Big Sounds for Small Ears

Singer-songwriter Dan Flannery, G13, finds making music for (and with) kids is more than child’s play
Watch a slideshow of a performance by the Flannery Brothers at the Watertown Public Library, set to their popular tune “One Wasn’t Enough.” Photo: Matthew Modoono
September 30, 2011

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Writing a song for adults isn’t really that hard. You’ve got themes like love, sex and heartbreak to choose from. And that’s only if you want people to make out the lyrics. But music for little kids—now there’s where a songwriter has to get creative, especially if the song has to please the parents, too.

Dan Flannery, G13, one half of the musical group the Flannery Brothers, thinks he has what it takes. He wants to provide an alternative for families who find the “Wheels on the Bus” have gone flat and the “Little Teapot” has tipped their sanity. Songs from the four CDs the band has released include a surf-rock homage to sunglasses, a soulful doo-wop about vegetables and a horn-driven Latin number about kite flying.

“I want listening to music to be a family activity,” Flannery says. “I don’t want the mom to be in the front seat of the mini-van in excruciating pain.”

He’s not just looking for applause. Flannery, a graduate student in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development, hopes the concerts he performs and the children’s songwriting workshops he conducts—not to mention the television show he is developing—will inspire kids’ own creativity.

The Flannery Brothers—Dan and his older brother, Mike—try not to limit themselves to what they think a little ear can handle. They don’t shy away from instrumental solos and four-part harmony.

“By not over-simplifying the music, we’re giving them something to explore,” Flannery says. He knows at least a handful of kids who learned to play instruments after coming to his concerts, where he himself jumps between playing the piano, ukulele and accordion.

Flannery broke into the music business when he was a teenager, thanks to his family connections. His brother was already a successful musician and producer when a company that wanted to make hip-hop songs for children offered Mike a project. “He said, ‘I can’t, I’m too busy, but my brother can do it,’ ” the younger Flannery recalls.

So at the age of 16, the New Jersey teen was taking the train into Manhattan every week to write and produce for MeeWee: Hip Hop for Kids. The high point was contributing two tracks to a mini-CD that Gap Kids released internationally. “It came with every pair of jeans, or something like that,” Flannery says.

The hip-hop project eventually ended, but Flannery kept playing in various grown-up bands during college at Rutgers and stints as a veterinary technician, sailing instructor, science camp counselor and sundry other pursuits. Then in 2007, he and his brother thought the timing was right to get back into children’s music and formed the Flannery Brothers.

They got a big boost when one of their first songs, a track about collecting called “One Wasn’t Enough,” won best children’s song in the John Lennon Songwriting Contest, an international competition that receives more than 40,000 entries each year. As part of their prize, the contest printed 1,000 copies of their first CD, “Love Songs for Silly Things.”

A Tiger Eating Justin Bieber

Dan Flannery writes most of the songs. “Rutabaga,” “(I Don’t Like) Broccoli Yet” and “Farmer’s Market” all sprang from the three years he spent working on an organic farm in Maine, as did “I Swallowed a Bug,” a true story, unfortunately:

Yeah I swallowed a bug but I’m not gonna cry
If you are what you eat does that mean I can fly?

Not that he’s trying to write songs from a place of reminiscence, a common practice in children’s music. Although he works with children every day as a graduate teaching assistant at the Tufts Educational Day Care Center, he’s long past learning to ride a bike and getting nervous about the first day of school.

“Grown-ups singing songs as though they were children, trying to convince the listener that they know what it’s like to be a kid…” he says with a verbal shake of his head. “I’m pretty close to remembering what it’s like to be kid. I’m pretty close to sustaining some of what it’s like to be a kid, but I still don’t know.”

On the other hand, his search for the “Best Pillow in the World” is something listeners of all ages seem to relate to, whether their tastes run to ergonomic memory foam or ladybug Pillow Pet.

“That’s the style of songwriting I’m more attracted to,” he says, “exploring and celebrating the kinds of things that make life rock.”

Another pet peeve: songs that tell kids to celebrate their imagination. “As if they didn’t know,” he says. “Kids know better than anybody else about imagination and playing and having fun.”

That may be why the Flannerys have had such success with the songwriting workshops they bring to K-8 schools. The students say what they want to hear a song about—tigers, or Justin Bieber or a tiger eating Justin Bieber—and the brothers ask them to draw pictures illustrating their thoughts on the topic. From there, they weave together the song and perform it as a group.

“Yes, there are a lot of trucks, superheroes and princesses,” Flannery admits when asked if the topics get repetitive. “But when you ask them to draw those pictures, they are all different. The good song and the good story is in the details. So part of what I try to do is get them to think about the details. Why do we care about the truck? Where is the truck going? What’s the story of the truck?”

Flannery came to Tufts to focus on children’s arts and media. One of his current projects is developing a television show based on the songwriting workshops. In the show, a fictional band that has trouble coming up with song ideas takes suggestions from viewers. Once they get an idea, the band members each research the topic in their own ways—some serious, some zany—and put the results into a song. His proposal recently helped him win a $10,000 Fred Rogers Memorial Scholarship—yes, that Mr. Rogers, of PBS and cardigan fame—given by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation.

Flannery’s Tufts experience has helped him think a bit differently about his songwriting. The child development courses he has taken so far have made him aware of Vygotsky’s theory of proximal development, wherein an adult presence helps young learners achieve a little bit more on a task than they could on their own. Working at the day care center has taught him that whenever you put the word “pants” in a song, it’s hilarious. But for the most part, he still goes with his gut.

“Conceptually it’s pretty similar to my songwriting when I was five,” he says. There’s proof of that, too. “I have tapes.”

Julie Flaherty can be reached at julie.flaherty@tufts.edu.