Don’t Just Play Along – Be Your Own Guitar Hero!

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One of our talented guitar teachers, Jeff S. from New Jersey, sent us the following article with some ideas that helped one of his students practice guitar more effectively. Read on for Jeff’s tips on how to be your own Guitar Hero!


I came up with the idea for this article in an effort to help one of my intermediate guitar students break out of a rut.  This particular student, a big fan of Eric Clapton and Carlos Santana, would frequently put on classic songs by those artists and just jam along with them.  I can also recall doing the same thing during my first few years of playing guitar, but I stopped once I learned the chord changes and tinkered around with some lead guitar fills because I realized that I didn’t get much out of practicing this way.

There’s a very logical reason that this tends to happen.  The solo is already impeccably played and virtually all of the best and most obvious places to play fills in these recordings have perfectly placed riffs and licks.  So you’re left with a very limited canvas to work with.  On top of that, each time you listen to these often-virtuosic lead guitar solos and licks, all you’re really doing is further cementing your idol’s seminal lead guitar work in your head.  Now how can you be adventurous (or even hear yourself think, let alone play) in that setting?  With this conundrum to overcome, I set out to find the antidote for my student and for you.

Rather than subjecting yourself to this very limiting makeshift jam session, I would suggest seeking out fully produced rhythm tracks (aka “jam tracks”) in whatever style you prefer or want to improve in. Many are offered online, either for free or at pretty reasonable prices; however, the quality of the musicianship and recordings can drastically vary, so listen before buying.  In case you’ve never encountered these types of tracks, they are fully produced rhythm section replications of famous songs or styles without the lead guitar parts.  {Note: they make these types of tracks without other instruments as well, so be sure of what you’re buying!}  One site I thought had good quality jam tracks is, and my student thought so too; he purchased a wide variety of tracks from them and is quite happy.

When you work with tracks like these, they offer you a wide-open expanse in which to develop your improvising and lead guitar playing.  After you get comfortable playing along with these types of recordings, I would suggest “flying in” the rhythm track (i.e. drag the tracks into Garageband or whatever recording platform you use) and record several tracks of you playing lead guitar along with it.  Concentrate initially on developing a complete guitar solo first before recording “fills” or other embellishments and “window dressing.”  After you get a take of a solo you feel pretty good about, you should then analyze the results and determine what passages or licks could be stronger or played with more precision and confidence.  “Punch in” (i.e. re-play and re-record) parts as needed, but it’s a good idea to leave your previous takes intact until you’ve got replacement tracks you feel certain are better.

If you don’t like or can’t afford these “music minus one” rhythm track recordings, another option is to lay down your own rhythm tracks (without lead guitar).  This is a great way to go because you can make all decisions concerning key, tempo and style, rather than be stuck with what the rhythm track companies offer.  With the user-friendly editing tools in virtually all recording platforms, you don’t even need to record 5 minutes of a song.  You can often get away with recording 1-2 minutes of a song or pattern and then copy and paste it together to create a longer track. If you do decide to record your own tracks, you shouldn’t burden yourself to create perfect takes on each instrument. As long as you play to a click track and stay with it, you should emerge with a track that’s going to suit your purpose.

If you feel your lead guitar results are not satisfying your inner critic, then I would suggest creating one memorable and well played lick at a time and connecting them until you forage a complete solo.  Keep a firm grip on what’s most important; develop your own style, create your own licks and have fun!

Jeff S.

Jeff S

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Making Music Fun: Practice Tips for Young Children

pianoWhile there are certainly many benefits to music lessons for children, getting them to practice their instruments isn’t always the easiest task.   Samantha D., one of our Rock Star teachers who frequently works with young children,  sent us the following list of her best tips and tricks for encouraging children to practice.


— In my experience, the responsibility of practicing relies strongly on the parents until the child is in middle school. Before then, children do not have the capacity to send themselves to their instrument to study for a set period of time. Most young children, if excited and confident, will sit down and play their instrument but will tend to “noodle,” not focusing on what was taught in the previous lesson. Parents must encourage and direct their children to spend time practicing and oversee what they are practicing with gentle reminders. If pushed too hard and forced to practice, the child will no longer see music as fun, but rather as a chore to add to the list.

— Have the parents sit down with their child and look at the family schedule.  Involving the child when scheduling practice time will go a long way and help them feel like they are part of the decision. Keep in mind that practicing in smaller increments throughout the day is much easier on small children than forcing them to sit still for one hour.

— I find that setting a timer does not always work with kids; they will end up not practicing what they should for a majority of the time because they are just waiting for the buzzer to go off. Instead, I suggest that the parents have them play the song a set number of times during each practice session. It is a fine balance that parents will struggle with, but pays great rewards in the end.

— It is mostly the teacher’s job to create the desire for the child to practice. Music should be fun and rewarding –  not a chore. So if the child is eager to improve and eager to impress their teacher, practice time will naturally happen. Teachers should create an environment that feels safe to the student and promotes confidence.

Rewards are an excellent way to encourage practicing.  However, there is a fine line between reward and a bribe. A bribe is used to persuade the child to do something they really don’t want to do, while a reward is used to encourage good behavior.  Stickers have always been the prize of choice, but I go one or two steps farther. I use a regular sticker when we have finished a song, but if the child has worked extra hard on a more difficult song, I have ‘special’ stickers that I give out.  I also set goals with each of my students; when they reach a goal that we have set early on and check regularly, they may choose a prize from a basket of items from the Dollar Store.  They know that if they do not put in the time to not even bother asking for a sticker, let alone a prize.

— My last incentive that I am just starting to incorporate is a points chart.  Let the children race each other to see who can accumulate the most points by the end of the semester. Points are awarded for good behavior, listening, sight reading and theory, as well as practice times. I encourage the parents to also have an incentive chart at home so the child can keep track separately from me and have an extra reward.  Most parents are happy to do so, as they want to see their child succeed just as much as I do!

— As a teacher, it is my job to keep my students excited about every step forward, no matter how small. Concerts are another way to create a sense of accomplishment. Kids LOVE to perform for their peers and are not put off because another student played the same song or they are not at the same level as another student.  Another idea I am working on incorporating is “Day of the Week” concerts favored by Suzuki method teachers. During one week every month or semester, students from each day’s lessons will play for each other.  Then they are constantly working toward a performance, rather than waiting 6 months in between concerts.

— The best thing you can do for a young child is to encourage them every step of the way. They will put all of their effort in to playing their best for you if they know that you truly care and will always support them no matter what.

Samantha D.

Samantha D

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TakeLessons Student Success – Why We Do What We Do

Brian SHere at TakeLessons, we have the privilege of working with students of all ages and backgrounds every day.  Whether they are just beginning their musical journey or are picking up an instrument for the first time in many years, our students all have one common goal – the dream to play music.

Recently, we held a contest on our Facebook page to celebrate reaching 2,200+ fans (a huge accomplishment!).  Fans were asked to submit their feedback on ways to improve our page and were then entered into a drawing to win a TakeLessons t-shirt.  We received some great ideas – everything from lesson plan suggestions to practice tips to more stories featuring TakeLessons students.  And it just so happens that one of our contest winners, Brian S. (pictured here in his TakeLessons t-shirt) has a pretty inspiring story himself!  He explains below:

“I live with a severe form of juvenile arthritis that has fused my neck and spine and subsequently limited my range of motion permanently.  Regardless, learning to play the piano has done wonders for me.  It has raised my spirit more than you know and proven to me that “Disability doesn’t mean Inability.”  I am very fortunate to have a “Rock Star” Piano Instructor, Laura D. (from TakeLessons in San Antonio), who gives me the knowledge and confidence I need to keep moving forward from week to week with my lessons.  I owe her a tremendous debt of gratitude for her patience with me, as well as your company for putting me in touch with her.”

In addition to the proven physical and mental benefits of music lessons, Brian is a perfect example of why we do what we do – to help make a difference in the lives of our students!  Thank you so much for sharing your story with us, Brian!


If you are a TakeLessons teacher or student, we invite you to share your story and tell us what being a part of TakeLessons means to you! Click here to send us your story (you can include pictures or videos as well); if we feature your story on our blog or Facebook page, we’ll send you a TakeLessons t-shirt!

TakeLessons Rock Star Teacher of the Week: Javier A.

Javier ACongratulations to Javier A., one of our talented piano teachers in Sacramento, CA, who is this week’s Rock Star Teacher of the Week!  Javier has been with TakeLessons since February 2009, and is popular with his students due to his versatile teaching style; they describe him as patient, supportive, and praise his ability to make learning the piano fun!

Javier’s musical journey began when he decided to take private piano lessons during his years as a high school student in Mexico.  He later studied music notation and tried his hand at composing, eventually releasing two CDs of his own compositions.  Javier’s musical education continues to this day, as he is currently enrolled in a program focusing on technique, performing, and music ensembles at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Javier believes music makes an individual happier and assists in intellectual growth.  His approach to teaching is to let students discover music by showing them how to relate to the piano first, then gradually introducing music notation, scales, chords, and other exercises after they become familiar with the instrument.  He teaches in both classical and contemporary styles, altering his method to fit each student’s needs.  Wonderful job, Javier – keep up the great work!

Introducing the TakeLessons Team: Meet Marc

MarcMarc has been a member of the TakeLessons team since February 2010 and is part of our recruiting team.  His responsibilities include interviewing potential TakeLessons teachers to find those who are the best possible fit for our company!

What do you like most about working at TakeLessons?
Free Lunch Monday (just kidding)…honestly, it’s the people. I genuinely love working with everyone at TakeLessons. Every one of us has such a unique story and a great set of talents to bring to the organization. Brainstorming with my teammates about ways to better our business and to accomplish the challenges we are presented with is always a highlight of my day. Basically, I love being a part of something bigger than myself that allows me to better the world through music. Our actual office is pretty rad too. It’s right in the middle of the Gaslamp. Where else can you grab some amazing New York style pizza, or chocolate mole enchiladas, or delicious Mediterranean food all on the same block?

Do you have any musical experience or play any instruments?
I actually started off playing the piano when I was about 8 years old, but it wasn’t until I began learning the drums when I was about 11 that my passion for music really began. Recently I have picked up the bass. Learning the guitar is my next project.  Luckily, once you learn the basic language and concepts of music, each subsequent instrument is easier to learn than the last.

What did you want to be when you were growing up?
So, does this question mean that I’m grown-up now? Because that’s debatable. But as a young kid, I wanted to be some kind of Superhero. Preferably one that could fly, had super human strength and enhanced healing abilities, had a really cool talking car, was amazing at basketball, could eat as much pizza/candy as he wanted without getting full, could shoot confetti out of his hands, could talk to animals and make a mean apple cobbler. So, essentially, I wanted to be Superman/Wolverine/NightRider/Michael Jordan/The Ninja Turtles/a Carnival Magician/BeastMaster/my Mom. What can I say – I’ve always dreamed big.

What accomplishment are you most proud of?
I am very proud of having such amazing friends and family. I am also very proud of being able to play music/do humanitarian work all over the world. Receiving Summa Cum Laude Honors and graduating from the SDSU Media Studies program at the very top of my class was pretty cool too.

What is your favorite thing about living in San Diego?
I love all the distinct neighborhoods of this city, each with their own feel and flavor. The laid-back people, the amazing local food and beer, the music and art scene, the Pacific – they all capture my heart. However, I’m not a big fan of the famously sunny weather. Cold, cloudy days are like beloved, faraway friends that I never seem to see enough of.

What are your activities outside of work?
Traveling is one of my first loves, and I find few things as interesting or exciting as meeting new people and exploring new places. I also like hiking, playing basketball, riding dirt bikes, camping and playing games. I am also a huge nerd, albeit a high-functioning nerd as I like to say, so I love to read too. Whether it’s a newspaper, a novel, a poem, a sports magazine, a comic book or an encyclopedia, chances are I’ve already read it or really want to. Also, enjoying a good meal with good friends is one of my favorite things to do in this world. I am also a SparkGood volunteer group leader and active member of a faith community located in North Park, San Diego called Mosaic.

What are one professional goal and one personal goal that you hope to achieve this year?
Professional Goal: Become an expert in the recruiting department, and continue to grow the company through finding and hiring qualified and enthusiastic teachers. I want there to be constant improvement in this area.
Personal Goal: Intentionally take at least one risk a week to help someone else. Visit another city/state/country that I have not yet been to.  Also, I would really love to write a novella (short novel) – that is, if I can ever find the time to sit down and start it.

What is the best place you’ve traveled to (or the place you’d love to go to)?
I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to travel all over the world on both humanitarian trips and music tours. Some of my favorite places have been are Switzerland, Holland, Peru, Chile, France, the Black Forest and the Northern California Coast. (yes, I put it in the same league as the other locations).  But I think the most amazing, eye-opening place I have been is Kenya, Africa. I went there three years ago to bring school supplies and volunteer in several urban development programs in Kibera, the largest slum in Africa (featured in films like Blood Diamond and The Constant Gardener). Kenya is such a place of paradoxes. It is full of pain and suffering, life and beauty. And the people – they are unforgettable. It was there, in the heart of one of the most desperate cities in the world, that I experienced some of the greatest generosity and joy I have seen anywhere. It is one of those places that changes you.

Check back every Friday for a new profile on one of our TakeLessons Team members!

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