Artists Interviews
Bringing Music to Children: An Interview With Joanne Chan

Joanne Chan, author of the Happy Gabby children book series

Joanne Chan, author of the ‘Happy Gabby’
children music book series

One of the problems faced by parents seeking to interest children in classical music is that there are few entry points. A live concert is the most exciting way, but few children can endure the necessity of sitting still and listening without making their own contributions. Hong Kong author Joanne Chan used the stories behind the music to build her child’s interest. Her series of ‘Happy Gabby’ children’s music books takes the music by Strauss (Richard, not Joseph), Chopin, Tchaikovsky, and Saint-Saëns as the source for brief rhyming stories and brief musical examples to open up the world of classical music.

Happy Gabby Plays Classical Music

Happy Gabby Plays Classical Music

Her small books, intended for newborns up to 7-year-olds, combine the board-book format with music buttons. In one example, Happy Gabby flies in on a pterodactyl while a stegosaurus and a T-Rex dance to the music. A triceratops holds a xylophone for a brontosaurus, and an ankylosaur plays along while a diplodocus plays a skeleton. Push the button on the page and a brief musical excerpt will play. Have you guessed the music? It’s Saint-Saëns’ Fossils movement from Carnival of the Animals.

Camille Saint-Saëns: Carnival of the Animals: XII. Fossils (Marián Lapšanský, piano; Peter Toperczer, piano; Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra; Ondrej Lenárd, cond.)

Happy Gabby Plays Classical Music: Carnival of the Animals: XII. Fossils

Happy Gabby Plays Classical Music: Carnival of the Animals: XII. Fossils

Despite the Jurassic time setting of the active dinosaurs, in the background we see Hong Kong’s Ngong Ping 360 cable car or are those the mountains of Switzerland?

The Happy Gabby children’s music book series, named after the author’s son Gabriel, appeals to all the Gabriels and Gabriellas of the world. In the second book, Happy Gabby plays Chinese Classics, one page features music played on the yangqin, a kind of hammered dulcimer. As in the first book, the music was computer synthesized, but two pieces have live performances.

Happy Gabby Plays Chinese Classics: Dragon Boat

Happy Gabby Plays Chinese Classics: Dragon Boat

In Happy Gabby Leads the Circus, the music examples is the work that has become so associated with the circus: Fučík’s Entry of the Gladiators.

Julius Fučík: Einzug der Gladiatoren (The Entry of the Gladiators), Op. 68, “Triumph March” (Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra; Neeme Järvi, cond.)

Happy Gabby Leads the Circus: Fučík: Entry of the Gladiators

Happy Gabby Leads the Circus: Fučík: Entry of the Gladiators

The music is presented in a 20-second synthesized sample, triggered by a button on the page. Joanne reports that while this has often confused parents, who didn’t know what to do, their more tech-savvy children helped them find the button!

Each book is 6-7 pages long, with each opening written in simple language. The songs will each play about 50 times (300 times for the book as a whole) before the removable battery has to be replaced. Batteries are accessible on the back cover of the book. An Off switch is located there too, for either peaceful quiet or ‘just to save the battery.’

Happy Gabby’s Grand Animal Adventures

Happy Gabby’s Grand Animal Adventures

Next week, two more books in the Happy Gabby series will appear, based on the entirety of Saint-Saëns’ work: Happy Gabby’s Grand Animal Adventures and Happy Gabby Jams with Animals. These two books, with a new artist, follow the model established for the series.

To bring the concept off the page, Joanne, and her husband, Hong Kong Philharmonic violist Andrew Ling have staged small programs with real instruments for children to hear and play for themselves. These are interactive concerts with a dozen professional musicians playing instruments such as the harp, percussion, and various wind and stringed instruments. A live-action Happy Gabby interacted with the audience and an MC oversaw it all. Over 30 Happy Gabby concerts were staged last summer at Hong Kong’s Olympian City and other malls and theatres.

Happy Gabby Jams with Animals

Happy Gabby Jams with Animals

When we spoke with the author, she said that she started the project when she was trying to find ways to entertain her son that didn’t involve watching a screen. She noted that he responded to sound from his earliest days and she built on that to create books with music. Her husband makes a point of playing music for Gabriel before he goes to bed and young Gabby was singing Vivaldi’s Four Seasons before he was even talking.

As the books have been given to larger audiences, they have developed in line with parents requests. The musical excerpts have gotten longer, the battery has become easier to replace, and now there’s an off-switch. When they were considering changing the books to a larger size, parents told them that the small size of the books made them convenient for children to handle and for parents to put under the stroller or in the diaper bag.

An upcoming concert with Happy Gabby has been scheduled with the Hong Kong Philharmonic. Originally scheduled in 2020, it has been postponed to 2021. As part of that program, an animation of Happy Gabby interacting with Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks was developed. Due to the postponement, an alternative program of Happy Gabby exploring the music of Debussy (Clair de lune; La boîte à joujoux (The Toy-Box) and two works from Children’s Corner).

Claude Debussy: La boîte à joujoux: Tableau 1: Le magasin de jouets (The Toy Shop) (Lyon National Orchestra; Jun Märkl, cond.)

This concert, scheduled for 12 December, will be available free online and can be streamed anywhere in the world. More details will be announced shortly.

The books are available in all Hong Kong bookstores and are available internationally by ordering from the author through her website. Bring Happy Gabby to your child! From now till 25 December 2020, readers of interlude can enjoy 5% off all Happy Gabby products on www.p-a-l.hk/book with code “INTERLUDE”.

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