Wednesday, December 29, 2010

New American Masters Documentary: Glenn Gould

I'm thrilled that PBS has done a recent documentary on one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century. This absolutely worth viewing for music students and music lovers alike.

Watch the full episode. See more American Masters.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Home study products

Home study products

This, I imagine is the primary reason that many of you came to this blog. Home study products have become increasingly popular over recent times mainly because the cost to produce such items has decreased drastically. To be upfront; my interests are broad, but not without aims, my intention is to cover a wide range of products but keeping in mind that the end goal is to assist the student in developing superior skills, or at the very least; self improvement.  I have acquired many audio/video and internet courses which are all geared to learning music and it is my intention to pass the finer points of the programs along to you.

The first review will be a series of materials from the very famous vocal pedagogue; Brett Manning. Most people know him as the voice teacher to Taylor Swift and Hayley Williams of the band Paramore.  Mr. Manning (through his singing success website) offers a number of different products, all  of which are geared towards  making for clearer, stronger and more agile voices.  In order to give a completely genuine review I have been using the products on myself and feel that I am an adequate guinea pig due to my naturally narrow range, my long struggles with intonation and overall lack of any natural talent whatsoever.

This is one of the commercials from the singing success website
it features Hayley Williams of the band; Paramore.

The major problem with all of these reviews of which  I would like to remind the reader is that while I am using these products enthusiastically, I am still a student. As of writing this, I have been working with an instructor of Hindustani classical voice music for some time and his teachings have altered my perspective on instructing music greatly (Haresh Bakshi of . Therefore, it is important to keep in mind that while these home study materials might work extremely well, they are being tempered in my experience by the private studies which I am currently undertaking.

But that is the point, isn’t it? The idea of home study materials is supposed to supplement mentor-style learning and not to replace it. Therefore; please keep in mind; while I feel very strongly that students should be using modules and programs for themselves it is part of the greater learning experience. 

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Couple of Worthwhile (short) Articles

Music lessons pay off in higher earnings: poll

This is a Reuters article about a survey of high income earners and speculates on how music lessons might have contributed to their success, as it is a summary of the Harris study, it is only a few paragraphs long and certainly worth a look.If you would like to see the complete findings of the poll, you can look here:

Make-up Music Lessons from an Economist's Point of View, By Vicky Barham, Ph. D.

It is not uncommon for many parents to be confused as to why instructors of music lessons don't offer makeup lessons. The article by Dr. Barham goes some way to explaining why it really isn't possible or equitable to have an open reschedule policy.

Getting Started

Getting Started

I think it is safe to say that for learning any discipline belonging to music, the first necessary thing is a desire to do so. Once you have that desire the next step is finding someone who can help you along the way. But how to choose the right music-teacher? Its not an easy question unless you really know what you want to get out of lessons. So, before going to any free trial lessons or talking to any instructors its best to have the clearest possible image of what your goals are. When you know this, finding the right teacher for yourself (or your child) should be considerably easier.

Below are some general guidelines to consider based on the age of your child (or yourself). Also, keep in mind that this blog is primarily geared towards piano or voice lessons. I am not completely equipped to speak on the issue of bowed strings and for wind/brass instruments age plays a huge factor in getting started and many young and very young students simply don't have the blowing power to produce sound.

If you are the parent of a very young child (ages 3-5)

You will find some teachers who will take 5 year old students, but not many. In short, my opinion is that private lessons shouldn't really be considered for those under 6 years of age. My best recommendation would be to seek out some kind of class setting for youngsters. There are many wonderful group programs such as those taught through Yamaha schools as well as Koldlay and Kindermusic classes. These focus on games and simple music learning in a fun group environment that often includes parent interaction which is often very beneficial for all parties involved. It is not uncommon that by the end of a student's time in one of these programs they tend to move very quickly and overall do quite well in private lessons.

It might also be best to simply expose your child to art music as well as other cultural events. Children are very intuitive and it is amazing what they will pick up by watching a concert pianist or seeing a ballet. If you have the opportunity to allow them to experiment on a musical instrument this would also be a positive first step.

If you are the parent of a young child (ages 6-9)

Usually the goals for young children students of music are fairly straightforward; music is part of a complete education. To this end, it might be a good idea to ask the instructor if they are including the more “academic” concepts such as music history, music theory and repetition into lessons. Also (on the more general side of things), learning a skill such as singing or playing an instrument carries wonderful results in a young person's self esteem, and every parent wants that. This is also an age, however; where parents have to take a very honest look at their children and answer some fundamental questions: 1) how attentive is my child? 2) Is my child able to sit still for a half-hour? 3) Is my child easily frustrated? And, 4) how much help are they going to need from me in order to meet practice goals?

The purpose of these questions is not to discourage anyone, every music-teacher has had students who had very short attention spans, who couldn't sit still, got easily frustrated and could not practice on their own. In many cases students (with the right care and a good learning strategy) are able to overcome what might seem like an initial handicap, and very quickly, the skills they learn spill over into their other studies. It should also be kept in mind that every student has both strengths and challenges to face. The trick is to be very open with the instructor as to the difficulties you are having, that way the two of you can work out a plan for making music studies easier. Also, keep in mind that you really can't be too honest with the instructor, after all; nobody knows your child better than you and the more information her/his teacher has, the better lessons can be planned.

If you are the parent of a preteen (ages 10-12)

According to the World Health Organization; adolescence begins around age 10 (in its earliest stages) and ends somewhere around age 20 (source: From an educational standpoint, hitting the double digits means the beginning stages on the road to maturity.

In my opinion, goals for this age group should really be centered on empowering the student to take ownership of their educational journey and discovering that being self-motivated and self-staring yields very positive results (in addition to all of the other benefits listed in the above sections). For instance; instead of being told a story about the life of a composer, the instructor might recommend the student look up a biography online and have a discussion on the subject (rather than a lecture) the following week. Another consideration is that your child might have dreams of becoming famous and wealthy as a celebrity and she/he may want an educational experience which would prepare her/him for that kind of life. As an instructor, I am never really bothered by this, virtually every young person dreams of being famous, rich, beautiful and adored and this seems to be perfectly healthy behavior. If anything, this is a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate the amount of hard work it takes to master a task and let them know the road to stardom isn't an easy one.

If you are a teenager or the parent of a teenager (ages 13-18)

Much of what was discussed in the section on preteens pertains to the teenage student as well, except I would say it goes double for the older students. Teenage years can be a tough time for young people in general, but these days where kids are committed to not only music lessons but also sports, academics their social lives and finding time to take a breath, often practice time can take a back seat. Couple that with the fact that our sleep rhythms change in our teen years to favor staying up late and sleeping late and we see there is a potential for disaster when it comes to adding music lessons to the schedule. Students at this age should be (for the most part) wholly responsible for maintaining their lessons, they should be encouraged to keep their own practice logs, record their own playing/singing as well as share with their friends. They use these tools to self-assess and then discuss the findings in their weekly music lessons with their instructor in order to grow as students.

As far as goals go, students at this age are ready for relatively complex topics; advanced concepts in music theory or music history, perhaps composing or songwriting and support for any school ensembles in which they are participating. It is a very exciting time for those who have taken their studies seriously thus far, it is also a great opportunity for those to begin serious study as they are at the maturity level in their development to really understand commitment and individual responsibility.

For beginning teenage students of music: These students might feel left out or that they “missed” their golden age to start music lessons, especially if at the recital much younger students are playing more sophisticated material. For this reason, I would recommend a much more comprehensive approach to studying, one which focuses not only on traditional methods but also incorporates broader concepts such as improvisation and pattern-play which are usually too difficult for younger beginners. This can be a great confidence builder and often leads to development in skill that rivals those who have studied since early childhood.

If you are an adult learner

Adult learners are often seen by instructors as equals, in which case it might be good to come into lessons very honest about what you want to do. What are your long term goals? What are your short term goals? Is there a piece or a style of music you really want to learn? (keeping in mind it might be some time before you are ready to tackle it). In all, treat the relationship with your instructor the same you would treat any other professional relationship, commit to practice, listen to suggestions with an open mind and there is no reason you can't get everything you need from music lessons.

In the final analysis, please keep in mind that this is just a brief and very general list of advice I have given to parents over the years. Please don't hesitate to ask questions in the comment section and I will do my best to respond, especially if your issue has not been addressed.


For young learners

General development

Thursday, December 9, 2010

My Own Story

It has come up from time to time, parents or students ask me; “what was it like for you when you were studying music?” To which I reply; “I'm STILL studying music,” and I think I always will be. The truth is that the arts are way too big a subject to ever feel as though you could stop learning. At the time I am writing this I am a graduate student through the University of Sheffield's Master of Arts in World Music Studies programme, in addition to taking vocal performance and composition courses at the local community college. I also study privately for Hindustani voice and sitar (both with wonderful instructors). But I get the feeling that what parents/students are really asking is; “what was it like for you when you were YOUNG and studying music.” And this is something quite different than the litany of things listed above.

As a child I lived in Japan and in those days; playing the melodica (a keyboard like free-reed instrument you power by blowing through a tube) was taught to just about everyone. But I can't say that any part of me as a child was passionate about the melodica so I don't really count that as starting my music-studies. For that, I would have to flash forward to being 12 years old and coming up with the idea of being in a heavy metal band with my friends... I decided I would be the singer.

My mother knew a young man who possessed an incredibly beautiful voice and asked him if he would instruct me. Neither of my parents were musical so they had virtually no idea of what to look for in a voice-teacher. It turned out that although his singing was phenomenal, this young man had next to no experience teaching. He owned no piano or keyboard (which wouldn't matter because he could not play), we never warmed up, and in the course of one year we did approximately three songs which were poorly chosen for my skill level. All in all it was a very poor learning experience, although; one thing for which I will credit him is that he opened my eyes (and ears) to classical music and opera, which is something I have loved my entire life since.

It wasn't until I was 14 years old that I started going to a professional vocal instructor (I had also begun playing piano in that time). She was a full time teacher with a bachelor's degree in music education who had also been teaching private voice lessons for over 20 years.

I should break to mention that as a singer I greatly lacked in any natural ability whatsoever. Matching pitches was a near-impossible task for me, my sustained tone sounded like shouting and to top it off I possessed the range of about half of an octave (roughly 1/3 of a normal healthy voice). I am sure that if I would have auditioned for American Idol (assuming it existed in 1993) my performance would have surely made it to the “worst of” reel.

Over the next four years I worked very diligently on my music. I practiced at least an hour a day on my own, I joined the high school choir, and began acting/singing in community musical theater productions. Over this time my range expanded to close to two octaves, I was able to match pitches and developed vibrato in order to warm up my virtually non-existent tone. Studying piano helped greatly as well, as I started to understand music more and more my memory of notes and melody became more natural.

After graduating from high-school I auditioned for a vocal scholarship, which I was awarded. I had developed a passion for composition which consumed almost ever last bit of my attention and I therefore stopped singing in the community theater, although I continued in the college choirs. I did not resume my voice studies until I started working for Arizona Music Academy as a voice instructor. It was largely because I was encountering students who shared many of the challenges I faced as a young student and wanted to have a clear and concise way of overcoming those hurdles. Students taking up singing now are fortunate to be living in such a scientific age where there seems to be a multitude of options for studying any music. But it can also be difficult knowing where to begin where it seems like there are endless avenues. My next blog will be about advice on getting started.  

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Can Singing Be Taught?

It is the most common question parents/students have for voice teachers. You may have even searched this phrase in Google or Bing in order to find out what has been said on the subject, and who could blame you? After all, we have all heard over the course of our lives those individuals who (in our humble opinions) sounded downright awful. Perhaps they stood next to us in church during opening hymns or we heard them one night during a karaoke outing, or even viewing reruns of American Idol. We think to ourselves; “if singing can be taught, why can't these people learn to do it?” “did they not have the proper teacher?” “what method did they study?” “if it didn't work for them, how could that method work for me (or my child)?” - All of these are totally valid queries, in fact, it is largely because of questions like these that a veritable pantheon of singing methods have been created (especially in the last 20-30 years), and isn't it interesting that each school of thought claims to have the “silver bullet” to overcoming the nagging doubts we have all had about the original question of whether or not singing can be taught?  

It is no secret that we hold singing in a far different esteem than any other skill in existence. In the western world; no one expects you to be born knowing how to ride a bicycle, spell your name, read a book or do math. These are all things taught to you during your early education, children are taught these skills every day spending extensive amounts of time learning to do small tasks which eventually add to their overall skill-set. Yet, most schools devote only one to two days a week to music, in which there is very little regular singing. Imagine if a school devoted one day a week to math or writing, it seems implausible at best that any child would develop a proficiency in these subjects beyond the very remedial.

This leads me to my answer of the original question: Yes, singing can be taught, but it takes time. It takes as much time as it took to learn to read. You didn't go immediately from Bernstein Bears to The Great Gatsby, it took you about 10 years to build up the vocabulary, grammar and syntax - from roughly Kindergarten to 9th grade, to be able to digest such a novel and it took you more time than that to move onto Shakespeare and Montaigne.

Sadly, however; we don't view music in the same light.

It has been speculated (from the best-selling book: Outliers by Malcom Gladwell) that it takes approximately 10,000 hours to master any task. In musical terms; this means that if you practice for three hours a day six days a week it would take about 11 years to achieve a mastery of whatever endeavor you set out to accomplish. I hope this sheds some perspective on the process. I should add that I am not advocating students practice singing for three hours a day, every day. The amount of practice time will vary depending on what the student knows already and their vocal stamina (there is such a thing as too much practice for the voice).

Of course, it isn't as though you are awful for hours 1- 9,999 and then magically on hour 10,000 you sound like a professional. There is quantifiable progress along the way. Students might notice their range improving, or having a greater control over pitch, they may hear their tone becoming more warm, and their diction more clear. Often, these observations become apparent even between one lesson to another (so long as the practice is there).

One of the greatest singers in western history; Enrico Caruso
 did not start out perfectly hitting those high notes, it was
 something on which he worked his entire life

Now, on to the subject of methods. Bel Canto, Speech Level Singing, Alexander Technique and Vocal Release just to name a few. Which one is the best? Which one will work? The answer might surprise you but, in short, they ALL work. The truth is;  it is the matter of time spent working through the method that really matters here. It should be noted though that each method has its strengths and weaknesses and some methods will work better than others for students, this is based on what that student's goals are, not to mention their physical makeup and personality.

In the next few blogs I intend to take you through a strategy for plotting out your voice study and hopefully give you a few pointers for help along the way. This will include reviews of singing methods based on my success of using it with myself and students. I will also be recommending videos, practice schedules, song-literature and books with detailed descriptions of why I feel it is useful.

You have decided on a very exciting journey. It is an incredibly satisfying thing to be able to sing and be confident in your own voice and I hope I can be some help along the way.  

Sunday, December 5, 2010


I just started this blog... Stay tuned for reviews, tools, updates and videos which I hope will aide you in your journey towards fluency in music.