"Circuit Training" Music LessonsThey’re not all the same but every now and again you meet a teenager determined to fit the stereotype. With so much hair over their face you’re not actually sure what they look like, their shoulders are dropped so low their hands are practically touching the floor and all questions are met with an obligatory “dunno” response (if you’re lucky)!

Were we ever like that? I’m sure many of today’s finest musicians had their moments as teenagers and I would like to just say that many of the teenagers I’ve taught have been highly “switched on” and motivated. But how can we inspire even the most apathetic student?

Enter something I’ve been trying out I call “Music Lesson Circuit Training!”

Now I need at this point to warn you that Read more…

Read More » Comments (8)

Posted in Music Theory, Professional Development, Teaching Tips

Anna at CSU Outdoor PianoHere are some ideas to move your studio forward this summer:

Hold a sight-reading challenge. Set out good sight-reading books from your library for students to choose from each week. Give out prizes at the end of summer for reading a certain number of pages.

Host a summer camp. You could hold your camp one day a week for a month, or four to five days in one week. It could be to attract new students, or a fun intensive for current students. I like “Way Cool Keyboarding” books by Musical Moments for great ensemble playing with beginners.

Attend a concert and invite your students. Give your students “points” in the fall for each concert they attend over the summer. Email notices of upcoming events in your area, especially free events for kids. There will be a free “Peter and the Wolf” performance in my local park in a few weeks, so I sent a flier out to all my families.

Get out all the fun music. Take a break from your regular repertoire and find something different and exciting to learn this summer.

Prepare for fall competitions. This is the time to polish up pieces that need to be ready to go in October or November. For ideas, see my blog on “Preparing for an Event or Competition.”

Organize your music and files. Check for overdue borrowed books. Label and file new music. Enter new music into your Music Teacher’s Helper library. I use cardboard magazine boxes on my bookshelves to organize my music into labeled categories, so that I can find books quickly.

Order a new computer or iPad game.  Learn to use it yourself this summer so you can use it in your media lab this fall. Check out “The iPad Piano Studio” by Leila Viss.

Attend a workshop or seminar. Local colleges or music stores often host guest artists or speakers. Consider traveling a little to immerse yourself in a blues workshop, or an improvisation seminar.

Recruit new students. This is the time of year parents are looking for a music teacher to begin lessons in the fall. Make sure you are on top of your marketing strategies. For marketing ideas check out my blog on “How Do You Attract New Students?”

Try out Music Teacher’s Helper. If you don’t already use this fabulous tool, summer would be a great time to learn all it can do for your studio and your sanity!

Plan your studio budget. I swear I only make $.03 per hour after you take into consideration all the time I spend outside of lessons, and the number of “toys” it takes to keep me having fun teaching. But seriously, summer is a great time to plan for the money aspect of the next school year. List your projected expenses, and then calculate how many students you need, and what you need to charge for lessons this coming year.

Think through individual student needs. Summer is a great time to ponder each student, make a list of their personal strengths and weaknesses, and how you can best move them forward.

Decide on your “theme” for the coming year. My students are on a mission to find out what our theme will be for next year! Read my blog on “Themes Add Focus to Your Teaching” for more about how this can enhance your school year.

Look into Michelle Sisler’s games and motivational tools. Michelle is so creative! Every year she comes out with more and better ideas. Check them out at http://keystoimagination.com.

Get your instrument tuned and repaired. If you have been putting off this task, now is the time to get everything in tip top condition.

Learn new music. You could read through new music for ideas for your students, or brush up on some higher level pieces you will be assigning. You could also spend more time on your own musical repertoire.

Read a book. I am enjoying the book “Make it Stick” by Peter C. Brown, recommended on this blog site. If you can’t attend a seminar, a book is an inexpensive way to update and expand your thinking on a particular subject.

Get healthy. I’m serious. It is the only way you are going to live through next winter and withstand all the germs that are going to be traveling through your studio. Summer is a great time to make changes in your health habits.

Rest and refresh your spirit. Summer is a great time to take time for you! Do something you love but never get time for. Get outdoors, take a mini vacation, enjoy your kids and family, or just sit and enjoy the beautiful sunshine and be grateful for all you have been given.

Read More » Comments (6)

Posted in Music & Technology, Professional Development, Promoting Your Studio, Studio Management, Teaching Tips, Using Music Teacher's Helper

‘How unmusical is Man?’*

If music is intrinsic to humans as a species, hounmusical blindw can some people be so apparently ‘unmusical’? And what (if anything) can we do to help ‘unmusical’ students when they present themselves in your choir or in the teaching studio?

In last month’s post, I talked about some of the differences between so-called ‘musical’ people and people who appear to be ‘unmusical’, and I described two (imperfect, but I hope still useful) categories of apparently ‘unmusical’ singers:

I. Students who sing out of tune; and

II. Students who cannot sing in tune.

In the first category, I put singers who usually sing in tune but sometimes sing out of tune, and I discussed a few of the many technical reasons why these tuning problems sometimes arise in an otherwise well-functioning voice in a generally musical person. Please see my May 2014 blog “Teaching ‘Unmusicality’ – Part I” for more discussion.


II. Students who cannot sing in tune

tune micThis month, I’m going to talk about the type of singers I would put in the second category – singers who are unable to sing in tune, and appear not to be able to ‘match pitches’ accurately or reliably when they turn up for lessons.

I should say here that, although there is a lot of science behind our understanding of so-called ‘tone deafness’ and ‘pitch matching’ (type those words into Google Scholar and be amazed), my comments here derive primarily from my own experience of addressing these issues with singers I meet in community choirs and through my teaching studio.

For a good introduction to the science behind tone-deafness, or ‘amusia’ / dysmusia’ as it is sometimes called, I would recommend this article by Julie Ayotte, Isabelle Peretz and Krista Hyde in the journal Brain.)  (Ref: http://brain.oxfordjournals.org/content/125/2/238.full)


Tone-deafness: part of what it means to be human?

Students who appear to have no sense of pitch – those whom we might call ‘tone deaf’ – profoundly challenge our assumptions that human beings are ‘naturally’ musical. If music is an intrinsic part of what it means to be human, how do unmusical people come about, and what, if anything, can we teachers do with them?

Despite our belief that we are a naturally musical species, there are in fact many people who cannot sing in tune, and who demonstrate this perceptual difference in a number of typical ways. I’ll talk about three of the ones I have come across in my work in this post. Please add your own in the comments below!


1. The Generalist

generalist fallacThe most common type in the students I have worked with in community choir settings are those who sing entirely outside the desired key area.

When asked to repeat a melody or to sing along with me or with a group, these singers will have the words and usually the rhythms in the right place, but their pitch response will be unspecific, may be predominantly monotone, and may only demonstrate slight fluctuations in pitch when the true melody goes up or down.

I’ll call these singers ‘The Generalists’ since the sounds they produce seem to me to be part of an impulse to sing along, but to do so generally as part of a shared musical experience, rather than with the details of the melody in mind.

These singers are sometimes unaware that they are in the wrong place, and sometimes unsure if they are correct. There may be some residual awareness that something is wrong in their response in relation to the group, but they won’t be able to say exactly what, and they may not notice the discrepancy all of the time.

To my ear, it appears that The Generalists are probably doing either or both of one or two things: they are either (1) hearing melodies through a kind of mental filter that seems to condense the musical material as it comes in, or (2) if they are hearing discrete pitches, they are filtering and condensing as part of their vocal response as they reproduce these sounds through singing.

The Generalists also sometimes respond to ascending pitch patterns by singing more loudly, which to me is especially interesting; it suggests that they recognize that something is changing when a melody goes up, and they register this changes as a shift in intensity, but not in discrete pitches. They may also be hearing the increase in pitch but responding with an increase in physical intensity expressed through their breath (they ‘push harder’) which will make their singing louder.


2. The Skiers

lone skierA second type of singer, related to the Generalist but different in key ways, is the singer who can sing across a range of pitches, and whose voice correctly modulates up and down, but who nevertheless struggles to produce clearly differentiated notes with a scale area or melody.

When asked to repeat a scale played on the piano, for example, these singers will often respond with an undulating, sometimes siren-like, sound that may roughly correspond to the real range of the scale, but that will nevertheless lack the melodic ‘steps on the ladder’ – of the scale.

At other times, they start on a discrete single pitch, but when they move away it will not be by melodic step, but by sliding away from the first note, with equal volume both on and between the pitches.

I will call these singers ‘Skiers’, since they are crossing the right general pitch territory, but they habitually slide over, rather than pause on, the discrete notes in the scale or melody.


3. The Talkers

talking bubbleMy third category of singers who cannot sing in tune is those singers who sing quite well in certain parts of their range, but ‘ski’ or ‘generalize’ in the outer areas of their range. I will call these singers ‘The Talkers’, since the part of their range in which their singing is in tune is their speaking range. Their singing is like enhanced talking, and when they move out of this familiar part of their range, they lose the ability to match pitch.

If these singers sing only repertoire with a limited pitch range, and especially if they sing in styles that favour a speech-like sound (such as blue grass, blues, folk, rap, or some pop music), their inability to sing in tune in their upper register may go undetected.

These singers are interesting to me because it suggests that their ability to be precise with their voice functions very well when they are speaking. Singing out of this range requires a different laryngeal movement, however, and this change seems to be enough to make them feel disoriented and detached from their voice.


To tune in or to tune out? – That is the question

question markSo what, if anything, can music teachers do to help these singers?

Is the inability to sing in tune simply an inherited trait that cannot be changed, or is there something that can be done to help people who are considered to be tone-deaf, but who would like to improve as singers?

Preliminary diagnosis

I am certainly no expert in this area, and I would recommend that those interested read the literature on various forms of ‘amusia’ /’dysmusia’ and related conditions, to get a fuller picture of how professionals might deal with these conditions outside of the context of a music lesson.

But in my own work, I have seen some definite similarities between the Generalists, Skiers, and Talkers. I’ve also noticed a couple of key differences between the ‘unmusical’ and the ‘musical’ singers (see my May 2014 post for more of this different). In all cases, in my work, these singers seem to exhibit the following characteristics: 

1. the singers do not hear the details in music

2. the singers are not comfortable with the instrument of their voice.

3. the singers show a lack of coordination between their ear and their voice. Curiously, their speech is normal and they modulate correctly in the ‘tune’ of a normal sentence. But there is a separation between the two when it comes to their singing.

Have you met students like this in your teaching studio? Next month I will be offering some suggestions of techniques I have used to help people to learn to sing in tune. In the mean time, I’ll look forward to reading about your experiences with musically challenged students in the comments below!

* with apologies to John Blacking (‘How musical is Man?’ 1973)

Read More » Comments (6)

Posted in Professional Development, Teaching Tips

How often to do you evaluate the value of something verse the cost of something?

A Quick Story

Back in 2006, I paid $100 for a pair of Johnston & Murphy black leather dress shoes. Johnston & Murphy has a reputation for excellent craftsmanship and durability. This was one of the most expensive pairs for sale at Macy’s that day. Being in college at the time, I normally would grab the least expensive pair priced at $60 (I forget what brand). But I took a step back and thought about all the upcoming times I would be needing nice dress shoes – my brother’s wedding, my graduation, and future work. I wondered if that $60 pair was going to be the right shoe to wear for years to come. The Johnston & Murphy’s were more comfortable and felt higher-quality.

I asked an employee in the shoe department how many years each pair would last if worn consistently. He said the less expensive pair would last three years max and the Johnston & Murphy’s are known to be worn 10+ years by their owners.  That made my decision easy. Why would I choose to spend almost twice the amount of money, plus two additional shopping trips for a less comfortable shoe over a 10 year period?

Fast forward to 2014. I wear that same pair of shoes several times a week. They are starting to show their age after eight years but I consider them to still be in good condition. That fostered a new mindset for me about always considering the value of something on top of the cost.
Read more…

Read More » Comments (4)

Posted in Professional Development, Studio Management, Using Music Teacher's Helper

For many private lesson music teachers, summer is a slower time of year. That’s why it’s a perfect time to be productive about managing your studio for the upcoming busy season. If you aren’t a current user of Music Teacher’s Helper (or haven’t heard of us!), let’s examine why right now is a perfect time to take advantage of our free trial.shutterstock_92215372

Gradual adoption

It’s easy to add a student, schedule a lesson, then automatically invoice using our software. But that’s just the “tip of the iceberg” with what you can do. You may want to learn about the lending library, repriotore tracker, mileage input, and any number of other features that enhance the studio experience for you and your students. And there’s lots of great training support to do just that. With written articles, video tutorials, live webinars, and even personal setup support, you can go at your own pace to familiarize yourself with the features that you will be using for your studio. If summer is indeed a slower time, now is your chance to set up your studio administration for a smooth busy season.

Add content to your free studio website

Music Teacher’s Helper provides professional website themes for you to choose from that you customize with a logo and content. Build exposure and credibility with a website just for your studio.

Doing this over the summer will give you time to focus on what content you’ll want to include.  You can add links, videos, and pictures easily. No website experience needed.

Every studio website also has a blog feature. Have you created a Facebook or Twitter account to promote your studio but struggle with what to post? Blogging helps market your studio because they show up in search engines like Google and can be spread across multiple social media networks. Good content gets shared and drives visitors to your studio website, where they’ll learn more about your services.

No long-term commitments

Our monthly pricing plans allow you to move up or down based on how many students you currently have in your studio. There is even a forever free plan available for up to five students. And waiting list or former students do not count towards that total.

Do you know which students are coming back at the end of the summer? Add them into the software now as a former student and convert them to active with a click of a button. Since you already added their information, lesson rate, etc., just schedule them on the calendar. They can then receive email lesson reminders (we have different profiles for child and adult students), a custom invoice with option to pay with a credit card, and after the lesson, you can type notes about how they did for yourself, or allow the student/parent to see the notes as well.

Summer vacation is a time for you to recharge and refocus as you prepare for another group of students. If you set up Music Teacher’s Helper now, you will be able to concentrate more on teaching your students in the fall.

Click Here For Main Website & Signup.


Read More » Comments (6)

Posted in Professional Development, Promoting Your Studio, Using Music Teacher's Helper

Hopefully you will never have to ponder this heartbreaking question. Thankfully, most issues can be resolved with better communication and clear boundaries. It usually takes a lot of misbehavior to even consider dismissing a student, but even small things can add up to a big headache and energy drain over time. The following situations are always a challenge:

  • Student does not show up for lessons or is consistently late.
  • Frequent cancellations, especially at the last minute.
  • Unworkable sports schedule conflicts.
  • Parents pay late or not at all.
  • Student has a disrespectful attitude.
  • Student does not practice. Ever.
  • Student is not willing to try. Doesn’t want to be there.
  • Student frequently forgets to bring her books.
  • Parents do not offer encouragement and support at home.
  • Parents do not provide an adequate instrument on which to practice.
  • Student never participates in studio activities.
  • Student does not care for or return borrowed materials.
  • Student does not listen to direction, and refuses to attempt new ways of doing things.
  • You cannot seem to find the right pathway into a student’s brain to get him to learn and remember certain skills from week to week.
  • The parents’ expectations are miles apart from your reality.
  • Parent offers continual criticism.

When does the time come to say goodbye? Ultimately only you can answer that question within in the context of the particular situation, but here are some things you might want to ask yourself before “firing” a student. Read more…

Read More » Comments (8)

Posted in Professional Development, Studio Management, Teaching Tips

Watching is better than listeningIf you’re anything like me, it can be really challenging encouraging students to listen properly to their performance whilst at the same time playing (or singing).

The other day, one of my beginner pupils made the all too familiar statement: “I can’t hear a tune!” Yet any other person listening would have, like me, surely been able to make out the strains of Beethoven’s famous “Ode to Joy!”

So why then can it be so hard to actually hear what you are playing whilst in mid performance? And more importantly, how can students be encouraged to “hear” what is “good, bad and ugly” in their playing or singing so that they can improve?

The answer lies in two facts:

  1. most humans are better at understanding what they can see rather than what they can hear
  2. the process of trying to listen properly whilst at the same time read the music and physically play or sing is at best, extremely complex

So what’s the solution?

A simple method to assist students is to Read more…

Read More » Comments (5)

Posted in Music & Technology, Performing, Practicing, Professional Development, Teaching Tips

‘How musical is Man?’

musical manIs musicality ‘natural’ to humans? As a culture, we certainly describe music as something that is somehow ‘innate’ to humans as a species, or at the very least we think of music an especially effective, and deeply rooted, natural mode of human communication. ‘Where words fail, music speaks’ (Hans Christian Anderson), we might quote, or ‘Music tames the savage breast’ (Shakespeare), or ‘Life without music is a mistake’ (Nietzsche). We know we feel better when we make music, in particular with others, whether we play in an orchestra, sing in a choir, or simply jam at home with family or friends.

What is more, our media is brimming with references to new scientific studies confirming how participation in music benefits human health; turning these results around, it seems a small step to take to assume that human health ‘requires’ or is naturally designed to include some form of musical activity. As the anthropologist John Blacking famously posited ‘There is so much music in the world that it is reasonable to suppose that music, like language and possibly religion, is a species-specific trait of man’ (Blacking, 1973, p. 7).

We have all worked with students who appear to have be born able effortlessly to remember melodies, beat even rhythms, sing in tune, and in some cases even move fluidly from one instrument to another with very little additional instruction. We call these students ‘musical’, and it is always a thrill when a new student begins to sing or play for us for the first time and the evidence of this natural propensity for music begins effortlessly to flow.

Not musical enough?

keyboard 1And yet, every music teacher will have had at least one student who is not ‘naturally musical’. For some teachers, it may be the child who cannot immediately match pitch, while for others it may be an adult who, despite a great passion for music and a lifetime of listening, nevertheless struggles to beat four in evenly spaced units of time.

If, as our mythologies of human musicality suggest, Man is ‘naturally’ musical, where do these apparently ‘unmusical’ students come from? What can, and indeed should, we do for our apparently ‘unmusical’ students, and what, if anything, can they offer us as teachers? Read more…

Read More » Comments (6)

Posted in Professional Development, Teaching Tips

A while ago, I blogged about online lessons wondering if they were for the birds.  Since then I’vephoto-2 begun my online training with Bradley Sowash in pursuit of playing in various styles beyond the page. Some may call what I’m learning “Jazz” but it’s more than that. Jazz is not just a style of music but a uniquely American approach to creating music which can be applied to any style.

In an effort to journal my progress I usually record myself showing my best efforts AFTER I’ve practiced and perfected my improvisation assignment from Bradley. He continues to challenge me with his online, methodical and expert instruction. With limited time to practice, I decided I’d come clean and let you in on the photo-3somewhat messy process BEFORE “perfection” or let’s say “close to perfection” occurs.

What you’ll see in the video below shows how I tolerated cleaning my bathroom–not my favorite chore–by allowing myself periodic breaks to practice. Come to think of it, this would be a good way to encourage my students to practice. Parents could offer two options: practice or clean a bathroom! Read more…

Read More » Comments (8)

Posted in Composing & Arranging, Music & Technology, Practicing, Professional Development

20140414-102115.jpgWhat a great time I had at this year’s MTNA National Conference in Chicago. This was my third MTNA National Conference. The biggest highlight for me was certainly having the opportunity to present a Showcase session for Music Teachers Helper! It was a wonderful experience and I enjoyed sharing my tips. It was also great to meet many people afterwards at the booth. Many people said they were already using Music Teachers Helper, and I was glad to be able to answer some questions regarding various scheduling and billing features. If you missed the showcase (there was an iPad giveaway!), you may like to check out the presentation slides I created (minus the fun animations and transition effects).

If you are a regular conference attendee, you no doubt know that at any given one time, there are usually many different sessions going on at the same time, sometimes as many as 9! This makes it very difficult to choose what session to attend! This year, I made a point to attend different sessions than the ones I normally would have chosen. I also made a point to meet people whose names I recognize. I made new friends, including MTH Marketing Director, Andrew Nicoletta and fellow MTH blogger, Leila Viss. It was also very nice to take a mini vacation from my usual teaching routine. :)

One trend I have noticed at recent conferences is the celebration of original compositions by living composers. At the 2012 Conference in New York, I heard the east coast premier of Lowell Liebermann’s Sonata for Two Pianos, Op. 117 – with Liebermann himself in attendance! At the 2013 conference in Anaheim, CA, the opening concert by the Ahn Trio included many works by contemporary living composers, commissioned by the trio. This year, I attended the session “From The Pen to the Premiere” for the first time, and heard beautiful new chamber music commissioned by MTNA Collaborative Commissioning Project, featuring new trios by acclaimed American composers Phillip Keveren and Wynn-Anne Rossi.

Both trios encourage the study of chamber music that is accessible to intermediate level musicians. Skyscraper19947241 by Wynn-Anne Rossi is a trio for clarinet, alto saxophone and piano. Petite Voyage by Phillip Keveren is written for trumpet, trombone and piano in F Major.  You can read a full review of Wynn-Anne’s Skyscraper here. I think this is a wonderful initiative of MTNA, to commission new works by composers of our time. This is definitely a session I will be attending in future conferences, and next time, I am going to get autographs of the composers I meet to show my students (thanks to a new conference friend, Melody Lee Stroth for that idea!)

If you have read some of my previous reviews, you already know that I am a big fan of Wynn-Anne Rossi’s works! I finally got to meet her in person, and she is just like her music – full of spirit, creativity, light, and positive energy! I attended her session for one of Alfred‘s three showcases, and it was so much fun to hear her talk about her new series “One of a Kind Solos.”


with Alfred composer Wynn-Anne Rossi at MTNA National Conference in Chicago

This new supplementary series comes in four books, from Elementary to Intermediate, and represents a personal journey with music. Wynn-Anne talked about where she got the inspirations for some of the pieces, and how she was trying to think of things that were meaning to her when she was a kid. Each piece has a story behind it, and challenges the student with musical as well as technical surprises such as odd meters, unusual modes, and various pianistic devices. Here are some examples: Read more…

Read More » Comments (3)

Posted in Product Reviews, Professional Development