Read the Episode Denise Gagne, Part 1


Here is the Crescendo Music Education Podcast – Episode 28. In this episode number 28, I’m going to speak to Denise Gagne of Musicplay Online. Now, she is an amazing music educator from Canada. Many of you listening already know her well, love her work, I’m going to split my chat with her into two episodes. I know that I’ve been doing that a lot but that’s because I made the decision that half hour or closer to half hour episodes are just a bit easier for us to approach than whole hour episodes, just made that decision. So this one, of course, Denise and I kept chatting, and it was a bit too long. So we’re doing a part one and a part two.

So in this part one, I talk to her a fair bit about music play. I wanted to know about that fabulous online resource, and a little about its history, its inception, how it’s working, was very interesting. We also talk about the actual job of teaching and how it has changed a bit over the years. Every episode, I’m tending to say, you’re going to love this because this person is amazing. Well, I’m going to say it again. You’re going to love this because Denise is amazing. I hope you enjoy part one of my chat with Denise.

About ‘Read the Episode’: Sometimes, we would rather skim visually than listen to a podcast! That’s a great way to learn too! The transcript of episode 028 of The Crescendo Music Education Podcast is below.

Episode 28 “Read the Episode” Transcript

Introducing Denise Gagne of Musicplay Online

Denise, Hello.

Denise Gagne
I’m so excited to be here.

Oh, I’m excited to be chatting to you. I love, I know I’ve said this many times. But I just love the world that we’re in. I mean, here I am sitting in Australia and you’re sitting in America. I’m sitting here late on Saturday morning, and you’re sitting there on your Friday evening. Yeah, I just think it’s great that we can connect.

Denise Gagne
It is amazing. It’s still a little bit futuristic and the Jetsons to me.

Yeah, I love it. I love it. Me too. I wanted to be in one of those flying cars and I when I was little I was desperate for a telephone that you could see the other person.

Denise Gagne
And now we can.

Yes now we can. Alright, I’m going to start with your bio Denise. So Denise has taught instrumental choral and classroom music from babies and preschool to college levels. She has degrees in Music and Education, as well as level three certification in both Kodály and Orff. Denise has authored or edited many publications, including the Musicplay and curriculum. So Denise, that’s a very, very short bio for somebody that has had such a distinguished and interesting career. So listening to that brief bio, what would you like to add to your summary of work?

Denise Gagne
You know there’s not a lot to add, that sums it up really well. I just feel like I’ve been doing this longer than everybody else, and will be still standing when the rest of you are long retired.

So oh look I’m sure there’s more to this than just longevity. You know, there’s a lot of talent mixed up in there Denise and I was thinking when I first saw you, I should have looked up the year, you did a session at the International Kodály Symposium that was down near Newcastle in New South Wales, and I have a photo. Okay, I’m gonna write a note. I’m gonna see if I can dig up that photo of you from IKS.

Denise Gagne
And I haven’t changed. That was 2004. , so that was 18 years ago. I’m pretty sure that was the year and I went with my friend Lil Traquaire who is a retired music teacher.

Wow, and you had already been in the game well and truly a long time, but that was the first time I think I got to work with you live so it was really lovely. So I think that a lot of us now know you for Musicplay Online. Can you just sort of tell any anyone who’s been I don’t know, under a rock or something and doesn’t know about Musicplay Online? Would you tell us about it and actually also not just about it, but how it came about? That would be interesting.

How MusicPlay Online Got Started

Denise Gagne
Okay. The evolution of it came from my Kodály levels. So in level three Kodály our final project was to write a series of lesson plans for any grade level for four months and plan out what you were going to do. So I did it for first grade and it was such an intriguing task to me that I thought I’m going to keep doing this. So that was about 1995. And I did it for about five years. And that was kind of at the point that I was starting to make recordings. I did the Singing Games books, the Action Song books, Christmas Concert Idea book, We’ve only got one planet.

I’d done four or five recordings, and we kind of had a process for doing them and at that point in, you know, late 1990s, any curriculum for music in Canada was on records, not even on cassettes. And I thought, this is so awful, it’s so backward. I’ve got all these recordings, they’re not that hard to make, we can put them on to CDs. So I had the audacity to build grades 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 out for a whole year. And in 2000, I released the early early versions of Musicplay, and it was interesting because it was a person from Australia, was at the International Society of Music Educators in Edmonton that year, ISME in the year 2000, was in Edmonton. And he ended up bringing me into Perth the year following.

So my first Australian experience was right after I had done the first iteration of Musicplay. So the first iteration lasted about four or five years and what I had done as a Kodály teacher, and as an Orff teacher, I overlap from year to year. If I introduce a song in grade 1, very often, I’ll bring the same song back in second grade and derive more concepts from it. But I realised pretty quickly that people were not happy paying money for a grade 1 curriculum, where some of the songs are in grade 2. So in 2004-2005, we did a complete rebuild, and we changed it so that every grade had separate materials, a little tiny bit of overlap remains Stella Ella Ola is in grade 3 and in grade 4. But for the most part, all the grades are different.

I needed to write kindergarten, and I needed to write grade 6. And so those got done. I think in 2003, we did another big revision in 2009, when Ontario came out with their new standards, their new curriculum, and it really focused heavily on the creative process. And it was so interesting, because Ontario was really early, focusing on creating, responding, connecting, which is what the American National Standards came out with in 2014. So when the American National Standards came out in 2014, I’d already rewritten many of the lessons so that each one included creative components. Gee what other big influences were there along the way?

We went to Nashville, my friend Artie Almedia and I have done a workshop together for the past 13 years. Our first was in 2010 on a cruise ship, best one ever, 2011 we went to Vegas, and since then we’ve done a big Summer Symposium all over the states. We’ve done Texas, we’ve done Chicago, Branson Missouri, lots and lots of fun places. When we went to Nashville, I thought you know Quaver is local. We’ll see if they want to do a session with us while we’re there. So not only did they do a session, but they invited us to their amazing and incredible studios gave us a tour and they were the ones that said, we’re going to put it all online and I go, Oh, that’s a really, really good idea.

So the idea for the online part came from directly from Quaver and I have to thank them for that. I sort of thought about it played around with it. At the same time, I’m getting to retirement age and thinking I should probably retire. But I explored a little bit of grant programs in Canada and the National Research Council of Canada had a grant program to digitise Canadian products, use it play with a Canadian product, digitising it by putting it on a website just was such a logical thing. So I got in touch with the rep and the central Alberta representative turned out to be a parent of students that I taught. She walked into my office, she saw the wall of books we’d published, she didn’t know where I’d gone after I left her school.

And she goes, I can’t believe you’ve done all this. And her kids had loved me, I had loved them. And she went to bat for me and got us $250,000 to do the initial website build, which was amazing, i wouldn’t have got started without that. And just since then it has just kind of grown and grown. We did the build in 2015. And while we were building and while things were available, we just let teachers use it for free. And then in 2016 we closed it and you have to actually pay money and subscribe, and we did get some pushback. We had people who said I’ve got all the new set play binders, why can’t I use this website for free? And somebody came up with an answer that I thought was really good. I’ve got all the Harry Potter books, but I still have to pay to go see the movies. The website is a separate product.

And since 2016 it’s just grown and grown. Christmas of 2016 we had 400 subscribers. And I was all excited that we had 400. Every milestone that we hit after that was exciting. And then COVID happened, and COVID was what really drove the website to new heights. When COVID happened and teachers all over the world all of a sudden had to come up with a lesson that they could do with kids at home, they were looking for anything online, and the numbers on our website crashed the site, it went down for three or four days, one of the worst three or four days of my life.

And what we had to do what’s completely disable the student login, so we kept the teacher login required to see the PDFs, we opened the student login to everybody in the whole world. And it was, the response was phenomenal. In one week, we had a million page views. So we went from maybe 10,000 page views to a million page views. It was just stunning. And you know, we weren’t able to rebuild that student login for some time.

So September 2020 came around, that’s the start of the school year in North America, I thought nobody’s going to subscribe, because they’re getting it for free. It was mostly free. And they really supported me because of me having supported them. And our subscriptions, we sort of count the US one years, we went from 2000 US one year subscriptions in September 2020, it jumped to 8000. And what had been primarily Canadian customers buying our product, and some US flipped. And now it’s primarily American customers buying the website, and a lot of Canadians as well. But that shift happened because of COVID.

And we actually left that student login completely wide open until the end of 2021. That’s when we closed it off. And it got us contacts all over the world. I’ve done two webinars for a company in India and met with preschool teachers over zoom. It was so cool. And the whole world is using us now, we have teachers, I don’t even know how many countries but I bet it’s over 100 countries are using us now.

It is just mind blowing. But it also has come about in part because of your generosity, because you could have not made that free easily. You could have even gone oh look because of COVID I’ll give you a 10% discount, you know, or no discount. You need me now. So buy me. So I think that that’s just in some ways. It’s just repayment for your generosity and your desire to help other music educators, which is at the core of everything you do, or it seems to be from the outside. You’re trying to help us in every way you can.

Denise Gagne
I think for me, this was a passion project. And when John Jacobson and I were in discussions about him coming on board with us, he had offers from Macmillan McGraw Hill, a $4 billion dollar company. He was in discussions with Quaver, again a company with very, very deep pockets. And then he talked to me and I said, you know, honestly, I know we could charge twice or three times what we charge for this website, but I put passion before profit. And that really resonated with him. And he said, You know what, we’re gonna go with the little guy.

And it’s just again, it’s added a level, it’s leveling us up to the point where pretty soon we’re going to be every bit as good as the Quaver website. In fact, I think in some ways, pedagogically, I think we’re stronger, but it certainly leveled up the performance material that we have on the website now, and we’re not raising prices, we’re keeping them the same for this year at least, I say, as long as the website’s sustainable, I’m happy where it is. And we know that a lot of teachers are buying it out of pocket. And you know, it’s great if your district buys it for you, but many teachers just pay the $20 a month out of pocket because they want it and it saves them. I always say if it saves you an hour a month, it’s worth that $20. Your time’s worth more.

Yeah, exactly. If you look at it with the lens of how much time have I saved, and not only that, but also access to the quality of the resources, whereas you could possibly put something together like that, but the time and effort it would take to create something that good, no, that’s it’s wonderful. I’m so delighted that it’s going so well for you and going all over the world. That’s really wonderful. And thank you for being so generous and sharing.

Denise Gagne
This is my retirement hobby. This is my legacy. And fortunately I have three kids who are almost as passionate about this as I am so I can see it continuing on in the future. One daughters a kindergarten teacher, works for us halftime teaches halftime, other daughter’s a music teacher who is, she’s probably my biggest critic because she’s not scared to tell me what I’m doing wrong and what I need to improve, and the son has a theater degree and he’s working customer service. So when you talk to Brian at customer support, he’s family. And yeah, and we have a really, really good team, again, who are very passionate about doing this. You know, there’s more money to be made probably in running a cannabis store or a liquor store. But this is something that’s good for the world. And I can go to bed at night going to sleep thinking, I’ve done something good today.

Yes, yes. And thank you. I think that’s amazing. In your journey as a music educator, what would you consider the highlight or highlights of your journey? Now, obviously, the development of MusicplayOnline has really got to be like, it’s like your baby, you know, listening to you talk about it, your baby and your legacy and so obviously, Musicplay generally has to be a highlight. Yes. But apart from that, what else would you say would be a highlight,

Highlights of Denise Gagne’s Journey as a Music Educator

Denise Gagne
I was really fortunate to have three schools that were really really supportive of me as a teacher, and that I don’t think I truly appreciated in my first years of teaching, what a musical community Macklin, Saskatchewan was. But I always say those kids taught me how to teach and it was a small town, 1000 people, the school had 400 kids kindergarten to grade 12. I taught them all and when I left there, when I moved on to a bigger center out of the 200 kids in high school, 170 of them were in either band or choir or both. And that to me was a highlight and seeing probably about 10 of those kids go on to careers as music educators, professional musicians, accompanists, kinder music teachers, that is a highlight for me.

I went to a wedding dance in Saskatchewan and one of the very first classes that I taught, Lyle Brost was a student he was fourth grade at the time, and it was a country school. I am sure you know about them in Australia, a country school it was basically a school plunked down in the middle of a wheat field. And it had all kind of triple grades, grades 1, 2, 3 were together, 4, 5, 6 was together. And they scheduled me for a half day a week. So I’d drive out there with my little truck, I’d unload some instruments and go in and have lots fun with the kids. And some of the older ones I thought, you know, I bet you they have guitars at home. So I asked them if they could bring their guitars in for music. And we’d teach them how to play guitar.

I don’t know much about guitar, I’ve had one lesson in my life. And my brother said, Okay, go practice and when you’ve practiced, I’ll give you lesson two. I’ve never had the second one. But I figured I could think my way through. So we got guitars, I picked out some music that I thought they could handle. I taught them how to tune it, how to read a chord chart, and they went away. And this one kid came back the week after and he could play better than I could.

It was just like, Okay, I have some work to do to keep up to him. So a couple of years ago, we went back to Saskatchewan and went to a wedding dance. And the band on the stage was the student and his children and they had a family band and we were dancing polkas to this family band and I have to say that was a tear jerking highlight, because that’s what you want your kids to do. You want them to become lifelong musicians. And that was a real real thrill.

That is beautiful, I love that story. That’s amazing. It would be lovely to be able to track our past students wouldn’t it, so that was fortunate that you met him there and had that experience. Yeah, it’s lovely.

Denise Gagne
When you teach in the little towns, you do keep track of them better than when you teach in a more urban center. So yes, I’m on Facebook actually, with a lot of my former students. And I had one this year that had a 60th birthday. And I’m going okay, how did that happen? I taught K-12. I taught high school kids. And I started teaching when I was 21. So I was only that little bit older than some of them. So yes, it and I survived it.

And, and seriously, you are just looking amazingly youthful. You certainly don’t.

Denise Gagne
I don’t look bad for 50. Right.

Oh, you look pretty fabulous for 50 Denise. But do you know what else? I do think as someone of your similar age. I think one of the things that keeps us young is the youthful attitude when you spend your life singing songs, playing games and making music, you just don’t become old. You know, it’s, I’ve got I should be as well. In fact, at the time of recording it was my birthday four days ago. And so you think about age and retirement. I don’t. I don’t want to retire. I am having the best time teaching. I’m not ready to retire. I don’t want to give up singing songs, playing games. You know, I know, at one stage I will have to. I’ve got a few years left. But I think that’s why we don’t age. Denise,

Denise Gagne
I agree. I agree 100%. You know, we’re the ones who get paid to sing and play games all day. It’s the best job ever.

It absolutely is. And, you know, it took me a lot of years to get to that place mentally, because there are so many other pressures. And there can be very negative influences, depending on the schools you’re in, the demands of the job, the attitude of the classroom teachers to your subject, there’s a lot of things that can influence you negatively. I don’t want to be Pollyanna here, you know. But once you’ve made the decision, you’ve got the mindset that this is the best job in the world, I am enjoying every minute of this job, then it just happens. It’s a self fulfilling prophecy, you know.

Denise Gagne
I’d have to say though, that teaching is much harder now than 20 years ago, and way harder now than 40 years ago. It’s a much more demanding job. I’m in the United States right now and the demands and expectations on teachers is significantly I think, significantly higher than what we see. In Canada for example, teachers have to turn their lesson plans for the following week in on Friday, they have to turn them in. Have you ever had to turn your lesson plans in? I never did.

No, there are some schools here that can request that level of work pre planning, whatever, but no, certainly not. And I agree. It’s a much more difficult job in many ways now. Well, you can even tell by the fact that we’re having trouble attracting people to teaching generally. So there’s huge issues, but even more reason for the mindset work, isn’t it? If you want to stay in this job, you’ve got to just know it’s the best job in the world. Yes, I agree with that.

Sign Off

This podcast is brought to you by Crescendo Music Education, connecting, supporting, and inspiring music educators. You’ll find links to Crescendo’s social media platforms in the show notes. Please connect with me and be part of the Crescendo community. You might consider becoming a Crescendo member. You can access hundreds of files, worksheets, printables workbooks, repeat workshops, and webinars for a low annual fee and receive great discounts on events. So come and connect with me, Debbie O’Shea. See you in the socials.

Just for Laughs

As we know laughter relieves stress. Don’t lose sight of the funny side of life.

I have my grandma on speed dial. I call that Instagran. It’s so bad.

Links Mentioned in the Episode:

Metacognition: Teaching Children to Think

Feel the Fear…and Do It Anyway

Michael Griffin has created a discount coupon code:

Michael’s personal website is and contact

Where to find me:

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