Ep. 19: The Power of Children's Music with Glyn Lehmann

Episode Description:

Australian composer and founder of songlibrary.net, Glyn Lehmann, comes on the podcast to talk about his experiences in the industry, how to write for children’s voices, and the extraordinary challenging of getting people interested in original songs.

Featured On This Episode:
Glyn Lehmann

Working from his studio in Adelaide, South Australia Glyn produces music of creative and technical excellence to meet the demands of film, television, theatre, radio, multi-media and live performance.

Episode Transcript:

*Episode transcripts are automatically generated and have NOT been proofread.*

Today on the podcast, we have Glenn Lehman, an Australian composer and founder of SongLibrary.net. We talk about his experiences in the music industry, how to write for children’s voices, and the extraordinary challenge of getting people interested in original songs.


It was a really great conversation and he shared a lot of insight into things I’d never thought about before. There’s a lot of good ideas here for composers and I’m excited to share it with you. Hey Glenn, how are you doing? Welcome to the podcast.


Hello Garrett, great to be here. Thank you for asking me. And where do you live, just so our listeners know? So I live in Australia, in the state of South Australia, in the city of Adelaide, which is down south, obviously, off of Australia.


And we’re sort of, we live in the hills above the city. So it’s winter here at the moment, so it’s a little bit cool, but it’s a beautiful environment. Well, hopefully someday I can come visit.


You’ve had a long and successful career. Why don’t you just tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into selling sheet music? Sure. So just from the very start, I learned piano as a kid and I wasn’t very good at practicing.


I’d rather be working out songs from the radio than doing my scales. So that was my early introduction to working out how music was put together. And then in high school, I picked up the French horn and ended up doing my music degree at university as a performer on the French horn.


And at university, I was introduced to all different styles of music. So I was playing in classical orchestras and jazz big bands and concert bands and small ensembles. So that was a fantastic education, getting me to know different styles of music.


And after university, I was basically a freelance French horn player. I also got into music copying. So in those days, it was all by hand, of course.


And we’re talking about in the late 70s, early 80s. So I was hand copying whole scores for orchestras and I did a whole opera at one point that took me 11 months to hand copy. So this is before the days of software.


And then I was playing in original bands and we were signed to a record label. So I did quite a lot of touring, a lot of recording. And then I decided to get out of that and get into more of writing my own music and songs.


And I worked in theatre and television. And through those connections, I got involved with a children’s music festival here in Adelaide. And that’s really where the songwriting and writing for children and also the sheet music aspect came in.


This particular festival commissions a work every year, which is usually a 20 minute song cycle. So after having done two or three of those, I had quite a lot of songs that I’d written for children’s choir and they were just sitting around once they’d been performed. And so I wanted to do something with them.


And that’s when I started up my website, songlibrary.net, to not only sell sheet music, but backing tracks and recordings of all the songs. And so that’s the sheet music part of the story. Since then, I’ve been involved in writing more for orchestra.


I’ve got a great relationship with a friend of mine who’s a children’s author and we’ve written several musicals and works for kids. And so my dream of actually writing for a symphony orchestra finally came true later in my career. So yeah, it’s been quite a journey.


So basically you’ve done everything. Well, you know what it’s like to actually survive as a freelance musician slash composer. You do tend to have to roll with the punches and evolve, I think, especially with the changes in technology.


Once notation software came along, there was no jobs for hand copyists. And in some ways I’ve been doing it for so long by then I was kind of relieved. Hand copying was very tedious, but it actually allowed me to develop my skills as a musician and in other areas because it was a source of income.


I will confess, I had a composition professor who always tried to force me to write things out first with pencil and paper. And I just couldn’t do it. My brain is not wired to work that way.


No. Yes. Well, I think people of your generation and younger, their brains, you think, why would I want to do that? But his point, I mean, I took his point, which is basically, you know, in whatever software you’re using, it’s going to guide you in one direction or another just because of how you input things.


You know, if you’re composing something in Finale, you’re going to go about it differently than if you’re in Pro Tools or Cubase or something like that. For sure, yeah. So I’m curious, what is your compositional process like? How do you approach things having done it, shall we call it the old school way and the new school way? Well, I generally do sit down at the piano just to do a very minimal sketch.


But as soon as I have an idea, I’ll open up Sibelius and start putting it in there. Partly just so I don’t forget it, but also that then starts the process of developing that song or piece of music. And yeah, so often if I am writing songs, obviously the process starts in your head.


So I might not even be at a keyboard. I might, you know, could be in the shower. But then as soon as you get the germ of an idea, I find, I think because I did have that, you know, grew up with the music in front of me, I do like to get it on onto the paper or onto the screen as soon as possible.


And I find that actually helps generate the ideas. How much do you have sort of figured out in advance, especially when you’re working on a song and there’s, you know, the interplay between music and lyrics? I usually start with a fairly minimal, you know, it might only be a line of lyric. The lyric and the melody do tend to come together, I find, especially I think writing for children, it’s really important that the lyrics flow naturally and almost, you know, in the way that you would speak.


So the emphasis is on the right syllable. And so I find once I have a line and a concept for the song, that’s obviously the first thing is, particularly if it’s a commission work, you know, you do your research first about the topic or what it might be, and then try and discover something that you think is interesting about that topic rather than, and it’s probably not going to be the first idea you have. It may be, you know, way down the line where you actually find, you know, there are musical hooks, but there are also lyric hooks as well.


And I think that’s, you know, that’s the way I look at it. Well, if you’re writing a 20 song cycle, you probably end up using everything you got, right? I mean, talk me through that a little more, because I’ve done a lot of commissions, but I’ve never been asked to do 20 original pieces of music. No, sorry.


It’s 20 minutes. So four or five songs. Yeah.


That would be a challenge. I was like, whoa. Well, okay.


But what was the learning curve like writing for children? Because I imagine there’s, well, what’s the difference between writing for children versus writing for adults? Let’s start there. Yeah. Okay.


So I guess I actually started writing for children. So I, you know, I didn’t really know what the difference was. And I suppose I’ve always been, melody is for me, you know, I grew up on the Beatles and, you know, all that fantastic music in the 60s and the Beach Boys.


And I just love melody and you really can’t go too far wrong. Like it’s, I think it’s easier to learn a song that has a really strong melody. And generally, you know, you want to keep the rhythms fairly simple and the range, you know, I’m writing for sort of primary school age, which I think you call elementary school.


And so we’re talking sort of age five to 11. So you’re generally writing sort of from middle C up to maybe the D above that D E. So you’ve got just over an octave to work with. And, you know, that’s actually a fantastic restriction to, you know, I think a lot of the best creative ideas come from those limitations.


Yes. And like I said before, with the lyric, I think it’s really important, especially for children, that the lyric and the melody flow naturally so that they actually feel like you could actually speak in that same rhythm, those same words. So let’s talk about the commissioning process a little bit.


When you said it was Adelaide, when that festival comes to you, do they give you examples of songs that they want you to imitate? Do they give you lyric or content ideas? And what’s the back and forth like? Because I imagine there’s a lot of sort of, well, I guess I don’t know. What’s that process like? How much input do they have and how much do you go back and forth? Yeah. Well, obviously I’ve done several now.


So, you know, they trust me now. So there isn’t a lot of back and forth. But and even in the early days, generally they just give you a theme.


So I did one, I think three years ago, based on the theme of water. And that was water within our state of South Australia, which just happens to be the driest state in Australia. And Australia is the driest continent on Earth, apart from Antarctica.


So, you know, water is a big deal here. And so, you know, that’s an example of, OK, so where do I start? I’ve got to write four songs about water. So that’s where the research comes in.


And, you know, what are the important sources of water in our state? And then trying to find something really creative and interesting that’s going to interest kids, because, you know, you’ve got to hook the kids. That’s the important thing. So, yeah, going back to your question, they do put quite a lot of faith in the composer.


Once they’ve established what the theme is, pretty much you go ahead and write and then get some feedback. But now that I know the process and what children are capable of, generally it’s quite a seamless process. And are they singing to a backing track or do they sometimes use a piano or what is that like? Yeah, so this is a very big festival.


Basically every primary school in the state has the opportunity to have their own choir. And then they get together in Adelaide at our major concert hall and they do 12 concerts with 400 kids every concert. And that’s a different 400 every concert.


And then there are regional concerts. Altogether there’s about 8,000 children involved every year. And this happens every year.


And they commission a work every year. And they learn pop songs and other. They learn about 12 songs overall every year.


I’ve actually forgotten the question now. Are they singing to a backing track? That’s right. So no, they actually sing to a live orchestra made up of primary school children.


So it’s phenomenal. It is. I’d say this is probably unique in the world, this festival.


It’s been going for 140 years as well. This is like the best thing I’ve ever heard. Keep going.


Yeah, it is. I feel so fortunate to actually live in the city where this happens. So as well as the 400 children on stage in the choir, they have an orchestra usually of about 30, I think, children.


And they also have a dance troupe. That’s usually about 30. And they perform on stage in front of the choir, sort of acting out some of the songs or dancing along.


And so it’s quite an extravaganza. So I get to do the orchestral arrangements for the orchestra as well. But during the learning process, I actually do the recordings.


So every song is recorded with a group of kids. We use sort of five children around a microphone so we get the clarity. And then I do all the recording and mixing for that.


And we used to produce CDs in the old days, and every child gets a songbook as well. Now they’ve got an app with all of the songs on them, and they can listen to their part. These are all two-part songs, two-part treble songs.


So they can practice with the backing track, but for the actual performances, they perform with the orchestra. That’s amazing. So take us from the festival to songlibrary.net and how that all came to be.


Okay. So I think I wrote my first commission, when was it? Probably in about 2000, just 2001 perhaps. And then I think by the time I’d written maybe three of those, so each of those was probably four songs.


So I had about 12 songs, which is not a lot. But I was frustrated by the fact that I’d written these songs and I couldn’t see how they were ever going to be performed again once they’d been used in the festival. And some of them, obviously, some are very specific to our state or Australia or the city, and they’re not really appropriate to try and sell on a website.


But most of them weren’t. They were more general. And so I started researching on how I could sell these.


And I knew that I wanted to not just sell the sheet music, but also a backing track and a recording, because that’s basically the process that the festival uses to teach the children. And also I know a lot of teachers in schools, in primary schools in particular, might not necessarily read music themselves. So they’ll be teaching the children based on just hearing the song.


So that was the process. I wanted to put a pack together that included all those elements. So I researched into websites and I couldn’t find anything where I could actually play an audio track on the website back in those days.


I looked at WordPress and I found that overly complicated for my non-computer brain. So I ended up using software called RapidWeaver, which is a Mac website building software, and taught myself how to use that over quite a long period of trial and error. And I’m still on RapidWeaver now with the Song Library website.


And so that’s how that came about. And I can’t tell you the excitement when I’ve sold my first song after months of trying to figure out how do I build a website and how do I get it out there. And it actually grew quite quickly.


I made myself the goal of writing a song a month for a two-year period because I knew I needed to build up the number of songs on the website. And I achieved that. So writing a song involved, obviously, writing lyrics and music, but also making the backing track and getting a recording of it.


So there was quite a lot involved to get done in a month, but I did manage to achieve that. And I think now there’s, I think there’s over a hundred songs on there now, plus a couple of musicals and other bits and pieces. And how have they been received by other schools, other cities? Have they traveled well? Yes, they have actually.


I was really surprised. Initially, I was getting the same number of sales from the US and the UK as from Australia. That’s actually dropped off over the last few years and I have no idea why.


Most of my sales now do come from Australia. I think the pandemic definitely, it took a hit during the pandemic because choirs weren’t singing. But even before that, there had been a bit of a lull.


And I think it might be partly due to the fact that I haven’t been adding as many songs lately because I’ve been involved in other projects. And, you know, so I think it is important to keep building the repertoire and even for SEO. And, you know, I’m sure Google likes the fact that your website is evolving and changing and growing.


So I do want to get back into writing more and putting out more there. When you’re writing these, obviously, you’re tailoring them to, if it’s a commission, to the group that requested it. But what are the kinds of things that you’re keeping in mind, sort of, in the back of your head to make sure that it’s still suitable to be used by other ensembles? Are there certain things for education that you have to keep in mind? Because I think this is sort of a, I don’t want to call it the Wild West, but I think, you know, elementary school music is sort of an untapped area where not a lot of people know what they’re doing, not a lot of people understand the market.


And I think part of your genius as you come in with these amazing recordings first of all, and then, you know, you have the great videos to back it up and everything else. But I guess what I’m really asking is, do you have feedback from different parts of the world that this is what works in the US or this is what works in England or this is what we need in Australia? Are there sort of regional needs or are there some things across the board that this is what children’s music demands? Yeah, I must say I don’t get much of that sort of feedback. If they keep buying, then that’s good.


You know, I mean, you know, there are particular songs that do really, really well. You know, it’s a bit like, you know, recorded music, you know, you can have the hit single and then you’re never heard of again. Sorry to cut you off.


Is there a common thread between the ones that do well and the ones that don’t do quite as well? Is it some kind of a lyric idea or or a style of music, maybe? Yeah, I think it is more to do with the lyric and something that really fulfills the need, I suppose. And, you know, I’ve written particular songs for, like, graduation songs and, you know, songs for Christmas and holiday season. And that, you know, I did that very specifically and purposefully, but they actually aren’t the ones, the most popular ones.


I’ve got this two in particular ones called I am the Earth. And that that has been phenomenal. The way that that has, you know, it’s gone around the world literally.


And, you know, I have no idea how many it would be hundreds of thousands of children must have sung it by now. There are a couple of YouTube clips, one that was made by a primary school here in Adelaide, a little animated video. And that’s had, I think, one and a half million plays.


And then there’s a lyric video that the teacher put up. And that’s I think that’s had four million views. And I mean, my suspicion is that schools use that lyric video and they don’t buy my song, but they just sing along to the video.


But that’s you know, that’s OK. That’s I think being in this area, you have to accept the fact that a lot of schools don’t have a budget for music. And it’s the idea that you would actually pay for something is is almost foreign to a lot of teachers in that field as well.


Well, that’s a subject for a whole nother podcast. But I do suspect that a lot of the schools, even when they purchase from you, are learning it by rote, correct? Oh, exactly. Because they have those tracks.


I mean, if you’re teaching five year olds, they probably don’t know how to read notation. So I think that’s something to keep in mind. What have you found has worked the best for marketing these songs? Yeah, the school market is actually incredibly hard to get to.


I think ultimately it has been people searching on Google, et cetera. And because my website does now rank quite high, I think people discover it. I’m pretty sure that’s how most people find it.


There are the YouTube clips of, you know, two or three really popular songs, and I have the links on those back to my website. But as you say, you know, the vast majority of primary schools wouldn’t be using the sheet music. And so I’m probably an imposter on this podcast because, you know, in that respect.


But there are others. And I have gone on to write more sophisticated pieces for even for that age group that are definitely more choral. And, you know, they definitely do use the sheet music.


But in general, I would say you’re right, that they would just be using the backing track and the learning track. So longtime listeners of the podcast will be aware of a debate that comes up frequently between guests, and that is whether or not it’s better to sell under their own name or under some kind of a pseudonym or a business name. And so I’m guessing I know the answer, seeing as your website is called songlibrary.net. But what’s your take on that? I mean, is there a difference between selling as Glean or selling as Song Library? Yes, I suppose it was to give people more of the concept of what the website was about.


And, I’m not known as a composer or songwriter, or I wasn’t at that point. And so I do have my own website, gleanleeman.com. And that’s where I have my arrangements or choral compositions for adults and youth. But yeah, the thinking behind Song Library was just to come up with a name that I thought would actually let people know what they were likely to find on that website.


That makes sense. Yeah. I’m looking at the website right now, and I’m noticing a lot of different options for how to purchase, you know, there’s bundles, there’s sales, there’s, you know, tracks separately, there’s school licenses.


What was that process like figuring out the best way to package these products and sell them? That definitely was a learning curve. Because I knew that most people would want the backing track and the recording, rather than just the sheet music. It made sense to me to bundle that together with the sheet music and just give them a song pack, as I call it.


And, you know, I offer that for, they’re roughly about, I think, seven US dollars. And then I introduced the idea of the license, if people wanted to then buy the song pack, and put it on the school intranet, so that students and teachers could access it digitally, then, you know, within their school. So that’s a license that allows them to do that.


I wasn’t sure how that would go. But that has actually been really successful. Because, you know, obviously, you can with digital products, you can never restrict how people are going to use them.


And it’s all an honor system. And so once again, with the license, you know, it’s completely on a system, they can just buy the pack and put it on their school intranet anyway. But, you know, I found that, you know, a significant portion of people will buy the license.


And on Song Library, I do sell very few just of the sheet music, very few. So that does, you know, tell me that people want the backing tracks and the recordings. So I am curious, how do you decide how much money to spend on creating these backing tracks? Because that’s something where it could get out of hand really quickly.


And I think part of the draw for sheet music is the fact that you can do it for free. But I think, I think you’re absolutely right. In today’s world, you got to have good tracks to go with it.


I think that’s a lot. That’s something that a lot of beginning composers and even, even some more advanced ones struggle with doing on their own. How do you budget for that and plan for that? I mean, I guess talk us talk us through the producer side of your brain.


Yeah, well, all of the backing tracks I make myself, and they’re basically MIDI tracks. So there’s, there’s actually no, no cost involved, apart from my time, and having purchased all the software and the samples and you know, that you need to make good quality backing tracks. And then the more complicated thing for me is getting someone to sing on it, because they’re for children, you know, they need to be in that range.


So it needs to be a female voice. So that that’s actually the more complicated part of it. And I use my wife for a long time, because she has a very pure, pure voice and good clear diction.


But I think I burnt her out after all. And so I’ve gone to other other options. But even now, I’m always sort of looking for people that I can use for that, for that purpose.


And that’s usually the thing that holds me up. So to answer your question about the backing tracks, yes, it’s basically all MIDI. And I try and make them I’ve done a lot of backing tracks for other people over the years.


So and I, you know, I try and make them sound as realistic as I can. So that’s part of one of the, you know, the ways I’ve earned my living over the years as well as is producing that sort of thing for people. Yeah, well, I have a couple of rapid fire short questions before we go.


And then and then I think we’ll listen to some of your some of your pieces as well. So just a couple of quick questions before we get going. What is your favorite time saving trick in Sibelius? Oh, Sibelius.


I think in putting dynamics, if you know the correct key command, you can do multiple dynamics in one go. So you select all of all of the instruments and select the dynamic and put them into all of the various staves. That’s one I only learned probably a year or so ago.


Yep. So that would that would be one of them. I do have a love hate relationship with Sibelius, I must admit.


I think we all do. Yeah. What’s the best bit of career advice you’ve ever been given? I know it sounds cliche, but follow your passion and trust your gut feelings.


And yeah, that’s basically what I’ve done. And, you know, look, look for opportunities, create opportunities and get your work out there wherever you can, because you never know where it will end up. And what’s different about the music industry in Australia that somebody in another country wouldn’t realize? Well, I suppose from a live band point of view, we’re very spaced out.


Our major cities are a long way away from each other. You’ve got the East Coast where there’s, Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne. But then Adelaide is halfway across the continent.


And then Perth is another two days drive in the other direction. So and then Darwin at the top. So and then Tasmania is below the whole mainland.


So that’s a challenge if you’re a touring band. So I guess that’s probably logistically. As far as selling sheet music, obviously, that’s the advantage of the digital world.


And, you know, it’s great to have been part of all those changes that have happened. Well, before we let you go, I’d like to share a couple of your songs with our listeners. So first up is Giant of the Forest.


Why don’t you introduce that one for us? Okay, so this was I actually wrote this as an entry in a songwriting competition for choirs here in Australia. It was the Australian National Choral Association competition to write something for primary school age choirs. So this was about probably five years ago.


And I ended up winning it with this song. And so the song is actually about a tree in Tasmania that is it’s the second tallest tree in the world and the largest flowering plant in the world. And it was nearly destroyed in a bushfire only a few months after I wrote the song, but luckily it seems to survive that.


So that tree is called Centurion. Yeah, so that’s that song. Falling, struggling and striving to grow straight and strong, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down And then let’s end with I Am the Earth.


You already talked about this a little bit, but just remind us. Yes, well, I Am the Earth is a song I wrote in 2007. 2008 was the United Nations Year of Planet Earth.


And so I wrote it for that purpose. And this was performed by the Primary Schools Music Festival that I’ve spoken about. And this is the song that really has travelled around the world.


And it was performed at the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee in front of Buckingham Palace by 400 children. There’s been some really obscure uses of it. The lyrics ended up in a Norwegian textbook to teach English to Norwegian children.


And it even ended up on a Polish, like a small section of the music ended up on a Polish TV series about internet dating. So don’t ask me how that came about. This is my, you know, this is how you just never know where your music might end up.


So, you know, get your music out there. But this song is a dialogue between the Earth and the Earth’s children. So it’s a two part song and one part is taken by the voice of the Earth and the other is the children.


I am the river flowing. I am the desert drawing. I am the ocean wide.


I am the stone plants gathering. I am the mountain high. I am the Earth.


We are the children growing. You are the place we live. We are the seeds you’re sowing.


We are the life you give. We are the future rising. We will be your voice.


We will watch and learn from you. We will make the choice. I am the Earth.


We are in your heart. I am the Earth. We’re in your heart.


I am the Earth. Together we stand. I am the Earth.


This moment in time we share. I am the river. We are the children.


I am the desert. You are the place we live. I am the four winds.


We are the seeds you’re sowing. I am the sunset sky. We are the life you give.


I am the forest breathing. We will be your voice. I am the stone plants gathering.


We will make the choice. I am the Earth. We are in your heart.


I am the Earth. We’re in your heart. I am the Earth.


Together we stand. I am the Earth. This moment in time we share.


We share the future. Stand side by side. One at one we grow.


We’ll turn the tide. And in the future, they’ll say we’ve thrived. Stand side by side.


One at one we grow. We’ll turn the tide. Stand side by side.


Well, before we let you go, what do you have coming up? What’s new that our listeners should look out for? Well, I’m currently working on another piece with my author friend Phil Cummings, and this is a piece called Maggie Moon’s Music Room, and it’s aimed at younger children and teaching them the instruments of the orchestra in a pitter-and-the-wall kind of way, but in a storyline that I think will be really engaging for younger kids. So that’s what we’re working on. Hopefully they’ll get performed by an orchestra at some stage.


Okay, I lied. I do have one more question. As a parent of small children, I do have to ask you, what’s the secret to finding kids’ songs on Apple Music or Spotify that aren’t terrible and going to drive you crazy? Well, as an older person whose children are now adults, I probably can’t actually answer that question.


But I do have to say that’s one of the reasons that inspired me to write songs for children, because there is so much terrible stuff out there that talks down to kids. And I’ve always written music that is not aimed at children. It’s just good music, I hope.


That’s my aim. And I think age-appropriate lyrics, that’s the key. And so, yes, I feel your pain.


I can’t actually answer that question. Interestingly, I Am The Earth is actually on Spotify and all the streaming services, and it gets a lot of plays. And I know that’s because kids have probably sung it at school, and then they go home and they put it on their playlist, or the parents put it on the playlist.


And so that’s another interesting connection, because all of these things are connected now. The streaming platforms and the sheet music sites and YouTube and everything is connected. So there are opportunities out there to get your music out, no matter what it might be and how obscure it is.


So I hope if you discover some really good children’s music out there, let me know. I sure will. Well, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me today, and I wish you the best of luck with everything you’ve got going forward.


Thank you, Garrett.