Wow!English melodies are very, very catchy. Every note is filled with positive energy and puts you in a good mood. How are they written and who comes up with them?
Wow!English songs and videos have become a phenomenon all over the world thanks to YouTube! But do you know who is behind them? And how they are created?
Augustin Bernard, a composer from Liberec, has worked with names such as Ilona Csáková, The Vladimír Janský Dance Orchestra and Petr Sovič’ Golden Big Band Prague. He has also been composing music for children for Wow!English for six years now. What sort of influence does music have on learning and what makes writing songs for children so particular? And how does Augustin work with Steve? He tells us all this and more in the following interview.
How long have you been working with Wow!English and what makes it so particular?
When I think about it, I have been working with Wow!English since 2013, when we began writing the first three books. They needed a composer and were looking for offers. So I wrote three songs specifically for children, and Wow!English liked them. I was surprised that they chose me because I wasn’t that well equipped to begin with – that came over time. And now we are planning Wow!Gold.
You write classical music, pop and songs for children. What is it like being so creatively diverse in style?
When I work on songs for children, I have to completely reset my mind, which can take some time. I always get there, though. The most important thing is to keep calm and fine-tune the creative energy. Not to listen to music because I don’t want anything to influence me. Given that I make a living by composing music, I don’t want to allow other tunes to influence me because it might happen that I hear something and it unwittingly becomes part of a new tune. That is not the case, of course, when you want a tune that is similar to something already written. So when Steve and I do something more akin to rock, something from the Sixties, I might think of the Beatles. That’s why some people might find that some songs in Wow!Silver are reminiscent of the those written by the great British band.
Do you have your own vision of how the story which a song is to accompany should look, or is it entirely up to Steve?
The vast majority of ideas come from Steve and I adapt to his requirements. Steve is far more experienced as far as working with children is concerned, so he thinks of things that would never occur to me.
Do you write the music first and only then think what the video will be like? Or is it the other way round?
We originally did it such that we only wrote the music and then shot videos for the DVD. Recently, though, it is perfectly common for the two to go hand-in-hand. So Steve comes along to say he has shot a video and we then write the music for it.
Do you adapt the music to the age of the children? After all, Wow!English materials are for children from between 3 and 11 years.
Yes. The children learn new grammar every year, so the songs can be a bit more complex. The approach to the music changes as well. In Wow!Silver, for example, you might notice that there is a far greater diversity of styles than in the materials before it. We tried some jazz, hip hop and harder rock, when we used electric guitars.
Has it ever happened that Steve would phone you up at midnight to say that he has a tune stuck in his head and needs you to write down the notes right away?
Not at midnight, no. It has happened early in the morning, though. He either came to see me or sent me a recording of him singing the song on the mobile.
Steve has said about the song-writing process that he must have been a difficult client for you because he was only able to describe in words or use actions to get across his musical ideas. Does it happen often that a client wants you to decipher his idea and write it down as notes?
The better the client guides me, the better we achieve the expected results. I only used to deal with non-verbal descriptions with Steve – with Czech clients we describe our ideas and expectations in words. But it is hard for Czechs to express what they expect too, to put a name to it.
Do you think there is some sort of melody memory that influences learning?
Definitely. And when you are able to compose an earworm, that’s a success. I try to make sure that people associate the music with Steve and Maggie. It is also linked to teaching, because songs work subliminally on learning. The children put the words together with the melody and learn them well. The combination of Steve’s eye-catching performances and catchy melodies is the main reason why our songs and videos are so popular.
Are you able to say how long it takes to write one song?
When everything sits well for myself and Steve, we can have it finished in a couple of hours. Other times it takes several days of work.
Does English have a different rhythm to Czech?
The stress in English is fairly open. English rhythm is similar to swing. In Czech, by contrast, the stress is on the first syllable.
Can you write music for children when you are feeling down, for example?
When you are down, you have the tendency to cheer yourself up. I am actually a terribly sad person (laughs). Writing music for children does not allow you to tune into negative thoughts. All Wow! songs always have to be absolutely happy. I have tried to put some sadder notes into a new song a couple of times, but so far it hasn’t made it past Steve.
You have made so many videos with Steve – are you not worried about repeating yourselves?
It does happen that a new song is very similar to one that we worked on for the first books. I help myself here by listening to the songs that we did in the past. I have set myself a personal goal of not repeating ourselves, so I try to avoid it. I think that it might happen in the future, though.
Would you teach your own children with Wow!English?
I would like to. I think it’s a very effective way of teaching and learning. I sometimes read comments on the Internet, just to get some feedback. I was most taken with the story of an autistic boy who almost didn’t speak, but who began to do so after watching videos with Steve. I was deeply moved by that.
What else are you working on?
I play in a jazz quartet with Jan Provazník on saxophone, František Kudláček on bass and Jan Prchal on drums. For the meantime we are mostly playing our own jazz in the Liberec area, but we do plan to go out into the world as well. Our immediate plan is to record an album. It is completely different to working for Wow!, which is a good thing because I don’t like sticking to just one style or mood of music. For me, as a composer, it is important to be in balance. I try to balance out the huge number of songs for children with more serious songs, which as it happens is great relaxation for me and which helps me move forward as an artist.
The interactive My Wow! portal really is worth a visit. There are plenty of fun videos with Steve, Maggie and Bobby and our application for Android and iOS means that you can play videos anytime and anywhere, without any adverts. Super, isn't it?