Talking with Graham Hepburn, one of the creative minds behind Quaver's Marvelous World of Music, is sort of like a combination of drinking from a fire hose and sitting down to coffee with an old friend. Ideas and stories pour forth like gems from an upended treasure bag, and if anything is missing from this interview, it's because I couldn't type fast enough to keep up with him. (In case you were wondering, I typed my way through college, so I type pretty fast. At least, I've always thought so.)
My first thought was, “Here is a man who loves his work.” My second thought: “He really is Quaver!”
You see, Mr. Hepburn plays a character named Quaver in the video lessons that comprise Quaver's Marvelous World of Music, as well as on the website, QuaverMusic.com. Quaver is a music store proprietor with a passion for drawing young people into the world of music. His store isn't like any I've ever seen; it's a fantastic place where it seems as if anything could happen. Busts of great classical composers chip into the conversation, a giant foot taps the beat, special effects abound, and students from a range of ages help Quaver to demonstrate musical concepts.
The rich British accent is not just an actor's put-on; it's the way Hepburn talks in real life.
Though he's the main character in an educational show on DVD, with 30 episodes to date, Mr. Hepburn insists that he's “not a celebrity, just a go-home-at-night to his wife and children, then in the morning go back to work kind of guy.” However, his love of music shines forth, as does his zeal to kindle a similar fire in the hearts of young learners.
Hepburn started out doing a comedy show in the UK. A Christian, he made sure his act was family-friendly. As a musician, he gave concerts in churches, and talks about faith. For six years, he traveled, performing at corporate events and playing on cruise ships. Nine years ago, he became friends with an American he met on his travels, who was playing the piano in the lounge for relaxation. The man was David Mastran. That meeting was to sow a seed that would later grow into Quaver's Marvelous World of Music, but not yet. Not quite yet.
He married, stopped touring, and became a music teacher in a British school. He oversaw a music education program for students ranging in age from five to eighteen. His assistant concentrated on elementary ages. He supplemented her efforts, but his main area focused on eleven- to eighteen-year-olds. He created “loads and loads of different musical ensembles, and all kinds of musical endeavors.”
He was the sort of teacher that kids remember for years to come. “In the classroom I'd have a plan of what I was trying to teach them. I'd do funny accents to keep them engaged, really, but I think they enjoyed my teaching style.” As a matter of fact, a lot that makes up the character of Quaver developed from those classes. Hepburn reflects, “I think the Quaver character is 'me.' I'm not really an actor, haven't done any acting; it's just me, although it was scripted. I've done a lot of workshops in front of elementary kids; for example, I'd play a Rachmaninoff prelude and talk about it, teach them rap, that sort of thing. I'd give presentations, a sort of style of workshopping.”
During this time, David approached Graham about creating an educational program to help kids to learn to love music. In the first phase of development, they worked with producers who removed the educational element and focused more on the entertainment value. David and Graham decided to create their own show and keep the educational aspects intact.
It turned out to be a stepping-stone to more, much more. Hepburn really wanted to teach, to create something meaty, fast-paced, interactive, and interesting to watch. “People are reluctant to teach music,” he says in recollection. “I looked and found nothing really available for general music education. I didn't just want to do the typical 'how-to-play-piano tutorial' – you can find hundreds of these on- or offline.”
Together, Mastran and Hepburn put together a new creative team. They decided what first 30 episodes were going to be, each episode building on the ones that come before, though episodes also are made so that they can stand-alone. They started writing scripts, working together in an attic, and the project just kept building from there.
Hepburn put a great deal of thought into the creation of Quaver's world. One example would be the three people-sized talking busts on the music store set. He'd originally envisioned them as Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms, like the little white busts (the ones I earned were some sort of stone, but nowadays I suspect they're made of plastic) piano teachers might give out to their students. The problem was all three would have German accents. It might be hard for viewers to distinguish between the three. He solved that problem by having the busts represent Beethoven (German), Debussy (French), and Vivaldi (Italian), with three different accents, a creative solution to the problem that works very well.
Hepburn has only the highest praise for Mastran, giving him much of the credit for bringing Quaver's Marvelous World of Music to fruition. “David is an amazing sort of leader. He has schooled me in how to put a project together, taught me what I needed to know. For instance, we had to rewrite the scripts a number of times. His insistence on high standards meant rewriting, perfecting the craft, pursuing excellence. This kind of endeavor can be immensely frustrating. You have to do the absolute best you can do. Working with David has taught me a personal lesson. His aim is to work as hard as possible to get everything right. When you get there, you've pushed yourself to a point that you never thought you could get to.”
Mastran soon brought in Steve Gilreath as producer/director. Hepburn says of Gilreath, “He really brought this to life. He had television experience, and was able to look at scripts and bring them to life on camera.”
Gilreath called in all the expertise that was needed for the project: camera people, sound people, technicians, 300 people to start, growing to 500 before the project was done. A team of people, including Hepburn and Gilreath, wrote scripts. Teachers were consulted and offered good feedback on the program's educational content. Accolades have been received from all across the country, including a Parents' Choice Gold Award.
The QuaverMusic.com website, an integral part of Quaver's world, was launched this year. Hepburn calls it an “enormous undertaking. [The website] needs constant maintenance and creativity.” A core team of 35 people continues to work on the project. For each 12-18 minute lesson on the DVD, there's another two to two-and-a-half hours of related content on the website, practicing and reinforcing concepts learned. In addition, much of the website content is available at no cost, inviting children to explore the world of music online, in a safe environment.
Hepburn asked his sister who homeschools her four children to beta-test the site along with children and educators across the country. He and the website developers spent time listening to people's reactions and taking feedback. The purpose of the website is “giving people the tools to be able to engage their creativity.” Quaver's multi-faceted world has two main components: “the DVD lessons, intended for students to watch and learn, and the website. Using the tools on the website, children can experiment with writing melody and harmony, even lyric options. They can save their creations as MP3s and download and share them.”
One of the lessons implicit in this endeavor is that in music writing, “...there are no shortcuts to being able to do something musically well. It takes time to learn, takes determination and practice to master it. You can't 'learn music in five minutes' as some programs claim. The [QuaverMusic.com] website is for those who seriously want to learn music.”
New website features are under development, with plans to add new content on a monthly basis. In addition, new DVD episodes are planned for the future, to give children a grounding across the musical spectrum.
Hepburn emphasizes that learning to read and write music is simply a part of the process of learning music. “The first six episodes [of Quaver's Marvelous World of Music] go into the fundamentals of music without touching on notation. Then we go into notation. Notation is secondary to making music. Writing down is actually recording what you've already done.”
Hepburn is familiar with the idea of homeschooling. His wife, an American, comes from a family of seven, with several homeschoolers among them. He is fascinated by the idea of educating children at home, and he and his cohorts are working to make Quaver's Marvelous World of Music more accessible to homeschool families. Additional content is in the works, geared toward the multi-level, tutorial homeschool style. There are even plans for lapbooks for every episode.
At the end of our conversation, Hepburn wrapped up everything that we talked about in this short summary: “I didn't just do this because someone called me to put shows together. Quaver's Marvelous World of Music is a labor of love. I find that you do put yourself into anything you do. If you're doing anything that is worth your while to do, I say, throw yourself into it and make it the best it can be.”