Exploring Jazz: Improvisation Tips for Beginners


Whether you play saxophone, piano, bass, or another instrument, jazz can be a really fun genre to explore! To get started, check out these jazz improvisation tips from Brookings, SD teacher Carl S… 


One of my favorite things about making music is jazz improvisation. Jazz style is a lot of fun, but adding improvisation to that is essential. I, like many of my students, was afraid to improvise at first. Here are some helpful jazz improvisation tips for starting out.

Before Step One

Before anything else, be honest with yourself and identify what level you’re at. If you’re a true beginner, the worst thing that you can do is try to instantly memorize what all of the chord symbols mean. Yes, they are important, but this is not step one. Even if you’re just starting out with your instrument, you can begin by training your ear.

Step One

The first thing I have a student do is jam out on one note. I set up a play-along track, or even just a metronome, and then I play a measure of some rhythmic idea. Then, I have the student copy me. We repeat this several times, paying extra attention to style and articulation. Then, I expand to playing three note, then five, etc. All students can do this, and it is easy to customize to their needs.

Remember to Have Fun!

How do you get better between lessons? When I was in middle school, one of my favorite things to do was play along with the radio. I’d play mainstream radio melodies on the saxophone, not even realizing how important this was to my future as a musician. I was training my ear and having fun doing it!

Start with Simple Music Theory

Once you can do this, it’s probably time to start checking out some chord symbols. A lot of people start with the blues progression, but that’s a lot of fast changing chords for a beginner. I prefer to start with a slower paced AABA form, such as a tune like “Impressions” or “So What”. Learning two scales and having plenty of time to clearly hear the harmony changing makes this transition much easier.

The Blues

Now’s the time to try the blues. Many band directors will teach you the “blues scale” at this point. While this is a quick fix for band directors to get students to play something for a concert, it is not really considered playing the changes of a blues form. I suggest looking at Jamie Aebersold’s Play-Along Volume 54 “Maiden Voyage”. These books and many other great resources are available at www.jazzbooks.com. This series of play-along books is very well known to jazzers, and there are well over 100 volumes made for all instruments. Check out the third tune called “Bb Blues”.

More Difficult Chord Progressions

From here, chord progressions get more difficult. The Aebersold books can be very helpful, since they spell out the scale for each chord symbol. At this point, it is very easy to develop a habit of only improvising while staring the page. Don’t forget to use your ear!

Learning Tunes

The Real Book Volume I (6th Edition) is available at www.jazzbooks.com as well as many other places, including iBooks. This is a book with hundreds of standard jazz tunes, and there are several volumes and categories. The tempting thing to do is to learn these tunes by reading, however, it is better to learn them by ear. To do this, start by picking an easy tune that’s in the book, find it on YouTube being performed by the original artist/composer, and go from there.

Additional Resources

Aebersold has created play-alongs for these books, but there is a cheaper and more customizable option. I use an app called iReal Pro, which is inexpensive and always with me on my phone. First, download the app, then add the content, which includes over 1,000 songs. From here, you can transpose, add dozens of repeats for practice, change tempos, etc.

This is a lot of information, but if you first identify what level you’re at and keep these jazz improvisation tips in mind, you’ll be gigging like a pro in no time!

CarlSCarl S. teaches saxophone, music theory, piano, and more in Brookings, SD. He completed his Doctor of Musical Arts degree in saxophone performance at the University of Kansas in 2014, and his Master of Music Pedagogy and Performance from Oklahoma State University in 2011. Learn more about Carl here! 



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So You Want a Singing Career? 3 Tips for Dealing With Rejection


As an aspiring singer, actor, musician or other kind of performer, getting comfortable with auditions is a big part of the process. Along with this comes rejection, which you might face a lot of before you make it big. Read on as Haddon Heights, NJ teacher Aaron K. shares his tips for moving on…


I’m currently trying to become a professional opera singer. I know, it’s a dying art form, no one really understands the plots, and it’s only for snobby rich people who actually enjoy listening to Arnold Schoenberg (sorry if you do, I still can’t get into it). While I understand (yet contest for many reasons) all the previous points, I am choosing this path and have to deal with something that is common to all performers, whether you’re working toward a singing career or something else in the industry: rejection.

You’ve trained for years. You’ve read all the articles on auditioning. Heck, maybe you’ve even researched your audition panel to try to play to their tastes. But after all that effort, you didn’t get the part. You didn’t get on American Idol. You didn’t get into the college you had your heart set on. I’ve personally had to deal with rejection more times than I like to think about. Here’s a few steps to help you with this difficult outcome.

1) Separate yourself from your performing.
The initial impact of being told “no” can be quite hard. What really makes matters worse, though, is when you take rejection as a personal attack. You are not your voice. You are not your interpretation of Hamlet. You are not your piano, cello, flute, or anything else you have been studying. You are a complex human being with many attributes that are unique and wonderful. Your auditioners are not saying no to you as a person. It’s much easier to say my singing was rejected rather than I was rejected.

2) Shrug off the “je ne sais quoi” factor.
After getting over the initial emotional blow, your mind can start churning ceaselessly with thoughts like “Why didn’t they like me?”, “Did they not like my high Bb?”, or “I knew I should have taken it at a slower tempo.” While it will be important to reflect on what you need to improve (the next step), for now it is important to recollect yourself. Realize that there are any number of things (some of which may be out of your control) that might have lead to the rejection. Perhaps the panel wanted someone taller. Perhaps the college wanted a student who couldn’t play as well but had better grades. Or perhaps someone else took your spot because they knew someone in the selection process. It’s impossible to know exactly why your performance wasn’t chosen. Rather, accept that you didn’t have that certain “je ne sais quoi” and don’t give it another thought. Instead, try to shift your focus and…

3) Ask “What I can do better next time?”
With a strong emotional reaction, it’s important to take a step back and rationally evaluate your weak areas. Do you lack flexibility and accuracy in your training? Work on scales and arpeggios. Did you lose your support on the high notes? Do more lip burbles in higher keys. Did your monologue seem vague and uninteresting? Make more specific choices in your delivery. When faced with rejection, you can either let it eat away at you and destroy your resolve, or you can face it as a challenge for the next time.

At the end of the day, rejection won’t matter if you’re pursuing a performance or singing career for the right reason. It’s not just something fun for you. You’re driven by a need to express and create. You have something meaningful to say and you want people to listen. If this is the case, it won’t matter that this audition didn’t pan out, because you have 10 more lined up. You may get rejected for years and work jobs you hate for pennies that can barely sustain your lessons and audition fees. But dealing with rejection will never be an issue because it will be as normal to you now as your morning cup of coffee. If this is the case, you don’t have to worry about “making it” in the performance world. If this is the case, you are an artist, and the only thing that matters to you is your art.

AaronKAaron K. teaches acting, singing, and piano in Haddon Heights, NJ. He received his Bachelor’s degree in Music from University of Miami and a Master’s degree in Vocal Performance from Texas Tech University. Learn more about Aaron here! 



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Should Your First Music Lessons be 30, 45, or 60 Minutes Long?


You’ve found a great music teacher and are ready to book – but if you’re not sure how long your lessons should be, you’re not alone! Read on for some helpful advice from Greensboro, NC teacher Alanna H...


When first starting music lessons, either for your child or yourself, it’s hard to know how long your lessons should be. Eventually many students can work up to 60-minute lessons if they want to, but where is a good place to start? Here’s my advice:

30-Minute Music Lessons

–Young children (elementary school and most middle schoolers)
–Students who have never played the instrument before

30-minute lessons are great for young children and people brand new to the instrument. If you have a young child (middle school or younger) who is new to the instrument, I would definitely start with half an hour. In addition to not having the playing endurance, young students often don’t have the attention span to get full use of an hour or a 45-minute lesson. There are of course always exceptions, but that is a good rule of thumb. Adult beginners might also find that 30 minutes is the best for them endurance-wise.

45-Minute Music Lessons

–Children who are serious about learning the instrument
–Adult students who have never played before

45-minute lessons are great for adult beginners, high schoolers, and younger children with a keen interest in music and longer-than-average attention span.

60-Minute Music Lessons

For serious music students, or students preparing for auditions or competitions, 60-minute lessons are ideal. An ideal candidate for a 60-minute lesson practices regularly and therefore has built up the playing endurance to feel comfortable all the way through the lesson.

Music lesson length can also be determined by the actual time you have available, as well as budget, and those are perfectly acceptable reasons to choose a certain lesson length. If you still feel unsure about how long the first music lessons should be, contact a TakeLessons Student Counselor, or speak with your teacher about your goals, experience, and schedule prior to your first lesson to get a recommendation.

AlannaHAlanna H. teaches music theory, clarinet, and saxophone lessons in Greensboro, NC. She received her degree in Music Performance (Saxophone) from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Learn more about Alanna here! 



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piano games for kids

6 Kids’ Games for Learning Piano Music

piano games for kids

Is your child struggling to stay focused when they’re practicing the piano? That’s normal–it just means it might be time to add something new to the routine! Get some great ideas for music games for kids in this guest post by Santa Cruz, CA teacher John S...


Can your 4- to 6-year-old keep her focus through the entirety of a traditional piano practice? Music demands a tremendous amount of attention, in several different areas at once: reading music, being careful about pitch, rhythm, and fingering, and much more! Some children have no trouble keeping on task with all these endeavors. However, if your young child is like the vast majority, you may need to break up their practice with other activities. In between their private lessons, playing music games for kids can certainly help–and most of these you can play with your child even if you don’t have much of a music background!

1. Be an animal
Most young children love pretending to be different animals. Not only that, but the intuitive connection of musical features with an animal’s characteristics comes quickly and effortlessly to most kids. Try something like the following, perhaps while looking at a picture with lots of different animals:

You: Ok, which animal would you like to be?
Child: A snake!
You: A snake, wow! What would snake music sound like?

The child may immediately have a sense of snake music. If so, let ‘em play! It may not fit your idea of snake music in any way, but if they’re engaging with their imaginations, let them be.

If a child isn’t sure what to do, you might make a suggestion like the following:

You: To me, a snake is a slithery thing. (Play a stepwise melody that moves up and down the piano in a sinuous fashion.) Do you think this sounds like a snake? What do you think would sound more like a snake?

2. Use a picture book
Books for young children that have great pictures are a nice way to guide an improvisation that progresses through a beginning, middle, and end. Many children will respond immediately when you ask them to look at the picture and think about what it would sound like.

If they get stuck, you can point out specific features in the pictures. For instance, “See the twinkling stars? Can you make a twinkling sound like those stars might make?” or “Those are some big, hairy monsters! How can you make a big, hairy sound on the piano?” You can always play them a little example to get them started. Chances are, they will be impatient for you to stop so that they can get their hands on the piano keys.

3. Make up a story
This is a great game for kids if you know how to play piano as well. Start off by thinking of a story, like the following:

“A man was walking down the street” (play ambling, rhythmic music at an andante tempo) ”when suddenly,” (stop playing) “he saw an elephant right in front of him.” (pounding, ponderous bass line perhaps with circus-like qualities) “The elephant was dressed in royal finery, and being ridden by a man in a suit of armor.” (fanfare, clanking sounds) Let your imagination run wild with bold, big images that you can translate into music.

Next, you can ask them to contribute, either with story ideas, or by playing the piano. Gradually, you can encourage them to do the whole thing, story and music, by themselves.

4. Pick four pitch classes
Restricting the available pitches is a great way to make improvisation sound better. It turns out that four is a perfect number, because all combinations of four pitches can sound musical.

You: Let’s take turns choosing the pitches we’re going to use for this song. You can choose any letter A through G, and you can make it sharp or flat if you want.
Child: A-flat!
You: Good, so you can play any A-flat you want. (play all of the A-flats on the piano) You can be sure you have an A-flat when it’s the middle black key in a group of three.

Then it’s your turn to choose a note, and alternate until four pitches are chosen. Even if it is a cluster, the group of pitches can sound good.

Let your child play on those pitches in any rhythm they like. If they play a note that’s not one of the four you selected, tell and show them exactly what note they played by mistake, and remind them of the notes that were chosen.

5. Repeat after me – Rhythm 
This is another great game if you don’t know much about the piano, because you can play it away from the piano, sitting cross-legged on the floor. Here’s how I play with my students: “Me first, and then you,” I say, then start with simple rhythms, banging the floor or clapping while saying the counts aloud. I chant, “One and Two and Three and Four and,” while alternating hands pounding the floor, L-R-L-R on the main beats.

Look at your kid around beat four and more than likely they will get the right idea and repeat after you. Gradually increase the complexity of your rhythms so that they are fun and interesting, but not too hard.

While using large movements and big muscles is the best way to get started in this game, it need not stay there. When they are comfortable with large movements, ask them to make gentle finger taps. Then, they can start playing specific piano keys; for example, you can play B-flat while the child plays E-flat.

6. Repeat after you – Three pitches
Sitting next to your child at the keyboard, ask him or her to play any three pitches, one after the other. Then play the same pitches, perhaps in a different register. You can spice it up by asking for different dynamics: “Play me really soft ones now,” or “Try three loud ones.” Make sure that your child plays the notes separately and clearly so that you can accurately repeat them.

Use your imagination!
Of course, these games for kids are only the beginning. Taking your cue from your child’s natural creativity, you can develop a whole world of musical games. When your child experiences the power and joy of direct musical expression, he or she will gain confidence in their musical creativity that will last a lifetime.

JohnSJohn S. teaches singing, piano, guitar, and more in Santa Cruz, CA. He received his a doctorate in music composition from UCSC. Learn more about John here!



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how to write pop song

The Anatomy of a Hit Pop Song [Infographic]

When you’re learning how to write a song, looking at how other songs are structured can be a great place to start. Like looking at a map before you go on a roadtrip, checking out the basic elements of songs you love gives you a sense of how they were written and what you need to do to write a song of your own.

If analyzing all your favorite songs sounds like a daunting task (it is), you’re in luck. The Billboard Experiment wanted to know if there was a formula that could determine which songs would be hits and which songs were destined to flop. They ran the numbers on the top songs on the Billboard Charts since the 1950s, plus information from the Million Song Dataset, to get a high-level look at what goes into a hit pop song.

Of course, this study isn’t the ultimate guide to how to write a song. If everyone followed these rules, we wouldn’t have “Stairway to Heaven” or “Bohemian Rhapsody”. Standing out from the crowd can make you more memorable as a songwriter, so you might choose to avoid the things you see these popular songs doing.

If you’re just getting started as a songwriter, try writing something simple along the lines of the famous pop songs The Billboard Experiment studied. You don’t have to write a hit on your first try, and you probably won’t. Most songwriting teachers agree that the best way to learn how to write better songs is to start writing now, and keep writing as much as you can. Through dedication and practice, you will find your unique voice as a songwriter, and you’ll only get better from there!

If someone asked you how to write a song, what advice would you give them? Let us know in the comments below!


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Choosing a Neck Strap | How to Play Saxophone Tips


Learning how to play saxophone starts with the right equipment–namely, a quality neck strap! Read on for some helpful advice from Brookings, SD teacher Carl S… 


The saxophone is a unique instrument for many reasons. One example is that the saxophone is the only band instrument that uses a neck strap. Unfortunately, the neck strap is often the most overlooked aspect of playing the instrument. One of the first things that I stress to a new student is the importance of the neck strap and it’s effect on their performance.

Potential Issues with Your Saxophone Neck Strap

There are several considerations regarding the neck strap. First, you need to realize that the purpose of the neck strap is to hold the saxophone in its proper playing position.

If the neck strap is adjusted too low, you’ll end up adjusting yourself to the position of the instrument, instead of adjusting the instrument to yourself. This can cause the head to point down, disrupting airflow, and also causes the throat to be unnecessarily strained. Some try to make up for this by holding the weight of the instrument with the right-hand thumb, which can cause serious long-term problems. If you’re sitting, sometimes the neck strap will end up hanging loosely while the saxophone rests on your seat. This problem is easily solved by standing while practicing, even if only for a portion of the practice session.

On the other hand, if the neck strap is too tight, the angle and amount of mouthpiece in the mouth will be incorrect, causing undesirable tone issues. Young students often have difficulties adjusting neck straps. I often see tangled neck straps that are stuck in one position. To combat this issue, choose an easily adjustable neck strap that will still stay in place.

Types of Saxophone Neck Straps

There are several different types of neck straps. Some are simple and thin while others have comfortable cushions. If you fear that the saxophone will come unhooked and accidentally dropped, many neck straps have clasps instead of hooks for extra security. Some newer neck strap designs allow the weight of the saxophone to rest on the shoulders instead of the neck, which decreases strain and increases airflow. An alternative to the neck strap is the saxophone harness, which takes the weight completely off of your neck. There are even neck straps that attach to your belt loops and come over your shoulders like suspenders. I’m personally not comfortable with the idea of my instrument being attached to my pants though! Finally, keep away from stretchy neck straps. Even though they are comfortable, the fact that they are constantly adjusting is undesirable when trying to develop consistent performance habits.

Finding the Right Type

So, how do you find the right style or type? While there are several great brands out there, the most important thing is getting what works best for you and your needs. Try several out at local music stores to get measurements–everybody is different.

When learning how to play saxophone, remember the importance and purpose of the neck strap! It can cause or solve many issues! Are you really sore after practicing? Do you strain to produce a good tone? Do you feel like you use a lot of air, but your sound is still soft? Does the saxophone make your bottom lip press into your bottom teeth? The neck strap can have an effect on all of these issues and more.

CarlSCarl S. teaches saxophone, music theory, piano, and more in Brookings, SD. He completed his Doctor of Musical Arts degree in saxophone performance at the University of Kansas in 2014, and his Master of Music Pedagogy and Performance from Oklahoma State University in 2011. Learn more about Carl here! 


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Are You Really Ready To Record Your Song Or Book A Vocal Session?


Think you’re ready to write your own song and record it? Songwriting can be an arduous process – but seeing the final product is an amazing feeling. Read on for a helpful pre-recording checklist from Perth Amboy, NJ teacher Jeff S...


Whether you’re singing your own song or hiring a vocalist to sing on your demo or master, there are many layers of preparation needed to ensure optimum results. Some songwriters like to wing it and hope that things will magically work out because they picked a great studio or have good equipment or simply feel that their song is destined to become a huge hit–or perhaps because they don’t want to risk the vocal performance sounding too rehearsed and stiff. But that mindset, in my opinion, falls under the categories of foolishness, laziness, or wishful thinking. The fact is, there are several questions you need to ask yourself before the recording session begins and prior to a singer stepping behind a mic to cut their vocal. Your sessions will go a lot more smoothly and successfully if you take the time to put yourself and your song through a series of questions.

After you write your song, here’s what to consider before recording it and/or booking vocal sessions:

  • What’s the song structure? Is it a Verse/Chorus song? Verse/Bridge? Does it have a solo section? Trust me–it’s really worth determining the structure well in advance of the session. A little planning time now will save you studio time, money, and aggravation later.
  • What’s the tempo? I would urge you to pinpoint a BPM (beats per minute) setting before you start recording a single note. You can use a metronome to do this.
  • What kind of groove do you want the drums to have? Steady? Relaxed? Frenetic? Edgy? Sparse? Busy? Acoustic? Electric? Electronic? Do you need percussion, too?
  • How long is the song? Have you timed it out (including intro and fade ending)? If it comes in at over five minutes, you should at least consider doing a radio edit of the long version that puts it between 3 1/2 and 4 1/2 minutes. Time out your song prior to recording it. Radio and many other end-users for your recording usually don’t respond well to epic-length tracks.
  • What’s the style? Pop? Rock? Country? R&B? Hip-Hop? If you don’t know, you would be wise to get a handle of it before setting foot in the studio.
  • What’s your instrumentation going to be? Are you tracking with live players (and most importantly, are you going to need a live drummer?) or doing a MIDI recording? If you’re using live players, you need to get all your money matters in order prior to booking the session.
  • What’s your budget for this demo or master? (Note: if you’re doing the recording at your own studio and you’re playing and singing everything yourself, then you don’t have to worry about this one.)
  • What’s the best key for this particular song? Determining the key that matches the emotion or storyline is crucial. Once you know that, you can ask the singer you’ve selected if they can sing comfortably in that key. Have a conversation with the singer beforehand about their vocal range and comfort keys. If they can’t reach the notes needed, you will likely need to seek out a different singer or change the key.
  • Is your singer familiar with the song? If you’re not singing on your own song demo or master, make sure to get your vocalist some form of rough recording of the song so they can get acquainted with it beforehand. This way they won’t be coming into the vocal session cold and eat up a lot of unnecessary studio time. Consider recording a “scratch vocal” (i.e. usually a songwriter’s one- or two-take guide vocal that conveys the melody and the mood to the singer).
  • What mood do you want the singer to evoke? Heartbroken? Energized? Reflective? Angry? Happy?
  • Is this recording intended to be a demo or master? For example, should it be a broadcast-quality recording that can be used in film, TV, or a top-notch album? If it’s a master, then everyone’s performance must be great (if not perfect) and the recording quality has to be excellent.

That’s a lot of stuff to think out and plan for, but it will be well worth the time you spend. I hope it leads you to many great recordings and vocal sessions.

JeffSJeff S. teaches guitar, ukulele, speaking voice, songwriting, and more in Perth Amboy, NJ, as well as online. Jeff has created and taught songwriting and music business classes at colleges, universities, and music schools throughout the country for many years. Learn more about Jeff here! 



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Are Heavy Metal Banjos The Next Big Thing?

Loud, jangly, and twangy, the banjo is an instrument with a distinctive voice that immediately evokes the spirit of the American South. Long a mainstay of bluegrass music, banjos have recently been incorporated into pop music as well by bands like Mumford and Sons.

And, if YouTube trends are any indication, it looks like the banjo is making another genre shift!

A pack of viral videos featuring banjo covers of hard rock classics are making the rounds and proving that banjos can shred just as hard as guitars. Check out a few of our favorites:

“Thunderstruck” – Steve’n'Seagulls

“Raining Blood” – Rob Scallon

“Enter Sandman” – Iron Horse

What do you think? Do you want to hear more banjo? Let us know in the comments below!


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Songwriting Tips | The Wisdom of a One-Of-Kind Song Title


What’s in a name? If you’re looking for songwriting tips as you pen your next tune, check out this advice from Perth Amboy, NJ teacher Jeff S...


There is not one “right” or preferred way to write a song. It’s a very individual choice. Some songwriters start out with a patch of melody or a line or two of lyric as their creative catalyst. Others will initiate the songwriting muse with a unique and instantly-captivating song title or writing from their emotions. And in this ever-crowded, highly-competitive song placement marketplace, why wouldn’t you want to carve out an immediate attention-getting premise by coming up with a standout song title?

Having a compelling title and unique lyrical approach can instantly pique interest and generate listens, especially if your musical dreams extend to getting listened by decision-makers in the music industry. But even so if you just want your song and music video to stand out from the crowd on YouTube or other Internet sites where music can be posted. After all, isn’t generating listens and “likes” the initial goal of a yet-to-be discovered songwriter?

As a general guideline and one of the best songwriting tips, it is probably best to stay away from hackneyed song titles like ”I Love You” or “I Need You”. On the other end of the spectrum, it is also a wise idea to avoid leeching onto titles that are intrinsically and irrevocably linked with the artist who had a hit with them;. Such songs (and titles!) like Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, The Beatles’ “Yesterday”, Carole King’s “You’ve Got A Friend”, Tom Petty’s “Freefallin’ ” Bill Withers’ “Lean On Me”, and Lynyrd Skynrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” are just a few that fall under this iconic (and therefore untouchable) category. They are so woven into the pop cultural fabric that it would be fool’s gold to try to re-excavate them.

It’s also imprudent and unoriginal to glob onto more modern (yet also seminal) song titles like Amy Winehouse’s ”Rehab”, Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl”, Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” or Beyonce’s, “If I Were A Boy”.

So how you know when a song title is truly original and unique? Well, first I would trust your gut feeling about that. But there is an amazing (and free!) resource that you can use as a litmus test for your song title’s originality. Just go to iTunes and type your song title into the iTunes search engine and see how many other songs pop up with that same title. If it’s fewer than 10, then you probably have a very original title. But if 100 or more song titles come up with your title, then I’d give serious thought into putting your creative time, studio time, and hard-earned money into a demo or a master recording.

Besides iTunes, there are some other fantastic sources you can utilize to get a fix on the creative uniqueness of your song titles. The major performing rights organizations (ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC) all have super extensive databases. ASCAP has the ACE Title Search. On the BMI site, look for the word search at the top of their home page. SESAC has a repertory search at the bottom of their home page. No matter what title you come up with, have fun and try to find a previously unexplored approach to your title and craft it into something that is truly you! This is the best songwriting tip to keep in mind. Remember — it’s never a bad idea to be as original as you can. Happy and successful title-finding and songwriting!

JeffSJeff S. teaches guitar, ukulele, speaking voice, songwriting and more in Perth Amboy, NJ, as well as online. Jeff has created and taught songwriting and music business classes at colleges, universities, and music schools throughout the country for many years. Learn more about Jeff here! 



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Learn to Play the Flute: Your Top Challenges, Resolved!


Want to learn to play the flute or improve your existing skills? Check out these helpful tips from New York flute teacher Nadia B...

As you learn to play the flute, you may encounter some challenges as you grow, learn, and improve. Read on to discover the most common issues I see my flute students facing, and tips to overcome them so you can play at your best.

“I don’t have enough air to play that passage!”

While you may feel that you don’t have enough air, you usually have enough, or even too much. As you play a long phrase and feel the air being used up, your mind usually takes over and reminds you that you still have to make it to the end, so you had better start squeezing out the air… that’s where the problem comes in. If you try to squeeze out the air, you are contracting lots of large, powerful muscles, which actually prevents you from using up the rest of the air inside the body. Then, you may gasp a breath of air at the end of that long phrase without having used up all the air you already had, creating an issue for the next phrase.

Here’s the way out of this vicious cycle: We actually don’t need as much air as we think we do. So when you’re getting ready to start a phrase, don’t gasp in air, or try to tank up. Just let some air naturally flow in (after all, when we have finished up the air inside of us, our bodies automatically respond to make room for air and bring it into the body) and then begin playing the phrase. Your body-mind knows how to manage the air based on the length of the phrase. If you feel like you’re starting to run out, sense the ground underneath you and see if you can allow your body to expand rather than contracting and collapsing in your body to squeeze the air out.

“The flute feels like it’s slipping” or “My pinky finger or thumb hurts from gripping to hold onto the flute.”

Finding a hand position that is effective, comfortable, and sustainable is the key. Too often I see students clenching the flute for fear of dropping it and developing hand pain or fatigue as a result.

It’s important to know that the flute is not just supported by the fingers. (Even if it were, our fingers are longer than most people realize—they start at the base of the hand.) To find a more supportive position, we can visualize a connection between our hands and our back, with our arms as the conduit. You can imagine your arms growing out of your back, and letting the fingers lengthen as the hand touches the flute. This gives you much more support for the flute, so that your back is doing the ‘heavy lifting’ rather than the hands.

Next, find a book and hold it with the fingers stretching out across the front or back cover of the book, and the thumb stretching out across onto the opposite cover. Imagine the fingers connecting to the thumb through the book. This relationship of the fingers and the thumb when holding a book is similar to how we should hold the flute. When the lines of the fingers and thumb in each hand are roughly parallel (but not held straight, simply curving and arched naturally) as we hold our flutes, this eliminates a lot of extra contorting and tightening of the fingers.

These two fundamental ideas should help you find a hand position that feels, looks, and ‘sounds’ better!

“My sound is fuzzy/thin/airy.”

Developing good tone is crucial since a clear, rich, and flexible sound allows us to have a wide range of tone color for expression. Most flute students try to manipulate tone quality by making changes to their embouchure.

While the embouchure is undoubtedly important, sometimes we can become preoccupied with it and forget that the sound depends on the quality of the whole body. When the body is free and open, there’s more room for the sound to resonate through us, which is infinitely better than a sound that is produced in the throat, cut off from the rest of the body by excessive tension and manipulated by too many changes in the embouchure. As you learn to relax your body, your embouchure will naturally respond to make the changes needed to facilitate a change in color, dynamic, or range.

To try this out, play a long tone and see if you can imagine the sound traveling all the way through your body. Mentally scan your body to see if there is muscular gripping anywhere in the body that is blocking the passage of the sound. After all, sound is vibration, and vibration needs space to occur.

With these ideas, your practice will be easier and more enjoyable!

nadiaBNadia B. teaches flute and piano in New York, NY, as well as through online lessons. She acted as principal flutist of the orchestra and wind ensemble at California State University, Sacramento, and then went on to receive her degree in Music Performance from New York University. Learn more about Nadia here!



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