Next Training Day June 9th in Yorkshire

The Vamoosh Story

Originally printed in the European String Teachers' Association ARCO magazine, November 2023.

I had gambled all my savings on a hunch. I was waiting for the delivery of six thousand booklets that I’d had printed. Would the excitement of seeing my first book in print be spoiled by the discovery of a glaring and costly error on the front cover? It was an anxious wait. I was going it alone, no publisher, no distributor, no back-up sponsor who would carry the risk for me. I only had a few tentative pre-orders, but I was, for some reason, confident I’d claw back the cost somehow. All the money went on printing costs. My dad was kind enough to do the illustrations, my brother-in-law created the website. I spent nothing on design, creating the covers myself using Word and the content using the program Sibelius. When the books finally arrived they took up what seemed like half of my bedroom. If it didn’t work out, I had at least several years’ worth of luxury firewood.

Rewind a few years to my first cello teaching experience out of college. It was a tough one. I took over a group lesson of four children who seemed to regard their afternoon cello lesson as their free time, which they used to wind up their new cello teacher, me. It was hard enough for me to get them to sit in their seats, never mind focus on the piece, assigned by another teacher, that was written about three centuries earlier. Apart from being a little too difficult, they were not warming to it. If I was to stay in this job, something would need to change.

It soon became obvious to me, that if I wanted any of my students to care as much as I did about music, I’d need to find material for them that they would care about. Children can have very strong opinions about a lot of things; what they like to read; watch on TV, eat etc. It’s only reasonable to expect them to have opinions, or at least instincts, about their preferred music. Children are easily excited by music. The emotions, the characters, the drama and energy are no less stimulating to a child than to an adult. Children are, after all, highly emotional beings. When children find learning dull, it is often because it is too emotionally and spiritually dry. When it comes to music this should never be the case. When developing a skill as complex as string playing, choosing the right material is critical. If a child is not invested emotionally in the music they are learning, they will have to be persuaded to practise by other means, by force, bribery or pleading. None of these have as happy an outcome. To compare an equivalent in sport, imagine teaching ‘ball kicking’ without the drama and excitement of playing a match. The emotional connection is real and needs to be harnessed in every lesson.

I began writing little pieces to brighten my teaching day. They would always be addressing some specific technical issue, cunningly disguised as a fun piece. Sometimes I would modify existing pieces, with minor changes to make the pieces more memorable without compromising the useful technical objectives. I would accompany at the piano, extemporising freely with my pub-piano technique. If I wanted the students to relax, to encourage a softer bow-hold for example, I would provide a gentle accompaniment. If I wanted them to adopt a more warrior like posture for a long bow starting at the tip, I would marshal a more dramatic accompaniment. Little by little pieces were building up. I discovered Garageband quite by accident on my new Apple Mac. I was like a kid in a candy store, transferring my piano accompaniments to digital instrument sounds, seeing if I could replicate the same live energy so students could practise with them at home. For me, it didn’t feel like work, it was a thrill, especially when I got to try them out on my discerning students.

After a few years, working alongside highly skilled teachers with disparate children from all backgrounds across the city, I amassed quite a repertoire of teaching material. As ‘whole class’ teaching was really taking off in the UK, largely as a way to reach more children with less money, I had colleagues from other parts of the country asking if they could use my material. It occurred to me that this need was more widespread, and there was perhaps the opportunity to create a book. I could then choose how to present the music in a way that would appeal directly to children. At the time there was very little available for a combination of violins and cellos.

I quickly set about compiling my pieces, interweaving them with well known items from the classical canon into a small booklet. Small enough at least, to fit into a violin case. This cheap and cheerful book would provide enough material to entertain and educate a typical 7 or 8 year old for one year. The pieces would be so accessible that the teacher could deliver lessons with minimal explaining, so children could spend more of the lesson time playing music. They would learn all they needed to know by doing. Information would be fed to them on a ‘need to play’ basis. The notes themselves would be large and clear. As space was limited, there would be no words or directions unless absolutely necessary. The font used for each title would help express the character of each piece. Easy to spot patterns and repetition in the structure of each piece would make them more approachable and accessible. Every piece would contrast in character and idiom. I wanted it to be a page-turner.

All this was ultimately to make the job of teaching simple and more enjoyable. With less need to explain, and more willing students in a happier learning environment, valuable energy previously spent motivating and cajoling could be used to enable and assist. Every piece would be a new party game, simple to execute and easy to remember. If I could get the balance right, I was confident that the book would be a success.

I had some help from colleagues to spread the word amongst movers and shakers in the string teaching world. I sent out emails to music services around the country letting them know what I had created. Quickly the books started to sell. Book 1 was shortly followed by book 2 and 3 as I had an abundance of pieces to follow. In the days before smart phones, I was excited to come home from a busy day of teaching to see if anyone had placed an order. I was operating a low-tech but efficient distribution operation out of my flat. Marching to my local post office with boxes and envelopes twice a week. One year on, the shops that had roundly rejected my books were coming to me for their customers.

Gradually the enormous pile of books in my bedroom shrank. Four years on and I was in need of help with distribution. I went with a small family-run company, the only one who responded to my emails. This worked marvellously for several years until I moved distribution to the industry giant Hal Leonard.

I have an unofficial rule of producing at least one publication per year. There are now 5 levels in all plus a volume of Christmas items for violin, viola, cello and double bass. It was suggested to me that Book 2 progressed at a slightly faster gradient to book 1, so I felt it necessary to add a book in between. Rather than create a whole new edition, I simply called it Book 1.5. I had written a host of short pieces for my flute books, so I refashioned them as they were ideal for strings to explore the new keys of G major and C major with their corresponding new finger patterns. This of course would have the added advantage of teachers being able to combine students across different instrument families. I more recently created a book 2.5 sourcing new pieces from my clarinet and trumpet books that are mostly in flat keys, so useful on string instruments for back-extensions.

There are now over 50 individual publications in the Vamoosh series covering a multitude of instruments commonly learned in schools. With the emphasis on ensemble playing, the plan was always to build an orchestra. Now that the wind, brass and piano books are out, the plan has come closer to a reality.

The latest venture in this journey is Vamoosh Certificates. At the end of every recently printed book, there is an invitation to submit a video performance of two items from the book. In reply, candidates receive a certificate and feedback on their performance, plus the chance to win a special prize awarded to the ‘Most Enjoyable Performance’. The idea is to recognise and celebrate achievement in a nurturing and supportive way. This is not only to encourage students, but also their teachers whose hard work is so often under-appreciated.

It remains to me a constant source of delight to know that there are children all over the world playing out of my little books. Recently I was visiting the school of the daughter of a friend of mine in Wood Green, north London. I played them some Bach on the cello. In the banter that followed, I asked them to name any famous composers they knew of. Along with Mozart and Michael Jackson, one little girl mentioned my name. I thought she had been planted there to flatter me, so I asked her why she had said that. She told us her violin book at home had the name Thomas Gregory written on it. It was fun telling them who I was, they were most surprised to learn that I was not yet dead! Not yet anyway, I’ve got more music to write.

Vamoosh celebrates its 15th birthday this year. To mark the occasion, we are hosting a teacher training event on the 21st April 2024 at the Royal Academy of Music. Open to teachers of all string instruments. Visit the Vamoosh website for more details.