When I think of Dan Zanes as a brand as much as kindie musician, that's meant as praise. That brand, which I think of as standing for family musical togetherness and self-sufficiency, is the result of years of performing and recording music from a variety of cultures. But he hasn't limited himself to those two art forms -- he's also turned his songs into videos, books, and apps, and now he's found himself heading up an early childhood musical education program.
The Dan Zanes House Party is the result of his collaboration with the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, with Zanes not only lending his music and recordings, but also his time as class leader and accompanist for some of the classes. We chatted by phone last week as Zanes popped some popcorn and talked about his new adventure.
Zooglobble: You've said before you didn't necessarily spend a lot of time singing growing up, but have memories of seeing Pete Seeger in concert. What lessons did you draw from seeing him sing?
Dan Zanes: Two things. First, singing is easy to do -- it's easy and it feels good. Second, participation -- that was the key for me, the ridiculousness of people saying "I can't sing."
You build a communal spirit when we get together. It has a lot to do with music, but with other things, too. People singing together fairly quickly become a cohesive group.
Why this course now?
The Brooklyn Conservatory approached me. I always aid I don't know anything about kids -- I do all ages music -- but I was open to it. Classical music, what the Conservatory does, it seemed so formal to me. But they want to evolve, become more of a cultural center. To have people who'll support the vision, I went from skeptical to excited.
I met with Joy Marilie [who wrote the curriculum] -- I don't know a lot about early childhood education theories, but I didn't know how much of that is grounded in reality. Sometimes it's good if somebody (like me) is new to it. It's been a good experience.
How did you choose the songs -- what did you look for?
Joy had been around and had performed with me and helped me with this. In finding songs, we looked at the ones I'd done. But we're living in a multicultural society, so we should try to represent that society. So I asked friends, did online research.
The songs are organized by theme -- sailing, for example, or animals, or things that go up and down. Sometimes we'll put a song list together, and maybe we'd find too many English songs. But it's also hard for the teachers who have to learn every song if there are too many foreign languages. Sometimes I'll write songs [to fill in gaps].
You're participating in the classes, too, right?
Yes. Every class has a teacher and an accompanist and I do both. But even when I'm not leading a class, I've been going in every day, it's like a full-time job!
And what are you using for accompanying?
I'm using guitar, but I'm hoping to start working in banjo or ukulele. Leading the class, though, I could barely sleep the night before my first time.
I'm still thinking about helping the adults. I'm really grateful to be able to help families feel more musical. If you take it home, it grows exponentially. If it becomes alive in the house, that's something. I want to give them tools and inspiration.
Taking a moment to ask a slightly tangential question, you've got a lot of different things going on at the moment -- what's like building a brand?
For me, I'm in high gratitude mode. Almost nothing I do, could I do on my own -- I couldn't get out of the house. It's kind of humbling, and I keep it front and center.
I can think of myself as another link in the chain that Pete Seeger started. Those concepts changed my life, the way music can help kids change the world.
So I spend a lot of time trying not to screw it up, let people down, like audiences, or the Conservatory, or Stephanie, who runs the label. I get my name up on the marquee, but it's a team effort.
Last question: what one Pete Seeger album do you recommend?
I'll give you two. First, Live at the Sanders Theatre, where he's taking the song leader experience to a higher level, he had song leaders in different sections of the theatre. And of course American Folk Songs for Children, which is where I learned "All Around the Kitchen." Pete made one great album after another. Sometimes the songs were a little weird -- he came at things from a different level, and had a high level of musical creativity.