Musicians wait onstage as the sound tech adjusts the cables around them. He signals “OK” and runs back through the seats of the empty auditorium to the mixing board. The musicians all dressed in black, instruments in hand, prepare to play. Four sharp whacks from the drummer’s sticks and music fills the space. Horns, keyboards, electric guitar, bass, and harmonica back singers as they belt out the upbeat earworm Drive It Like You Stole It. They sound great and make it look pretty effortless too, which is why it’s hard to believe these “rock stars” are also scientists, marketers, IT specialists, lawyers, you name it, who make up the Promega employee band, Lead Generation. (Thank marketing for the name.)
“Lead Generation is just one of the many opportunities at Promega that make it truly unique,” says Kris Zimmerman, a research scientist who sings and plays trumpet with the band. “Any kind of expression of creativity can help you to have different perspectives and be a better problem solver. Fostering an environment where collaboration and creativity are rewarded really helps to create a sense of belonging, and creates a vibe of excitement that you don’t find just anywhere. Plus how cool is it to tell people that you play in a band? At work?”
Lead Generation came into existence around 2006. The marketing director who planned Promega all-company meetings at the Madison corporate headquarters thought a musical element would jazz up (pun intended) the annual Employee Recognition meeting. He didn’t have to go far to find the talent. Working the Promega front desk was Audrey Frykenberg, a classically trained pianist and flutist who had recorded and played in local bands before immigrating to the United States a few years earlier from Zimbabwe. She assembled Promega colleagues who played guitar, bass, horns, keyboard, and drums. The Promega band was born, and Frykenberg has led it ever since.
“You get to disengage from your day-to-day and do something that’s totally unrelated to your job yet to the benefit of the company,” says Frykenberg, adding that mingling music with her usual work duties gives her a sense of freedom at work.
She is not alone. The band formed with a core group, then more and more Promega employees began expressing interest in sharing their musical side at work. Lead Generation has been growing (there are around 35 active participants) along with its presence on the Promega campus. Besides the annual Employee Recognition meeting, last year the group put on a first-ever summer concert with many Promega employees performing for colleagues for the first time. Recently some members performed separately during a reception for the annual Promega Employee Art Show. They’ve also entertained during employee appreciation breakfasts.
Bass player and Promega science writer Nicole Sandler played with Lead Generation for the first time at the summer concert. “I continue to be blown away by how many people I know as colleagues are also very talented artists! At work we often don’t have the opportunity to see that,” says Sandler.
Plus, there’s just no denying the fun factor. Software specialist Josh Linderman says he is truly thankful for being able to sing with such an “awesome group” for the last five years. “Promega allowing us to do things like this empowers everyone and brings us all together in a very fun way. It is truly a pleasure and I have so much fun every time.”
Lead Generation’s musical style is as varied as the tastes of those who make up the group. Songs chosen are usually medium to upbeat in tempo, and can vary from pop rock to swing, folk to indie. Frykenberg says the group would love to add heavy metal, reggae and hip-hop to its repertoire. “Our differences in personal taste don’t mean that we can’t come together and play something that we can all still enjoy and have fun with.” There has only been one time when the band couldn’t agree, and it was when Frykenberg proposed a song by Taylor Swift. “She got shot down in flames.”
Players need not be professional musicians, though a surprising number, like Frykenberg, have impressive musical backgrounds. Take Brad Graham, a long-time member of Lead Generation and the Promega IT department who has been writing and playing music for over 25 years, leading or contributing to various bands in Madison, and playing solo as well. He describes his current work as Mythic Barn Rock. But even this seasoned musician admits that playing guitar in Lead Generation gives him something that his other experiences can’t.
“The most rewarding aspect has been getting to know and work with employees from so many other departments and backgrounds – from classically trained QA folks to headbanging R&D scientists,” says Graham. “I also got to play in the band with the Director of my department – who is an amazing bass player.”
All skill levels are welcome and the group works with what it’s got. There are no tryouts and employees supply their own instrument. Sometimes the group will recruit, especially if they need particular parts like once when they were without a drummer, but for the most part they have had no trouble getting people to participate, even employees who have been with the company only months or even weeks. Promega priorities of cultivating individual talents and making room for growth play out.
“We don’t want to just keep this for our core group,” says Frykenberg. “We want to create opportunities for others to play as well. I don’t want to be in a position of saying no, which can kill future participation for good.” So she works hard to create a good fit for the skill level of each individual, making sure everyone is comfortable with what they are doing. “If a player only knows three chords, then I try to find a song where they can participate and play those three chords. If one is not a particularly strong singer, maybe they don’t take the lead, but sing harmony.”
Success is measured by making sure everyone manages the songs technically, enjoys rehearsals and performances, and sounds good in the end. And that successful musical collaboration, as group members point out, also benefits them in their “real jobs”.
“You get to see how other people approach music and art and how their brain or personality works,” says Zimmerman. “It really does help to give you an insight into how they might think about problems or work issues. And if a month from now I’m in a meeting with one of these people, I will probably have a better understanding about how they might go about problem solving and it will be easier for us to work together.”
A few other companies are realizing the power of fostering employees’ musical talents, like LinkedIn and Deloitte, but it is still far from typical. Music and science really go hand-in-hand so it is not surprising a group like this exists at a company like Promega, says research scientist Denise Garvin who sings with the Madison Symphony Chorus and just recently performed with Lead Generation. “I think scientists are a more musically experienced group than your standard cross section of the population, as we were all relatively good students who have a statistically higher than average participation rate in music growing up. Everyone knows band and orchestra members in high school are nerds, right?”
Frykenberg sees this active engagement of the artistic side of life as a natural extension of the company’s culture and, in particular, an expression of founder Bill Linton’s own personality.
“Employee participation into anything that goes on here is always encouraged,” says Frykenberg. “One of our Promega philosophies is how we approach our work life and play life, and I think the music side here is part of the expression of that philosophy.”
The overwhelming sentiment from Lead Generation musicians is that music offers the chance to find harmony in their lives, and they don’t necessarily mean the type that comes in four parts. While many organizations, including Promega, offer plenty of fitness and recreation outlets in the name of balance and wellness, Frykenberg points out that may not be a good fit for everyone. “Music brings another element to that quest for work-life balance.”