Why students shouldn’t learn music on a semester basis

Music students learn new rep on a semester basis, and the requirements for all performances are that they play only new pieces. I have been advocating for sight-reading lessons for a long time on here, and I also think that music teachers really need to prepare students to play the same thing over and over again. Am I contradictory? No, and here’s why.

The semester-long basis of learning is too far from the basis professional musicians know- of course, you could always debate that students shouldn’t be held to the same standard as professional musicians, which I agree with, but I still believe that they need to be prepared for that standard, which is not currently the case.

Professional musicians do primarily one of two things: sight read and play the same thing over and over again. Don’t believe it? I didn’t either until I thought through the options.

Church musician: Sight-reads some last minute choir piece, plays the same hymns on a regular basis.

Pop-rock band: Plays new songs by ear, mostly perform the same songs at every show.

Accompanist: Killer sight-reader, plays same pieces over and over when specializing in a certain rep: voice, trumpet, violin, clarinet, etc.

Military bands: Some sight reading, mainly play same marches and patriotic music.

Jazz musicians: Sight read never-seen-before tunes, but usually improvises different things over the same standards.

Orchestra musicians: Sight read new rep, but when they stay in the same orchestra for years, end up repeating the same basic rep over a few years.

After considering most options of professional life as a musician, I think the semester-basis of learning for music students doesn’t prepare them properly for life as professional musicians. As I’ve said multiple times before, students need to learn to sight-read as young as possible. They also need to get the idea of what it’s like to perform the same thing again and again in order to be ready for it, and to know if they’re cut out for it.


4 things we can learn from “Dance Moms”

Abby Lee, the dance instructor from Dance Moms, is cast as the mean teacher in the popular tv how Dance Moms. After watching more episodes of the show than I’d like to admit, I believe that she gets more things right than not- which is why her company is one of the most-sought after in Pittsburgh, and why many of her former students end up as professional dancers at the highest level.

Here are the 4 things she gives her students that I think we should give our students too.

        1-Weekly performances: Abby Lee brings her students to many dance competitions, sometimes more than once a week. It is easy to see how these girls are not only dancers, but also performers, even at their young age. They are often reminded that they are only as good as their last performance, which keeps them grounded when they win, and hopeful when they lose. They learn to deal with nerves, fatigue, expectations and pressure. A lesson too many of us had to learn well past our college years, when mistakes could cost us money and reputation.

      2-Getting the students in the habit of learning very quickly: I strongly believe that music teachers should include sight-reading in the lessons as early as possible, as soon as there are easier pieces to be sight-read from the level the student is currently at. By bringing her dancers to weekly competitions, Abby Lee is constantly making them learn brand new choreography, which she even says isn’t the norm for most of their competitors. As hard as it is for the students, they quickly get in the habit to memorize quickly, and to never use the speed of learning as an excuse for a poor performance. I think music students should have to learn weekly new pieces along the ones they’re learning over the course of a semester, and learn to give the best performance they can even when they don’t feel completely ready.

      3-Thick skin: Abby Lee is very tough. As a matter of fact, the reason why she’s portrayed as the villain on the show is because of her rare lack of communication skills- and major anger. But the fact is that she is both straight-forward, and indeed, seldom satisfied. Is that wrong of her because her students are so young? Possibly, but on the show, the ones who look truly frightened are the mothers, while the students know that she’s always speaking the truth about their performances, both good and bad. If you’re anything like me as a teacher, you probably make sure to give plenty of reassurance to your students, and be as supportive as possible; but it’s important to remember that in the end, the more demanding we are, the more our students will rise to the challenge. I remember one teacher I had back in France who made me cry almost at every lessons. Was it fun? No, but I am glad to say that I have a much tougher-skin at the piano than I have in other areas of my life, and I believe that a big part of it comes from that training.

      4-Play on the students’ strengths: Abby Lee assigns different choreography for solos in preparation for the kind of roles her girls will be able to go for as adults. Of course, she also makes them improve on things that need improvement, but she really plays to their types. I wish that in music, students learned all different types of genres, much more than what is currently being done- you either grow up playing jazz, or classical, or by ear; and at the same time many teachers will focus on the weaknesses of students, leaving them feeling vulnerable for life with what they end up believing to be a personal failure at either rhythm, sight-reading, accuracy, etc. As teachers, we need to keep a vision of what kind of professional life our students can aspire to, and give them more pieces that play on those strengths than not.

How to make it to Broadway as a music director

It’s hard to know what it takes to make it Broadway, and to meet the right people to get there. That’s why I’m helping organizing master classes for music directors next Monday in NYC.

  • Joe Church (original music director of Lion King, now conducting at Sister Act) will lead a session on piano conducting
  • Jeff Marder (synth programmer for 3 shows on Broadway this season) will discuss music technology and synth programming
  • Sonny Paladino (Assistant Conductor on this season’s revival of Jesus Christ Superstar) will talk about breaking down grooves and playing different musical styles for theatre

Classes cost $45/each or $100 for the full day, payable through EventBrite (EventBrite adds an additional transaction fee).

Visit theatremusicdirectors.eventbrite.com for more info.

Conducting from the Piano

Instructor: Joseph Church (Music Director: The Lion King, The Who’s Tommy, Associate Conductor: In the Heights; Assistant Conductor: Sister Act)

This class will examine skills and circumstances peculiar to conducting a stage show from the piano, covering both scores written for a piano/conductor and orchestra reductions. The focus will be communicating a maximum of information with a minimum of gesture. Techniques of conducting with the hands, the head, and with breath and facial expression will be demonstrated and analyzed. Issues of audio and video monitoring will also be discussed. The format of the master class will be a short presentation, followed by an opportunity for 10-12 attendees to play and conduct with the presenter’s feedback.

Time: June 25th from 12:00pm to 2:00pm
Cost: $45

Eventbrite - Music Director Master Classes

Music Technology for the Theatre – A Guide to What Music Directors Need to Know

Instructor: Jeff Marder (Synth Programmer: Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Newsies, Leap of Faith; Associate Conductor: Guys and Dolls, Priscilla Queen of the Desert; Assistant Conductor: Leap of Faith)

In this workshop we will focus on synthesizer programming and will give an overview of the synth programming technology commonly in use at the present time. Participants will learn the basics of what the various pieces of hardware and software are used for, in addition to gaining a greater understanding of how these things affect the sound of a show. Also covered, but with a lesser emphasis, will be the role of sound design. This workshop is not intended to be a tutorial in the use of these various technologies, but rather a guide to what music directors need to know to effectively interact with the synthesizer programming and sound design in order to facilitate a seamless collaborative process.

Time: June 25th from 2:30pm to 4:30pm
Cost: $45

Eventbrite - Music Director Master Classes

Styles at Play

June 25th from 4:45pm to 6:45pm
Instructor: Sonny Paladino (Music Supervisor: High School Musical (Milan/Italy Tour); Assistant Conductor: Jesus Christ Superstar, Grease)

Musical Theatre today is not what it used to be. For the first 50 years or so music for most American theatre was simple: a beautiful melody, some interesting chord changes, and you were set. The rhythm was decided: either it had a two-feel or it was a sweeping ballad. Today musical theatre music embraces so many different styles of music. So how does one master all these styles? One show we’re playing 60’s Soul, the next show we’re steeped in Disco, next thing you know we’re groovin’ to salsa, and what’s that Hip-Hop!? Styles At Play will help you discover different approaches to getting down to the essential elements of the styles at play within the play. We will look at ways to break down different styles to find what actually makes them groove. After this class you will be prepared for whatever show and whatever style comes your way!

Time: June 25th from 4:45pm to 6:45pm
Cost: $45

Eventbrite - Music Director Master Classes

Should you write a press release?

We have all heard about press releases, but let’s face it, most of us have never written one. But should you write one? Yes, if you fit in any of the following descriptions:

  • You have a concert, workshop, or master class coming up
  • Your group has an invited guest
  • You open your teaching studio
  • You offer new classes in your studio
  • You have events related to holiday or yearly recurring news stories: Valentine’s day concert, beginning of school’s free try-out lessons, Glee season premiere

You should write one not only to spread the word on your project, but also to set or strengthen your reputation in your area. Journalists are always looking for new items, and they might even contact you to make a longer article out of what you originally sent them.

To get started, read this article on how to write great press releases.


Is playing for weddings really a good gig?

One of my friends has been playing for weddings for over twenty years. She told me that not only is she now getting paid less than before, but also that couples call already knowing how much they want to spend on the music.

If you’ve ever paid for a wedding, that might seem like a sound financial idea, but the fact is that other vendors are not subject to that. When couples look into venues, they don’t decide on one and call it with their own price. Instead, they ask how much they cost first, to see if they can afford it or not. The more money, the better the venue; the less money, the worst the venue. The same goes for flowers, food, lighting, wedding dress, etc. So why shouldn’t it be so for musicians?

The only wedding players who can still name their price, and make it worth it are wedding bands. For the rest of us, we need to collectively stand firm on how much we charge. Otherwise, we’ll soon all be playing for free, and you know how I feel about that.


What to write in a first email to get the gig

When you apply for a gig, the first email you send is the most important. The way you write it is as powerful as your recordings and resume combined.

The most common way is to prove that you have what it takes, and that you’re going to do a great job. It talks about all the similar gigs you’ve done, about all your degrees, and about all the things you can do.

On the other hand, let’s consider what the people hiring are looking for. They want someone who will provide them what they need. Obvious, and yet… When you really consider this sentence, you can see that it centers not around you, but around the person doing the hiring.

Think about it. When you want to hire someone, you are looking for someone who will give you exactly what you’re looking for. Of course you want that person to have the credentials, but that’s what their resume is for. What you really can’t tell from the resume is if that person understands what you need, and will be able to provide it. Would you give the job to the one who will tell you all about how great they are, or to the one who will tell you all about the things he or she will do for you?

When you write an email to get a gig, the most important thing to do is to focus it entirely around the person hiring. Start your phrases with “you” instead “I,” and you will stand out as the only one who cares enough about the gig to deserve it.


Who to work for to get paid more

There are times in our life when we need more money. We’ve talked here before of how to ask for your money, what determines how much you make, and how to get paid what you want.

But how to raise our salary, when people are used to paying us a certain amount?

Work for people who can pay you more. To put it bluntly: rich people.

It’s basic math, and yet many of us have two problems with that. One, we think that there’s something wrong in wanting more money and actually going for it. That’s the misconception that can hold us back the most. You have to understand that the more you get, the more you can give back.

Two, even if we accept that we deserve more money, we don’t know what to do to get to the people that can pay us more. You have to join their circles, and wouldn’t you know it, it’s all about networking. It’s not going to work by posting ads on craigslist, or putting a sign in town. You have to meet them in person, and create a connection. There are many ways to do that, including the following two.

Become a board member: Figure out which boards exist in your city with a large amount of wealthy people in it. It could be a board music-related such as for an orchestra or a chamber music ensemble – or it could be non-music-related such as the board of your local museum, a historic site, or anything you have a particular interest in.

Play for events that cater to them: Reach the event organizers of the types of groups you’d like to play for, such as alumni associations, private clubs, monthly associations of a profession, etc.

As much as you’re putting a concerted effort into meeting new people,  don’t be a fake about it. Make sure to stay genuine and create real relationships in the process.

How to learn a ton of music in record time

Even when you are a master sight-reader, some pieces still need to be practiced. Here are the steps I follow when I have a lot to learn in a short amount of time.

  1. Listen to the music while looking at the score. Make a list of all the tough spots: those are usually the ones that you can’t wrap your head around right away. Mark as much as you can: surprise incidental, odd rhythmic layout, etc.
  2. Practice the tough spots first. Get each of them up to tempo, and move on to the next one.
  3. Play through the entire score up tempo. Things will fall apart at times, some from the tough spots you already practiced, some you never anticipated would be hard. Make a new to-practice list.
  4. Practice the spots on your list. Get those up tempo.
  5. Listen to recordings again, to check on style, tempos and just to get that music into your head as much as possible.
  6. Repeat steps 3 and 4.

How to include sight-reading in the lesson

Sight-reading is one of the most valuable skills to have as a musician. That’s why it’s important that we teach it.

Here are the steps to the most efficient way to teach sight-reading during the lesson.

  1. Pick an easy piece comparatively to your student’s level. It’s best if there is only one difficult aspect in it: rhythm, notes, alterations, etc.
  2. Have your student look at it. There is no touching of the instrument here. Ask the student to scan the music for big changes and tricky spots.
  3. Have your student play it, while you cover couple beats ahead of the music with a sheet of paper. This is a very important step, because students tend to stop when they do a mistake. This method will train their eyes to keep looking ahead at all times. The most important lesson is to get your student to keep on going, and even make things up if needed, rather than stop.
  4. If there is extra time, go through the piece again. You want your student to learn to fix things quickly, so make sure they have a plan for the spots they’ve missed in the first reading.


Should operas be rehearsed with a keyboard instead of a piano?

The role of the piano in opera rehearsal is to sound as close to the orchestra possible.

But why not simply use a keyboard with patches instead?

Keyboards can do all of the needed sounds. Pizz and woodwinds? Check. String section? Check. Brass? Check. Harp? Check.

The keyboard would need to be programmed before rehearsals start, to match specific orchestrations.

But the transition to the orchestra would be much smoother for the singers if they were already singing along orchestral sounds rather than piano sounds.