To Sing, or Not to Sing: The Sore Throat Dilemma

teaNo matter how much preventative care you commit to, sometimes your body just doesn’t listen. So what should you do if you start feeling under the weather, but you’ve got a huge performance coming up?  Is it OK to be singing with a sore throat? Take a look at these pointers from Dallas teacher Carol D.:


The TakeLessons blog has tackled vocal health before, a lot of which involves heading off the nuisances that cause problems like a sore throat and hoarseness. However, sometimes colds, allergies and sinus infections come at the most inopportune times anyway.

When that happens, what should do you do? Do you cancel the gig? Do you power through it? Do you hope that by the time the gig comes up it will work itself out? Your decision-making process as to whether you should perform or not will depend on the magnitude of your sore throat (i.e., Is it mild? Does it hurt to swallow? If the latter, then definitely do not sing!).

I remember a time one December, where a cold crept in – despite what I knew to be true about preventative maintenance – because I had been stressed and not getting enough sleep or water. A performance was coming up, and I couldn’t hide behind a choir or even blend in with backup singers because I was the soloist.

When I could not find a replacement, I figured the worst-case scenario would be that my particular song just wouldn’t get sung at the concert. But my voice, while not at the top of its game, was still audible and still present. So after my initial panic, I started to meditate with the same diaphragmatic breathing I do when I warm up and when I sing. After getting centered, I followed my intuition and tapped into the advice I’d been given in the past:

– I rinsed with warm salt water several times throughout those couple of days.
– I drank lots of Throat Coat and lemon ginger tea.
– I avoided antihistamines despite my strong desire to ease my congestion, because they dry out the throat as well as your nose.
– I rested my voice when possible, and never whispered. Interestingly enough, whispering is worse on your vocal folds than trying to speak audibly when you have a sore throat or are bordering on laryngitis (and especially if you have full-blown laryngitis).

I also did a vocal test in the most comfortable part of my range to see if it was worth it to go forward. This involved slides up and down the scales (the musical term is a glissando), as well as vocalizing intervals on vowels (i.e., “Ee,” “Ah,” and “Oo”) and words (i.e.,“Yummy Yummy Yummy Yummy Yuhhhhm”). It still felt easy instead of strained, so I took it as a good indicator that it might be safe to sing. To play it safe, though, I went back to vocal rest and then back to the exercises again an hour or so later.

Fortunately, I was able to do the performance, and I performed it well according to the feedback I got. But in hindsight, I probably could have – perhaps, should have gone to the doctor and got myself checked out. But it’s all a learning experience! If you find yourself in a similar dilemma, take care not to overuse your voice. There’s not a black and white answer for if you should be singing with a sore throat. With experience, you’ll learn how to tell when you should rest, and how to make that tough decision before a performance.

Carol D.Carol D. teaches music performance and singing lessons in Dallas, TX.  Her specialties include gospel, pop, R&B, choral, and jazz styles.  Carol joined the TakeLessons team in July 2012. Sign up for lessons with Carol, or search the TakeLessons teacher roster for an instructor near you!



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Teacher Stories: Summer Recital Feedback

pianoDo you remember your first recital? Performing in front of friends and family is a great accomplishment for students (of all ages!), and the feedback they receive can make a lasting impact on their confidence level.  Dena C., one of our Pennsylvania teachers, recently held a recital for her students and saw this first-hand. Check out her story here…


My students recently had the opportunity to participate in a recital in a local nursing facility. Six students performed on guitar, piano and voice, and then joined audience members in a singalong. My nine-year-old student said that she enjoyed the recital because she loves singing and “it felt good to sing for the older adults.” She also said that she enjoyed the event because it gave her a chance to sing with the other students that she doesn’t usually get to see.

Another one of my students (eight years old) shared that it helped her learn how not to be scared in front of people.  When I asked her what she did to prepare, she said, “Before the recital, my Dad told me something funny, and when I started to get scared I thought about it and it helped me relax.”

The youngest, a five-year-old piano student, said that he had fun, and wanted to do it again!

Recitals are a great way to give students the experience of performing, and to share with family and friends what they have learned.  It helps them to develop confidence and a sense of accomplishment.  Nursing facilities are a wonderful place to perform because the older adults really enjoy seeing the students. The audience members at this recital were lavish with their praise and very generous with their applause. The students had a great time and all of them want to come back again!



Horsham teacher Dena C.Dena C. teaches guitar, piano and singing in Horsham, PA. She joined the TakeLessons team in April 2009. Dena has a Master’s degree in Music Therapy and has experience teaching students with disabilities, including Asperger’s Syndrome, Down Syndrome and speech delay. Sign up for lessons with Dena, or visit TakeLessons to search for a teacher near you!


Photo by agent_shir.

Guitar Exercises: Building Finger Strength

guitar finger strength Forget bicep curls – for guitarists, it’s all about finger strength! Improving your dexterity and finger strength is one of the top ways to really step up your playing. Here, guitar teacher Brian H. tackles the common question, How do I get a good sound, and build finger strength at the same time?

Frustrated with your sound?  You’re not alone. You might know how to play your favorite song, but the sound is not as clean or clear as you hear on the recording. This is a common concern for beginner guitarists, and it can be corrected with a few simple exercises.

In most cases, the problem stems from poor finger placement with your fretting hand, and let’s not forget one of the weaker fingers like the pinky (4th finger). Sometimes we favor the stronger fingers and make it a habit of not using the weaker ones. Fortunately, you can fix this problem by going back to the basics…

1. Learn the basics right and you will go far.
Let’s start by using the first string, the first fret, and the first finger (index). Place the first finger next to the first fret, so close that you are just about touching the fret. You will produce the best sound by staying very close to the fret. The further you go away from the fret; the note might give you that annoying buzz sound. This is because it is harder to press the string down when you are not right next to the fret.

2. A tip for the tip of your fingers.
Now that you are next to the fret, you need to use the correct part of the finger. When you are playing open string chords (first position), riffs, licks, or soloing, using the tip of the finger will help you develop a quality sound.

3. Building those finger muscles is as easy as one, two, three, four!
Using the first string, place the tip of your finger next to the first fret. Now pick that first string. Each finger will follow; second finger and second fret, third finger and third fret and the fourth finger and fourth fret. Make sure to pick each note slowly and with a steady beat.

Now pause, and then go from the fourth finger and fret to the third, second, and end at the first finger and fret. You can use the same pattern with the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth strings. Keep a slow, steady beat so that each note will sound clear. When that feels comfortable, progress to a medium then fast tempo.

Practice all of these steps and you will be on your way to getting a good sound and building finger strength!

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Glastonbury music teacher Brian H.Brian H. teaches bass guitar, guitar, music performance and music theory lessons to students of all ages in Glastonbury, CT. Brian has had 25 years experience playing in rock/pop bands, and currently performs classic rock to today’s rock with Enny Corner. He joined the TakeLessons team in July 2012. Sign up for lessons with Brian, or search for a teacher in  your area today!


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What Musicians Can Learn From Olympic Athletes

2012 OlympicsIt’s official. It’s that time again, and I definitely have Olympics fever! Bring on the Opening Ceremony, the gorgeous London backdrop, the edge-of-your-seat parallel bars, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it 100-meter dash – oh, and does anyone else out there like watching televised table tennis as much as I do?

Every four years I look forward to watching the athletes battle it out, and I’m always inspired by the way the events bring together people of all countries, cultures and backgrounds.

As I’ve been following the news, I started thinking about how similar sports and music are, in that sense. In sports, the rules are understood no matter what language you speak. And with music? You can appreciate catchy harmonies, melodic piano runs and the beat of the drum without even saying a word. But that’s not where the similarities end. I’ve put together my list of things musicians can learn from Olympic athletes here – what other crossovers can you think of?

1. Success takes dedication and commitment.
No athlete wakes up one morning, decides to take up a particular sport, and then days later is invited to the Olympics. I recently read that 15-year-old Kyla Ross, the youngest gymnast on the U.S. team this year, practices 30-35 hours every week – that’s pretty much a full-time job! What’s more, these athletes usually begin training at a very young age.  To compare: if you think you can master the guitar in just a few short lessons, you’ll probably end up pretty frustrated. True success – with anything – takes passion, practice, and most of all, commitment.

2. Try, try again.
If you don’t perform at your finest the first time, there’s nothing wrong with trying again. Take 71-year-old equestrian Hiroshi Hoketsu, whose attendance this year makes him the second-oldest contender in the history of the Olympics. He first competed in 1964, but has never medaled.  There are two lessons here: First, you’re never too old to dedicate yourself to a goal. Second, you’re not limited to just one opportunity to reach that goal. If your audition doesn’t go the way you wanted, reflect on what you can do better, keep your attitude positive and then try again – even if it’s 48 years later.

3. Attitude is everything.
Whether you’re preparing for a small, family-only recital or the most important audition of your life, your attitude will always influence your performance. If you’re so worried about getting through a specific part of the song, you may not be playing at your full potential.  So instead of focusing on the negative thoughts, think about how you’re going to rock it out, and how all of your practice is about to pay off. Athletes often use visualization techniques to envision themselves reaching the finish line – take advantage of the strategy by picturing yourself wowing the audience.

4. Goals are necessary.
Setting goals, no matter how far off they may seem, gives yourself the direction you need. With an ultimate goal of the gold medal, great athletes know the importance of breaking that down into smaller goals – run a little bit faster or throw a little fit further next time, for example. So what do you really want? Do you want to record an album? Do you want to be the next Adele? Do you want to eventually earn a Grammy, or sell out huge amphitheaters? Write those goals down. Determine the smaller steps and milestones that will lead up to that, and then get to work!

5. Don’t neglect your support team.
Many athletes, with the exception of sports like basketball or volleyball, perform alone. However, they often have a large team working behind the scenes, from personal trainers to nutritionists to coaches and managers who are there along the way. The lesson here? Never underestimate the power that your own support team can offer.  Whether this is a mentor of your own, a great music teacher, a street team to promote your gigs or your bandmates, a little support can go a long way.

, TakeLessons staff member and blogger

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Just For the Trill of It: 4 Cool Things to Try With the Violin

violinTo the uneducated, the idea of playing the violin might not have the same mass appeal as, say, shredding on an electric guitar or rocking out on the drums. Some people might even think of classical orchestras as old-fashioned and stuffy.  But in reality, the violin is far from boring!

With the emergence of styles like hip hop violin music, stringed instruments are getting their spotlight in mainstream music more than ever.  And as you continue your studies, you’ll learn there are definitely ways to make your strings more interesting.  Here are a few to try…

1. Vibrato, trills and harmonics

You’ll learn these techniques at some point in your studies, and they’re worth keeping in mind when you want to add a little spice to your playing. Vibrato describes a slight yet rapid variation in pitch, centered on one single note.  Players can use their arms, fingers or hand to create the effect, although most violinists use a combination of finger and hand. A trill, on the other hand, is when a player rapidly interchanges between two adjacent notes (typically a major or minor second above the starting note). It may take some practice to play trills that are even and smooth, so be patient and keep your finger as close to the string as possible.

Creating harmonics, also called overtones, involves placing your finger lightly on a specific division point on a string, creating a higher-pitched and almost flute-like sound. Harmonics are usually marked either with a small “o”above a note, or a diamond shape indicating which string should be touched.

2. Double, triple and quadruple stops

These terms describe chords played on the violin, as opposed to single notes – the beauty of playing a stringed instrument! A double stop is played using two strings, a triple stop utilizes three strings, and so on. It’s a tricky technique for some, so you may need to dedicate some time practicing slowly, balancing your bow and making very small adjustments to the angle of your wrist and hand until you get it right.

3. Experiment with different styles

As we mentioned earlier, hip hop violin music has become increasingly popular over the years, with artists like the Black Violin, Miri Ben-Ari and Paul Dateh making waves. Veteran YouTube stars The Piano Guys have also brought modern spins to classical tunes that appeal to the masses.  We’ve seen stringed instruments featured on other genres as well, including rock and electronic. The point is – feel free to experiment!

4. Plug it in

Although violins are typically used in classical music, if you’re interested in experimenting with some of the styles described above, an electric violin might be right up your alley. Electric violins generally have a sharper tone than acoustic violins, and you’ll also find several variations in design, such as extra baritone strings and machine heads. Once you’re plugged in, you can experiment with different amplifications, effects and more.

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A Drummer’s Guide to Throwing Out All of the Rules

music scoreLearning how to play music has long been associated with greater scores in math, but don’t be fooled.  If you’ve ever taken a music theory class, you know there are patterns and, yes, sometimes rules to follow.  But continue reading, and Ohio teacher Timothy K. will show you that sometimes, you just need to throw out all of the rules…


Music is too often approached as though it is governed by a set of concrete rules. Notes must go together in this way, chords and melodies should combine like so, and songs have to follow one of the standard formulas. Looking at drums in particular, it is generally accepted that you will use the snare for backbeats (probably on beats 2 and 4), that you will keep a steady rhythm and that you will be set up behind the band.

Don’t read me wrong; those are often good ideas, but I propose to look at them as general guidelines for modern music. Snare drums are made to cut through music, so they make a good anchor for the rest of the musicians. Keeping a steady rhythm is something every drummer should be able to do. You don’t find the foundation of the building at the entrance, of course, so putting the drums at the front of a stage would be a bit awkward in most situations.

But one of the first things I tell my students, and then remind them of, is that there actually are no rules with drums. You don’t have to hit the heads of the drums, use sticks, set them up in a standard way or even think of them as solely a rhythm instrument. There are many ways to make music with a given instrument. You can tap on just about anything and use it as a percussion piece!

My students have often asked about tuning drums, or brought in a piece of their set they were having trouble with. As I go about getting it to sound more conventional, I explain that drums don’t have to sound a certain way. You can use the weird sounds. I see drums as a musical instrument, so I want them to sound that way. Some people would rather have punchy toms, a sharp kick and a snare with as little tension as possible. There are no rules against that, either; it’s their artistic voice. One student that I have, in particular, is often wrapped up in playing things ‘right’. It’s only right if you’re trying to play the same thing that someone else played, you’ve worked a part out before and want to repeat it or it’s sitting in front of you on paper. Musicians write parts to express something, and you don’t have to express yourself as if you were someone else. This can apply to simplifying complex patterns or just trying to add a fresh flavor to the music.

The point I’m driving is this: don’t stop yourself from being creative because it’s something you’ve never seen anyone else do or because it’s unconventional. While a set of guidelines is a very good idea for the playing of most music, some of the best art comes when the lines aren’t firm borders.

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West Milton drum teacher Timothy K.Timothy K. teaches percussion and drum lessons to students of all ages in West Milton, OH. Timothy joined the TakeLessons team in July 2012, and his specialties include rock and pop styles. Sign up for lessons with Timothy, or visit the TakeLessons search page to find a drum teacher near you!

Photo by enricod.

Getting Started With Jazz Piano Techniques

jazz piano Bored with Brahms? For some pianists, Mozart might not be enough. If you find yourself tapping your toes to artists like Ray Charles and Herbie Hancock, you might want to talk to your piano teacher about adding in some jazz piano techniques to your lessons.

Here are some great tips for getting started:

(1) Start listening – to everything and anything jazz.
Listen to jazz greats. Go to jazz gigs. Immerse yourself in the genre, no matter if there is piano involved or not. Jazz singers, jazz flautists, jazz drummers… you get the point.  Check out Art Tatum, Thelonius Monk, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong. By doing this, you’ll get a feel for typical patterns, rhythms, style and more even before you sit down at the piano bench.

(2) Know your basics.
Whether you’re playing classical, jazz or another style, technical basics are essential to understand.  Although there are some musicians who can simply rely on their ears, it’s much better to have the groundwork set as you begin improvising and grooving. This means recognizing pitch, memorizing chords and understanding inversions and progressions, to begin with.

(3) Find the right teacher.
An instructor who is used to classical training might not be the best fit for learning jazz techniques. If you’re sure jazz is the route you want to take, find a teacher who is comfortable with the style and can really guide you to success.  (Need help finding a teacher? Search for piano lessons near you with TakeLessons!)

(4) Experiment and explore.
The whole point of jazz is being able to experiment, all while staying within certain musical guidelines (e.g. the key of the song). But how else will you learn unless you try? Try listening to a jazz beat, and then just start playing whatever feels right. With jazz, there may be guidelines, but there definitely aren’t any rules! The more you learn to trust yourself, the easier jazz piano techniques will become.

Readers, what other tips would you give to beginners learning jazz piano? Leave a comment below, or stop by our Facebook page to discuss!

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Build Breath Support With This Physical Warm-Up

breath supportWhen you begin learning how to sing, you may come across several styles of vocal warm-ups.  Building your breath support is an important part of voice lessons, so spending time on appropriate warm-ups is key.  Here’s a great exercise to try, courtesy of Dallas teacher Jacklynn T.:

Singing is a total body workout, and warm-ups as part of a regular practice routine are essential to your vocal health and progress. There are warm-ups for range extension, intonation, breath support and placement, to name only a handful of objectives. As singers, our bodies are our instruments; therefore, I like to begin my vocal warm-ups with some type of rhythmic physical movement to reinforce appropriate singing posture and foster an awareness of the breath.

The following warm-up is fantastic for awakening the body and building breath support at the same time. Greg Jasperse demonstrated a variation of this warm-up each morning at the Vocal Jazz Workshop at the University of North Texas this past June. In my exploration and application of it, I have found that it encourages the internalization of rhythm, reduces performance anxiety and fosters a focused practice/rehearsal mindset.

First, find an open space away from furniture or other potential obstacles. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, chest open, arms resting at your sides, and wrists and fingers free of tension. Inhale slowly through the nose over four counts while maintaining a relaxed and open throat. Draw the breath downward, allowing it to fall deep into the belly. As you inhale, sweep your arms out and up toward the sky so that they are above your head by the fourth count. Next, exhale over four counts with a gentle “shh” sound. Arms should reach up above the crown of the head, down and away from the body while you begin to bend at the waist and fold toward the floor. Then, inhale again through the nose over four counts, gently lifting at the waist (only slightly, not coming back to standing position just yet) while inviting airflow into your lower back. Exhale over four counts making a “shh” sound, and explore folding deeper toward the ground. Finally, inhale to come up, gradually stacking the vertebrae in your spine atop one another and letting the arms come to rest gently at your sides. Exhale over four counts as you come to rest in your original standing position. Repeat for several cycles.

You may choose to exhale silently through the nose if you would like and add the “shh” sound as you become more comfortable with the movement. If you don’t want to “shh” you can buzz (by loosely placing the top teeth on the lower lip) or a “vuh” to further activate the breath. It is also fun to practice this warm up while listening to music of varying styles, tempos (i.e. a slow four count to a ballad versus a fast four count to a pop song) or time signatures.

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Dallas music teacher Jacklynn T. Jacklynn T. teaches singing, violin, Broadway singing, music performance, music theory, and opera voice lessons to students of all ages in Dallas, TX. Jacklynn joined the TakeLessons team in July 2012, with a Bachelor’s degree in Music Education from Texas Tech University.  Sign up for lessons with Jacklynn, or visit TakeLessons to search for a teacher near you!



Photo by Bengt Nyman.

5 Guitar Gadgets That Will Change Your Life

guitarWhen you’re a beginner learning the guitar, does brand name matter?  For the basics, an inexpensive (but still quality!) instrument is completely fine, and can offer you a great starting point. Ultimately, the difference between a $100 guitar and a more expensive guitar can be subjective – it all comes down to what you prefer and what your end goals are.

On the other hand, there are some added accessories that can make a huge impact on your playing, no matter how much you shelled out for your guitar.  With a great collection of guitar gadgets, you can make a big impression.  Here are just a few awesome accessories to add to your bag:

1. Capo
A capo is essentially a clamp that you attach to your fretboard, shortening the length and moving the end of the board, allowing you to play in different keys using basic chords.  This allows you to play tougher songs, and especially comes in handy if you’re singing along and need to adjust to your vocal range. If you’re anticipating some impromptu karaoke, a capo is essential for your accessory collection.

2. Tuner
Learning how to tune a guitar takes practice, and some players just don’t have the natural talent to tune by ear – and that’s ok! But that’s where an electronic tuner will come into play. Tuners can be purchased at any music store, or there are also several apps available for your Smartphone for easier access.

3. The right strings
Note that this isn’t “just any strings.” The type of strings you choose will impact your sound, as well as your ability to play for some beginners.  Generally, heavier strings will give you a fuller sound.  If heavy metal is your preferred style, you’ll want to go with heavier strings. However, if you haven’t developed calluses yet, heavy strings can be pretty painful.  Most beginners choose thinner strings for this reason, but keep in mind that they break easily – so pick up a few extra packs!  Of course, remember to restring your guitar regularly, especially if you’re playing often.

4. Metronome
A metronome is one piece of equipment that every musician needs to own. Using a metronome will help with your timing, rhythm, tackling tough phrases and more.  Even if you think you have that internal timing, practicing with a metronome is important.

5. An arsenal of apps
The great thing about living in the generation of iPhones, iPads and Smartphones is the availability of apps to help you with… well, pretty much anything! There are a ton of music apps on the market, free or otherwise, ranging from tuners to metronomes to chord charts and more.

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Using Audiation as a Key to Learning Music

ipodWe know what you’re thinking: what the heck is audiation? Most musicians use the skill every day, even if you have no idea what it is. Read on and Boulder teacher Will S. will explain what it means, how it works, and how to use it to your advantage…




As a young man my father taught me an important lesson that has stuck with me ever since. He said, “Think before you speak.” These words were simply my dad’s way of preparing me for the real world. Lucky for us musicians a parallel exists in the music world so I can share with you a derivative of my dad’s advice. It’s more like: “Think before you play.” In this article, I’ll expand on a concept called audiation to help you do just that.

Audiation is a musical tactic often overlooked by a vast majority of musicians, even though they use it subconsciously every day. Let me clear things up for you! Audiation is defined as a high level thought process involving mentally hearing and comprehending music even when no physical sound is present. Let’s give it a shot together: sing in your head, without making any physical sounds, the song “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Amazing! You have just used audiation.

So what does this mean to us as music educators?

1) We should first acknowledge the pioneer of audiation, Edwin E. Gordon, who identified the key concepts behind the process and encouraged the adoption of this process into every music educator’s tool belt. Gordon suggests that in order to audiate while performing music through imitation, you must be able to do the following: sing what you have played; play a variation of the originally melody; play the melody in a different key, tonality, or with alternative fingerings; or demonstrate with body movements the phrases of the melody.

2) We should incorporate these strategies into our lessons even if at a minimal level to help our students become stronger musicians. I like to use the old elementary P.E. basketball example: “Imagine the basketball going into the hoop when you let go of it.” This is exactly audiation in sports form. Tell your students to think the first phrase through from m.1 to m.9, for example, then play exactly what they were able to audiate. I promise you will notice an immediate difference in the confidence a student has in their ability to play that certain phrase.

3) We should use this process as a key for improvisation skills. As a music educator, I am always striving to teach my students to think on their own and on their feet! Improvisation is a great strategy to use with students especially when accompanied by audiation. Using audiation helps the students get to a level of achievement where they feel comfortable looking away from sheet music. Remind them that the sheet music also exists in their mind, and audiation can unlock that musical manuscript.

I’ll conclude with a note from Gordon’s website ( “Through development of audiation students learn to understand music. Understanding is the foundation of music appreciation, the ultimate goal of music teaching.”


Will S.

Will S. teaches drum, clarinet, music performance, music theory, and percussion lessons to students of all ages in Boulder, CO. He joined the TakeLessons team in June 2012, with a Bachelor’s degree in Music Education and several years of experience teaching various styles and genres. Sign up for lessons with Will, or visit the TakeLessons search page to find a music teacher near you!


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