In the Meet Our Musicians series, Jellynote introduces you to the Creators behind the sheet music on our platform. Discover their musical style and get to know them!
Even in lockdown, Dan Nicholson is a busy man. Between teaching his current pupils and expanding his business, I have no idea how he manages to fit me in for an interview. Well I do…but it involves getting up at 5am and this is not something I’m prepared to do.
He calls me from his home office.
“This is my man cave,” he says, something I raise my eyebrow at.
He currently lives in Wales, in a northern village, that I can’t possibly spell and therefore won’t try to. Though he’s not Welsh. Dan’s musical journey began in Norwich and the path leading him to where he is now has as many twists and turns as an Agatha Christie novel.
Check out Dan’s Creator page to download his sheet music!
Dan’s first foray into music was as a Suzuki classical pianist, which involves very strict training, having his first lesson at the age of three – though even before this he was attending percussion groups as a toddler, which instilled a sense of rhythm within him.
Though he wasn’t particularly inspired by the Suzuki way of learning, coming close to giving the instrument up at the age of 11.
“I felt disillusioned with the instrument,” he tells me, “it was too formal for my personality.”
Thankfully, his parents had the inspired idea of switching him from formal classical training to more relaxed jazz learning, a decision which he believes saved his musical career. Dan developed as a jazz musician throughout his teens, going on to successfully gain a place at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (RWCMD), one of the UK’s most prestigious music colleges.
Considering applying to a conservatoire? Check out our article on how to ace the audition.
It wasn’t always clear which path Dan would take though:
“That decision only really came when I was in my mid to late teens, where I had a divergence between music and sport”. I shudder at the mention of ‘sport’.
“Don’t tell me you wanted to do sports professionally?!”, I say, with a hint of disgust.
“I could do two things – music and sport. Everything else was supplementary. It was going to be one or the other,” he tells me, “when I was asked questions about my career the answers tended to be more music based.”
Thus, Dan realised that sport was a hobby, but music was his passion.
Check out Dan’s arrangement of Do you want to build a snowman and other songs from Disney’s Frozen
This became clear at university, where Dan flourished. He initially studied jazz piano, minoring in classical piano. Inspired by his classical piano teacher, however, he decided to return to classical music at the end of his first year, becoming the first student ever to do so.
Struggling to keep up? So am I…
“I carried on doing the jazz piano on a more casual basis, but threw myself into classical, which made my second year an absolute nightmare, but gave me a much broader experience from the course itself,” he says.
In hindsight, this decision was perfect, allowing him to study jazz in a less formal setting, retaining its creativity. Meanwhile, he greatly improved his academic and technical side through classical piano lessons.
Check out our selection of piano sheet music on Jellynote!
He was clearly greatly inspired throughout his degree and gained some valuable skills, though he does have one criticism of the course.
“Most musicians leave without having a very defined career path,” he tells me, “they have to forge everything themselves.”
He explains to me that music often leads to a portfolio career – a career that involves multiple professions to gain a regular income, such as teaching students, accompanying other musicians, making recordings etc. Though this is something few musicians are made aware of when graduating.
Dan faced this same difficulty after graduating. Though he didn’t let it get the better of him. After moving to London, he threw himself into anything he could get his hands on, splitting his time between performing and offering private lessons. He quickly found that London was inundated with wannabe musicians, his waitlists reaching 20 to 30 students. This led him to building his teaching business – Cadenza Music Tuition. There was no way he could teach all these students so he decided to approach newly graduated musicians, offering them clients, and advice from his four years of music teaching.
Are you a music teacher looking for students? Check out our blog on how find music students in your local area.
“Over time, that’s evolved into something that is more sustainable in the long term,” he explains to me.
Nowadays, Dan runs Cadenza fulltime from Cardiff, though this has meant less time for his own performing.
“Being a musician doesn’t adhere to that domestic life style which is the area of life I’m moving into now,” he informs me.
Check out the sheet music Dan wrote for Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen
This meant leaving London, but Dan doesn’t have any regrets about this.
“It was a practical decision. It was getting to the point where I was thinking – this place (London) is really fast, really busy. I wanted to go somewhere closer home and settle down in the long term.”
Far from the image of a free spirit, still living in his parents’ basement, Dan, with his wife, house and business, has established a life for himself through his music. This may not have been his original plan, but going to music college changed his expectations slightly.
“You go to music college and you have all these ambitions and dreams. Over time, things become more realistic. You realise that you’re not as special as you were in your home town,” he tells me.
And so, he threw himself into the deep end, and seems very happy with how things turned out. In fact, it was because of this desire to develop himself professionally that he stayed on to do a masters in music performance, which included tailored modules allowing him to focus on different areas, such as music education and music psychology. He admits that he might not be able to run his business as successfully had it not been for those years.
Teaching students certainly comes with difficulties, particularly younger students who tend to try and take shortcuts, especially when it comes to reading sheet music, which can require a lot of hard work for little immediate outcome. According to Dan, the best way to do this is to inspire his students, making learning middle C seem like the most fascinating thing in the world.
Perhaps the most unique part of his business is his style of teaching, which reflects his own musical background – a mixture of jazz, classical and pop. He takes a multi-disciplinary approach to teaching, combining the rigorous techniques of classical piano and the improvisation and experimental elements of jazz.
“Going right the way back to my foundations, the thing that almost made me gave up as a musician was having a very narrow, focused approach to music, whereas my approach is the exact opposite of that,” he tells me excitedly, “it’s taking a much broader view, merging different areas of music that perhaps previously wouldn’t have been considered.”
In the mood for some Stevie Wonder? Check out Dan’s sheet music for Isn’t She Lovely for the piano
He explores this merging of different styles in his own, personalised teaching books, which have a very unusual origin story…
“One of my pupils lost his book so I had to photocopy his piece as an interim measure,” he tells me, relishing the story, “it was only in the lesson that I realised I’d missed off the last bar on each line. So I made it seem as if it was intentional at the time. I got the student to compose the last bar of each line,” he says triumphantly. He’s got a point…it is a rather genius idea.
It was on his bike ride between lessons that he realised he might be onto something.
The idea of composing the rest of a piece isn’t found in other music books. So Dan wrote more pieces with bars missing, a pedagogical technique which eventually became the basis for his series of ‘missing-bar books.’
Just like that he found his universal selling point. He’s written three books so far, one for Beginners, one for Improvisers and one for Duets. He’s self-publishing them at the moment with the intention to release them to the public once they’re at a level he’s happy with. All of them feature elements of improvisation and composition, something he thinks is lacking in current music practise books.
“Some things happen completely by chance. A rubbish photocopy turned into a self-publication project.”
“I’m expecting a free copy,” I tell him.
“Sure…no problem at all.”
Dan’s life has changed significantly in the years since graduation and it will, no doubt, continue to do so. That said, he plans to continue teaching and developing his brand of teaching. Who knows where the business will be in ten years’ time? I, for one, can’t wait to find out.
If you could have a dinner party with three musicians, dead or alive, who would they be?
Beethoven – I think he’d be fascinating because he’s just completely off the rails.
Herbie Hancock because he’s awesome. He’s like ‘Mr Cool Jazz.’
J. S. Bach – he’s like the founder of modern day western classical music. Meeting someone who’s 200 years ahead of their time would be fascinating.
Oscar Peterson – the jazz musician. He sounds like a really funny guy!
And Frédéric Chopin. He’s probably my favourite classical composer.
That’s more than three, but I’ll let it slide. What would they be like in the room together?
I think there’d be a humungous amount of debate. Beethoven would be the rebel of the group. He’d cause a lot of arguments.
Where do you fit in?
I’m playing the jazz in the background! I’m not getting involved.
What song do you listen to when you’re happy?
Something by Sergei Prokofiev. He didn’t conform to rules and his music really reflects that!
And when you’re sad?
What’s your favourite music memory?
I did a charity concert in my last week in Cardiff before moving to London. I played a lot of the material I did at my masters recital, but the setting was much less formal. Just an audience of people smiling and clapping. It was a really nice happy ending to six years of solid, intense studying. It’s the happiest I’ve been as a performing musician.