Describe a typical day in the life of Ali Dee
Currently, my day starts with a bounce (literally!) on my mini trampoline, as I try to convince my body that it is alive and awake and raring to go. I listen to music while I bounce, looking out into my garden, watching the cats chase the birds in the willow tree. I’d like to say I listen to music which is uplifting and inspirational, but the reality is that I listen to whatever my husband had put onto his old walkman years ago and spend most of my time skipping tracks!
Shower, jobs and porridge out of the way and I’m off! And from then on my days can be quite varied …
I work from home, so on a song writing day, I will settle down with my piano, keyboard and computer. The first I love, the second I tolerate and the third I loathe but couldn’t work without! I often have nuggets of songs (which I record) pop into my head … when I’m washing up or in the car, or quite often at 3 o’clock in the morning which can be irritating, so I may start by listening through these and then begin to develop ideas.
I prefer to be on my own when I write as I like to sing and play without feeling inhibited by other people’s ears. If it’s a rousing, moving song such as ‘This Could be the Moment’ from Sing with the Stars, I can get quite carried away and if the windows aren’t shut, the neighbours get a real treat!! If it’s one of my sillier songs such as ‘Spooky Spider’ in Sing Make Believe Songs, then I definitely have to keep the windows closed or I would very quickly be whisked away by the men in white coats!! I can also be seen dancing and leaping around to some of my action songs – just to make sure they work! That is fine until the postman walks by the window when I am mid-leap!
On editing days, I am attached by a thread (aka my inbox) to Donald, the wonderful music editor who lives hundreds of miles away, as he tries to make sense of my music and bring it to a semblance of order!
I also work in schools, taking music workshops and on these days I am in full view leaping about with the children as we dance, sing and play instruments with great enthusiasm! I love these sessions and the creativity the children bring to their music making is inspiring!
What is left of my day then involves squeezing in my mum, my husband, my daughters and my grandchildren and then all those mundane bits of life which we none of us can escape … and so to bed! Zzzzz!
Do you have a specific writing/composing process?
No, as with most of my life, it is all fairly erratic. Having said that, maybe there is some kind of process happening … I usually work on the lyrics and music simultaneously. Somehow I can’t seem to separate these out from each other, so they tend to grow and develop as one entity. I sit at the piano to play and sing around an idea that is in my head, jotting things down on bits of paper, teasing out melodies and chords and words as I go along. Although I do read music, I tend to play by ear and would certainly never sit and write anything out on a piece of manuscript paper. But eventually, what is in my head has to make it into manuscript form if I want other people to be able to play/sing it, so I turn to my computer program which magically converts what is in my head into something legible (Donald may disagree!). I would then record what I have written to send off for approval, struggling I confess, to play from the music I have written (I would prefer to play straight from my head, but as this can change each time I play, I try to conform to what is on paper in front of me)!
Can you tell us some of the styles and influences on your work?
Not sure I’m allowed to do that as it would be advertising the competition – but there are some great children’s composers out there whose work I love! There are also plenty of children’s songs which are dull and boring and a lot which are just old! It is surprising how many schools still stick with songs that have been around for decades (and they were boring in the first place!) because they lack the confidence or motivation to learn something new. I think that’s a real shame and the children and staff really miss out on some exciting singing opportunities. Many more, though, are beginning to realise the value of singing and its importance to school life. There is a real buzz when you hear a singing school – and a confidence about the children when they sing! Back to the question! I do, however, glean inspiration from all over the place. Any music I listen to, be it jazz, folk, pop, classical, world music, whatever, might pop an idea into my head – maybe a particular rhythm that sounds good or a musical phrase or chord sequence that jumps out at me. Ideas for lyrics could come from anywhere, a phrase read in a story, a conversation on the radio, a picture that startles me, a walk in the countryside, a peaceful moment in the garden, the design on a pair of curtains, a giggle from a child…
Did you grow up in a musical household?
My dad always loved to sing, very enthusiastically – but not always in tune, but as children we were encouraged to learn to play instruments so I had piano lessons and played in a recorder group. Like most children, I never wanted to practise and it wasn’t until we all agreed that I didn’t have to take music exams any more that I actually started to enjoy playing.
Was music something you studied formally?
Oops! Think I tumbled into answering that one too soon! So, yes, I took piano exams up to grade 5, but then carried on having lessons without the constraints of an exam syllabus and started having fun playing pieces up to around grade 8 standard. Then followed the years which perhaps changed the way I play forever. I stopped having lessons, stopped playing from music and started playing by ear. I found a freedom to express myself musically which I had never known before and loved being able to play something which was all me – not my interpretation of somebody else! I guess this is where the composer was born. I taught myself to play the guitar and began to write songs, singing them wherever I could.
Was it always your ambition to reach young children with your music?
I have always loved working with and being around young children and I have always loved music, but it wasn’t until quite late on in my career that the two came together. Working as a teaching assistant in a local infant school, the music co-ordinator had left and music was in danger of fizzling out. I offered to take some percussion workshops which were used as a reward for the children who had been picked as ‘Stars of the Week’. These were hugely successful and I began to put together my ideas for bringing music back into the classroom, writing a topic-based music scheme of work for the whole school which provided the children with lots of hands-on instrument playing and exciting music projects to engage with. At the same time, I began writing songs for the school – a school anthem, which made the staff and parents cry every time the children sang it, and a song about the school motto. From the on teachers would say ‘do you know a song about …?’ and I would say ‘no, but I will write one’! And so began the song writing for children. I had a ready made quality control system in the children … they tend only to sing really well the songs that they really like. And, fortunately for me, they seemed to like my songs!
Do you offer individual mentorship or workshops?
I work predominantly in schools, running music workshops for whole classes. These are either one-off music sessions or longer term projects where I work with a class over a period of weeks, for instance, to create a composition which they can then perform. This kind of workshop requires a lot of energy and organisation, and is the sort of thing that can be difficult for class teachers to fit in themselves on top of everything else that is demanded of them. Many teachers have commented on the fact that as they are not responsible for running the sessions, it frees them up to really see what the children are capable of and they are frequently amazed by what even the very young children can achieve!
What reasons would you give for using your music?
As with all aspects of education, I do think it is crucial to constantly find new things to inspire, not to get stuck in ruts of doing something because that is how or what has always been done. Therefore new music is always important to keep singing alive and vibrant. Why use mine? I always write for a reason, not on demand, and so I feel that all my music comes from inside me. It therefore hopefully reflects my character and is original, genuine, quirky, funny or moving. The children are the true test of my songs, and all the feedback I get is that they love to sing them. I can’t ask for higher praise than that!
What are your hopes and intentions for the Sing series?
I would love for this series to take off in schools across the UK and beyond. It provides songs for so many of the popular school topics, for supporting PSHE work and assemblies, for choirs and for singing in the classroom. There are plenty of simple, catchy songs but also those with optional harmonies and second parts to stretch the more adventurous. I do think there is something in here for pretty much every occasion, and hopefully more to come!
How long did the series take you to write/compose?
It is still ongoing really, as more are coming out this year and I hope to continue to write more books. Some are songs I wrote when I was a teaching assistant, but most have been written in the last couple of years.
If you had to be a character in one of your musicals who would it be and why?
Hmm… that’s a tricky one! I think it would either have to be Our Duckling from ‘There’s Always One’ or Shirley the Sheep in ‘The Fleas’ Christmas Story’. Our Duckling is one of those characters you just can’t keep down – there is so much to explore and discover, he is all over the place, into everything, causing mayhem but loved by everyone! Shirley only has a small part in the Christmas story, but her character comes across in the song ‘A very excited sheep’. She, like Our Duckling, is so exuberant, that she just bursts out into bounces, hops and skips as she can’t contain her excitement about this new baby. Maybe these choices reflect something of my character ?! I blame my hair which has something of a wild and excitable nature!
What can we look forward to next from you?
The Drummer Boy is coming out very soon – a new Christmas musical for KS 2 children which I am very excited about. There is scope not just for singing and acting but also for budding musicians to play their part too.
More books in the Sing series are on their way – one for each season.
And we are currently working on a big project which is due out in September. This is going to be a fully resourced topic based, but highly adaptable, scheme of work for children in Foundation Stage (F2) and Key Stage One. There are six projects based on popular topics such as recycling, castles and gardens but all of them can easily be adapted to fit many other topics. Each project will have a series of music lesson plans for each year group, a listening unit, musical stories and poems, songs and interactive elements. All come with resources such as music clips, videos, power point presentations, pictures etc provided. This is a huge project, not just for me but for the whole team at Kevin Mayhew, who are working fast and furiously and incredibly skilfully as I write! I have done all the donkey work, but they are the ones who are about to bring it all to life! Watch this space…