.

Classical music in such a school? Even the intrepid principal thought that the kids would be disrupting the whole procedure by 15 minutes in. It seemed a recipe for disaster. Moreover 100 corporate executives joined the 1100 students. Only Ben Zander could pull off having all of them joining in the final chorus of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.

There is even more to the story and it is well worth the entire book. What the chapter demonstrates is the ability to enroll even the most reluctant partners by energy, excitement and determination – all part of the spark. Any of the You Tube videos shows this in action and says it much better than this.