Interview with “Totally Mad” composer Chris Dann

“100 Totally Mad Really Easy Piano Songs for Kids” is an exciting collection of songs written especially for the young pianist. Wacky and original material makes learning fun, while progressively building skills in piano technique and music reading, providing a wide range of content suitable for use from the first lesson up until around Grade 1.

The use of songs – and hence singing – makes this an ideal resource for helping children developing their musicianship and aural engagement. And the quirky sense of humour that pervades the songs is sure to have huge appeal, hooking children into a lifetime of musical enjoyment.

It is without doubt one of the most innovative and imaginative alternatives to the conventional Tutor Book approach that I’ve come across. So it was a delight to catch up with the book’s author/composer, Chris Dann, and ask him all about the book – and the other resources he has produced.

But first, I wanted to find about more about Chris’s own musical journey…

The Interview

AE: Chris, can you start by telling us about the part music played in your own childhood and education?

Chris Dann: My dad plays guitar and is a big music fan, so I grew up listening to bands like The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Queen and so on. My parents bought me a tiny keyboard as a toy for my fifth Christmas, with little lights that lit up to show you what notes to play. I was on it all the time, so they bought another with full-size keys and got me lessons with a local teacher.

This was in the 80s, the heyday of the electronic keyboard, and that’s what I learned to play, with left-hand chords and auto-accompaniment. It gave me a great knowledge of chords and harmony, but left massive gaps in my reading and technique which I had to fill in later.

I did Grade 5 piano and theory whilst at school, but as I turned into a teenager I discovered rock music and threw myself into playing electric guitar, listening to bands like Guns n’ Roses and Metallica, forming bands with my friends, and rehearsing in the garage on Sunday mornings. I did my first gig aged around 16 and while studying at 6th form I was playing in bars and clubs in Southend in the evenings with the 2 bands I played in.

I never actually intended to get into music seriously. I didn’t take music at GCSE or A-level, and had a place to study marine biology at university when the music shop I was working for at weekends needed a full-time guitar/piano teacher. They told me if I wanted the position I could have it, so I decided to totally change course – to do that for a year, practise like mad, and audition to study music at university, and that’s what I did.

So did you go on to study further – or have you been teaching ever since?

Yes, I went on to at Brunel and gained a BA(hons) music degree. I did Grade 8 theory and singing too. After graduating I spent a few years just playing in bands and doing a little bit of work with disabled kids – which I also had experience in – and then I started teaching again to earn some extra cash. Which grew into me starting my music school a year or two later, and I spent the next 8 years or so running that.

Can you tell us more about the school?

I started Cherry Pie Music in 2003 in Wimbledon, London. I won the 2004 Merton Start-up Business of the Year award, took a business partner in 2007 and when I sold it to him in 2011 we employed 20 teachers, doing 250 lessons a week on the premises. I was trying to create a fun, inclusive vibe – an alternative to our stuffy, exam-oriented competitors, and it proved attractive.

Eventually we had teachers for around 10-15 different instruments, from a variety of backgrounds so we could cover classical, jazz, rock or whatever else a customer would want to learn. I was always amazed at the talent of the people who applied. A lot of our classical teachers were MA students at Trinity College or Royal College/Academy which helped with the fresh, fun atmosphere since they were young and often knew each other.

As we grew we could start more peripheral activities so we had an annual concert, a choir (who still sing at the turning-on of the Wimbledon Christmas lights), guitar club, chamber music group and teenagers’ rock workshop which I used to run on a Sunday morning.

I sold the school because I wanted to sell a product rather than a service, something I could grow on a bigger scale, and have a more creative life away from spreadsheets and accounts. Cherry Pie Music are still there and still going strong though!

What are the most important lessons you learnt as a teacher?

What a big question!

A parent of one of my guitar students on the initial phone call told me she learned guitar as a child and quit the day after grade 8, and said “I want someone to teach my child in the exact opposite way to how I was taught”. That’s what I keep in mind when I’m teaching. It’s easy enough to make tangible progress but if we’re not allowing our students to learn music in such a way that they can assimilate it into their personality, and it truly becomes a part of them, then it’s just going to drop away because it’s about our agenda, not our student’s.

Daniel Pink’s book ‘Drive: The Truth About What Motivates Us’ was very interesting, and had a big effect on my teaching – especially a study which showed that people who were getting paid to do a task were nowhere near as effective as the group who thought they were doing it for fun, which obviously has a lot to say on how we try to frame music to our students.

That’s why “think of the money” just makes you more miserable – when I’m having a bad teaching day I imagine I’m giving my time for free and my attitude completely changes.

Another study showed how motivation is proportional to autonomy. When we select repertoire, and micromanage every minute of our students’ practice then motivation can suffer, whereas setting open-ended assignments which students can approach in their own way is much more exciting and encourages ownership of the activity.

Of course, putting all that into practice in the real world without it descending into a lovely fluffy place where no-one achieves anything is the real challenge. We want ownership, enjoyment, enthusiasm, but that does necessitate some actual hard work. Constantly getting better at hitting that balance, and finding creative ways to achieve it – that’s my biggest lesson, but I’m learning all the time.

How did these experiences influence your decision to start publishing educational resources?

When I went back to teaching after selling the school, I was using books like Piano Time, John Thompson and Joy of First Year Piano – and I just found it was pointless teaching a lot of the material from them. I felt it was saccharine and twee, not likely to inspire modern kids.

So I started writing goofy songs for my students and they engaged with them so well I ended up just using those. Songs are massively more accessible than instrumental music. Kids can read the lyrics and see the illustration, laugh and be engaged with the music right from the start. I’m working on a couple more piano songbooks and just finished “Learn Guitar with Crazy Songs”.

100 Totally Mad Songs

As for instrumental music, I still find a lot of what’s on offer a little patronising and am looking forward to publishing my own this year. My taste in music is very contemporary, I like minimalism, dissonance and ambiguity, so that influence is coming out a lot in my writing.

Rather than writing “for kids” I just try to write music I like, and hope that it will find people it strikes a chord with. There are so many excellent composers writing educational music that all I can do is play to my strengths and try to offer something genuine.

Can you talk us through “100 Totally Mad Songs…” – do you use this as a core tutor book, and can you explain the process of doing so?

The book goes progressively from lesson one to Grade one, so it begins with simple tunes using just the first notes around middle C, then moves on to hands together, quavers, sharps and flats, key signatures, six-eight time, different hand positions and so on. The last 30 songs are all approaching Grade 1.

“100 songs” means the book progresses quite slowly, which was intentional. When a tutor book just has one piece to learn a concept before going onto the next new thing, there’s not enough material for my slower students to consolidate what they’re learning, and the non-practisers are left on the same piece for months. This way there’s always more material to use while new ideas are absorbed, and with the faster kids we can skip bits out.

I use it as my main tutor and so do a few teachers I sell to directly in London. The progressive structure means we just start at the beginning and work through the book. There’s no “tuition” in the book, just music, but I never found the written explanations in tutor books particularly helpful anyway; kids need to be shown rather than reading from the book, and in any case, it’s having engaging material that really makes the difference.

I deliberately didn’t include dynamics and articulation in the book. When you add them to pieces with lyrics it starts to look very complicated very quickly, but moreover I personally want to get kids reading and playing music as fast as possible and refine it later when we’re looking at Grade 1.

I know some other teachers who use the lack of expressive markings as an opportunity to try different dynamics and articulation out with their students, discuss ideas and write in what they decide on, which I think is a great idea.

I notice that you also have idea support materials online, with a demonstration sing through each song, as well as a slow-motion piano demonstration, focusing on the hands. Do you feel that learning the songs by rote from the videos is a good strategy up to Grade 1, and can you tell us about how you find this works in practice?

The idea of the videos isn’t that kids learn the songs by rote. That’s not really a viable strategy for “learning the piano”. I made the videos because, in this internet age, it seems crazy that books to learn an instrument aren’t demonstrated online. But at the time I wasn’t sure how people would use them, if at all.

In practice we don’t use the videos most of the time, but every now and again a child will get home and completely forget everything they did in the lesson and how to practice their song. In that case, I encourage parents to use the videos to help their child practice.

Obviously cheating with the video isn’t as good as reading the music, but it’s vastly better than an entire week of no practice because the child forgot what to do, especially if they’re the type to get upset when they can’t complete the assignment.

Another useful resource you have produced is your Scale Finger Finder – can you tell us about this?

The piano scale finger finders are laminated cards two octaves long and a few centimeters high. Each card shows the fingering for a particular scale or arpeggio – you just slip them behind the keys and the fingering is shown for you. I sell them in grade sets, so you can buy a Grade 1 or Grade 2 set, with all the ABRSM scale requirements for that grade.

Piano Scale Finder

I find them to be a great way into scales for young beginners as they make them so accessible. Almost any child can line them up behind the keys and follow along the finger numbers, so it takes the mystery out of scales and allows kids to learn on their own with confidence, not worrying about whether they’ve remembered the scale or understood the scale book correctly.

They also show visually the “shape” of each scale in terms of white and black notes, which is really useful.

And then there’s The Rhythm Book, which is a hugely impressive resource. Again, it would be good to hear about the background of this, how it developed, and who it is for.

The Rhythm Book is a 197-page textbook accompanied by 90 minutes of online video and over 200 mp3 audio files.

I think it came out of the fact that I was taught rhythm very badly and could never understand how written rhythms were supposed to sound. Many years later, it annoyed me that something so simple had been presented to me in such a patchwork and confusing way, so I wanted to design a complete, logical course.

The average music student works through a repertoire book, a scale book, a theory book, a sight-reading book, why not work through a rhythm book too and really lock in those skills?

The course goes from complete beginner and gradually covers every rhythmic concept, time signature and note that you could come across. After every new concept is explained (with supporting video demonstrations if you want to use them) there is a practice session to try it out, so you build not just a theoretical understanding but a real-world, practical understanding of how rhythm works.

Rhythm Book

At the end of each Unit there are one or two video-supported “application sections” where you can see how what you’ve been learning is used in real music. So, for example, at the end of the Unit on Compound Time we see how an Irish jig is put together in six-eight, and the rhythms that each instrument in the band might play. For the Unit on Swing Time we look at a jazz band, and so on.

Adults can work through the book entirely on their own and many of mine do exactly that. It’s also a great resource for teaching children because of the logical, “bite-size” structure, stacks of practice material (which can be printed with a studio license) and the application sections to “make it real”.

You can look inside The Rhythm Book on my website at https://www.tattooedturtle.com/the-rhythm-book/

Finally – what’s next?

The past couple of years have been all about figuring out how publishing works, setting up the brand, website and so on, learning to typeset and writing the first books. Now that’s set up the focus is on really starting to build my catalogue and getting more books and products on sale.

I’m very keen to stick to innovative, fun new approaches, creating a unique brand identity.

Eventually I want to publish a range of other authors and composers but there’s something of a chicken and egg situation in that I need to be more established to really be able to offer a useful publishing deal and become an attractive proposition to other composers.

The goal now is to release another 8-12 of my own books in 2017-18, then throw myself into marketing, grow and strengthen the brand and start attracting other talented creatives who want to offer something new.

Chris, Thank you so much for taking the time to talk, and for answering these questions for Pianodao readers! And good luck with the next batch of publications.

Find out More

https://www.tattooedturtle.com

Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK. He runs a successful independent teaching studio and music education business, Keyquest Music.

3 thoughts on “Interview with “Totally Mad” composer Chris Dann”

  1. The article stated : If we are not allowing our students to learn music in such a way that they can
    assimilate it into their own personality ( sense of existence ) it is just going to drop away .
    I learned long ago , just ignore the written dynamic markings and ” play it like you feel it ” .

    Like

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