7 Ways to Stay Focused in a World of Distractions


If you feel easily distracted in your daily life, you’re not alone! But as a writer or artist, this can be particularly detrimental to your craft. Here, Ann Arbor, MI teacher Keith F. shares some of his suggestions for how to stay focused…


In our modern culture, we watch television and use the internet several hours a day. We are experiencing ‘passive stimulation.’ Screens with light and color keep our attention, resulting in a form of light hypnosis, with the images constantly changing. Without this form of stimulation we get bored and fidgety. We start looking for something to do, or some other form of stimulation. Passive stimulation blocks the creative process. (Time is also an issue, but that is another lesson.)

Increasing Your Span of Attention Promotes Creativity

You get this great idea. And then something distracts you and you forget about it. And then the process happens again. Deep down inside, you are a creative thinker, not that anyone will ever know. Your creativity will never be expressed. That aspect of yourself will never be developed, and you will go through life operating as half the person you could have been. Unless you develop your ability to stay focused.

To help with this, I recommend trying out some of the following exercises. These exercises are time-consuming. They require practice. Practice takes time. But the more time you put into it, the better you’ll get. Some exercises are forms of ‘active stimulation,’ while others are methods for dialing down the need for stimulation.

Physical Exercise
Physical exercise requires concentration — until you get used to it. Then you have to switch to a new form of exercising: running to bicycling to swimming. There is usually some pain involved and ignoring it can be part of the concentration process. Hatha Yoga is (usually) not painful, requires a fair amount of focus, and can be altered and expanded upon for years. Similarly, dance (ballet, jazz, modern) has a lot of potential as a long-term exercise format requiring focus.

Have you ever tried focusing when you’re tired? It doesn’t work well. Yet a huge portion of the American population chooses not to get enough sleep. Sleep is when you heal from the various abuses of the day. Two or three hours of sleep will not do that. Over the long-haul, you’re setting yourself up for disease and distress. In the short-term, you’re only functioning at 75% of your optimum. Forget about creativity, you’re just walking around semi-numb.

Meditation is about cutting off stimulation and allowing your mind to shut down for a while, taking a well-deserved rest after all the hoops you’ve had to jump through. There are different styles of meditation, all of which can teach you how to stay focused. Some focus on breathing, some focus silencing the mind, and some focus on dance movements.

Reading requires the ability to focus for an extended period of time. Unlike television, it is an active form of stimulation. With a book, you have to imagine what’s going on — excellent training for creativity. If it has been a while, 10 minutes of reading may be a stretch. Start off with a novel you enjoy and after a few weeks try a nonfiction book you find interesting. Keep at it. You’ll get better. I like to read on the bus, in the afternoon after I get home for half an hour, and I usually get in a couple of hours on Sunday.

Drawing, painting, and sculpting are all great exercises for creativity. It’s not the end result that counts, it’s the process. You may have to get past your ego on this one. Be patient with yourself. You’ll get better, or switch to a different art form.

Certainly writing in itself requires the ability to stay focused. Some writers trek off to isolated cabins to minimize distractions. That’s not necessary, but it helps. If you’re struggling, I recommend doing the journal/diary experience. You’ll certainly be focused and you’ll get to learn a lot about yourself and others.

Awe-inspiring experiences quiet the mind, and allow it to perceive the world from a different perspective. I strongly recommend finding an awe-inspiring experience once a day: sunsets, art, kittens, or whatever else inspires you!

Sometimes in our modern culture, we need a little help with motivation and learning how to stay focused. Beyond the ideas above, a regularly scheduled meeting with a tutor or mentor who has lots of experience with creative writing can be a remarkably useful solution. Not only will the tutor play the role of adviser, but he or she can provide a sense of commitment that might be otherwise lacking. They will also provide ‘active stimulation.’ (Ready to find a tutor near you? Search here!)

KeithFKeith S. teaches accent reduction and writing in Ann Arbor, MI. He has written three books and a large number of articles on a variety of topics. Learn more about Keith here!



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4 Easy Steps to Playing Piano By Ear

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Want to try playing piano by ear? Follow these four simple steps from Newport Beach, CA teacher Patricia S. and you’ll be playing your favorite songs in no time…


Ear training doesn’t need to be difficult or boring. You can have fun, learn techniques for playing piano by ear, and learn a little bit about music theory all at once! And you need to know very little about the piano to do it.

To start, find a song with a good melody, and one that isn’t too fast. Pick a slow song or ballad. It’s best if you have some kind of a media player, like an iPod, iPad, or even YouTube handy, to play the song while you are working. You’ll need to know how to stop the track you are listening to and rewind sections of it. Oh! And, of course, have some kind of a keyboard or piano to play on.

Don’t worry if you’ve never had a piano lesson. If you have two hands and at least four fingers you can do this.

Step 1: Listen a LOT to the melody of the song. Then, listen only to a small section. As you listen, poke around on the keys to find notes that sound like they belong in the tune. Enjoy the process of discovering your song. Don’t forget the black keys! The melodies to most songs fall right in the middle of the keyboard. That’s a good place to start hunting. Be sure to listen in small sections, or you might become frustrated. Finding the notes in a song, alone, is an excellent way to start training your ear.

Step 2: With your right hand, play your song without listening to your media player. Uh-oh! Which fingers do you use? While learning to use efficient fingering is a skill to be learned later, we aren’t too concerned about that right now. Here’s a tip: place your hand so that the lowest notes in your song – those toward the left side of the keyboard as you face it – are closer to your thumb. Reserve the higher notes – those toward the right side of the keyboard – for your pinky finger. If most of the notes go much lower, or much higher, adjust the position of your hand accordingly. Or, you can just play through your melody with one finger for now.

Step 3: Now we get to the music theory part. To harmonize your song, or add body and fullness beneath the melody, play chords with your left hand. You will play these with your thumb, your middle finger and your pinky.

The notes in the chord need to be evenly spaced. Look at your keyboard — we’ll build a chord starting from the note “C” to get you started. Find a patch with two black keys – not three black keys. The “C” is the white key just barely to the left of the two black keys. To help you find “C” there is another white key to the left of it. Place your pinky on “C” and keep it there. Skip a white key and put your middle finger on the next white key. Skip one more white key and put your thumb on the next white key. Now, play all three notes at once. You have played a C Major chord!

Most songs can be harmonized with major and minor chords. Look at the C chord you just played. Including black keys, notice the number of keys between the notes you are playing. In a major chord, there are three other keys between your pinky and your middle finger, and there are two other keys between your middle finger and your thumb. That configuration makes a major chord. If you change the shape of the chord, so that you have only two other keys between your thumb and middle finger and three between your middle finger and thumb, you will make a minor chord. Try it. Play the “C.” Skip only two keys of any color. You will be playing a black key with your middle finger. Then, skip three keys. With your thumb you should be playing the same note you played in your major chord. Now, play them all at once. You have played a minor chord.

Step 4: Play your melody and add some chords with your left hand. Experiment with lots of major and minor chords to see which ones fit.

Don’t worry if you aren’t 100% successful at playing piano by ear at first. Keep at it. You’ll be learning, whether or not you work out your song completely. Try playing the melody to a familiar nursery song like “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” to start. It might be easier to find chords for a simpler song.

Remember to have fun with your experiment. Piano should be fun. And it doesn’t hurt to exercise our minds with a little bit of music theory. Happy playing!

Patricia SPatricia S. teaches piano, singing, music performance,and more in Newport Beach, CA. Patricia S. has taught voice for Orange County School of the Arts (OCSA), Gold Coast Theatre Conservatory, Crestmont Conservatory of Music, and the California State University Dominguez Hills Music Conservatory. Learn more about Patricia here!



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How to Practice Piano Arpeggios | Tips and Exercises


Don’t forget about piano arpeggios when you sit down to practice! Here, Helendale, CA teacher Sylvia S. shares her tips for playing and practicing them…


One of the great masters of 20th century piano showmanship was Liberace, otherwise known as the Elvis of piano performance. Liberace’s trademarks were wildly ostentatious outfits, candelabras atop the piano, and dramatic, finger-tangling sweeps across the keyboard of a grand piano. Those dramatic sweeps, known as arpeggios, are available to any aspiring pianist who has the patience to learn the art.

Arpeggios are also an amazing way to create sound effects on a piano. The rapid tinkling of pianissimo major seventh arpeggios in the high notes can sound angelic, like tiny drops of the first rain in spring that evoke the image of an impressionist painting. Mysterious and dark, a slow forte diminished arpeggio in the base notes has a familiar yet foreboding sound, like the soundtrack to suspenseful parts of a scary movie. The full range of arpeggio sounds can produce a practically unlimited combination of effects… no synthesizer required!

Introduction to Arpeggios

An arpeggio is a series of three or four notes played, one after another, that sound good together. Learning how to play arpeggios is one of the first steps for understanding the science of how to create beautiful harmonies on the piano keyboard. Playing piano arpeggios well is an art as well as a science.

One-octave arpeggios come in many different styles and flavors, and all of them are based on chords. The most common are three- and four-note arpeggios. Three-note arpeggios are a great place for beginning students to start. These are:

  • Major
  • Augmented
  • Minor
  • Diminished

Perhaps the simplest example is the C Major arpeggio, which contains the notes C, E, and G, played both forward and backward: C-E-G-E-C. Start with the right hand, using fingers 1-3-5-3-1 (finger number 1 is the thumb), and using the fingers 5-3-1-3-5 with the left hand. After you can do this with both hands separately, try playing both hands together. This will be a little tricky, so remember when one hand is using finger 5, the other hand will use the thumb (finger 1 ).

Four-note arpeggios are a little more complicated. These are for intermediate students, so if you’re new to piano just skip over these for now. These are the most common versions of four-note arpeggios:

  • Major with Major seventh
  • Major with minor seventh (also known as “Dominant”)
  • Augmented with minor seventh
  • Minor with minor seventh (also known as “minor seventh”)
  • Diminished with minor seventh (also known as “half-diminished”)
  • Diminished with double-flatted seventh (also known as “full-diminished” or just “diminished”)

How to Practice Piano Arpeggios

  • When you’re ready, learn how to play every type of arpeggio in every key. Yes, all 12 keys, and all 10 types. Don’t expect to practice everything in one sitting. Maybe you’ll have more fun learning all the arpeggio types in one key before moving on to the next key. Or maybe there’s a certain sound effect that you’d like to check out in all the keys. However you want to learn, be consistent and keep moving forward each time you are at the piano keyboard.
  • After you’ve mastered one-octave arpeggios, you’re ready for the piano big leagues. Soon you’ll be taking on the entire keyboard like a pro. Here’s the good news: if you can master the second octave, running the length of a seven-octave piano should be a piece of cake.
  • Relax your shoulders and wrists, working with your hands as your thumb and fingers move in a constantly-flowing, over-and-under wave motion. Let your elbows move in and out, going with the flow as your hands rotate gently over the keys. Keep your back straight, and allow yourself to bend side-to-side at the waist if you’re traveling over the keyboard, keeping your shoulders aligned parallel to the floor. If you do it right, you’ll get a great upper-body workout at the same time!
  • Start slowly, using a metronome, and then build up speed as you get more comfortable. That way, you’re more likely to sound like the smooth and suave musician you are, and not like Peter Cottontail thumpity-thump-thumping down the bunny trail. (For more about working with a metronome, read my post “8 Simple Steps for Learning Fast Piano Songs”)
  • Be prepared. After your posture and position are comfortable, the best preparation for pianistic takeover is fingering. Unlike the one-octave arpeggio, your thumb and fourth finger (both hands) will be constantly moving over (fingers) and under (thumb) each other. Be ready to make a move before you’ve reached your third or fourth finger. Word of advice: Don’t wait until you’ve played the fifth (pinkie) finger or you’ll get stuck. You’ll either be tripping over your fingers, or trying to rotate your wrist over to play with the back of your hands. Just don’t do it.

Extra Tips: Tuck the thumb under to play the natural keys, while the fingers are reaching up to play the sharps and flats. Decide what fingers you want to use, and practice the same fingering each time. After you get the hang of them, arpeggios are a great way to warm up your hands before practicing music, just like a sports team warms up before practice.

But Wait! There’s More…

Maybe you want to venture beyond 10 types of piano arpeggios in 12 keys over seven octaves (that’s 840 octaves and 120 arpeggios). Okay, maybe not… but what if you seek additional intellectual stimulation with your warm-up? Try arpeggios in contrary motion; starting with one center note, each hand moves outward from center, and then back. Give it a whirl, it’s a mind-bender. Or, if harmony is your desire, try a different arpeggio in each hand (like c minor seventh with E♭major seventh) The possibilities are endless…

If you’ve followed these simple directions and still feel like a beginner, you’re not alone. Most pianists take many years learning how to play arpeggios with finesse. So, when you’ve reached the conclusion of your arpeggio, whether it’s a simple, three-note glide within a single octave or a fortissimo multi-octave, mind-boggling, finger-tangling adventure, go ahead and finish it with confidence. Use that well-rested fifth (pinkie) finger or, if you prefer, finish up with your choice of any dramatic flourish, fingering, or hand motions. Why not? You’ve worked hard for it. You, too, deserve a Liberace moment.

SylviaSSylvia S. teaches singing, piano, theater acting, and more in Helendale, CA. She comes from a musical family of several generations, and her experience includes playing an electric keyboard and singing vocals in a professional, working band. Learn more about Sylvia here! 



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Acting Industry Tips: What They Don’t Tell You On the Set

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A lot goes on behind the scenes before commercials, TV shows, and movies make it to the air. Here, New York, NY acting teacher Stephanie B. shares a few of the acting industry secrets that you should know as an aspiring actor…


Being on a film, TV, or commercial set for the first time is exciting and wonderful and VERY confusing. And, worse, everyone will assume you know what to do and when to do it. Here are five acting industry tips to help you look and feel like a pro!

1. The AD
There will usually be anywhere from three to six ADs (Assistant Directors) on set, but at least one will be your friend. You will know which AD it is because they will be the one to check in and make sure you are on set. In the flurry of that, GET THEIR NAME and don’t forget it. Why? They are also the only one who can release you from shooting at the end of the day. Trust me, you do not want to be the actor who left when they were still needed. When you think you are done, check with them to be certain.

2. The Microphone
Many times you will wear a body microphone duct-taped to some part of your back or hip. Remember that it is ON or LIVE even when you are not shooting. Do not bad-mouth anyone or talk about how tired you are. And if you need to use the bathroom, find someone to turn it off or better yet remove it momentarily — you do not want those activities recorded, nor do you want to drop the microphone in the toilet!

3. On film, be framed right.
In every shot you are in, you are ‘framed’ by the camera. It is OK to ask where you are framed — maybe it is from the chest up — as it is good to know. Also, if you are in a scene, focus on the other actors’ eyes so you don’t get nervous. An old trick is to focus on their one eye that is closest to the camera to keep your face shot well.

4. Eyeline
If you are being shot as you look or talk to someone off-camera, the camera will be framing you (and only you!), but it will not look good if you are speaking to a 6’2″ person and looking up only to find out they are sitting in this scene. You should ask ‘Where is my eyeline?” which will tell you where your eyes should be looking. It is a professional way to ask, and believe me, they will love you for it.

5. Always be nice
You’d think this would be a given, but most actors are so overwhelmed on their first day on set that this and much else is completely forgotten. Thank the costumer, make-up artist, the AD, the director if you get the chance, as well as any other actors. Trust me, this simple step, in a world of texts, tweets, emails, and so forth is surprisingly welcome to film crews.

So, there you go! With these acting industry tips, I guarantee your first day on the set will be clearer, more professional, and less stressful. Plus, you will be on your way to creating your best actor tool of all: reputation! Now you can really be ready for your close-up!

StephanieBStephanie B. teaches acting, audition prep, and accent reduction in New York, NY. As the Founder of Nicu’s Spoon Theater Company, she has taught audition classes, techniques, dialect and accent coaching, and acting classes for 14 years in NYC. Learn more about Stephanie here!



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The Powerful Secret to Great Emotional Acting

3672794277_f42d28a647_oThe best actors know that part of the process involves truly understanding your character’s motivation and inner thoughts. Find out how to get started in this guest post by teacher Timothy S...


One of the most effective ways to learn acting is knowing never to accept just the facts when it comes to relationships. The ability to tap into the emotions of your character is the foundation of great acting. That foundation is, in turn, constructed upon the bedrock of understanding your character’s relationship to everybody else. And threatening the collapse of the entire structure is a tiny little hairline crack known as “Just the Facts, Ma’am.”

A Simple Question
What is the relationship between you and your father? Simple question, right? Learn to answer that question regardless of who the other character is and you learn acting, right? Think again. Let’s look at that simple question again and ask a few more questions: What is the relationship between you and your father? Is it the same now as it was when you were ten? What about when you were 16? Is the relationship between a father and a child the same when the child is 25 and when the child is 50? Probably not.

You Don’t Learn Acting By Learning Facts
Again, remember that you should never accept a simple factual statement as the answer to the following question: What is your character’s relationship to _______? No actor ever successfully tapped into a character’s emotions by providing answers to that question along the lines of “She’s my boss that I can’t stand” or “I’m the daughter he never knew he had who tracked him down 20 years after I was born” or even “I’m a hired assassin and he’s the person I’m supposed to kill.”

Facts don’t tell you anything about the emotional tenor of a relationship. If you discover nothing else on your lifelong journey to learn acting, you need to uncover the buried treasure that is realizing the power of finding the emotional tenor of relationships.

The Grasp Slippery
Of course, you need to know whether the other character is your wife or your sister, but you can’t stop there. It’s your job to figure out exactly what the nature of your relationships to the other characters are during the particular time in which the scene takes place. And that relationship may be completely different in the next scene, even if the next scene only takes place a few minutes later. Because of the fluid, surprising nature of emotions and their slippery grasp on relationships, it is quite simply never, ever enough to be satisfied with a factual description.

As an example of this, let’s use a really extreme situation. The factual description of our two characters is this: one character is the President of the United States and the other is a 10-year-old boy. From this description we would probably expect that the President will be more knowledgeable, in control of his emotions, and the dominant member of the relationship.

But what if the scene took place after the crash of Air Force One into a dense forest area? The President is the sole survivor and as if that weren’t bad enough, he has a broken leg. The boy is the first person to the scene and the only hope the President has of making it out of the woods. Now what is the relationship between these two? How has the expected emotional tenor of that relationship changed? Who is more likely to be in control of their emotions? Has the 10-year-old become the dominant member of the relationship? Keep in mind that the factual description of relationship between these character has not changed one single bit. Would you be prepared to tap into your emotions to play the scenes if all you drew upon was that factual description?

The Never-Ending War Story 
Your dream to learn acting is doomed if you don’t become fully aware of just how little the facts of a relationship tell you about the emotions involved in that relationship. Relationships and the emotions that drive them are characterized by a constant give-and-take and daily — perhaps even hourly — struggles for control and power. Sometimes one person has the upper hand and the next day that power has shifted to the other person.

Because of the time constraints inherent in storytelling, emotions and relationships are even more unstable. That shift of power that might have taken course over a year in real life may play out over the course of a week on the screen or over the course of a night on the stage. Simply knowing the facts of the connection between your character and others will be of little help when it comes to tapping into the emotions driving the erratic nature of those relationships.

Where to Go From Here
Rather than thinking of relationships as this solid structure built around a fact, why not start thinking of them in terms of ever-shifting emotions revealed through role playing? Creating a character is a process of role-playing within role-playing, in a way that taps into the real emotional core of a scene. That process is best facilitated by an experienced acting teacher, who can help you tap into a full range of emotions.

Ready to get started? Find an acting teacher near you here!

TimothyTimothy S. teaches writing online. He has his B.A. in English from the University of West Florida, and was twice named to Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers. Learn more about Timothy here!



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5 Tips for Acing Your Composition Writing Class


Falling behind in your freshman composition writing class? There’s still time to get caught up. Keep reading for helpful tips from Machias, ME tutor and English teacher Matt M...


I have taught English composition and literature for over a decade at the college level. During that time, I’ve taught at six different universities, four domestic and two abroad. Hundreds of students have passed through my English classrooms. While nothing can ensure an A, there are many easy things students can do to improve their grades. Here is a list of what I would consider the top five.

1) Go to your professor’s office hours.

There are many reasons for this. First, you can show your professor drafts of your essays and ask for feedback before your essay is due. Oftentimes, instructors wish more of their students came to their office hours. Second, this is also a good way to build a relationship with your professor and can come in handy when you are looking for a letter of recommendation. Further, meeting with your professor to go over your work allows them to get to know you as an individual, which will make them more sympathetic toward you when it comes time to grade your papers.

2) Make a friend in your class.

Early on in the semester or quarter, make a point of getting to know the person who sits in front of you, beside you, and behind you. Try to exchange emails and phone numbers with at least one other student. See if that student is willing to trade work with you. Read over each other’s essays and help each other find mistakes. Also, your buddy is someone you can turn to for “small” or “stupid” questions that you may not want to ask your professor, like when a homework assignment is due or what you missed because you were late to a class.

3) Write what you know.

Oftentimes students want to write about “big” topics for their composition writing because they feel that there will be more research on controversial topics. The problem with picking a “big” issue, like euthanasia, global warming, or abortion is that you will have nothing interesting to say about it. Millions of people have been writing about these issues for decades. So instead, pick a topic or issue that is close to your life and experience. Your university’s library database will have information on any topic you can imagine, and if the library database doesn’t have information on a topic, the internet does. Keep in mind that if you think your topic is boring, your professor will too.

4) Look for what you can add to your research.

This goes along with the last point. If you pick a topic you are familiar with, you will be more likely to give a unique perspective on the issue. A successful essay doesn’t just repeat what experts have to say about an issue. A good writer enters into conversation with their sources. Look at your sources and see if there is anything they are overlooking. Read through your sources and see if there is a new context that you can bring to the source, and use your sources to ask new questions. For example, let’s say you chose to write about video games. Much of the research done about how video games affect the brain focuses on individuals. But many video games today are not played individually; they are played in teams. How might that change the conclusions? What are some new questions you can raise based on this fact? How does your experience playing video games line up with the researcher’s findings? Doing this kind of thinking will lead to an engaging essay.

5) Read for fun.

Make an effort to read for pleasure. Make sure that you are reading actual paper books too. There have been a number of studies done on the benefits of reading physical books over reading online, especially in terms of comprehension. There are other benefits to reading as well. Reading is like lifting weights. The more you do it, the stronger you will get. If you make an effort to “lift” heavier books, your reading abilities will get stronger. With practice, you will read denser material faster and remember more of it. Also, you will start to notice writing strategies that you like in other people’s work. Try to mimic these strategies in your own writing (this is something successful writers have done since the beginning of time).

While there is no way to guarantee an A in your class, these strategies will be a great start to getting you a grade you can be proud of and improving your composition writing skills.

MattMMatt M. teaches writing in Machias, ME. He has a Ph.D in English and Comparative Literature and an MFA in Creative Writing, as well as a broad background in writing and editing. Learn more about Matt here!



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How to Instantly Impress on Your College Applications


Getting involved in activities is a great way to amp up your college application. Here, New York, NY tutor Lauren P. explains how to take it up a notch further…

You’ve likely heard before that demonstrating long-term commitment and leadership in a couple of extracurricular activities, instead of experimenting with something new every semester, can increase your chances of getting into college. Don’t wait around to be voted Vice President or Treasurer of an overcrowded school club. Prove your leadership skills by starting a club today.

Impress Colleges by Demonstrating Leadership

While scholars and athletes may have a greater chance of getting into some colleges, this is not all schools look for in candidates. Like it or not, the institution of higher education is about more than student learning. Colleges improve their ranking when they can boast prestigious alumni. You can demonstrate your ability to become one of these celebrated alumni through the extracurricular activities you include on your college applications. In addition to the activities you are already committed to, what better way is there to exhibit leadership than to write “Club President & Founder” on your application?

Turn Weaknesses Into Strengths

How do you decide what club to start? Found a club that makes the most of your skills and interests, while transforming your weaknesses into strengths. If you are too nervous to be in charge or speak in front of a group, organize your club to suit your leadership style. You could recruit a friend or classmate to be your spokesperson, for example, while you manage from behind the scenes. Read the club ideas below to help you brainstorm your own:

  • If you are a math wiz, start a peer tutoring initiative or a “college placement” club to challenge yourself and others to higher levels of math.
  • If you struggle academically, make it clear on your college application that your academic weaknesses actually fuel your leadership potential and passion to help others in the community. For example, you could start an early intervention club to tutor elementary students who may be falling through the cracks.
  • Are you an aspiring athlete? Coach a weekly sports camp for kids, start a charity kickball league with your peers, or offer volunteer fitness training to the elderly or even your own parents and teachers!
  • Did you forgo AP courses to pursue your love of art, film, or other elective classes? Use your college application to prove you are serious about these pursuits. Found a club dedicated to art, photography, gospel, film, chess, video game design, romance novels, etc. The sky is the limit!

Despite your class schedule, grades, or test scores, your college application can scream leadership potential with the right activities. Simply found a club that allows you (and your peers) to spend more time doing what you love!

Be a Contributing Member of Your Community

Every college wants students who contribute to the community. This is why most college applications ask for volunteer experience. Community service comes in many forms, so choose the type and cause you are passionate about. Come up with ideas based on the activities below:

  • Do you like cooking or baking? Bake away and recruit other chefs for a bake sale or potluck fundraiser for the Red Cross.
  • Are you an athlete? Organize a charitable sporting event with teachers vs. students or seniors vs. freshman to donate to a children’s hospital.
  • Are you a nature-lover? Host a volunteer outing to plant trees, clean up litter, or plant a community garden.
  • Are you a budding artist or politician? Design posters and catchy slogans to get people excited about donating change, clothes, food, etc. to help the homeless.

Once you decide on the cause you want to support, become a leader by committing to a specific number of activities or hours every week or month. If your school already has a community service club, start a separate club dedicated to your cause of choice. If your school won’t allow you to found a new club, become a leader in the existing club by organizing fundraisers, volunteer outings, and awareness campaigns.

Make Summer Vacation Count

Often there is an entire section of the college application dedicated to how you spent your summer. You do not want to leave this blank. This can be as simple as planning a volunteer day with friends or family. Pick up trash, host a fundraiser, or visit a local food pantry or animal shelter. Apply for a job, explore cultural excursions, and continue your club and community service activities over the summer. Filling your college application with extracurricular and summer activities that exhibit leadership and commitment is easy, and can absolutely increase your chances of getting into college. Get started today!

LaurenPLauren tutors in various subjects in New York, NY. She has her Master’s Degree in Education (with a concentration in students with learning disabilities), and is a certified NYC Special Education teacher. Learn more about Lauren here!



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GMAT review

5 Books to Help You Ace the GMAT

GMAT review

Applying for an MBA program? Here, online tutor Marcus S. shares the best GMAT books to help you study for the big test…


Even after doing great on the SAT and all of those endless college exams, preparing for the GMAT can still be scary. You’re going to grad school, after all, and that’s something most people never get the chance to do. Fortunately, you’re not alone on the test prep battlefield. With the right combination of expert tutoring and the best books to help you ace the GMAT, you’ll be on your way to an MBA in no time.

1. The GMAT Roadmap: Expert Advice Through Test Day
This book is the latest from the test prep gurus at Manhattan GMAT Strategy Guides. Manhattan provides you with six online practice tests, but does something even more important as well. Their book gives you a blueprint for creating a test prep foundation. This holistic test-taking system includes tips for eating the best foods to help you stay sharp and focused, study schedules that maximize your brain’s ability to learn, and ways to get over your test-taking anxiety. The GMAT Roadmap also teaches you methods for approaching each of the specific types of questions on the exam, and much more.

2. The PowerScore GMAT Critical Reasoning Bible
If you want to focus on studying for argumentation questions, the GMAT Critical Reasoning Bible from PowerScore will be your new best friend. The author of this book is one of the leading authorities on critical reasoning for the LSAT, which is known for having even tougher questions in this subject than the GMAT. (We all know lawyers love to argue!) He has also written several other GMAT books for PowerScore, so you can be sure the Critical Reasoning Bible is meant for test takers who are aiming for big time scores and not just trying to squeak by.

3. Total GMAT Math
The title of Total GMAT Math is straight to the point and so are its lesson plans. When you want to submerse yourself in the quantitative section of the GMAT, this book is the ideal spot to dive into. It not only has hundreds of practice questions and exercises, but starts you off with in-depth tutorials that help you understand each kind of math question you could possibly encounter on the GMAT. Total GMAT Math also lets you shoot for a top percentile score with more than 100 “challenge” level practice questions.

4. Veritas Prep Complete GMAT Course Set
Take a deep breath before you continue reading. The Compete GMAT Course Set from Veritas comes with a whopping 12 volumes, but don’t let that deter you. If it were easy to ace the GMAT, your future degree in business management wouldn’t mean much. This set includes books that will help you attack every category of question on the GMAT with titles such as Advanced Verbal Strategy, Foundations of GMAT Logic, and Sentence Correction. Purchase of this book set will also allow you to use the online Veritas Prep Question Bank, an adaptive GMAT computer test, and other exclusive resources.

5. Official Guide for GMAT Review
There’s only one place where you can get access to the exact questions that have been asked on real GMAT exams, and that’s the Official Guide for GMAT Review. Turn on the coffee maker and dig into a stockpile of more than 900 practice questions taken from past GMAT tests. You’ll also receive free access to online videos, questions, and a diagnostic test provided by GMAC, the makers of the GMAT.

Once you’ve reviewed these GMAT books and worked with a tutor to get extra help, you’ll have just one more step to go — ace the test — before you can move forward with your business education and successful career. Good luck!

MarcusSMarcus S. tutors online in a variety of subjects. He has been trained and certified to teach classes and give individual tutoring to students in the SAT, GMAT, GRE, and LSAT for the Princeton Review. Learn more about Marcus here!



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How to Write Your First Screenplay | Storytelling Tips


Ready to try your hand at writing a screenplay? Check out these helpful tips from New York, NY tutor Lauren P


Whether you have too many ideas or you don’t know where to begin, these storytelling tips will help you outline the framework for an unforgettable screenplay.

Don’t Remake the Wheel

While all stories include some level of conflict, the arguably best stories all seem to include components of what Joseph Campbell calls the Hero’s Journey. If you are not familiar with this storytelling formula, begin to brainstorm as you review its basic components:

1. The protagonist is living an ordinary life with some level of tension, dissatisfaction, or indecision.
2. A person or event pressures the protagonist to step outside his comfort zone.
3. The protagonist ignores or refuses the temptation due to fear of the unknown.
4. Someone arrives to help the protagonist find courage.
5. The protagonist steps outside his comfort zone.
6. The protagonist meets enemies and allies.
7. The protagonist and his allies prepare to conquer the challenge ahead.
8. The protagonist meets death or his greatest fear but is reborn a new man.
9. The protagonist celebrates and receives a reward after conquering his fear or death, but there is still fear the reward may be lost.
10. With urgency, the protagonist flees danger to bring his reward safely home.
11. The climax: The protagonist faces a final sacrifice in another moment of death and rebirth but this time on a more profound level that completely resolves the initial tension of the story.
12. The protagonist finally returns home or continues his journey with some form of his reward that has the power to transform the world as the protagonist has been transformed.

If you recall the most famous and inspiring movies, they all conform to Campbell’s formula — Star Wars, Braveheart, Gladiator, The Lord of the Rings, even Harry Potter all follow these 12 steps. Play with different protagonists and plots to create your own masterpiece.

Do Rewrite the Story

While many famous films have followed the above storytelling tips, there are many stories left untold. These hero protagonists have been almost exclusively white males. It is your turn to change the story. Create a protagonist that is female or one of many underused cultural or ethnic backgrounds. Similarly, brainstorm unexplored settings, or geographic barriers that have yet to be explored. Pair unlikely characters together in unlikely places. Let your imagination run wild.

Keep it in the Realm of What You Know

In order to make the story engaging and memorable, you need to write about experiences, people, landscapes, and lifestyles that you know. This does not mean you need to write about modern-day suburbia. Tap into the sensory and emotional details of your memories. While you have most likely forgotten a significant portion of your life, there is a reason you remember certain moments. Every memory is a record of a time when you are completely aware and present in that moment. What keeps you fully present during an experience is a strong sensory or emotional impression. In this writing exercise you will write down your strongest memories and the sensory or emotional details that made them so unforgettable. Write down the following:

1. Three earliest memories
2. Saddest moment
3. Most challenging moment
4. Most hopeless or fearful moment
5. Angriest moment
6. Moment of greatest betrayal
7. Happiest memory
8. Most adventurous or unexpected experience
9. Proudest moment
10. Moment of greatest peace or relief

Depending on your level of comfort and enthusiasm, feel free to write down more than one memory for each category. Once you have the basic memory written down, label it as sensory or emotional. Fill in details about the memory that stuck out to you. Was it the physical or emotional component that left such a lasting impression? The reasons these memories stick with you are the same reasons your scenes will stick with an audience.

Tie it All Together

To draft your story, apply the Hero’s Journey formula to an unlikely protagonist and unexplored circumstances. Then draft specific characters’ internal and external realities using details from your own sensory and emotional memory. Good luck!

LaurenPLauren tutors in various subjects in New York, NY. She has her Master’s Degree in Education (with a concentration in students with learning disabilities), and is a certified NYC Special Education teacher. Learn more about Lauren here!



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Five Movies That Will Change the Way You Look at the Piano

Settling in for movie night? Here, St. Augustine, FL teacher Heather L. shares her recommendations for five piano films every musician should watch…


Movies have an amazing way of changing how we look at the world. Every once in a while, some studio will release one that has a tremendous impact on so many of us. After the Cold War fighter jet film “Top Gun” came out in the 1980s, for example, the United States Navy saw a huge increase in recruitments to their aviation program. When a movie about a studio musician who reluctantly takes a job as a high school music teacher called “Mr. Holland’s Opus” was released in the 1990s, music education programs saw a spike in new students looking to become music teachers. Maybe movies don’t change the way that we see the world; maybe they just inspire us to see what was already there.

There’s nothing like a movie about the piano and pianists to feed your own art. Here is a list of five of my favorites.

The Piano (1993)

The-Piano-7051_3Starring Holly Hunter, Harvey Keitel, and a young Anna Paquin, “The Piano” tells the story of a mute woman sent with her daughter and her prized piano to be married to a wealthy landowner in New Zealand. A romance with another man ensues, but the woman’s most intimate and intense relationship is most certainly with the piano.

The Pianist (2002)

2002_the_pianist_007Directed by the world-renowned Roman Polanski and starring Adrien Brody, “The Pianist” beautifully details the heart-wrenching tale of a Polish-Jewish pianist who survives the brutal invasion of Warsaw by the Nazi regime. Brody won the Oscar for Best Actor for his role.

Shine (1996)

still-of-john-gielgud,-scott-hicks-and-noah-taylor-in-shine-(1996)-large-picture-1Geoffrey Rush plays David Helfgott, a real-life Australian pianist raised and viciously driven by his father and his teachers to become the greatest in the world. After an emotional breakdown, he eventually finds both his love of playing and the joy of life. Rush won the Oscar for Best Actor for his role in this piano film.

The Competiition (1980)

MCDCOMP EC033Richard Dreyfuss and Amy Irving star as two competitive piano players who enter the same major competition and then just happen to fall in love with each other. The tension and intensity of such an important event both fuels and complicates the romance.

The Piano Lesson (1995)

hqdefaultA Hallmark Channel TV movie set in the 1930s, “The Piano Lesson” is the story of a man who returns to his childhood home in Pittsburgh to sell his family’s cherished heirloom piano and “claim his half.” But his sister wants to keep the instrument that’s meant so much to their family and continues to be such a wonderful part of their childhood memories. The battle over the piano ends in a great life lesson.

The piano is one of the most special objects in many cultures, but especially in the West. Unlike a French horn or a cello, for example, it’s the one musical instrument that many families, even those without musicians, have and share in their homes. Perhaps that’s why so many terrific films have been inspired by it and by the draw and allure that it evokes.

HeatherLHeather L. teaches singing, piano, acting, and more in St. Augustine, FL, as well as through online lessons. She is a graduate of the prestigious Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey, and has performed with the New York and Royal Philharmonics, the New Jersey and Virginia Symphonies, the American Boy Choir, and the internationally renowned opera star Andrea Bocelli. Learn more about Heather here!



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