Creating a Structured Practice Routine

Like many of you, I teach private lessons to supplement my musician income. In every lesson, regardless of the student’s skill level, I spend a lot of time teaching one thing: How To Practice Guitar. After all, the real progress does not come from the hour the student and I spend together, it comes from the hours they spend with their instrument in the six days of the week between lessons.

This goes for all of us. Our progress as musicians relies on how effectively we spend our practice time. The New Year is always a great time to establish (or re-establish) better habits. Even if you’re reading this in June, today is the first day of a new year. Decide today how you will approach your practice tomorrow.

What To Practice

A good practice routine should accomplish three things:

  1. Maintenance
  2. Improvement
  3. Expansion

Maintain your current skills and repertoire.

Freshman year of college, one of my instructors told a roomful of incoming guitarists, “There will be no other time in your life where you will be able to learn as much as you’ll learn in the next four years. After college, you’ll mostly try to maintain what you’ve developed here.”

That is scary, and largely true. Real life is not friendly to your practice routine. Maintenance is important, but also relative. Will you always need to be able to shred Giant Steps? Probably not. But intonation, technique, sight reading, a good ear, and a standard repertoire for whatever scene you’re in must all be maintained to continue performing at a high level.

Improve your technique.

As good as you may be, there is always room for improvement. Take any skill you’re maintaining and push yourself a little further–speed up the metronome, change keys or modes, apply it in a new way.

For years I practiced four note 7th arpeggios up and down within a scale. I could comfortably do this pretty fast and in any key. One day I decided to add a fifth note at the bottom, simply starting on the 7th. The five note pattern completely threw me off at first, but it brought my awareness back into this little element of my routine. It also turned an exercise into a cool new lick!

Music is essentially a variety of patterns, some are very complex, but they all break down to the same basic problems. If good technique allows you to play a scale with ease, excellent technique will prepare you to play whatever piece of music lands in front of you on a gig.

Expand your repertoire.

Growing up I had a neighbor that played viola in the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra. When I was about 14 or 15 I told my parents that I wanted to be a musician. None of us had any idea how you do that, so my dad took me up to that neighbor’s house for a chat. I brought my guitar. The first thing he asked me to do was play a song. I couldn’t play a whole song by myself! I was embarrassed, but the lesson stuck with me:

If you’re going to be a musician, you better be able to perform a complete piece of music, by yourself, on command. Everything else we practice is in vain if we can’t play a tune. Always, always be learning new music.

Time Management

None of my students are professional musicians. They all have jobs or school or hobbies outside of music (why, I will never understand). We spend some time talking about how to schedule their practice time. If they can practice for one hour a day, here’s how I might ask them to spend that time:

  • 20 Minutes – Warmup / Scales / Arpeggios
  • 10 Minutes – Getting to know the fretboard; learning every place to play a note, chord, etc.
  • 30 Minutes – Work on repertoire

If they have two hours to practice, I might recommend the second hour look like this:

  • 15 Minutes – Free Improvisation or Composing
  • 15 Minutes – Working on roadblocks, such as difficult chord changes
  • 30 Minutes – Work on repertoire

Scheduling your practice time into hour blocks with a few different chunks of time can be very helpful. Set a stop watch or timer so you can keep track of how long you’re working on something. If it helps, write down how long you spent working on something, just like you’d track your exercise at the gym. Perhaps you’ll come up with a few different “workout” variations for each block of time, and you can vary which workouts you do each day.

Repetition. Rest. Repeat.

Just as repetition and rest builds muscular strength, the act of repeating a skill over and over creates stronger connections between neurons in our brain. However, those connections won’t be immediately apparent. Rest plays an important role in allowing our brain to process what it has just learned.

Once I was on the road, sleeping on the couch in a friend’s apartment. He was trying to learn a melody on a glockenspiel, but since he didn’t play any instruments, he was having a hard time getting it right. Before he went to bed, I told him to play it ten times, focusing on playing the correct notes and not worrying about speed or rhythm. The next morning I woke up while he was on his way out the door. I stopped him and asked him to play the part on the glockenspiel. Running late for work, he hesitated for a moment, but then picked up the mallets and to his surprise, nailed it.

Think about all the times you struggled to learn something one day only to find it made complete sense the next. Or think about all the times you pulled an all-nighter cramming for a test and barely retaining any of the information after it was over. Our brains need that rest to process information. There’s simply no way around it.


The absolute best way to improve yourself as a musician is to transcribe, transcribe, transcribe. What better way to master our craft than to emulate the masters?

Transcribing utilizes everything we would ever need to practice:

  • Aural skills – Your ears!
  • Musicality – Learn not only the notes, but the tone, inflection, and nuances of each note.
  • Technique – Master those difficult passages.
  • Scales, arpeggios, chords, rhythm – The building blocks of all music, directly applied in the piece of music you’re learning.
  • Composition, improvisation – These skills are two sides of the same coin. Learning somebody else’s composed melody or improvised solo requires the same skill and reaps the same benefits.
  • Notation – Memorize your transcription first, but then write it down. Not just for posterity, the act of writing down transcriptions will help you see the music, which will help you improve your reading.
  • Expand your repertoire – You’ve just learned a new piece of music or lick.

When in doubt, Beatles.

When all else fails, when I’m burnt out on my usual practice routine, when I can’t decide what to transcribe, when I start making excuses as to why I can’t practice right now, I learn a Beatles song. My default rule was to learn the second cut on every album, in chronological order. The fewer decisions I have to make before I start practicing, the more likely I am to simply practice.

The Beatles repertoire is my practice safety net. It could be Bach, or tone rows, or Miley Cyrus. Well, maybe not Miley–it helps to have a safety net with a deep catalog–so how about Rush? Whatever it is for you, choose something that will always give you something to practice when all else fails.

Take lessons.

All of us, regardless of our skill level, could benefit from private lessons every now and then. If you’ve tried to structure your practice time and still can’t decide what to work on, perhaps it’s a sign you need to take lessons. Many musicians, myself included, teach via Skype. No matter where you live, all you need is a good internet connection to take lessons.

Good luck on your practice routine, please share your progress in the comments below. Remember, decide today how you will approach your practice tomorrow!

6 Steps for Successful Audio Mixing

Mixing is an art form that takes a lot of time and skill and even though we may spend a long time on any given mix it is a good plan to be able to have a strategy for commencing a mix down session. To some degree this is going to be influenced by the genre of music that is to be mixed but there is a lot one can do to start off on the right footing to create mixes that are likely to have good traits as opposed to bad traits. We are going to discuss mixing strategy and these pointers will assist with consistency and efficiency.

1) Gain structure 

This is fundamental and both technical and artistic, we will focus on technical reasoning for now. We want to avoid noise and distortion which occupy the extremes of the systems which we will use for recording and mixing. Too quiet and we risk hiss, too loud and we risk the dreaded crunch. In analog gear 0Vu was the level to aim for, people are often surprised when I say this equates to approximately a peak level of -10dBFS. (though it depends on transient information and the frequency content of the source)

DAW manufacturers do not help us by making  -10dBFS on the metering in their DAW’s look very  low indeed. Fact is if you keep your levels around -10dBFS you will be mixing at around the same electrical level as those professionals who mix on a big analog console. I suggest thinking very carefully about your gain structure when recording and mixing and a great tip is to always record and mix at 24 bit resolution. At 24 bit there is absolutely no need whatsoever to hit the level meters hard in record or mix stages. It serves no purpose (with the caveat of saturating a specific device for subjective effect) other than to diminish your headroom and create a higher chance of distortion in either the analog or digital domain.

2) Gain structure……. again ! 

So pointer 1 explains why good gain planning is good, now we need to consider how to practically achieve good gain structure. Arguably mixing starts in recording, thats what learned engineers know and teach. So when you record, record at 24 bit and leave headroom. Take level from a practice performance and peak at -12 to -14dBFS to allow for the enthusiasm of a “real take”.

This leaves your signals at just the right level to start mixing with plenty of headroom. Use a ‘peaky’ source in your mix down session like your snare and kick drum and use them as a reference to start your mixing. Let’s say you peak your kick at -12dBFS then add your snare then the rest of your kit, great…. except you are likely to want to process with EQ or compression at some point. This obviously changes level, so bear in mind you do not want to move your reference too far from where you started. So as you eq and compress try and bear in mind your -12dBFS ref and keep the peaky sources in this ball park. You do not have to do this religiously after all the goal is some head room not a bad sounding mix balance based on numbers ! It’s a balance, the right level to leave headroom and the juggling of level and balance that mixing by it’s very nature requires.

3) Throw up the faders 

Mixing is an iterative process for many so it is difficult to describe “how to mix” exactly. However you must start somewhere and no better place than introducing the faders with sources on and obtaining a rough balance. A rough balance is important as it allows you to consider what problems  exist and what ones can be rectified with your tool set. It starts the brain firing off in the right direction as to what sculpting might occur. Usually this is a process which happens extremely fast. You might get a quick succession of thoughts… like… “kick drum is muddy, snare needs some brightness, cymbals are harsh, a short reverb would be nice on snare from plug in “X”, overheads sound a touch wide, a touch of de-essing required on lead vocal, guitars have excessive hiss on them in the pauses, things like this.  If you need note them do so, but often if they are enough of a problem they will stick in mind or be rectified within a couple of minutes. In this way I think software is an advantage as it is very quick to load a plug in and act.

So assuming technical ability a rough mix can be a prototype mix within the hour if you have your chops together. That first hour has always been one which invokes slight excitement and nervousness in myself as you fathom what the sources have the potential to be. The judgement on the the individual sources and shaping them to become something greater when well blended is very exciting. This is where you gauge the potential of the sources and how hard you will need to work to obtain a sonic vision be your own or a producers.

4) Group your instruments

Groups are useful, predominantly for globally adjusting the level of a set of like instruments on a single fader but also for global processing. This could be using send effects such as reverb delays, chorus etc. and of course insert processing like compression or equalization. It is definitely worth setting up a few groups for your drums, guitars and vocals even if you are not sure you will use them at the outset.

5) Color is quicker

Making your project easier to navigate is going to make things more efficient. It might be a good plan to create some colour coding of tracks and channels. You may wish to develop your own colour templates which relates either to your own music or other types of music if you mix professionally. An electronic music production may have differences to acoustic r rock music for example. Once you have decided on a colour scheme that makes sense in your own mind you will find, mix after mix this becomes embedded in your way of working. This can speed up project navigation very nicely and keep the thoughts, impressions and remedial actions in a flow which gets results.  It can be a good idea to colour your groups something specific and as a whole as there tends not to be too many of them.

6) Masterful processing

Stereo master bus processing is very personal, some people like to mix with nothing on the master bus whereas some like to use their favourite eq or compressor. This can of course be digital or analog on the way to your monitoring. I recommend keeping things subtle and if you find yourself using anything that could be deemed as extreme the chances are you probably need to work a bit harder with your mix sources first.

Limiters are extreme processes, by and large they are not necessary to create a good mix. I can understand the reasoning behind them finding their way onto a master bus. A few reasons are that you are doing your own self finalizing so you want to hear how the mix responds when being driven into a limiter or you might want to get a rough idea of what the track might sound like when professionally mastered. Some people simply like the sound of a limiter, after all not all limiting is bad.

With limiters it is most important to consider not boxing yourself into a corner. Mixing into a limiter for whatever reason will effect your mixing decisions. Drums and bass/present vocals will especially will especially be effected. Novice mixers will crush their mix to hold things in place (even limiting on channels), this will stunt your mixing skills progress in my personal opinion. It will also hinder any self mastering or professional mastering procedures. One reason some mixes sound good is often because there is space, interaction, dynamic interplay and transient information that adds excitement and power. Extreme use of limiting reduces all of that.

I would say to use bus compression and equalization you need to have a very true monitoring environment. You should be confident of the accuracy of the response of your monitors in room otherwise you can easily compound problems that already exist. This may make them more difficult to rectify later should you realize there is a problem with translation.So use these processes with care and attention to subtle tweaks rather than extreme changes. If a compressor or equalizer is adding something subjectively euphonic to a mix then there is no problem whatsoever. However if they are there to increase perceived volume only they are best left bypassed.

If you use the right gain structure there will be no need to protect digital zero with a  limiter  as ample headroom will be built in to the stereo master bus.


Mixing is often a very personal technique but applying some well grounded technical information and continuity between projects can bring enhanced results. This makes the way you mix more efficient and can definitely assist in achieving more consistent results and keep the mic down work flow logical and efficient.

Learning Musical Styles with Transcription

I received an email today from M., who’s in college now and interested in working on Broadway one day. He asked me about a comment I made a few weeks ago.

I wrote an article talking about how I got my current gig, and I gave the advice that younger musicians shouldn’t over-emphasize their theatre experience when hustling this job. Broadway, in my opinion, prefers musicians that have learned different musical styles from outside of Broadway. Here’s the section:

Whether its true or not, Broadway music is largely seen as a derivative art form among the Broadway musician community. Look at shows like Jersey Boys, Million Dollar Quartet, In the Heights – these shows showcase rock n roll, country, hip hop and salsa – none of which originated on Broadway.

The last thing you want to say, therefore, is that you learned to play R’n’B by playing a summerstock version of Dream Girls. Broadway wants authentic players that have learned music styles from the source, not from itself.

I really think this is true. I just don’t feel like you can learn jazz by playing musical theatre scores. You have to learn jazz by playing jazz.

And so, M.’s question to me was this:

I am classically trained and I personally feel any style other than classical has been learned from playing MT repertoire. I feel that I am very limited because of this. I feel intimated and do not know where to even begin learning these styles.

[Do] you have any advice on how to learn jazz, blues, gospel, latin etc…?

That’s a good question, M.

Commercial Music in Theatre

First off, there are plenty of good gigs for classically trained musicians in the New York theatre scene. Shows that are in the traditional theatre style might be a good fit – for instance the current revival of Porgy and Bess or the long-running Mary Poppins. These shows showcase old-school theatre or operetta styles and need great classical players.

However, Broadway’s musical styles have always followed popular music trends, and you can see that with today’s shows as well. Most of the shows on Broadway today are shows that require commercial musicians that understand how to play jazz, rock, funk and world styles.

The Twenty Year Itch

As a side note, I’d just like to register my own complaint about Broadway music – yes, we follow popular music trends, but must we follow so far behind? If you look at the shows open on Broadway right now – Jesus Christ Superstar, Mamma Mia, Godspell, Rock of Ages, Priscilla, Memphis, etc. – not one of those shows features music that was written less that 20 years ago. Among other reasons – how can we instill a passion for theatre in younger audiences if we ignore music written during their lifetime?

The exception this season, of course, is Once which features music from the 2006 movie. Bravo, Once. Where is everyone else? No indie rock musicals out there? No bachata musical?

Anyway – M., here’s my answer (and I’m sure others will have valuable answers in the comments below).

The thing about commercial styles of music – by which I mean most non-classical styles – is that they can’t be learned from books and sheet music. The rhythm, groove, and feel of commercial styles needs to be heard and felt.

So my best advice is to transcribe different styles directly from recordings.


And – these days – there’s no excuse not to transcribe. When I was coming up it was difficult to get access to recordings of different styles – recordings cost money back then (imagine!). Now you can get a Spotify subscription for $10/month and have almost anything you’d ever want.

For example – just the other day I found a Spotify playlist for every song in the Real Book. Are you kidding me? Do you know know how hard it would have been to gather all of those recordings together when I was in jazz school? Now there is no excuse to not have intimate knowledge of several different versions of each jazz standard.

Actually – I’ve thought a lot about this recently – I’m anxiously awaiting a new breed of musician to come out of the Spotify generation. There are kids growing up today who have unprecedented access to every style of music recorded over the last 100 years. I can only imagine what kind of musician I would be if I’d been listening to Miles at birth instead of discovering him – like most white, suburban kids of the 1990s – as a teenager in my high school band room.

The musicians that come out of music school in 20 years will have no excuse not to be monster players. What kind of jobs will be available to them…well that part is anybody’s guess.


Back to transcribing. M., transcribing gets better as you go. It’s tortuous as first, but addictive as you get the hang of it. Here’s how you should start:

Find a recording of a new musical style that you really dig. Put in on your phone and listen to it over and over. Listen to it as you’re walking to class, while you’re eating, when you wake up. Sing along to all of the solos, know the form, figure out the instrumentation. Get to know that recording really, really well.

Then – after that listening phase – sit down at your instrument and start playing along. Figure out the key, the harmonic structure, pick out of a few key notes. This is how I like to start – I just get a cursory feel for the harmonic content of the song. Some musicians are much better at this part – even without perfect pitch they can start picking out almost all of the song on the first go. Personally, I’m much slower at this, especially when I started out.

Then take sections of the song and learn every note. For example, I was once trying to learn to play a better jazz blues. I took the recording of “Freddie the Freeloader” from Kind of Blue and transcribed Wynton Kelly’s solo from 0:45 to 2:13. That’s a great solo to transcribe, actually, because you get to play along with Paul Chambers (bass) and Jimmy Cobb (drums) and their swing is so killing on that whole record.

And that’s the thing with transcribing – you are picking up not just the notes, but the rhythm, groove and feel that I mentioned before. You’re picking up on all the thing that sheet music can’t teach you.

Then transcribe more. Learn the difference between Basie swing and Ellington swing. Listen to the play between bass and kick drum in disco music. Listen to where the open strings are on Simon and Garfunkel recordings. Figure out what the hell that voicing is that Chick Corea is using on [insert Chick album here].

Write It Down

Under NO circumstances are you allowed to even glance at any published sheet music during this process. You’ll quickly find that sheet music is a poor representation of music, anyway.

However, that said, the next step is to write down what you’ve transcribed. This part can be particularly difficult – especially on, say, Charlie Parker transcriptions…so don’t start with that. But it gets easier.

Jason Crosby Solo TranscriptionHere’s an example of something I transcribed a few years ago. Jason Crosby plays a great Hammond solo on Susan Tedeschi’s version of Don’t Think Twice. I loved it so much I had to transcribe it and play it myself. Here’s a copy of my transcription.

Of course, you don’t have to write it out in Finale like I did – but it doesn’t hurt to practice those Finale chops. You’ll need those, too, when you get out of college.

Keep It Up

I think any commercial player will agree that learning musical styles by ear is the best way to absorb them into your playing. And I think everyone can all agree that it’s not an easy thing to start to do if you’ve been classically trained and haven’t learn music that way before.

But it’s invaluable. It’ll change your playing. And more importantly, it’s absolutely necessary. It would be nice if, instead, we could just go on tour with a great swing band like our past legends did…but those days are long gone. The best thing we can do is learn the recordings inside and out.

Although – by all means start a band and go on tour making new music. Then write an indie rock musical so I can play it.

(In 20 years.)

7 Easy Steps to Teaching Music Lessons Online

When I was asked to write this article, it gave me the final impetus I needed to grow my teaching business.

In recent months, several of my students have moved interstate but wanted to learn music online.

I was hesitant because, as a singing and piano teacher, I wasn’t really sure how I was going to make this move, especially for singing, because it is so interactive and personal.

Now I’m ready to experiment and I thought it would be interesting to have some company.

So please join me as I detail the steps I have taken to set up my Skype teaching business and please feel free to benefit from my mistakes or copy the methods which worked!

Step 1

Set Up Your Teaching Business

If you haven’t already set up your teaching business please read this article as it goes into great detail and outlines what you need to have in place before you take the next step of launching yourself worldwide as an internet teacher.

I also recommend you have a substantial amount of one to one teaching practice before you commence Skype teaching, as you will need your experience to help cover the distance which may be caused by giving Skype lessons.

Step 2

Install Skype and Other Software Programmes You May Need

Installing Skype is a very easy thing to do.

Go to and simply follow the instructions for download on your computer.

I have decided to make use of some other programmes to give value for money and help me self assess.

These are:

  • Ecamm recorder, available at  This software isn’t expensive but it enables you to record both sides of the Skype conversation on video or just voice call.  You can edit the recording as well.

    My idea is to send a copy of the lesson to the student so they can review it if they want to.  Also, I thought it would be a good way for me to assess my own teaching.  But please make sure your student is aware that this process is in place and give them the option to refuse recording.

  • As I am teaching singing, I have to think about the delay live accompaniment may cause, so I am sending my students backing tracks they can sing to that are in their key as well. This means I need to have a recording facility, which can produce tracks that will convert into downloadable MP3 format as they will be sent to the student via email prior to the lesson.

    Your student needs to have the facility to open these files and play them back or record them onto disk as well.

Step 3

You will need to be able to receive payment for the lessons you give.

The simple way to do this is with Paypal.

On their website, they have some different options for merchant services.

I chose the easiest, quickest and least complicated one, which was to email requests for payment.

Students can pay by direct deposit or credit cards when using this service and I request that payment is made prior to the lesson.

If you decide you would like to advertise your services on other websites and blogs, you could think about setting up a Clickbank account at .

This is a affiliate programme market place which means that people will advertise and sell your product (your lessons) for a percentage of each sale.

Clickbank manages the funds for you, the affiliate marketers and your students.  It is a more complex way of doing things but something you may wish to consider.

Step 4

Set Up Your Teaching Studio

In just a few seconds of meeting people or walking into a room, we make value judgements, therefore, it is important that your studio looks professional and tidy (as well as yourself) when you are teaching.

You need to take into consideration the view that your student is getting, so make sure your camera is angled and adjusted to give the clearest picture for demonstration and also make sure you have good lighting in your studio.

I rearranged my studio to suit Skype teaching and it has actually turned out to be much better for all my teaching and learning needs now.

Here is a view, in case you are curious.

Lisa Brown's Online Teaching Studio

Step 5

Get Your Paper Work In Order

As mentioned in Greg Arney’s article on setting up your teaching business, you need to have decided on your Terms and Conditions of teaching.

However, you need to consider other situations when teaching online.

What will your policies be on:

  • Payment – How much?  When to receive payment?  Refunds?  How will students pay?
  • Cancellation – How much notice should you receive?  Will you reschedule lessons?
  • Technical interruptions –  What will you do if this happens during a lesson?
  • Equipment – What software and hardware should your students have in order to interact successfully in skype lessons?

I have composed a Terms and Conditions document, which is emailed to students prior to lessons and which they then type their name on and email back to me.  This acts as an acceptance of the terms and conditions stated, so both parties are clear on what to expect.

When payment is received, I am informed by Paypal and I then send students another email confirming receipt of funds as well as their lesson time and date.

It is highly important you make sure you are aware of time differences and take these into consideration when booking appointments.

Step 6

Teach Your Lesson

I have discovered that teaching online requires creative thinking and some different approaches to normal lesson delivery because of some restrictions caused by the technology.

    • Skype is unable to transfer simultaneous audio

      Surprisingly, there is little delay when communicating on Skype.  I thought this was a great thing because I could then accompany my student until I discovered …

      When there is audio coming from both parties, Skype is unable to transfer both signals clearly at the same time, which means each of you experience cutting out.   Such a shame!!!

      However, here are some suggestions for combating this problem:

      1. Email accompaniment tracks

        You will have to make sure your student then burns these tracks onto a CD and plays them from a source outside the computer.

        This is because the tracks tend to be too loud when they are coming from the computer onto Skype and you can’t hear your student clearly enough.

      2. Consider different teaching strategies

        There are many strategies you can employ in your teaching so you don’t have to use play-along or accompaniment.  You can focus more on technical aspects, mentoring and sound production and get students to demonstrate their work in home recordings or play-along in subsequent lessons, when they are playing with a backing track.

    • Introduction and check student set-up

I would suggest you set up a Skype meeting with your student before you teach your first lesson with them.  This will:

    1. Help your student feel more comfortable

      Many people are shy and especially first-time students.  Introducing yourself to them on Skype will help break the ice so that your first lesson will run more smoothly.

    2. Check the student’s set-up

      You will need to check that your student has set up Skype correctly and everything is in working order.

      You both need to direct each other so that the camera is positioned to get a clear picture on both sides, and also make sure the student has received any resources you want them to use.

      If you are using written resources, they too will have to be sent to the student as when you hold up writing to the camera, it has a mirror effect.  It’s hard enough to begin reading music, let alone backwards!

Step 7

Self Assessment

Self-assessment of your teaching practice through reflective work is necessary if you want to engage in a high quality standard of teaching.

Teaching on Skype will take some adjustment of the way you normally deliver your material.  Your first couple of lessons could be challenging but with some problem-solving you will be able to work it out.

You will also have to consider whether moving your business online is going to be worthwhile as there is a little more work and organisation involved.

However, I feel that once you have made a routine of preparing, emailing and having standard contracts and stationery set up, it could definitely be a worthwhile practice.

I am going to give it a go for a while with a few students.

And so, in conclusion:

The disadvantages of teaching online for you are:

  • You will have to organise and think about your teaching practice in a different way to cater to this format.
  • It may be a little more work and be a little uncomfortable to begin with.

The benefits of online teaching for you are:

  • You can become an international teacher and expand your student base.
  • You can teach at odd hours if you want to.
  • You can become a trail-blazer in a field which will, no doubt, become more popular in future!  And
  • If you are smart, discover a new niche market because…

Some of the benefits for students are:

  • They don’t need to leave the comfort of their own home or office!

This would be attractive to people who:

  • clock up a lot of time working and don’t have time for to go to a lesson,
  • people in isolated areas without access to music teachers,
  • people who find travel difficult or who have limited access to transport, and
  • carers or parents who can’t leave their premises for very long.

Some disadvantages of learning online are:

  • The student misses out on some of the personal energy created in a real-life meeting, however, as they get to know you, this shouldn’t be a problem.
  • They will have to be more active in helping their lesson to run smoothly, making sure their set-up is in place and they have all resources at hand but I also see this as an advantage as it helps the student learn to be independent and resourceful which are qualities needed to pursue music.

I hope you’ve found this helpful and I’d love to hear about any feedback you may have.  So, please leave a comment below and good luck!

How Do I Get a Job After Music School?

T., a guitarist and soon-to-be music school grad, wrote us last week with this question:

I’m getting my degree soon, but I feel that I don’t really have a lot of actual work experience to flesh out my resume. How far do you think a degree can take me and where would be the best place to help get some work with my skills?

That’s a good question, T., and I’m sure there are other MW readers that are in the same boat.

So, you’re about to leave music school and you need a job. You don’t have a lot of credits on your resume and you’re not sure how to get started.

Let’s start off with what jobs are available these days. I often think about jobs in the musician industry split into to categories:

  1. Your music
  2. Other people’s music

Your Music

There are two of us that maintain – Cameron Mizell and myself. Cameron is an expert in category #1, so instead of rambling on about things I don’t know, I’ll defer to his incredible breadth of knowledge.

Here are some of Cameron’s articles that will help you create a career with your own music:

Also read the archives of Cameron’s articles, I’m sure you’ll find a ton of useful information.

Other People’s Music

Although I do write and record my own music, I make my living playing other people’s music. I freelance as a Broadway musician, a church musician, a for-hire accompanist, a music director for theatre, a vocal coach, and many other things.

So let’s say you’re like T. and you’re about to graduate college and you want to be a freelance musician like me. Aside from experience (which I’ll get to later), what do you need to succeed?

  • Sight-reading

    I would say that this is the real value that I give to my employers – if you take everything else away, this is the one thing that they are really paying me for. I show up and I play whatever they put in front of me. It saves them time and money – it cuts down on prep and rehearsal time, it allows them the convenience of thinking about other things, and allows them the flexibility of changing music at the last minute.

    If you’re sight-reading isn’t up to par, you can improve it. I’ve written about the subject before, and it basically boils down to practice. The more you sight-read the better you’ll become.

  • Recommendations

    I never audition or apply for positions in my business, all work is passed around through word-of-mouth. That can be really frustrating for someone starting out, but I promise it gets easier. Make sure that you keep in touch with your fellow classmates from your music school – those will be your first contacts. As they find work, they will pass work to you and vice versa.

    Giving away work is worth pointing out – you should have a small list of colleagues that you pass work to now and then. They’ll do the same for you when they have gigs they can’t take.

    There are some colleagues that will take the work and never pass anything back to you – and those are probably the wrong colleagues to have on the list. Generally, creating a sense of generosity and community around you is much more effective than creating a sense of competition.

  • Geography

    Look, if there isn’t any work where you are, you should move somewhere else. If you want to work as a freelance musician, I’m very sorry, but you just can’t live anywhere you want. You’re career will always be limited by the amount of work available (divided by the number of musicians) in your city. I just don’t see any way around that.

    When I was just out of college I moved back to my home town in the suburbs of Chicago. I took all the gigs I could get. I music directed local theatre shows, I played cocktail music at the country club, I accompanied at the local schools, I joined a band, I taught lessons. I made about the same amount of money as my friends that had entry-level day jobs. It was cool for awhile.

    But check it out – I was playing every gig in town. I’d already hit an income ceiling and I was 25. I tried Chicago for awhile, but I felt like the scene in that city was locked up tight and paid worse than the suburbs. So I left.

    I worked the regional theatre market for awhile, and eventually settled in New York – not because I necessarily wanted to live in New York – but because there was a lot of work here for my skill set.

    I think I’ll always live in New York. I can make a living here. Other players like me are making a living here. It’s not a musician utopia or anything like that – but there is a need here for musicians and I am a musician – so this is where I ended up. Luckily, I’ve also grown to really enjoy living here.

    You don’t have to live in New York. There’s a good discussion in our forums about the best cities for musicians. See what other musicians have to say.


Ok, so now on to your actual question – how far can a degree get you and how can you get more experience.

Your degree is a piece of paper, and it won’t get you a gig. What you really paid for at your college, as I touched on before, is the connections you have with your faculty and fellow students. This is for real – stay in touch with your fellow students. That’s where your work will first come from.

There are several entry-level positions for freelance musicians. None of them are particularly well-paid or comfortable, which is why they are relatively easy to get.

  • Cruise Ship Musician

    Cruise ship musician is the route I took. It’s pretty easy to get a cruise ship job – you take an audition with a talent agency and then wait for a call. Read this article for more info on how to book the job.

    If working on a cruise was a totally amazing, satisfying, well-paying gig, nobody would ever leave it. But in reality, it can burn you out within a few contracts (see: What Was There To Be Dark About?). But if you are just looking for some experience, it’s perfect. Take a contract or two and hone your chops in the real world. Think of it as your internship.

  • Theme Parks

    There are other gigs like the cruise gig. There are summer gigs at theme parks. Try this link at and search for “Theme Parks”. Expect the gigs to be long, hot and poorly paid. But don’t worry, just work the gig and get the credit on your resume. You gotta pay your dues.

  • Non-Union Broadway Tours

    Non-union musical theatre tours are a step or two up from entry-level. They can be pretty cool gigs if you get on a good tour. They can be brutal if you don’t.

    Jobs at this level start to be word-of-mouth placements for musicians, but you can submit your stuff. Networks is a major non-union touring company. Bookmark their jobs page and send your resume and website to You can also visit (search for “Musical” under the Departments category), they sometimes list these kinds of jobs.

    Also, dive into this discussion in the forums for more info about non-equity tours.

  • Jobs Board

    I have to give a plug to our musician jobs board here at MW. We have a growing list of musician jobs categorized by instrument and location. Subscribe to the RSS feed and have the jobs sent to your feed reader. I moderate that list myself, so it’s only good stuff going up. You might find a gig there.

I hope that helps – good luck T!

Finding Your Voice: The Basics of Singing

This article is part of a series intended for musicians that are interested in learning secondary instruments & new skills that will expand their versatility.

Also visit: 15 Guitar Tips for Non-Guitarists

This article was inspired by a handful of my instrumentalist friends recently asking me for tips on basic singing technique.  They’ve either been offered gigs in which backup vocals are involved or have to work with singers quite a bit and know that in order to better communicate with vocalists, it’s helpful to understand what they do.

While I was prompted to write this article by those specific friends, it is appropriate for anyone interested in singing.  I’m talking singers of rock, jazz, choral work, opera, hardcore, yodeling… you get the picture.

So who wants to learn how to sing? Who wants to learn how to sing with more control? Who wants to understand his/her own voice better, to be a more confident singer with more flexibility and better endurance?

I do I do!

Great! Come with me…

Helpful Tools:

1. A mirror

2. A recording device

3. Privacy. It is in your best interest to really be practicing and not performing. You want to work and rework your weaknesses, not sing the nicest parts of songs for someone you know is listening.

Diagram 1
Diagram 1

Diagram 2a
Diagram 2a

Diagram 2b
Diagram 2b

Step One- Posture:

1. Stand with your ears, over your shoulders, over your hips. It’s easy to remember and an easy alignment to achieve.

2. When you stand in the above position, your chin will be at rest. Keep your chin down. It is common to see singers lifting their chins when straining to sing a high pitch. One might think, “It’s a higher note, so I’m gonna bring my mouth up higher to sing it.” Nope! Lifting your chin actually makes singing more difficult. It cuts off the air supply traveling through your trachea (less air= less control and focused sound). It also changes the position of your soft palate, which in turn makes it difficult to achieve full resonance through your largest resonating cavity, your pharynx. (Singing is all about air being manipulated into specific vibrations through your vocal chords and then resonance cavities, which are spaces in your head.)

Step Two- Breathing:

1. Keep your shoulders still while inhaling and exhaling.

2. Breathing in is a little more controlled while singing. Physically you are filling your lungs, but it helps to let your lower abdominals release and, for the lack of a better word, your “tummy” to pop out.

3. Breathing out, in the form of singing, is very controlled. Teachers and choir directors often say, “Sing from your diaphragm.” Which is odd because your diaphragm is just below your lungs and they are normally pointing to their lower abdominals at the time. Your diaphragm sits on your stomach like a hat and is not consciously controlled. What are controlled are your lower abdominal muscles and rib-action muscles, or intercostals. (Rib-action muscles are the side muscles at and just below your ribs.) The most controlled stream of air is a combination of the steady contraction of the abdominal muscles in conjunction with the holding of an expanded position of the rib-action muscles.
In other words, your tummy pushes in, while your ribs stay expanded.

Step Three- Sing!

1. Start by singing vowel sounds by themselves (A, E, I, O, U)

2. Here are the variations of vowel sounds I would like you to start with
[ɑ] as in balm [ɛ] bet [a] base [i] bee [ɔ] ball [o] obey [u] boom

(Letters within [] belong to the International Phonetic Alphabet used by singers.)

3. Try singing [ɑ] [ɛ] [a] [i] [a] [ɛ] [ɑ] (aaahhheehhhhayyyiiiyyyaayyyeehhhahh)

4. And then [ɑ] [ɔ] [o] [u] [o] [ɔ] [ɑ] (aahhawwohhooohohhawwaahh)

If this is difficult to understand in print, just sing vowel sounds you know in this same way.

Do this on one pitch at a time, and slowly. If you really focus the sound, you might hear overtones (ringing sounds above the main note), which are beautiful and almost hypnotic. This is a slow droning exercise to help you get to know your range and how your tone sounds and your mouth feels while singing different vowels. It is also a good way to practice your slow and controlled breathing.

5. Now, sing your favorite song, or whatever you feel the need to work on. Record the first try, listen to it, record it again trying to make improvements (but don’t record over the first try.)

6. Next, try singing that same song, only singing the vowels of the words (still singing the melody of the song.)

I.E. “Blackbird singin in the dead of night…”
“aahiihh iihh ih ih uh eh uh ahhhh…” (Don’t breath in between each vowel sound. Sing it as if you were singing with the words, breathing in between sentences or phrases.)

This can be a tricky thing to do, so slow down and be patient with yourself.

7. Once you feel like you’re comfortable doing that, record yourself singing the song with the words again.

I have a sneaking suspicion that the control over your tone, air flow, phrasing, and your confidence with the song will have improved a lot between your first and latest recording. Don’t believe me? Listen back.

In Review:

Stand in front of a mirror with ears, over shoulders, over hips. Breathe in slowly, letting your tummy pop out. Sing the vowel exercise with one hand on your lower abs, feeling them push in, and one hand on one side of your ribs, feeling them stay expanded. Watch in your mirror to make sure your chin stays at rest and your shoulders stay still. Then, record yourself singing, listen back, record again with improvements, listen again, etc.

Good work student! Please leave questions in the form of comments, which I will try to answer during your next lesson. If this was helpful, I will gladly continue to give these Internet voice lessons, so let me know what you think! (I am also a voice teacher in “real life” and if you live in New York City and would like to study with me, just send me an e-mail at

Diagram #1 and #2a were taken from, The Functional Unity of the Singing Voice, Second Edition by Barbara M. Doscher.

Diagram #2b was taken from, Your Voice at its Best by David Blair McClosky

15 Guitar Tips for Non-Guitarists

When professional musicians set aside time to practice or take lessons, it is usually on their primary instrument. But in the world of the working musician, doubling on another instrument every once in a while is common, and there’s few instruments more common than the guitar. I’ve watched many talented musicians pick up the guitar and struggle to get comfortable with the instrument. Because of it’s popularity (and now video games with guitar-shaped controllers), a lot of people think the guitar is an easy instrument to just pick up and play, but I’m afraid that’s not the case. Perhaps it’s the guitar teacher inside of me, or the fact my friends often ask for pointers, but here are the most common guitar tips I give to non-guitarists starting to play guitar.

Holding the Guitar

Whether sitting or standing and using a strap, the guitar should be in roughly the same position. Despite what you see some guitarists in rock bands doing, the guitar is much harder to play when it’s hanging at your knees. Consider the type of music coming out of that guitar before you model your technique after the person holding it!

Note: This article will assume you play the guitar right handed, meaning your left hand pushes down on the strings and your right hand holds the pick or plucks the strings.

Every beginner’s guide to the guitar is going to start out telling you how to hold the instrument. My general advice is to first pretend that you are holding a guitar and pay attention to where your hands, wrists, elbows and arms line up with your body. The guitar should rest comfortably within the natural posture of your body. If it feels wrong, it’s probably wrong.

Tip: Sit down in a comfortable chair, sitting up straight with your shoulders in line with your hips and your knees straight in front of you, relaxed so they are slightly open. Let your left hand hang at your side, completely relaxed. Now bend at the elbow, raise your hand, and rotate your wrist so that your palm is facing nearly up. Your left hand should be almost over your left knee. There should be a slight curve to your fingers and thumb. The neck of the guitar should pass through your hand in this position comfortably. If you were to look down at yourself from a birds-eye view, the guitar will be at an angle, only touching your right leg and the right side of your stomach.

The exact position of your right arm will vary based on the size of the guitar and guitarist. The only advice I can give without seeing you hold the guitar in person is make sure you are not contorting your shoulder or elbow to reach over the top of the guitar. This is especially true for smaller body types playing larger acoustic guitars. To compensate, bring your left elbow forward, pushing the neck a little further from your body so the body of the guitar pivots back under your arm a little more. You’ll have to get used to not being able to see all the strings when you look down.

Right Hand


Universally, the first problem people have is just strumming the guitar in time. When beginners start strumming rhythms on the guitar, the result is a flurry of awkward downstrokes with a few accidental upstrokes tossed in for good measure. I assume this is because our gut reaction to creating rhythm is to hit something–tap our foot, hit a drum, press a piano key, etc. But if you watch a guitar player, you’ll see a constant, steady up and down motion in their strumming arm.

Tip: Think of your right arm as a metronome: Down on the beat, up on the off beat. If you tap your foot, it follows the up and down motion of your toes. The actual rhythm comes from selectively strumming and missing the strings.

That may seem obvious, but I don’t think it comes naturally to anybody. We all know that time and feel are the most important elements of music, so once you get this part down there’s a good chance you’ll be able to set aside the trombone and finally fake your way through “Brown Eyed Girl” on your next wedding gig.


The same concept for keeping time while you strum applies to picking single note lines. Guitarists call this alternate picking–down-strokes on the beat, up-strokes on the off beat. Picking single notes is harder because it requires a smaller and more accurate motion.

Tip: While the strumming motion starts at your elbow, picking should come from the wrist. Imagine your right arm is in a sling because you dislocated your shoulder moving your piano. To shake somebody’s hand, all the motion has to come from your wrist. That’s exactly how it should feel when you’re picking single strings on the guitar.

Tip: To make accurate picking easier, allow your picking hand to make contact somwhere on the guitar as a reference point. I tend to rest the heel of my hand on the bridge of the guitar or allow it to touch the strings I’m not playing. Othertimes I’ll allow my little finger to touch the strings I’m not picking, or the guitar itself. Whatever you do, make sure your hand can  still move across the strings, with your reference point changing slightly. Do not anchor your hand in one place. Most importantly, stay relaxed.

Finger picking (Finger style):

Finger picking is exactly as it sounds–plucking the strings with your fingers or fingernails instead of a pick. While it’s most commonly used outside of classical guitar for folk and blues styles of guitar playing, it’s also an easy way to arpeggiate chords in other genres if you have trouble using a pick across multiple strings. The technique for proper finger picking is fairly complex and you might want some one on one instruction from a guitarist, but here’s my advice.

Tip: Start by resting your fingers on the strings you need to play (typically the thumb will be on one of the lower two strings and your pointer, middle, and ring fingers on the middle and treble strings). Then practice moving just one finger at a time. By allowing your other fingers to touch the strings, you’ll keep a reference point to help you control which strings you are plucking.

Tip: Pull your hand up away from the string so the plucking motion starts from your first knuckle–where your finger connects to your hand. Also, allow your wrist to stay relaxed, hanging down as if in the bottom of the handshake motion mentioned earlier. That will feel most awkward at first, but once you get the hang of it you’ll get better tone and more volume from the attack.

Left Hand

Hand, finger, and thumb position:

The biggest mistake made by beginning guitar players is their left hand position. First make sure you are holding the guitar comfortably and correctly as mentioned above. Many times small adjustments to your left hand will instantly make the instrument easier to play. Try to make good left hand positioning a habit early on.

Tip: Keep your fingers rounded! I don’t know of an instrument where keys or valves are ever supposed to be pressed with flat or rigid fingers, and the guitar is no exception. Push down on the strings with the tip of your fingers (you might need to trim your fingernails). If your fingers are nice and rounded, it will actually take less effort to push the strings down and your chords are going to sound a lot better.

Tip: Despite what you see other guitarists doing, keep your thumb behind the neck. Refer to the first exercise in this article where you sit and raise your relaxed left hand up to an imaginary guitar neck. If you do it with a guitar in your lap, you’ll find that your thumb naturally lines up on the back of the neck roughly lined up with your middle finger. Allow it to move up and down the back of the neck to stay behind your fingers. When your thumb is in the right spot, it’s easier to keep your fingers rounded.

Changing from one chord to the next:

If I had a quarter for every time somebody asked me, “How do you change chords so quickly?” I’d have, maybe… $8.75. The short answer is practice, but here are some tips to make practicing more effective.

Tip: When changing from one chord to another, practice repositioning one finger at a time while the rest stay put. Most beginners do the exact opposite and pick up their entire hand and start over, painstakingly mapping out the fretboard before placing their fingers anywhere. By moving one finger at a time, you’ll find that a lot of fingerings for common chord progressions allow at least one finger to stay in the same place, or at least move a minimal amount.

Tip: When fingers aren’t needed in a particular chord voicing, keep them close to the strings. Anticipate the next chord by lining up your fingers over the strings/frets where they will end up. Eventually you can go a step further by using alternate fingerings (ie. substituting your ring finger for your middle finger) to keep the amount of movement to the next chord to a minimum.

Tip: Keep strumming in time, force your left hand to keep up. Don’t be afraid of hitting some open or muted strings while changing chords. This is pretty common for the guitar, sometimes it’s even one of the nuances that make a guitar riff sound so natural. More importantly, you’ll make greater progress in your left hand if you allow the rest of you to move forward in the song.

Bar chords:

It’s only a matter of time before you encounter bar chords (or barre chords), and the only way to play them is with practice and build up some left hand strength. I remember struggling with these as a kid and finally having that Eureka! moment when I was finally able to do it.  I could finally play the last part of “Stairway to Heaven.” Sigh.

Tip: When barring with your pointer finger, try rolling it slightly on it’s side, towards the thumb. I found this was a little more natural, it allowed me to keep my left hand position intact, and it’s easier to push the stings down with your knuckles this way.

Tip: Loosen up. If you’re playing the “F” bar chord (barring the first fret, voicing an F chord), you only really have to push down the lowest string and the highest two strings. Your other fingers are playing notes on three of the middle strings, so save the energy by focusing the effort on only the strings that matter to the barred finger.

Relax, have fun.

Tip: Tension is symmetrical. If you squeeze too hard with one hand, the other will follow. Relax your entire body, from fingertip to fingertip while you play. If you’re already a musician, then you know that the music happens more easily when you stay relaxed.

Tip: There’s a reason video games are made that allow people to pretend to play guitar as opposed to say, the sousaphone. The guitar is fun. It’s a very popular, versatile, and portable instrument. Not only can it be a useful double on certain types of gigs that normally only need one guitarist, but it’s a great way to take some music with you to the park, when you go camping, or just want to jam with some friends but don’t have your main axe handy.

As I said before, these tips won’t replace one on one instruction. However, I’ve been giving these tips to many of my friends that pick up the guitar as a secondary instrument, not to mention most of my students, so I hope you find them helpful. Good luck!

Music Rehearsal: A Userʼs Guide

Every musician, no matter what facet of the industry, will inevitably face the daunting specter of rehearsal.  Below you will find a set of guidelines to (hopefully) ease this process that to many can become the bane of the very existence of any working musician.  A lot of this probably seems pretty common sense, but this author remarkably lacks in such things and has had to learn some of it the hard way.

1.) Be prepared

Get your music as early as possible and actually look at it a little bit.  Score study can make all the difference when preparing for a rehearsal process.  I know that if you’re like me, procrastination can be your enemy when it comes to looking over your part.  The more face time you spend with the music, the more familiar you will be with the notes, rhythms, and road map of any musical endeavor.  If there is limited or no written music to learn, try to familiarize yourself with the style and intent of whatever you are going to rehearse.  You can do this by listening to recordings of the band you will be playing with,  bands with similar styles, or the actual tune, piece, or score when possible.

2.) Bring the right gear

Gather ye instruments.  Again, common sense dictates this, but you would be surprised.  If you’re not sure what you need, refer to the score, or ask whoever is leading the process what you will need to bring.  As a drummer/percussionist, I have a wide array of what instruments I will be needing for whatever the project is.  If I don’t own the instrument, I find out first if it is truly needed, second if something can be substituted for it, or third if I can borrow, rent, or buy it.  This can be sticky at times because who wants to drop $500 on a gong that you hit softly twice during a 2 hour production for which you’re making $50 a service?  Not this guy! And for the sake of all things holy, BRING A PENCIL!!

3.) Be flexible

Come in to the process prepared but flexible.  I know that that note says that its a C# but it doesn’t fit the chord.  Please change it!  As musicians, we are creatures of habit.  Unless you’re playing in a Sun Ra/Poison cover band (you lucky so and so), you’re probably going to need to read what they put in front of you.  However, conductors, musical directors, or band leaders are a fickle bunch and might have a different idea about the sound that they want.  Be flexible.  Be willing to adjust to meet the “vision” of the guy with the stick.  He or she might not be right, but guess what?  They are in charge and are paying for your 7-layer burrito on the car ride home from the gig.

4.) Be punctual

Be early!  A teacher of mine lived by the mantra of, “To be early is to be on time, to be on time is to be late!”  And he meant it.  Woe unto the percussionist who showed up at 11:00 for an 11:00 rehearsal.  Get there early, get set up, and leave yourself some time to glance over the music before you start.  If your reputation entails this kind of preparedness and timeliness, you will get more calls than the guy that rolls in at five ‘til with 4 horns to put together.  Time is money.  Other people’s time is other people’s money and you would be hard pressed to find a bigger divider on the bandstand.

5.) Jive with the vibe

Meet the band.  These are the people you are creating magic (or at least “Brickhouse”) with.  The better you are able to jive with other members, the better the cohesion of the group and the better the music and experience for everyone.  And if the gig blows, you have some people there in the trenches with you to be in loathe of what you are having to do to make payments on your ’93 Dodge Caravan.  (If you happen to be a bass player of course…..)

6.) Be professional

Finally, and most important!  Are you ready?  Maintain a modicum of rehearsal etiquette throughout the entire process.  There is nothing that makes a rehearsal longer than the guy who is talking all the time, playing while the conductor is talking, questioning the musical choices being made by the guy in charge, and nitpicking and questioning notes, rhythms, articulations, keys, dynamics, and every musical timbre and nuance to a result of looking and feeling smarter than the rest of the room.  Everyone knows these guys and nobody wants to work with them.  If you have questions, wait for the proper time to address them and then try not to put it in such a way that is going to belittle or demean the bossman.  Pay attention to the dynamic of the room.  Bands have collective personalities.  Some good some not so much.  Show respect to your bandmates and to your leader.  Even if you don’t particularly agree with whatever musical choice is being made.  If you still don’t feel like your issue has been fully addressed, wait until a break and then ask.  The less time wasted for everyone, the better the vibe.  The better the vibe, the better the music.  The better the music, the better and more frequent the paycheck.  Dig?

I’m sure that there are many more ideas out there about what makes a rehearsal process run smoothly.  Send me yours!  I’d love to hear them.  However, if you try to pay attention to some or all of the above, you will find yourself perhaps not enjoying rehearsal per se, but at least building your reputation as someone who can cut the gig with minimal hassle.  And your reputation can be and in most cases is more important than how well you play.  Then you can rock your fly-assed Caravan all the way to the bank.

How to Get a Job as a Pianist

Matt from Florida emailed us a question this week:

I was curious how you sort of get off the ground with piano gigs?  I realize that possibly playing in a hotel lobby is a good route, but what is the best way to go about doing this?  Is it a matter of just knowing the people personally or do you recommend just walking up to the front desk and asking if you could play?

Thanks for your question, Matt. How to get a gig is a great topic. We could write article after article about getting gigs and we’d never exhaust the subject.

That said, we have two great articles on the site written by Craig Pilo, who is currently Frankie Valli’s drummer and has worked previously with Maynard Ferguson, Edgar Winter and others. Craig knows how to get a gig, and I suggest you start with reading everything he’s written for us on the subject. Then come back here and I’ll get more specific about piano jobs.

From Craig Pilo:
Getting Started as a Musician
The Next Level – Getting Started As a Musician, Part 2

Great advice, right? I learned a few tricks from him myself.

Now – specifically regarding piano gigs – there are a few angles to consider.

Why are pianists hired?

Let’s consider for a moment why pianists are hired. There are several different scenarios I can think of.

Background pianists are hired for ambiance. Pianists play cocktail parties, country clubs, receptions, hotel lobbies (as you mentioned), restaurants, department stores and many other places. It creates a wash of pleasing background noise to fill up the gaps in the patrons conversations. Silence, after all, is more manageable when it isn’t silent. Like all music, background piano music stimulates customers emotions – usually in a pleasing way – and makes them feel good about the room they are in. That’s good for business.

Continue reading How to Get a Job as a Pianist

Hauling Your Music Gear On Mass Transit

If you plan on moving to New York City, Chicago, or another large metropolitan area with any kind of mass transit, this article is for you.

When I first went to college, hauling a guitar and amp across campus to the practice rooms was a sobering experience, especially since I started college in August, in Texas. I quickly discovered that everybody has their own methods of hauling their gear. Drummers could stack their entire kit inside itself and fit it on a handtruck. Bassists with hatchbacks would perform a series of intricately coreographed moves to load their uprights into their passenger seat. I also learned bass players were bad people to ask for a ride to a gig.

Living in a city like New York, where the subway will likely be your main means of transportation, there’s a good chance you’ll be dragging your rig on the train at some point. Here are some things to consider so you can show up prepared:

1. Keep your car.

Most people are going to tell you to get rid of it. You can take the subway. Let me tell you, those people never carried 90 lbs. of gear up the 4,000 stairs from the D train to street level at the West 4th St. stop. I used to have a car in the city, and for gigs, it was priceless. Parking is tough, but if you pay $12 for a garage while you play, you’re still saving a lot of hassle from the commute, and even more money if you’d otherwise take a cab home after the gig (it happens more than I’d like to admit).

The easiest way to haul your gear on mass transit is to avoid it.  If you don’t have a car, you can always hire one. I’ve found that a good car service is usually less expensive than a taxi, and they’ll pick you up at your door. They’re also usually cleaner, and should you accidentally leave something in the car, it’s MUCH easier to get it back from a car service than from a yellow taxi.

Most gigs hardly pay enough to justify a taxi or car service, but if you have a formal gig in July, a car will get you there dry and looking ready to play. For the rest of the gigs, you want to know how to really get around using the trains.

2. Wheels.

Get yourself a solid handtruck or two wheel cart that can break down for easy storage in your apartment and at the gig. Light weight is also ideal, because you’ll sometimes need to pick the whole thing up, either alone or with a very nice friend/stranger. I still use the same cart I bought in college, but it’s in pretty bad shape. It’ll soon be replaced with something on sturdier rubber wheels that can better handle stairs.

I also know guys that have larger cases for their keyboards, drums, basses, pedalboards, etc. that have wheels on them.  These can be helpful, but I find the uneven sidewalk, numerous curbs, and inevitable stairs are too much for the little wheels on those things.

3. Gig bags.

If you can strap it to your back, do. If you have to head to the gig during rush hour, you’ll want to take up as little space as possible. Gig bags take up less space than a hardshell case, weigh less, and leave your hands free to hang on to something when the train starts and stops.

4. Buy a smaller, portable rig.

Most venues in NYC are relatively small, so you don’t need a large amp or full size drum kit. Many keyboardists use something like a Nord as a lighter alternative to a weighted key digital piano. Bassists play electric if the gig permits. I use a solid state amp if I can, which weighs 20 lbs. less than my tube amp.

When I lived in the Midwest where bands drove to every gig, it wasn’t uncommon to see guys hauling their 4×12 Marshall stacks or Fender Rhodes pianos to the club. While that’s the gear you might want for an authentic sound in the studio, you won’t really need it for most gigs in a town like New York. And you definitely won’t want to drag it on the subway.

5. Make the most of backlines.

Many clubs actually have some gear in their backline. Call, email, or check the venue’s website ahead of time to see what equipment is available. Chances are, it’s not going to be an ideal drum kit or amp, but learning how to play with what’s available will make your life easier.

6. Plan your route.

There are usually two options to get anywhere in New York City by subway. Either more transfers and less walking, or fewer transfers and more walking. Transferring trains to avoid extra walking may seem like the way to go, but if you’ve got wheels and gig bags, walking a few extra blocks is easier than four extra flights of stairs. Plus those transfers are more difficult with a lot of gear.

When possible, definitely avoid transfers in high traffic stations like 42nd St., Grand Central, or Port Authority during rush hour. Commuters do not want you and your rig between them and their 6:15 train to White Plains.

Also learn which entrances to use at each station. Many stations have two entrances, one near the front of the train and one a block or two away near the back. One of these will have an agent that can open a gate for you to wheel your gear through. Otherwise you may find yourself trying to cram through a floor to ceiling turnstile. I’ve actually figured out how to do this with my rig, but it’s pretty awkward.

In general, you want to be able to carry everything you need in one trip, by yourself. It’s not always easy. My first apartment was a 4th floor walk up, and as I mentioned earlier, if I have to take my entire rig I’m dragging 90 lbs. of gear. Now I live in a building with an elevator, but to get to the subway, I’ve got a few flights of stairs. Give yourself plenty of time to get to the gig. After a while, you’ll learn the tricks of the subway and have quads built like a linebacker.

Learning Music Quickly And Efficiently

While studying to be a musician, the skill of learning music efficiently was never discussed, and I had to learn through a lot of trial and error. When working as a sideman, it’s common to be called for a gig and have little time to prepare the music. The job could be anything from a one-time hit at a club for an artist, an entire tour, or even playing in the house band for an awards show or festival and backing up several acts.

Organize the Material

One of the first things to do when you get the call is make sure you receive the material on CD, or in some cases MP3s, and charts if available. Recordings, charts, travel itinerary, and other materials might be FedEx’d or messengered to you, emailed as a .zip file, or posted online to download. Digitally delivered charts are usually PDFs, but sometimes you might receive Finale or Sibelius files.

Once you have all the materials, contact the artist or musical director and see if you can get a setlist or order of the songs for the performance. Also, do you need to have them memorized? Some artists, especially in rock, don’t like the vibe of a music stand on stage.

With the all the material organized, you are now ready to start learning the music.

Immerse Yourself in the Music

First, make sure you have several copies of the CD(s): One for the car, one for the home stereo, one for the computer, MP3s in a playlist, and wherever else you listen to music. Put the songs in the order for the performance, and have them constantly playing in the car, as you’re walking to the post office, while you’re in the grocery store, as you’re falling asleep, whatever. I even listen in the shower and when I’m shaving.

Next, get the charts in order. If they come in millions of separate pages, tape them together properly and put in the order of the show. When the music from the recordings is in your head, start reading and playing along. Make notes in pencil while you go through the charts, such as when to turn on certain effects, when to switch instruments, or when to lay out. Make sure you circle or enlarge things like repeat brackets, first and second endings, meter changes, key changes, coda signs, D.S.’s, all the important form stuff.

After I’ve added my notes, I scan all the charts into PDF files and save them as backup copies.

What if you don’t have charts? If all you receive is recordings and you have to learn the music by ear, you might consider writing your own charts or cheat sheets. For me, it’s more efficient to write my own chart than to listen to it enough times to memorize it. But, if they don’t want charts on stage then you just have to bear down and memorize it through repetition. When I can’t have charts on stage, I still create cheat sheets on 5×7 index cards in glow-in-the-dark pen (so I can see them on stage) that indicate sound changes, form, etc., and just set them on the floor next to my pedals.

Ask Questions

By this point you should have a few questions about the gig. When you ask good questions, it shows the music director or artist that you are preparing ahead of time, and that will make them feel better come time for rehearsal. What’s the attire? What time is the rehearsal, load-in, sound check, etc? Are you clear on compensation and per diem, if there is one? Do you know the travel arrangements if it’s an out of town gig?

One thing you should always be clear on from the beginning is the kind of gear required for the gig. As a guitarist, I have a lot of decisions to make that effect the sound of my instrument. What’s the best guitar or guitars for the job? Does the gig require acoustic and electric guitar? What kind of effects are needed? Find out early so you can practice with the right stuff.

Also, when it comes to solos, make sure you understand whether you are to play exactly what’s on the chart or recording, or if you are to improvise. This goes for accompaniment parts as well that are “open” rhythmically. Chances are you will either be asked to comp exactly like the recording, or your own rhythm but in the style of the recording. Make sure you understand before you embarrass yourself in front of the band at rehearsal.

Practicing and Rehearsing

Now you should be running down the show on your own. Use all the equipment you’ll use on the gig, and practice the show standing up, with your music stand in the place where it will be on the gig (not up in your face). Pretend you’re actually playing the show and run it as many times as is necessary. I happen to have sliding mirrored glass closet doors in my home studio, and I like to use them to watch myself and see how I will appear on stage. Do I look nervous? Anxious? Uncomfortable? Is my head in the book too much? Practicing anything in front of a mirror can result in huge benefits.

Next, there might be some sort of rehearsal with the rest of the band. Most of the time there may only be one or two, and sometimes none. I had four days to memorize Keiko Matsui’s entire 90 minute jazz and fusion show, no charts allowed. My first gig with Frankie Valli was in front of 6,000 people at the Greek Theater in L.A. and I had never rehearsed or played at all with the band before the show. In fact I’d never even met them. To add to the stress, Frankie has sold somewhere in the neighborhood of 150,000,000 records. That was a nerve wracking week for sure.

After you’ve had rehearsal and hopefully done well, make sure you know all the details for the gig. If there’s travel involved, make sure your gear is prepared for baggage handlers and in ATA approved cases. Also be sure you’ve packed the proper attire. If the gig is in town, make sure you know how to get there, how long it takes, and where to park if that’s an issue.

Show Time

Remember, it’s the concert itself that is in fact the reward. You’re not getting paid to do the performance, that’s the fun part. You’re getting paid to prepare for two weeks (or probably less), maybe stand around an airport for 12 hours, sleep in a hotel lobby until your room is clean, or deal with a drummer who plays too loud and just simply doesn’t like you all that much. The reward is the gig, and all the people you’re making feel so happy by being there. If you do well enough, don’t worry, you’ll get called back.

After the show, be sure to continue your communication with the music director, artist, and band. Ask for input from the artist and musical director to make sure they’re happy with how you played. Sometimes people offer opinions only when asked. Make sure the rest of the band has your card and all of your contact info, and above ALL ELSE, be a friendly guy and a good pair of hands on the gig. Smile, have fun, be cheerful. If you’ve prepared properly then all this will be much easier to do.

Lastly, make sure you stay in regular touch with all the guys you worked with, whether the gig’s now your gig, or you’re just a sub, or it’s just a one-time occurrence. You never know when the next gig will come or who it will come from.

If these words have helped you at all and if you’ve learned anything, please let me know. I really enjoy sharing advice like this, and I hope it helps some younger players. Above all, I wish you and all aspiring professional musicians all the joy I’ve already experienced for most of my life. Buona Fortuna!

My Piano Warm Up Routine

Here’s the truth: for the first 15 years of playing piano, I never warmed up once.

Actually, in hindsight I never even really practiced until I was 25 years old.  Can you believe that?  I’d always been able to get away with sight-reading everything and just sitting down and playing.  I never had any trouble.  And then I did.

At age 21 I developed tendinitis in my left thumb (technically: DeQuervain Tendinitis).  This should serve as a warning to any younger players that aren’t paying attention to warming up, practicing and technique.  I was playing in a rock band at the time – thrashing my chops from one end of a keyboard to the other – and doing whatever hand formations I needed to get from one lick to the next.  Not surprisingly, the quality of my playing in those days was often erratic.  I’d have good days and bad days, and I usually blamed it on my talent and not my technique.  I don’t think I knew the difference.

I went to doctors and they gave me cortisone shots.  I did that 3 times.  I do not recommend using this method for musicians.  Too much cortisone can melt your tendons, and where would you be then?  And this method doesn’t fix the underlying bad habits at all – in fact, it allows you to keep playing over your injury – making it worse!

I tried acupuncture, and that actually helped a great deal.  I don’t know how acupuncture works, but it does.  However, this also didn’t fix the underlying problem and as soon as I ran out of money for acupuncture, I had the same problem.

One of the problems I’d developed was bad technique habits, which I won’t get into here, and the other one was not warming up.  Over the years I’ve developed a warm up routine that works for me and I want to detail it for you.

The first thing I had to realize is that warming up is not practice.  I’m not trying to get better or work up new things with a warm up.  I’m concentrating on my muscles, ligaments and tendons.  I’m trying to wake them up and get blood flowing to them so that they will be loose, lubed and ready for anything.

I start with simple 5 finger exercises.  I start with 8th notes at around 100bpm, gradually increasing to around 120 bpm.  I like using Hanon exercises like the one below.  They are simple enough that I don’t need to concentrate on the notes. I can then concentrate on my hands and body.

I start lightly.  I don’t make my fingers support the full weight of my arm.  Not yet.  I just float my fingers slowly across the keys.

I also start my warm up one hand at a time.  I find each hand needs different things at the beginning.

I take the finger exercise up 2 octaves, then start back down.  As I near the end of those 2 octaves, I begin to allow my fingers to support more arm weight.  I never push down, I just let the weight of my arm sink into my figures.  The dynamics naturally go from piano to mezzoforte/forte.

I’ll take this 5 finger exercise up and down the 2 octaves at least 4 times, maybe more.  Eventually I increase the speed, but not too much.  Not above 130 bpm  This isn’t strength exercising or practicing – this is warm up.

After that I begin scales.  I play all 12 major scales, up and down 2 octaves.

I’ve found it important to not stop playing during this process.  I keep a steady stream of 8th notes coming from my fingers and move seamlessly from one exercise to the next.  Eventually my hand and arm will feel warm as if blood flow is increasing.  Actually, blood flow is increasing and that’s the point.  That’s how you know you’re doing it right.

Then I do the same with the next hand.

Then I play scales in 10ths with both hands (left hand starting on C, right hand starting on the E a 10th above).  By I should be mostly warmed-up and I increase the speed.  I bring it up to 16th notes at 100bpm, lightening the arm weight on my fingers as I get faster.

It sounds like a lot maybe, but this whole process takes 10-15 minutes and it is worth it.  If I’m going to a gig that I know I won’t be able to warm up at, I try to warm up at home before I go.

Warming up not only helps keep my hands healthy, it also makes me playing more consistent.  My hands respond better to my brain when they are ready to work.

How do you warm up?