Learning is not linear

So, I'm now teaching middle school.

Following a calling is an incredible thing. I've found that it's best to not ask why I feel called to do something - I've just got to do it. Not that I'm impulsive, necessarily - I believe, as Rilke says in Letters to a Young Poet, that things grow within us without our awareness before they seem to spring up out of nowhere in our lives. The roots of this project go deep, even though a mere five months ago it was unknown even to me.

In order to best serve my students, I prepared. I researched curriculum. I reviewed the finer points of quadratics and quadrilaterals, colloids and covalents, appositives and apostrophes. I developed a daily schedule, put together a ton of IKEA furniture, and meditated on my vision for the school year.

Man, was I in for a surprise.

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How to listen like a musician

When I was a kid, in those long moments when my mom would not! get off! the phone! to shower me with attention and answer whatever trivial and random question I had, I would lounge around and do the strange things kids do when they are bored. I developed a game in which I would lean my head upside down off the sofa or staircase and imagine an upside-down world where the ceiling was the floor and the floor was the ceiling. I visualized myself walking upon the sloping "floor" and passing by the chandeliers, floating upon their chains like strange metal trees.

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Start at the end

Here we go! Another one of Casey's ridiculously counter-intuitive posts. Start at the end. It doesn't get more contrarian than that, does it?

This is the way I was taught to practice, and I continue to do it because it works. Time and time again I share this practice technique with my students, and I can always tell when they follow my directions because their playing sounds smoother and more confident. Learn how and why starting at the end works so well. Don't worry, we won't be going backwards.

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How it's supposed to feel

Most of what you do should feel easy.

If it's not, you're taking on too much. Either your task is too big or you're moving too fast.

Break it down.

Breaking things down is a challenge in itself. It forces you to think critically about what you're doing - looking for the main ideas, sorting priorities. If you make that the hardest part, actually carrying out the tasks won't be such a headache.

This has immediate application if you're learning a piece of music. I'm trying to keep it in mind as I set about writing a book.

Where will it help you most to slow down and break it down?



Going off the book: Jamming for beginners

This past weekend I had the pleasure of being part of two jam sessions at two wonderful dinner parties. It was nice, considering how much I've been writing about music lately, to actually play it. Jamming with other people is one of my greatest joys in life; one of my dearest wishes as a musician and educator is for those who long to be able to do it to realize how close they are to being able to!

October 2010At Saturday night's party there was an exuberant nine-year-old violinist. We played some of the classical music and fiddle tunes he's been working on, and then we threw him into the soup.

One of my favorite songs to jam on is Bob Dylan's "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" - it's built on an extremely simple four-chord loop, the melody is very simple but can be embellished, and the loose country feel supports any number of layers of instruments and vocal harmonies.

"Okay! Here are your notes: D, E, F-sharp, A, and B." The D pentatonic scale. I wrote it down for him. "All of these notes will sound good. If you want, you can pick just two notes."

Many musicians have given little thought to individual notes on their instrument: where to find them, how they function together, how to create a melody. My young friend was no different, but soon located D and E and sawed merrily away as we began, lounging half on his back on the couch with his head propped up on a cushion, feet up on the coffee table. He sounded great! We sang and played several verses and choruses of the song, all of us getting more adventurous as it went on.

As the night progressed, everyone from adults to toddlers played various percussion instruments and sang. We all had a blast. The next night, my husband and I jammed with two highly competent amateur musicians on songs by Shelby Lynne, Wilco, Jackson Browne, and Three Dog Night. It was a perfect, warm, fall evening out on a friend's screen porch. Two guitars, an acoustic bass, and a djembe, all by the light of a single candle. Looking for songs that everyone knew how to play would have taken all night, but it's always easy to find common ground when you're willing to play something you know but have never played before, or something that's completely new.

Whether you're an accomplished classical musician or a total musical novice, you might find yourself standing on the sidelines instead of joining in the action. Below are some tips for joining the band.

Start shaking, tapping, or hitting something. One of the easiest ways to participate is to play percussion. Back when I was in elementary school, I'd lurk around my dad's band, whose extremely loud practices took place in the living room so they were tough to avoid (If you can't beat 'em...). My big moment was in "Day Tripper" after the guitar solo when the drums stopped and it was just a wild shake of the tambourine.

Ideally, there are some shakers and tambourines and maybe even a drum lying around. If not, the back of a guitar that's not being used makes a great drum. Raid the recycling to find empty bottles...small ones can be filled with dry beans to create a maraca, while large ones can be smacked with a hand or a stick. You can also whack the bottles themselves against your leg, the table, or the floor. Of course, body percussion (stomping, clapping, snapping, etc.) is always good.

You can keep time with the beat, but the music breathes more when you strike only on the two and four (for example, [one] TWO [three] FOUR). If you're playing a shaker, remember that you have two directions - things are more interesting when you move back and forth ("chicka chicka chicka chicka") instead of just down ("chick chick chick chick"). Experiment with rhythmic patterns to find a groove that feels right.

Sing. If it's a song you know, go ahead and sing along with the melody if it's in your key. If the range of the melody is not comfortable or you don't know the song (or someone else is dominating the melody), you can try some harmony. Try some of the techniques described in my post on harmony singing.

Viva la pentatonic. This five-note scale takes the fear out of improvisation. In a given key, all of these notes will sound good, even if you play them all at once.

Working with beginners, I like to use resonator bells if possible, which allow you to isolate the pitches that you want making it virtually impossible to hit a wrong note. Otherwise, I'll point out the notes on the instrument that are "safe." The piano is a good place to start if bells are not available.

For musicians who know how to play but aren't experienced with improvisation, I write down the notes for them which they are then able to locate on their own instruments.

To determine the pentatonic scale, play the major scale in the given key and subtract the 4th and 7th scale degrees. In other words, play 1, 2,3, 5, and 6 (and 8). This can also be done with the relative minor (play 6, 1, 2, 3, 5, 6). Do, re, mi, sol, la.

For example, if you're in the key of C major, your pentatonic scale is C, D, E, G, A in any octave.

Play root notes. If the pentatonic scale seems like Greek to you (Psych! It is Greek) back way off and play root notes. This means that for every chord of the song, you play the note it's named after.

A chord is just a group of notes. Doesn't it make sense that a chord called "G" would have a G in it? Luckily, it does. So every time the G chord comes around, you play G.

This strategy can work in a few different ways. First of all, if you're a less experienced musician this allows you to play along with a simple chord progression. In "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere," the chord sequence is D-Em-G-D. So, while the rest of the musicians play the chords you would play the notes D, E, G, D respectively.

Another use for root notes is for more experienced musicians who find themselves with an unfamiliar instrument or a bass guitar in their hands. Root notes are a great way to warm up and explore the instrument while contributing to the overall sound of the band.

A third use for the root note strategy is to familiarize yourself with a song you haven't played before. If you can recognize the chord that someone else is playing but you don't have time to get into position for it, aim for the root note. Since most pop, rock, and folk music is inherently repetitive, you'll be able to play a little more with each go-round.

February 2010Learn the language. If you want to go beyond following along, you'll want to learn the language of music, which is basically music theory. Out of a seeming universe of possibilities, the experienced musician sees just a handful and can narrow it down to one in an instant. Here, I'm not talking about the infinite variations and permutations that enthusiastic players might cycle through as they expand the sonic vocabulary of a song; I'm talking about the structure that underpins this exploration which follows predictable, accessible rules.

It is so amazing and exciting to witness a child making use of new musical knowledge within minutes of its acquisition. The advantage that many children have is simply fearlessness. I hope I have made you a little more comfortable with the idea of jamming. Your contribution to the musical soup will be appreciated and valued regardless of your level of experience! When things are really cooking, no one can tell who's who anyway.

Aptitude vs. achievement

In the academic world, there is a lot of noise (i.e., research and discussion) around musical aptitude - in other words, capacity or talent. They're working on the idea that before the age of ten, whatever musical potential you have is set and you won't be able to achieve anything beyond that. Indeed, evidence suggests that most of a child's formative musical experiences occur by the age of five.

I won't speak to the validity of these assertions - I have no reason to believe that they aren't true. However, there are some dangerous and inaccurate conclusions that could be drawn.

A person might decide that because they had little early musical training, they have no hope of learning to play an instrument as an adult.

A parent might conclude that more is better and enroll an eighteen-month-old in formal music lessons, burning the child out by age four.

The fact that one's musical aptitude apparently stabilizes in childhood does not mean that one's musical achievement must take place by this time. It's also worth noting that few of us are able to achieve our complete potential in a lifetime of study in any field - there is always room to keep learning and growing.

The diagram below shows the musical aptitude and achievement of four fictional people.

Persons A and B are twins raised in the same family. As children, their parents took them to the symphony as well as jazz and bluegrass festivals. Their parents, both amateur musicians, sang and played music with the children at home, and also played recordings. The children participated in toddler music classes and enrolled in violin lessons at age four.

Both children played in orchestras in middle school and high school. Person A discontinued lessons at age fourteen, while continuing to play in the school orchestra. Person B played in elite youth orchestras and took lessons with a college professor. Person B was accepted to a well-known conservatory following high school, while Person A went to a liberal arts college to study English. Person B became the first-chair violinist of a large orchestra, earned a doctorate in violin performance, and took a position as a university professor, while Person A plays bit of bluegrass fiddle and participates occasionally in a community orchestra.

Person C's parents sang at home and played recordings. In third grade, Person C began singing in the school chorus, and took piano lessons from fourth grade until ninth grade. In college, Person C wrote songs and performed at open mics. Person C continues to play at home, and now Person C's children are taking lessons.

Person D listened to music occasionally at home and participated in general music classes at school. Neither of Person D's parents sang much at home. Person D took piano lessons briefly in third grade but did not practice - lessons were discontinued in less than a year. Today, Person D listens to the radio on the way to work and is thinking about taking guitar lessons.

As you can see, even if you believe that one's capacity for music becomes set in stone in childhood, it's not as dismal as it sounds. Both Person A and Person C have a lifetime of musical enjoyment ahead of them even though they are not at the pinnacle of musical achievement like Person B. And that window of white showing that Person D has untapped potential: that is very important! That's the difference between wishing you could play and actually playing.

These graphs are obviously reductive - the risk is that you'll walk away thinking that you have less potential than Person D when really you're in C territory. Personally, I believe that some things can't be quantified, and one of them is desire. If your heart is set on learning an instrument and you are willing to put the work in, you will succeed. My point is that musical success does not have to mean being Person B!

Musical aptitude, like athletic aptitude, becomes most relevant at the very highest levels of achievement. On any sunny Saturday morning you will see a ton of runners out and I promise you that they are not trying to qualify for the Olympic Trials. So let's not pin our Juillard hopes on our toddlers. Instead, let's show them that music is joyful, worthwhile and soul-renewing at any age. It's never too late.

Finding the sweet spot that makes learning addictive

Can you start by balancing on the board in the sand? (Santa Cruz, California, October 2010)Whatever you are working on should be easy but not boring. Interesting but not frustrating.

The best progress takes place in the sweet spot where things are just challenging enough to be engaging. If you're a tennis player, you'll have the most fun with someone playing close to your level of ability. You don't want to play with a total novice, but on the other hand it's no fun when every serve is so strong that it zooms by before you even know it happened.

There is an art to choosing just the right level of difficulty. Video games are very good at continually calibrating themselves to your ability at any given moment, which is what makes them so addictive.

Whatever skill you want to learn, make a game out of making it a game. That is, figure out how to make it as engaging as possible. As Mary Poppins said, "In every job that must be done there is an element of fun/you find the fun, and snap! The job's a game."

Start with the right material. At the bookstore or library, you put down the book that doesn't grab you right away because it's too dense, but you might also skip over something that looks too trashy or fomulaic. Don't feel guilty about rejecting Ulysses - maybe it will be just the right thing in the future.

When you've got something you can sink your teeth into, you know. Get good at finding that feeling, whether you're a pianist working through classical repertoire, a Spanish student looking for instructional material, or a fencing enthusiast seeking an opponent. Insert Goldilocks reference here.

Make your progress visible. We all rubbed our fingers raw trying to snap our rooms clean with magic, so that is eliminated as a possibility (unless you got it to work for you, in which case please let me know!). But even without magic, many of us don't mind cleaning when we can see the results with every swipe of the rag or push of the vacuum cleaner. Make your progress visible and you will find yourself conditioned to return to a given task.

To get a better sense of your evolution you might take before-and-after pictures, videos, or audio recordings. You could also create a chart or graph of your work over time.

Be a statistics nerd. The drama of an apparently dull moment of baseball can be heightened when the announcer shares a stat like, "He has a .129 batting average so far this season, but a .401 career batting average when facing this pitcher." All of a sudden we're invested in the outcome of this slumping second-stringer's at-bat.

You can geek out on statistics in order to set goals and motivate yourself to grow. In running, a sport where it's just you and the clock, you will find more depth and nuance when you can design workouts that have a specific target in mind based on past performance and future goals. You would play with various combinations of speed and distance (tempo runs, interval training, long runs, negative splits, etc.) in order to optimize your performance for a specific race.

As a musician, you might use a metrononome to track the tempo at which you can play a given phrase comfortably. You could also document how much of your piece you learn each day. I like to track the date a student begins a piece and the date that piece is mastered. As the student breaks through a plateau, we can compare two equivalent pieces and point out that one took two months to master while the newer one took just two weeks.

Avoid unnecessary repetition. If you understand a math concept, you should do a few problems to solidify your understanding today, a few more tomorrow, and a couple at the end of the week. A page of twenty-five problems is busy work if it too easy, and impossible if it you can't even do the first one.

If you don't understand the concept, you'll need to break it down into smaller pieces, look at it from a different perspective, or rebuild the foundation by reviewing previous material. Repetition won't help.

"What's your practice strategy?" I ask. "I'm going to play it over and over again until I get it right!" my student says brightly. No! Play it correctly the first time, and you'll only need to play it a few times to make it solid. If you can't play it correctly the first time, it's too much. Break it down, take it slower, or both.

Use rewards. My students love getting stickers. Not only do they enjoy picking out just the right one (there is an inverse relationship between the age of the student and the amount of time it takes to choose a sticker), they enjoy the closure that it represents ("You have fully mastered this piece!").

Even as an adult, you can reward yourself for the acquisition of a skill or the completion of a goal. Even better, give yourself positive reinforcement for the little steps along the way. Karen Pryor, in her excellent book Don't Shoot the Dog!, tells of using tiny bits of chocolate to get herself out the door and on the bus to an evening class.

While the opportunity to perform onstage might be seen by many musicians as a punishment rather than a reward, applause is certainly a nice way to be acknowledged for all your hard work learning a piece of music. In the meantime, dessert or some down time (TV, a novel, a game) can be a great way to reward yourself (or your child) for a focused practice session. Over time, you will condition yourself to look forward to practice because you'll associate it with the pleasure at the end!

There are many other ways to enliven the process of learning something new. When learning a new skill, apply strategies and techniques from something you're already good at. The more you can make it a game, the more you'll want to play!

Music theory is the grammar of music

Glance at these letters for a moment.

IXW     ZDA     RSN     TRV     NCL

How much can you immediately recall? Ugh, my brain hurts just thinking about it.

Now try the same thing with this set of letters:

JFK     USA     FBI     CIA     NYC

This time, you can probably recite the whole sequence painlessly after just a glance. Why? Instead of being just random letters, there is a meaning you can assign to each set of three. Instead of fifteen ugly letters, you have five familiar concepts.

Below is an excerpt from Grieg's Op. 17, No. 22 for piano, "So lokka me over den myra." If my Norweigan serves me, it's a folk song about a Scandinavian cowboy. If you do not read music well, it will look a little scary.

I counted thirty-five notes. Yikes! For years, I had to decode each one of those notes individually to be able to play a piece like this.

Luckily, in the summer after my sophomore year of High School I had the opportunity to attend the annual Summer Youth Music School at the University of New Hampshire. There, in a stuffy dorm lounge on an afternoon in late July, Lisa Lemay taught me all about chords. Several classmates slumped over half asleep but I was rapt, taking detailed notes and hanging on every word. This was the secret to reading music! Finally.

After that, the Grieg looked like this to me:

In other words, it wasn't thirty-five notes anymore. It was two or three musical ideas that had meaning to me, just like JFK or USA.

In the blue boxes above, everything except the circled note is either G, B, or D. That is somewhat helpful in itself, but together, those three notes are the G major chord, which is like a musical word. D7 is another chord, composed of four different notes. The smaller orange box contains two D's which are shared by both the G chord and the D7 chord.

Even better, there is a relationship between G and D7 - each of these "words" has a meaning in the larger context of the musical piece. Since we're in the key of G, I would expect to see both of those chords, which means that the whole excerpt can be thought of as one idea (a common I - V7 - I pattern).

I suppose if you're a conspiracy theorist you'll see one idea in JFK USA FBI CIA (maybe DFW instead of NYC).

Whether you read music or not, I hope I've illustrated that all this music theory is not so much "theory" as distinctly practical knowledge that immediately helps you to play music.

Musicians are not decoding the printed score when they read music - they are reading fluently, digesting ideas and concepts the way they read words. Music theory is the grammar that makes this possible and the not-so-secret key for unlocking the door to significant musical growth.

The Electric Fence method and more: Five ways to get started with harmony singing

"Okay ladies, let's take it from the second system on page three, right at, "He's just a poor boy, from a poor family." (Photo by Geoff Charles, 1953)Yesterday I covered matching pitch for beginning singers. Once you've mastered singing a melody in tune, you'll find yourself wanting to sing harmony!

Sometimes trying to harmonize feels like trying to climb up a slope where you keep sliding back down despite repeated attempts. What follows are some tips that will hopefully help you gain some traction.

1. Put on some music and start experimenting with your voice. Harmony is, essentially, multiple pitches at once. One way to proceed is to put on a favorite song (alone in the car?) and start singing whatever comes to you. Try some high notes, low notes, long tones, short tones. By definition if you are not singing the melody (i.e., the tune) you are singing harmony, no matter how terrible it may sound. Just call it avant garde. As I tell the Intown Women's Glee Club, whatever you sing will either sound good or...interesting. There is Good Interesting and Interesting Interesting, but isn't that in the ear of the beholder?

2. If you are having trouble breaking away from the melody, drop the words. Listen to the Beatles' "Hey Jude" (I know, what a chore). During the first verse, it's just Paul singing alone. In the second verse, on the word "minute," the other guys come in singing "ahhhhh." Think about how much easier it is to just pick a note and stick with it, rather than come up with a distinct harmony line! Still, it's completely legit. You can add aaahs and la la las to just about anything.

3. Don't know what notes to sing? Try the Electric Fence method. If you're on the fence between good and interesting, make it an electric fence and you'll hop right to the good side!

If you sing out nice and strong, you will find that some pitches give you a pleasant buzzing vibration as the frequencies bounce off each other (no, I'm not a physicist, why do you ask?).

On the other hand, some notes that you sing will make you recoil. They just don't sound right or feel good, so you get off right away. Over time you will condition yourself to steer clear of the zaps and stick to the notes that sound good, just like the obedient little goat at my grandparents' farm (it wasn't much of a singer but once was enough as far as getting shocked).

4. Learn existing harmony parts. If you have the opportunity to sing in a choir, you will learn a specific harmony part to sing against the melody (unless your part actually is the melody). This is a great way to experience how singing harmony is supposed to feel, and develop the independence to stick to your part even when someone else is singing a different part.

Also, seek out the harmony parts in the music you listen to. You might start with call-and-response type songs (if you're not Gladys Knight, you're a Pip - can you pick out your part?) and then try out some closer harmonies where two or more parts are moving together in the same rhythm. If it's not fun, you're doing it wrong - pick stuff you really like.

5. Improvise harmony parts where none exist. This is different from the approaches described above. There, you are just singing some notes and playing around. This is more like, Bono just pulled you onstage to sing with him on "One" and you better be able to come up with something.

I enjoy using this trick when the song is out of my range. If I were going to sing the melody it would be either too high or too low, but I can come up with a harmony part that fits (Jeff Tweedy, you ever need a backup singer, call me!).


I stopped at five, but there are many more approaches to harmonization. Let me know what's worked for you!

Walk Before You Can Run: Some Thoughts on Matching Pitch

Photo by WonderlanePeople are weird about singing. Even though singing is a skill, many people view it as something you either have or you don't, like red hair. However, it is my belief that anyone who can speak can learn to sing.

Of course, some people have prettier voices than others, just like some people have prettier faces. But just because you don't sound like Sinatra doesn't mean you can't sing. I don't look like Christy Turlington but I still go out in public and I even put on makeup once in awhile. The average tennis club is filled with a bunch of people who, I'm guessing, can't serve like Nadal but still have fun playing the game.

Still, people allow singing to be something best left to professionals, even though it is the most organic, natural, and immediate way to express yourself musically besides drumming on tabletops and steering wheels. Here, I would like to help those of you who would like to get better at singing, even if you, as they say, "can't carry a tune in a bucket."

I should mention here that the ideas below are based on my personal experience working with beginning singers; nothing has been peer-reviewed or written up in scholarly journals. YMMV, but hopefully you will find something helpful.

The first thing that is helpful is to separate the mechanical aspects of singing from the aesthetic ones. I have eyes, ears, nose, and mouth that function appropriately - the elements of my face do what they are supposed to do, regardless of what I may think of it when I look in the mirror. Likewise, if you can speak, you are drawing air across your vocal cords and everything is in good working order. You can physically make the sounds necessary for singing, even if you don't like them.

So now, imagine that I sing a pitch (in other words, I produce a tone), and I ask a student (say, a four-year-old boy) to copy me. "La" I sing. "La," he echoes.

Can you tell if those two pitches matched? In other words, were they the same or different?

If your answer is generally yes, then you have completed the first musical hurdle. If you can tell by ear that two pitches are the same or different, you are on your way to reproducing those pitches correctly with your own voice.

If you can't tell the difference, then we would try it again and I would then tell you the answers, so that you could repeatedly experience what it feels like to hear two pitches that are the same, and two that are different.

Next, it's your turn. I would sing "la" and then you would echo me. Can you sing the same pitch as me?

If you aren't able to match my pitch, can you tell if you are higher or lower? Manipulate the sound to move it up or down. With small children, I will have them make a puppy noise or imitate a baby to find their higher register, and bark gruffly or roar like a lion to find lower sounds.

If you're getting pretty close to matching my pitch, I would then hold my tone while you attempt to match me again. When you match my pitch, there will be a perceived intensification of the vibration as the frequencies line up. It's similar to the way it feels to hold two magnets as they make contact. With practice, you will improve your ability to "lock in" on a pitch immediately.

The strange thing about being a singer is that there are no keys or strings to press. You just have to try different things until you figure out what it's supposed to feel like. A voice teacher can be helpful, saying "Yes! Like that!" when you're on the right track. Experimentation is key.

That's why it's so important to forget about sounding pretty, because many of the sounds you make on the way to beautiful singing are downright terrible. You're getting to know your own voice, the way a baby kicks and flails and wiggles as he learns that his legs and arms are connected to him.

If you are having to practice matching even one pitch, how will you ever sing a melody line? The answer is muscle memory. As skills develop they will become automatic, allowing you to build upon them. The baby who just a few months ago was wiggling around in his car seat is now pulling himself up on furniture. Soon he'll take a step and fall down, and then he'll be able to, with great concentration, take several steps across the room. Before long, what used to take great effort and attention will become second nature as he walks, runs, skips, jumps, dances, swims, skis, and skateboards.

Don't be discouraged by the fact that you're not a baby. You can still learn. I have worked with many people who said that they couldn't sing, only to succeed (sometimes even within minutes!). Below, five practical tips for improving your ability to sing on pitch.

1) Just sing. Be sure to include some moments of singing a capella (that is, with no recordings or instrumental accompaniment). Get used to the sound of your own voice even if it makes you cringe at first. Remember, the fact that you can tell when you're off is a powerful tool for eventually being able to self-correct.

2) Practice matching pitches that you hear. Acknowledge that singing a complete melodic line might be aiming too high - you'll probably just do it the way you've always done it until you create better habits. Try just hitting one note of a song you're listening to in the car.

3) Learn your range. I once worked with a young woman who was preparing to sing a song at her own wedding. She thought she was terrible and came to me in desperation. It turned out that the song was way, way too low for her. We moved the song up a few steps and an effortless, beautiful sound popped out.

4) Visualize your voice as an instrument. Inexperienced singers can follow the ups and downs and general contour of a melody, but they tend to be imprecise. My singing improved significantly when I aimed to sing each and every note squarely on pitch as though I were playing the melody on a flute or clarinet.

5) Be a mimic. Sometimes the way you sing something facilitates being able to sing it on pitch. The swoops, glides, and other stylistic elements that pop singers use to embellish their performances are sometimes ways to cover up vocal inconsistencies or navigate an otherwise challenging melodic turn. It's easy to overdo it and it's generally verboten in classical or choral singing, but it's nice to have a bag of tricks. In any case, imitating great singers is a time-tested way to become one.

Is anything here applicable to your experience? Do you have any personal experiences or tips to share when it comes to learning to sing? Let me know in the comments!

Private Lessons vs. Group Classes

If private lessons are the interstate highway, then group classes are the state road that winds through the small towns alongside it. Both roads are taking you to the same destination, but the journey is very different.

Decisions, decisions.Theoretically - theoretically - private music lessons are more effective than group classes. And theoretically, a child who starts piano lessons, say, at age four will be two years ahead of a child who starts at age six by the time they are both eight.

But in reality, we are dealing with human beings. In reality, a child can sit through four years of lessons and achieve less than what another child will do in six weeks. And (lest this discussion be reduced to talent versus lack thereof), that first child can decide to turn things around and make up for the wasted four years with six weeks of concerted effort.

The question that interests me is, Why?

Let's get back to my pet metaphor. The Eisenhower Interstate System is designed for efficiency. It is supposed to get you from Point A to Point B as quickly and safely as possible - no distractions, no fluff. Likewise, when you enroll in private music lessons, you get an effective, focused approach to music education with an expert teacher. Fun is incidental to both pursuits, although that's not to say that highway driving (or private lessons) can't be enjoyable.

My hometown of York, Maine is accessed via Route 95 north from New Hampshire. Unfortunately, there is a toll booth a quarter-mile north of the exit that can get backed up pretty badly in the summertime, and there are few escape routes. Plan ahead further south and take Route One instead if you want to stop and get the best fried seafood ever at Bob's Clam Hut in Kittery, and then you can enjoy so much outlet shopping that you'll forget where you were going in the first place. Even better: Take Route 103, which winds along through Kittery and Kittery Point before finishing in York. In May, the chestnut trees are gorgeously in bloom. At the height of tourist season you will not encounter any traffic, and there are no stoplights. You can stop in at Fort McClary or the Wiggly Bridge, or just enjoy the gorgeous views of Spruce Creek, the York River, and the Atlantic Ocean beyond as you wind along the lovely country road. Less than fifteen minutes and you're in York, where you can hop back on the interstate if you feel like it.

Theoretically the interstate is faster than the state road. Except when it's not. Except when there is rush hour, an accident, a ball game, tourist season, inclement weather, construction, or debris. Plus, you can't ride your bike, pick the wildflowers, or see much of anything.

Most of the time, you take the interstate. All things being equal, you do the private lessons because that's what everyone does.

But all things are not equal. For one thing, private lessons are two or three times the cost of group classes. They are much less flexible. It's difficult to hop in and out. If things aren't working, that's it - you're already at the top tier.

With group classes, you can dabble. You can try different things, change it up. You can experience different teachers. You can have fun, and even study music solely for the purpose of having fun without alienating your teacher. You can collaborate with others. It's inherently social, which can make all the difference.

Now, you can take Route One all the way from Kittery to Bar Harbor, but it will be a loooooooong trip and you'll never want to look at another fried clam stand. Once you have some momentum with group classes, private lessons become something special and valuable that can help you get to the next level. But it may take a child two or three years to get that momentum, and private lessons will not necessarily create it. May as well spend that time having fun and developing a love of playing, instead of stalling out.

Go with your gut: Do you want the scenic route, or the expressway? No matter what twists and turns lay along the journey, you will learn to play as long as you just keep going.

Achieving fluency

Just here, perhaps, I had better explain our use of the manual alphabet, which seems to puzzle people who do not know us. One who reads or talks to me spells with his hand, using the single-hand manual alphabet generally employed by the deaf. I place my hand on the hand of the speaker so lightly as not to impede its movements. The position of the hand is as easy to feel as it is to see. I do not feel each letter any more than you see each letter separately when you read. Constant practice makes the fingers very flexible, and some of my friends spell rapidly--about as fast as an expert writes on a typewriter. The mere spelling is, of course, no more a conscious act than it is in writing.
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It doesn't matter how long it will take, and you don't want to know anyway

Not everyone wants to take the slow train. A prospective student might ask me how long it takes to get good at the guitar. A parent will occasionally express concern that her child is not progressing as quickly on the piano as he should.

A teacher's job would be much easier if these variables could be managed, but the truth is that there is no helpful answer to the first question ("Anywhere from six months to ten years") and there is no easy solution to the second problem ("Your child is either in the midst of a plateau from which he will emerge victorious, or he's truly not into it. We should know one way or the other in eighteen months").

Futile but fun. Not knowing how long it will last is part of the experience.My left foot is almost healed. I hurt it somehow on a run on Christmas Day - not sure if it was broken or sprained or strained, but I could barely walk. Now, the pain is just a little ghost that reminds me to continue to take it easy.

The fact that I am almost fully healed is thrilling, because at the beginning, the pain was so bad that I couldn't imagine it would ever go away. My injury was my reality, and it felt oddly permanent in its intensity.

Turns out it took just over three weeks to get to this point. If I had known at the beginning that it would be three weeks, I wonder if that would have changed my experience. Would it have seemed like an unreasonably long sentence? Or would it have soothed my fears of being sidelined all spring? I think that by not knowing, I let go of running and focused on healing.

Speaking of being sidelined, a powerful ice storm recently shut down the city of Atlanta. On day one, when I learned that I would have to close Eclectic Music, my mind was tallying up the lost revenues and fretting over the inconvenience. After five straight days of being shut down by ice and snow, I just didn't think it was a big deal anymore. If I had known at the beginning that the aftermath of the storm would last all week, I would have driven myself crazy with worry.

I recently came across a (presumably) well-meaning guitar teacher on Twitter. Most of his tweets were essentially advertisements for his services. "Learning the guitar is hard. It takes at least two years before you'll be able to play anything decently."

I happen to believe that both of those statements are false, but even if they were true: It doesn't matter how long it takes. But by sentencing his students to a long and difficult process, he's taken all the fun out of learning and is unlikely to find any takers.

There's a saying: The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time to plant a tree is today.

If you want to do something, just get started, and don't even think about about how long it will take to get where you want to be.

He'll leave home for college in 2025. But let's focus on the deer tracks.Some things, you just can't measure in time. It doesn't matter how long you've been playing. It doesn't matter that another student started three months ago and can already do more than you can do after a year. It doesn't even matter that you don't feel like you've gotten anywhere. What matters is what you do with today, with this moment that you've been given.

We aren't supposed to have all the information. We've just got our little lantern to illuminate the pathway a few steps ahead. Too much analysis, too much awareness, too much anticipation, and the passion is lost. Reading the plot synopsis of The Usual Suspects on IMDB is not the same as spending a couple of hours in its thrall as the twists and turns of the story unfold before you.

So what does that mean for the adult trying to decide whether to start learning the guitar? Do it for the sake of doing it, and be pleasantly suprised when you realize at some point that you can actually play.

What about the parent of the child who doesn't seem to be getting anywhere? Recalibrate your expectations and look for little signs of growth and progress.

Winter can seem long and dreary, but we all know that spring is coming. The beauty is, there's no way to know which day it will actually happen. I'll take the pain and discomfort of those cold days of wondering when it's ever going to warm up, just so I can have that incredible moment of awe and delight when I finally find the first green shoots of the daffodils.

Don't tell me which day it will be - I want to be surprised.

Five things guitar teachers do that seem helpful but aren't

I've had a lot of transfer students from other teachers over the years, and I see the results of guitar teacher laziness. There are obvious issues, such as poor documentation and poor organization (a bunch of tabs in a dog-eared stack of paper is all you have to show for two years and $2,000). However, there are some things that actually seem like selling points but are really further indications of a lack of a strong teaching foundation. Here are a few:

1) Your teacher stays up all night creating detailed tabs for you - When a guitar teacher creates a custom, detailed tab for you, that benefits your teacher as much or more than it benefits you. There's nothing wrong with having a "reach" song that you're working on, and it's awesome if your teacher creates a custom tab from time to time. That said, you should also be playing easier songs that you have a shot at figuring out on your own. if all you're doing is learning from tabs, you are learning to play songs, but not necessarily learning how to play the guitar.

2) Your teacher never puts down the guitar - Playing together with your teacher can be very beneficial for students at all levels. However, a teacher who never puts down the guitar to let you play alone may be hampering your ability to play independently, especially at the beginner level.

3) Jaw-dropping displays of guitar prowess are a part of every lesson - Your lessons should be about you, not about your teacher. If you feel intimidated or in awe of your teacher, you might not feel comfortable asking questions or showing that you are having trouble with something. It's great to know that you're studying with a person who has some serious chops, but beware of show-offy noodling or demonstration of skills that supposedly "can't be taught."

4) Your teacher lets you learn whatever you want - It's great for a teacher to help you learn songs that you love - that's the whole point. However, your teacher should also challenge you with material that will develop your ear, encourage your ability to read, or help you learn specific technical skills. Also (especially relevant to younger students) your teacher can help broaden your horizons by sharing music that you might enjoy, based on what you're already expressing interest in.

5) Your teacher keeps you in your comfort zone - There are many guitarists who are stuck. They tend to have students who are stuck. If you have been playing for a year or more and still can't play a song all the way through, have never jammed with anyone but your teacher, and don't feel a sense of identity as a guitarist, it's time to re-evaluate. A good teacher will hold you accountable for not only daily practice but actual mastery, and will help you set and reach appropriate goals.

Have you had any of these experiences in learning guitar or any other instrument?

Let pressure make you better

Students often get bummed out about their performances, either onstage or just playing for me in their lessons. "But I played it so much better at hooooooome!" I know they did. And the difference between an amateur and a professional is that an amateur's playing suffers slightly with the pressure of performing for another human being, while a professional's playing actually improves.

Your own internal pressure gauge probably has fewer lines on it. Photo by eschipul.I like to quantify things that aren't usually measured in order to make certain ideas less mysterious, so bear with me here. Suppose you play a piece extremely well at home - you get an A. Then, when you perform in front of someone else, you become self-conscious. You are imagining yourself from the other person's perspective, which creates a feedback loop wherein you become self-conscious of your self-consciousness ("What if I mess up? What will she think of me then? Whoops, I just messed up - now what does she think?").

As a result of this discomfort, your "grade" drops down to a B. And if you are playing faster than usual, or you're playing on an unfamiliar instrument, or your bench/bow/footrest isn't adjusted perfectly, or you have physical symptoms of nervousness that interfere with your playing, you might drop down to B-minus or C.

One solution to this problem is to practice your piece until it is an A-plus. That is, work until your Comfort Score is a solid nine out of ten. Then track how long it takes you to reach that score from one practice session to another. Five repetitions? Three repetitions? Can you get a Comfort Score of nine on your first try? Once you can do this, your performance will be less likely to suffer in the presence of an audience.

Statistically speaking, it's possible I was messing up big time right as this photo was being taken.Being more comfortable with your music will not solve the problem entirely. You'll still have to figure out how to deal with the adrenaline flowing through your system. Skilled performers, instead of self-conscious, become self-aware. They use the adrenaline to attain a heightened state of perception, like in that long moment when an outfielder has already anticipated exactly where a pop-up is going and stands waiting patiently for the ball to drop into his glove.

Experienced performers feel the intensity of the audience's presence, but do not second-guess themselves - instead of hoping that they look good, sound good, and don't mess up, they focus on serving the audience well, which makes these musicians authentic and compelling. Doing this sometimes actually leads to weird mess-ups in itself, but not the kind that ruin a performance. Instead, these quirks contribute to the intimacy and immediacy of the moment. 

So how do you get to the point where you can do that? Playing at the A-plus, high Comfort Score level definitely helps - mastery allows you to let go of what your hands are doing. Then, you have to let go of what your thoughts are doing. This, too, takes practice.

Experience will contribute significantly to your ability to exhibit grace under pressure. The more you play in front of people, the more effectively you learn to transform anxiety into electricity. Be compassionate with yourself, and expect that in the beginning you won't play as well under stressful conditions. As a result, gradually, you will.

When not to use momentum

I've talked about the value of momentum, how it allows you to create a positive feedback loop when learning a skill. However, there are times when momentum actually slows you down or interferes with the learning process.


Heavy Lifting

When you tax a muscle beyond its ability, you allow it to grow. When you do it right, this process is so intense that it fills up your entire physical and mental experience. Big results come from this kind of effort.

At the gym, you aDon't be a dumb bell! Slow, deliberate work is most effective. Photo by jerryforlife.lways see dudes putting a ridiculous amount of weight on the barbells and then lifting and lowering as fast as they can. They are letting momentum do the work for them instead of the muscle. A better approach would be to lift far less weight and go as slowly as possible, feeling every sensation on the way up and the way down. This is much harder, and that's why it will pay off.

My piano teacher, John Swiedler, used to tell me, "You should practice so slowly that a listener will not be able to tell what you're playing." Why is this slow playing so important? Because it prevents you from being able to use momentum. This leads to a deeper understanding of the music you are playing. Students always say, "but it's easier to play it faster." Exactly. If it's easy, you're using momentum. We don't want it to be easy. Bwahahahahaha...


"My brain is full."

There's that Far Side cartoon where a student raises his hand in class and asks to be excused, because "my brain is full." Now, part of the punchline is that he has a smaller head than his classmates, but in reality, this feeling happens to those of us with normal-sized brains all the time. It's that feeling you get after staring at a single math problem, crossword, Sudoku puzzle, or highway map for a quarter of an hour with no apparent breakthrough. Believe it or not, very good things are happening in your brain even though it feels like it's melting.

Yes, he has a band-aid, but slow practice won't hurt you.Where this often comes up in music lessons is switching between chords on the piano. One chord is A, the next chord is D. The pianist has to locate the three notes of the A chord, and then find the three notes of the D chord.

Students always rush through this, and sometimes accidentally get the notes right. They are using momentum. Far more difficult (and far more effective) is to slow down and do the mental heavy lifting that this activity requires.

Find each note separately and deliberately. Think out loud. Take note of which fingering will work best, and be consistent. Resist the temptation to rush yourself. Stay completely calm and in control.

It may take you minutes, not seconds, to find the next chord. Paradoxically, however, it is precisely this slow, painstaking process that will allow you to nimbly hop from chord to chord without conscious thought in the near future.


The bonus

You lifted ten pounds instead of your usual forty and you were incredibly sore the next day. Two weeks of this regimen, and you see muscle definition you thought you'd have to lift eighty pounds to get.

You see that same crossword puzzle sitting on the kitchen table the next morning. All of a sudden, three previously inaccessible answers pop out at you ("Aha! Magnum, P.I.! Elk! Spartacus!").

You lay your hands on the instrument, and you play a difficult passage with ease and precision on the first try.

An unexpected bonus often comes along after a period of concentrated effort. There is thus another layer of paradox here: Take the slow, frustrating path, and it ends up being the quickest, smoothest one. Deliberately avoid momentum in the short-term, and you'll end up gaining a lot of it in the long-term.

Chords are colors

Imagine that you are in a room that is illuminated by one strong light. As you are listening to a piece of music, the color of the light changes with every chord change - from blue, to red, to green, back to blue.

In that blue light, everything in the room looks blue, and when the light is red, everything in the room glows red. Everything you see is affected by that color.

Photo by DocklandsboyEverything you hear is affected by the color of the chord as well. Violin, flute, guitar, bass, piano: each instrument that produces a musical tone will obey the laws of harmony and become a part of that chord, reflecting its color just as each visible surface will absorb and reflect color in accordance with the laws of the light spectrum.

Chords are not like colors. Chords are colors. Harmony is color you can hear, and with this understanding you can solve the mystery of what chords you are hearing in a given piece of music.

Although the options may seem limitless, the list of most likely chords in a given song is actually pretty short: They are a family of six, who will often have friends over for dinner.

Based on the seven notes of the major scale, you'll get three major chords and three minor chords. And 80% of the time, you will use the three major chords.

Yes, for all you music theory nerds, there is a diminished chord too, but that's like the end of the onion - you throw it away unless you're making soup stock.

The subtle, muted palette of our Virginia Avenue location is clearly visible here.The diatonic chords (those that are native to the key) are called I (one), ii (two), iii (three), IV (four), V (five) and vi (six). Each chord (and for that matter, each tone of the scale) has a different color that you can train yourself to hear. Their friends (chords borrowed from other keys) have distinctive colors as well.

When people sit down and play a song perfectly on the first try having only heard it a few times, it seems like magic. It's not. Trained musicians recognize the colors of the chords and scale tones they hear and have a command over the physical interface used to produce them (that's, you know, the instrument).

Here are a few ways in which chords are colors:

  • They can be described but not defined. You can describe blue as calm, peaceful, cool, but that is completely subjective. Likewise, I can describe the I chord as grounded, settled, and warm but that is a subjective description of an objective reality. Each musician must develop their own experience of each chord.

  • They can match or clash. Fluorescent orange really stands out if put in a baby's nursery of lemon, baby blue, and lavender, just as the bVI (flat six) chord sounds jarring amidst the usual I, IV, V, vi. I learned to identify these "borrowed" chords before I learned their normal, diatonic cousins because they stood out so much.

  • They can be used strategically to evoke emotion. Combinations of colors can be soothing, patriotic, aggressive, sophisticated, neutral, or romantic, whether visual or aural.

  • They can become dated. Avocado, rust orange, and the major seventh chords of Bread and The Bee Gees were all very much at home in the kitchens of the 1970s.

  • Variations can be too subtle for the casual observer to detect. To the layperson, it's green; to the designer, it's sage. And that's actually a minor ninth, not a minor seventh.

  • They are learned through trial and error. We start learning about color when we learn to talk. It's amazing that toddlers learn so abstract a concept so early in life. However, there is a lot of, "No, this isn't purple. This is green," on the way there. "No, that's not the V chord, that's the IV chord."

As you listen to music to hear the colors created by the chords, don't just listen to your instrument in the mix (for example, the horn section). Remember the room with one light in it, and how everything is affected by the color.

Hearing these colors is not an innate talent that you either have or you don't. Identifying chords by their color is an ability that anyone can develop. I hope this post will help you to better understand the nature of this skill, so you can put it to good use!

The two different kinds of mistakes

Musicians (particularly music students) sometimes get hung up on mistakes. "You played so well!" "Yeah, but I messed up on that one part."

Especially since so much of the music we hear these days is sanitized and computerized and auto-tuned within in an inch of its life, we lose perspective on our humanity as musicians and hold "no mistakes" as the standard we aspire to.

Wildflowers are neither flaws nor errors. (Photo: Per Ola Wiberg)This standard creates problems in learning and playing, because we're only looking out for wrong notes and lose our connection with musicality and emotion. We aren't in touch with how comfortable we are with a piece, we're only thinking about getting through it for the sake of getting through it. Play, mess up, go back to the beginning, play mess up, go back to the beginning.

What's more, fearing mistakes can create psychological reactance: we are trying so hard not to mess up, that we mess up. This is a negative feedback loop that affects students from beginner to professional.

It is true that a bad habit is difficult to unlearn. There are certain kinds of mistakes that become bad habits. Ironically, these are often created by the very attitude that seeks to avoid any mistakes. Steamrollering a piece of music with unrealistic expectations leads to rushing, tension, frustration, fatigue, all of which foster the type of mistakes that tend to stick. Let's call these errors.

On the other hand, there are mistakes that happen simply because you're a human being striving to accomplish something. These imperfections occur and can be brushed off with no lasting impact. We'll call these flaws.

The following table shows the difference between errors and flaws in several common circumstances:

Situation Flaw Error
writing an essay typo drawing a conclusion not supported by the facts
public speaking saying "um" saying something offensive
driving a car swerving around debris speeding through a red light
getting an injury bumping your shin on the coffee table hurting your back as a result of weak muscles and poor posture when lifting boxes
eating a couple extra cookies eating ice cream when you know you're lactose intolerant
healing scab scar


The relationship between each flaw and error is imprecise at best, and one could argue that any mistake is a result of carelessness or excessive speed. But there is a difference, which is that all of the flaws are generally things that could happen at any time, while the problems created by the errors are avoidable or caused by long-term issues. 

In music, flaws show up when you lose yourself in what you're doing, and when a piece of music is unfamiliar. They are superficial, and can mostly be ignored. They are the human element showing up in your otherwise mindful, methodical work. Sometimes they appear when you get tired, and as such can be indicators that it's time to give the instrument a rest.

Errors, on the other hand, flourish in tense situations where there isn't time to think. When you're going too fast, you have no time to exercise good judgment and your work suffers. "I always mess up at this part. I keep trying but I can't get it right." You can bet these ingrained errors, these deeper issues will show up in a performance situation as tension or, inevitably, mistakes.

What to do about it? Slow down, relax, be mindful, and take the music in small sections. Let go of the flaws, and do everything you can to avoid the errors.

Rebuild it the same way it was built

Whenever possible, get inside the head of the writer or the composer of a piece you're working on. How did this song come into the world? Learn it by retracing the steps the artist took to create it in the first place.

Strumming the guitar Try to get it by feel first - I'm sure Bo Diddley never sat down and wrote out a strumming pattern in his life.

Learning a classical piece Imagine Haydn at the piano, transcribing the notes onto the page in small groups. Learn it the same way.

Mastering a specific guitar solo Find the scale shape that makes sense in that key, and play around with it until you find a few licks that match what you're hearing on the recording. You know that Hendrix was also just poking around until he found something he liked.

Figuring out an acoustic pop song Don't forget to use a capo if you've got a lot of chords that aren't available in an open position. Why would the songwriter be playing a bunch of barre chords on an acoustic? If it sounds easy, it should feel easy.

Learning fingerpicking on the guitar, or an intricate repetitive figure on any instrument Except for classical music, don't worry about making it identical to the recording - just get the gist of it. If the person who played the part on the record was being loose and spontaneous, you should be, too. Forget about the twenty pages of minute variations and just play.

Combining sections of a pop song Put the record on really loud and play along with it. Don't ask me "how many strums until..." Listen to the record, play along with the record, listen to the record, play along with the record, ad nauseum. The person who wrote it had to play it repeatedly to get the right feel.

Finding the groove of a song on the piano Tap it out on your legs, as though drumming, to get the relationship between the hands. Rock piano is very percussive.

Assimilating a rapid passage Play a few notes at a time in short bursts. You can't play the whole thing that fast yet, but right from the start you're teaching your fingers how it's going to feel when you do.

While you might not be able to follow this path all the way to the end, your playing will be stylistically appropriate even in the early stages of study on a given piece. In other words, it will sound like you understand the music.

How to not keep playing the same thing over and over again

You know how when you say a word many times in a row ("Donut. Donut donut donut donut donut...") it starts to sound weird? It gets divorced from its meaning and becomes pure sound. This same thing happens when you mindlessly play the same musical figure ad nauseum. Here's how to get just the right number of repetitions of a musical passage.


Small segments, slowly

First of all, you should be working on sections so small that you can play them correctly on the first try. If you mess up, you are either taking too big a section, or going too fast, or both.

Don't be a hero! Don't think that going slowly or breaking things down makes you a weaker musician:

  • The slower you practice, the faster you will learn.
  • The tighter your focus, the shorter your practice.


The Comfort Score

Do you have a small-enough chunk to work with? Good. Now play it, paying attention to how it feels, not just how it sounds. Now, give yourself a Comfort Score from one to ten.

This score is not "how many mistakes did I make?" If you made mistakes, you might be going to fast or playing too big a section. If you chose your section well (it could be just one note), you didn't make any errors. Instead, ask yourself, "How comfortable was while I played that?"

Ten is "I can play this effortlessly with my eyes closed." One is, "I think I just passed out in the middle from concentrating too hard."

If your score was any lower than eight, play it again. Keep evaluating yourself, and keep repeating the passage, until you score eight or nine. Do not aim for ten, because you will go mad.



By the time you score an eight or nine, you have played the musical passage a few times correctly, evaluating yourself every step of the way. Your playing feels relaxed and masterful. When you reach this point, stop. Resist the temptation to play the phrase again.

Your choices at this point:

  • Go on to a different section or piece
  • Practice a section adjacent to the one you just played, overlapping
  • Expand the section you just worked on
  • Go have some ice cream


There's always tomorrow

When you come back to this piece at your next practice session, it will probably take you fewer repetitions to get to a Comfort Score of eight or nine. Good! Eventually, you'll be able to score a nine on your first try. This doesn't require hundreds of repetitions. Intense focus and thoughtful self-evaluation will shorten your practice time to only what is needed.