Student Success Stories: Never Give Up!

microphoneOne of the best things about working at TakeLessons is hearing our students’ stories – about their goals, their achievements, and how music has impacted their lives. For some, the goal might start off small: mustering up the courage to sign up for lessons to begin with, for instance.  Maybe it’s earning first chair in orchestra or the lead in a school musical. For others, it might be dreams of earning a record deal, performing on stage or going on tour. Music is important to everyone in the office, and seeing students reach these goals truly reminds us of why we work here.

Recently, we received an email from one of our Ridley Park voice students, May.  She’s been a student with TakeLessons since November 2010, and wanted to share her recent accomplishment of recording two original songs.  She definitely caught my eye – or ear, you might say – and I’ve chosen to feature her as this month’s Student Success Story. Below, you’ll find my interview with May, along with a link to her recordings.  Congrats, May, for reaching your goals!

, TakeLessons staff member and blogger

What is your musical background? When did you start singing?

I have sung and danced since I was a little girl, but never took formal classes. Money was scarce when I was growing up and extracurricular activities were not choices for my family. The thought never occurred to me that I could take professional singing lessons. I had also been told that I was not “born” with a singing talent, therefore it would be useless for me to try to sing. I do remember being ten years old telling my father proudly that one day I would be a singer and his answer was a firm “No.”

Walk us through your experience with private music lessons – how long have you been taking them? How has TakeLessons helped you in reaching your goals?

One day I was singing Barbra Streisand’s “Somewhere” when I was struck with the realization that I loved singing so much, I should take professional lessons, even if I wasn’t “born” with the talent. So I looked online for singing lessons, found Takelessons, and set up my lessons immediately for that very weekend. Takelessons helped me find professional singers, who are also educators, that I can trust. I have had two admirable, talented singing teachers, Valerie H. and Claire B., who have helped me be the best singer I can be to date. My singing teachers have helped me develop my breathing techniques, singing confidence, music theory comprehension, and my unique needs for singing my personal best, particularly for the kind of music I love to sing. I know I am still and will always be working on improving my singing, and I am happy to do so for the rest of my life.

What inspired you to record your songs?

That little ten year old girl, the one that always wanted to be a singer, would remind me on occasion how much I wanted to be a singer. I love all types of music, especially upbeat, fast tempos. I want to combine meaningful, substantive lyrics and messages with an eclectic array of musical instruments for an uplifting mood. I want to touch people’s minds, hearts, and souls personally with my music. Sharing my music with the world is my goal!

What advice would you give to beginner students?

The first step is to give yourself a chance. Do not listen to naysayers, no matter what their intentions may be. Try, do your personal best, practice, and keep at it… Like my first song says, “Never give up. You gotta keep on keeping on!”

Check out May’s songs here!


Do you have a story you’d like to share? Email us at, and you might be featured in an upcoming blog post!

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Videos We Love: How Are Violins Made?

Behind every violinist is a quality instrument, and behind that is a superb violin maker.  And it’s pretty mind-boggling to think about all of the details involved in that process: the type of wood, the shape and curve of the body, the foundation that makes way for each vibrating string, and the overall story behind it.

Here’s a great mini-documentary of the creation process, as shown by New York-based violin maker Sam Zygmuntowicz. It’s a pretty interesting watch, if you’ve got a few minutes!

The Violin Maker from Dustin Cohen on Vimeo.

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Tips for Quieter Drum Practice

drumsFamily members or roommates complaining about your drums being too loud? Practice pads are a great option for quieter drum practice, but if you’re itching for your actual drumset, there are ways you can quiet it down without too much sacrifice.

Here are a few great tips for making your drums quieter when you need to:

Mute the bass drum with a pillow. This method is quite simple, and is commonly employed even in situations that don’t require a noise reduction. Remove one of the bass drum heads and place a pillow (or other soft material) inside the drum so that it just touches both heads. Replace and re-tune the head. The pillow deadens many of the bass drum’s ringing overtones, yielding a clearer tone as well as a slightly quieter one.

Place mute pads over the drums and cymbals. To quiet a drum set in a practice setting, you can purchase rubber mute pads that are designed to fit on top of each drum head (and onto cymbals if desired). These pads almost entirely mute the sound of the drums; this makes them an excellent choice for quieting drums played in an apartment or shared house. The downside to mute pads is that they don’t allow the player to hear the drums as they are meant to sound.

Install sound insulation in the room in which the drum set is located. For further sound reduction in a practice or recording setting, you can insulate the room against sound. There are many different types of soundproofing materials, from attractive acoustical panels that mount directly onto a wall to thick vinyl sheets that are installed underneath the drywall. These solutions provide effective soundproofing while retaining the full sound of the drums, but are often very expensive.

Readers, what other ideas do you use to quiet down your drum set? Leave a comment below, or stop by our Facebook page to join the conversation!

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Plays Well With Others: Where Do Pianists Fit In?

Piano duetVocalists have their choir, violinists have their orchestra… but where do pianists fit in?  For some students, learning an instrument can be a lonely feeling. It’s up to you to practice – often alone. One-on-one private lessons can be scary, since it’s often just the student and teacher alone in a room. And of course, there are the nerve-wracking performances, when all eyes are on you and you alone.

Sometimes a sense of camaraderie is just what a student needs to keep the momentum and excitement growing. So what are some ways that pianists can collaborate with other musicians and stay involved?  Here are a few ideas to get you started…

– Play piano duets with your teacher or fellow students
– Accompany other instrumentalists or vocalists (Glee clubs, local competitions, etc.)
– Contact local schools to see if their choir program needs an accompanist
– Contact local dance studios that may want live music for recitals
– Play for music theater productions in the area
– Grab some friends and perform at retirement homes or open mic nights (jazz clubs are great for this!)
– Use your music expertise to compose a song for a band or orchestra in your area
– Play for weddings and other church services

Now it’s your turn: how have you collaborated with other musicians? How did that change your outlook on playing the piano? Stop by our Facebook page and let us know YOUR story!

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Mind Games: Improving your Mental Practice

ThinkingYou’ve probably heard the phrase “Practice makes perfect.”  But how about “Mental practice makes perfect”? Believe it or not, a lot of your success begins with your mind – setting goals and then envisioning yourself reaching them, for example. Below, check out some advice from Hillsborough teacher Jessica R. and get your mind in motion!

I tell all my students within minutes of walking through the door that learning to sing is a sport.  It requires training your voice and your ears, the development of muscle memory and a passion to improve every time you show up for a lesson.  What the audience hears is art, but they only get to hear you after months of coaching and practice have sculpted you into the Rocky Balboa of opera or musical theater.

So what can we learn from actual athletes that will help us become better musicians?  Sports psychologists have discovered that the most skilled athletes in any sport spend a lot more time looking at the target (the basketball hoop, the catcher’s mitt, etc.) than less skilled athletes.  This focus is called the “Quiet Eye,” and using it gives them the time to prepare their movements mentally before they actually take the shot.

I propose to you that the next time you’re out for a jog, stuck in traffic, or sitting in a waiting room, consider it the perfect opportunity to become a better singer.  Concentrate on something you’re working on in your voice lessons that you’d like to improve.  Be very specific with yourself about what it is.  Hear the music in your head and try to form the most perfect version of it you can imagine.  Try to feel the sensations in your body that you felt the very best time you’ve ever sung.  Avoid negative commentary like “Don’t miss the high note!” or “Don’t run out of breath!” and instead try things like “I need to sing more into the preparation note to nail this high note” and “I need to remember to breathe here in a relaxed and deep way.”  Repeat this process until the thoughts become second nature.  The results will show up right away the next time you practice!

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Hillsborough teacher Jessica R.Jessica R. teaches singing, music performance, opera voice, and theatrical Broadway singing lessons to students of all ages in Hillsborough, NJ.  Jessica joined the TakeLessons team in May 2012, with over 10 years of experience teaching voice and performing nationally as an opera singer. Sign up for lessons with Jessica, or visit TakeLessons to search for a teacher in your area!



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Encouragement for Those Learning to Improvise: Part II

Guitar soloDid you enjoy Charles M.’s article a few weeks ago about learning to improvise? If you missed it, be sure to check it out if you’re feeling a bit discouraged.  Learning to improvise can be tricky, and it doesn’t come naturally to everyone – not even the guitar masters of today. Continue reading to learn more…


Last time, I discussed how many famous guitarists carefully compose a great deal of their solos, or at least have many melodic ideas in mind before they begin recording solos. I cited Randy Rhoads as an example, but there are many other people that work out their solos – Brian May of Queen, and Paul Allender of Cradle of Filth are a couple more examples. This should be encouraging to those beginning to improvise since it proves that even the finest players often need time to find something that sounds good. However, we all must start somewhere and this week I would like to give some advice on how to begin improvising.

As I previously stated, I would learn at least ten solos by other artists before starting to improvise, since this is a fun way to build technique and learn how to pace yourself when soloing. After you learn some solos, take a step back and examine the individual phrases themselves. Consider why each of the phrases works where they are in the solo, i.e. why does the first phrase sound like a beginning lick? Why do the phrases in the middle sound like they go there? Is it the character of the melodies? The energy level? Once you begin to ask these questions you can begin to put what you have noticed into practice.

Just as people who are nervous often ramble on and on because they don’t know what to do with themselves, beginner improvisers will often just play a torrent of notes, creating the musical equivalent of run-on sentences. In order to control this I ask students to play only one or two well-placed notes per bar. I ask them to try various tones until they find something that piques the ear. You should always be conscious of how the harmonic progression creates a sense of tension and release, and the notes that are selected should mirror the level of tension at that particular time and space.

Another great technique is to sing while you are improvising. Your playing will automatically become more lyrical and the lines will “breathe” like a vocalist. While you’re at it, try to incorporate snippets of the song’s vocal melody into the solo. The song’s melody is a logical starting point since your solo is supposed to enhance the song, and the listener will already be familiar with the vocal line.

As a final suggestion, I would say just play. If you come up with some licks that are particularly inspired, keep them and use them the next time you improvise. Use them as soulful landmarks while you continue down the road of spontaneous expression. As always, keep in mind that Rome was not built in a day. Improvising is a skill that will never stop developing.

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Salem teacher Charles M.Charles M. teaches guitar, music performan ce and music theory lessons to students of all ages in Salem, OR. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Music, a Master’s degree in Music Education, as well as a Ph.D in Musicology. Sign up for lessons with Charles, or visit TakeLessons to search for teachers near you!


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Beginner Music Lessons: Starting Your Child On the Right Foot

Is your child showing an interest in music?  Most parents know the benefits of music education when it comes to spacial, visual and oral development in kids – the Wall Street Journal even reported that babies as young as six months old showed advanced brain development with interactive music lessons.

But for the parents out there who don’t have any musical background, the sheer amount of options when it comes to music lessons can be a bit baffling.  Should you choose in-home or in-studio lessons? Or even online music lessons? How do you find a teacher who will mesh well with your youngster? How do you make sure your finicky five-year-old sticks with the big investment you’re about to make?

Luckily, it’s not actually as stressful as it sounds. For an easy run-down of how to get started, check out these tips from our friends at the Tampa Bay Music Academy:

-Start at the right age.
Many people assume that all children are ready to begin music lessons at age five (or six, or seven). But that’s not necessarily the case. A child should have an attention span long enough to remain engaged through the entire lesson, generally 25 to 30 minutes. He should also show an interest in music and be demonstrating basic reading or pre-reading skills.

-Choose an exceptional teacher.
A great teacher can make or break your child’s opinion about the value and enjoyment of music lessons. A positive, upbeat approach to learning helps solidify a love for music that lasts a lifetime.

-Make practice time rewarding.
Stickers, special treats, and outings for big accomplishments can all make practice time fun rather than a drudgery. Some ideas include a special toy as a reward for a specified number of practice hours, a special outing after the lesson, and going out for ice cream after a recital.

-Provide opportunities to interact with musicians.
An inspiring role model can help your child see the value of hard work and persistence. Find ways for him to interact with musicians at church or school, take him to concerts, and invite your musical friends over to your house for a sing-a-long.

-Cultivate appreciation for many types of music.
While certain instruments lend themselves to certain types of music (classical piano or jazz saxophone, for instance) that doesn’t mean your child should listen to and play only those styles. Encourage her to explore many different options and to appreciate not only her preferred style, but also a variety of folk, classical, and other styles in order to broaden her musical experience.

Looking for music teachers in your area?  Search for a teacher near you, and book lessons today!

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Your Violin vs. Humidity: Summer Violin Care

violinIt’s that time of the year – school’s out for the summer, and it’s time to gear up for barbeques, beaches, music festivals and more. But before you crank up The Beach Boys’ greatest hits, violinists should keep a few things in mind.

You probably know the basics of violin care, but when the temperature really starts rising, you’ll need to give your instrument even more TLC.  While you’re firing up the barbeque outside, a violin roasting inside a case (or even worse, left in the trunk of  a car) can result in permanent warping and damage to the wood, bow hairs and more. The violin’s varnish can blister or stick to a humid case, pegs may not move as smoothly, and the wood can actually swell and distort, causing a change in sound.

So how do you cope without losing your cool? Here are some things to remember:

– Always keep your violin out of direct sunlight or enclosed areas.

– Pegs may stick in high temperatures. Lubricating the pegs may help.

– Do a visual check of your instrument every few weeks. The bridge should still be straight, the soundpost should be parallel to the bridge, and no other signs of warping should be present.

– Bow hairs can stretch and loosen during the summer. It’s recommended to have your bow rehaired in the spring to prepare for this.

– Heat can cause darker rosin to become even stickier – consider switching to a lighter, pale rosin during the summer

– Clean any rosin debris off your violin right away.  Anything leftover can end up sticking to the varnish permanently!

Readers: do you take special precautions in the summer to care for your violin? Leave a comment below, or stop by our Facebook page to join the conversation!

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We’ve Got Your Back: Proper Posture for Drummers

drumsetAs a drummer, you may find yourself sitting for long periods of time during practice sessions and performances. And something you’ll find with experience is that remembering correct posture can make a world of difference – not only to your playing, but to your overall health!  Since your ligaments are your tools, your technique will take a hit if you end up with cramps or another injury.

Without healthy habits, drummers are susceptible to injuries such as tendonitis, tinnitus, blisters and other ailments. So before you let back pain “cramp” your style, keep these two important things in mind as you play: (1) Adjust your seat, and then (2) sit straight.  Here’s what we mean…

(1) Adjust your seat.

Your stool or seat should always be adjusted according to your height and build. Everyone is different, and there isn’t a “correct” height to go from, but you should be able to sit naturally without leaning backward or having to learn forward to reach the bass drum pedal. Your thighs should be slightly pointing downwards, helping to create a sense of overall balance. Your drum teacher can help you get a feel for what is natural and what will work for you.

(2) Sit straight.

When you’re seated at your drumset, take note if you’re hunching over and go back to step #1!  Your spine should be straight and upward, which will put less strain on your lower back. If you’re used to slouching, this may take some practice, but making sitting straight a habit will definitely help your playing.  When you’re leaning difficult techniques or rudiments, you’ll be glad not to have any aches and pain due to poor posture – trust us!

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Summer Reading: 5 Awesome Books for Musicians

summer So it’s officially summertime, and the living’s easy… Time to kick back, take a break from practicing and enjoy the sunshine.

While summer doesn’t mean permission to flat-out forget about your instrument, a great way to relax while still keeping your creativity high is to immerse yourself in books about music. The best musicians live, eat, sleep, breathe and, of course, read about music.

To get you started, here are some of our favorite reads for musicians and music lovers alike:

1. Music by Andrew Zuckerman

50 diverse musicians – ranging from Fiona Apple to Danny Elfman to Ozzy Osbourne – were interviewed for Zuckerman’s collection of musical musings. The artist interviews cover various aspects of the music industry, including the process of creating music to artists’ experiences writing and performing.  With the visual power of Zuckerman’s expert photography, readers get a whirlwind first-hand account of the music of today.

2. This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin

If you’ve ever gotten a chill from listening to a song, felt the energy of the fans at a crowded concert, or lost yourself in a piece of music, this book is for you. Levitin tackles questions like how musical tastes form, how music is perceived, and even what makes a song great – all from a scientific and neurological perspective.

3. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks

Similar to This is Your Brain On Music, this book explores how music affects us, but instead focuses on the human experience.  The author weaves through stories of triumph, overcoming illnesses and music as therapy, truly displaying the weird, amazing powers of music. The book is also broken up into shorter chapters, making it the perfect easy summer read.

4. Cash: The Autobiography by Johnny Cash

Autobiographies are also great poolside books, so anything will do here – but we especially like this account of the life of Johnny Cash. Reading your favorite artist’s biography can give you great insight into their life, their inspirations and the music culture of the time, and might even give you that spark of inspiration to pen your own lyrics or tune.

5. Permission Marketing : Turning Strangers Into Friends And Friends Into Customers by Seth Godin

Seth Godin is the ultimate marketing master, and if your goal is to break into the music industry, you’ll need to know a thing or two about marketing yourself as an artist. Simply posting your music on your dated MySpace page isn’t going to cut it these days! From earning fans (customers, essentially) to publicizing your next show, Godin’s marketing strategies can easily translate to your success as a musician.

, TakeLessons staff member and blogger

Now it’s your turn: what books would you recommend to the aspiring musician, or to music lovers in general? Comment below, or stop by our Facebook page to give your recommendation!

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