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The pandemic boosted sales for a Red Deer music supply business that now sells in 27 countries

Business exploded when classrooms went digital: Themes and Variations owner Denise Gagne

Soundtracks and melody lines for songs sung in classrooms all over the world are produced on Red Deer’s Riverside Drive, at Themes and Variations/Music Play.

The Red Deer business supplies recordings and a bevy of other music resources to millions of Pre-K to Grade 6 music students in 27 countries — from Korea to India and the United Kingdom.

But unless you are a music teacher, or among the local musicians and singers who were hired over the years to make these downloadable tunes — you likely won’t have heard of the business, officially called Themes and Variations DBA (doing business as) Music Play.

Owner and founder Denise Gagne admitted she was shocked to see interest in her business explode during the pandemic. Her many diverse products — from worksheets and games to teacher evaluation tools and lesson plans— were in high demand as schools went digital to reduce viral spread.

With in-person music workshop requests now pouring in from as far as Australia, Scotland and Malaysia, Gagne said she could never have imagined her little music publishing business would be such as hit.

“I am pinching myself every day that I have created something this wildly popular.”

Today, some 15,ooo international schools across the globe that educate an estimated 4- to 10-million students are subscribing to use Themes and Variations’ online resources.

The store and recording studio had only six staffers when it opened in 20o5. Now 18 experts are employed — among them a video editor, recording engineer, graphic designer, a concert-pianist-turned-games-designer, a composer/operations manager, and more sales, customer support and office staff.

Gagne, a 66-year-old Campbell River B.C. native, acknowledged that she was always musical. As a child, she recalled, “my parents wanted us to be the next von Trapp family so we got dragged all over” to sing at community halls across Vancouver Island.

After her father died in his early 50s, her mother was left to raise their six children on her own, making extra cash by playing the church organ at weddings and funerals.

Gagne went on to study music on scholarships at the University of Victoria and later got an education degree. Her first job was as a music teacher in Macklin, Sask., where she was dismayed by the lack of available resources for band teachers and students.

To help fill this gap, she published some of her own music theory books and worksheets for beginner school bands. Gagne was pleased to see them adopted for use by other music teachers.

But, while her publisher was happy to accept books for high school and middle school music students, Gagne’s submission for elementary music students was rejected.

As a result, she brought a desktop computer and laser printer in 1989 and began self-publishing, selling her lesson plans and books on how to evaluate younger students’ progress on recorders, ukuleles etc.

After moving to Red Deer in 1992 with her husband and their three children, Gagne attended a teacher’s convention in Edmonton and noticed a line-up “out the door” for educational games. This sparked the idea of designing and incorporating music-based games and into her business, which was then operating out of her garage.

Soon Gagne began hiring local singers and musicians — including talented siblings Mandy and Morgan McKee and Curtis Phagoo and his wife Andrea — to record ditties that elementary students could sing in their music classes, with or without live piano accompaniment. Special programs for Christmas concerts and assemblies were also produced.

Gagne was selling out all of the materials she had brought to a conventions and workshops.

By the early 2000s, after her residential neighbours complained about all the trucks dropping off supplies to her garage, she opened the store on Riverside Drive — which, she said, turned out to be a great move.

Now the business goal is to expand to 20,000 subscribers — and potentially branch out into supplying resources for mathematics and language classes.

Gagne, who hopes her three children will eventually sit on an advisory board for the operation, is passing day-to-day operations to chief administrator Careylyn Holt. Gagne said she intends to focus on the things she most likes to do, like leading workshops.

“The three most dangerous four words for me are: I have an idea,” she added, with a chuckle.

Noting that a few entrepreneurs tried unsuccessfully to launch similar businesses, Gagne said, “We’re the really lucky exception.”

She believes the main prerequisites for success are developing a thick skin, and having a supportive spouse, willing to help raise your kids and support your venture.

You also have to put in a lot of long hours, she added — as many as it takes.

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