Great Free Apps for New Music Students

Since so many music students have access to iPads and iPhones I thought it would be useful to put together a list of great free apps. For those of you who use Android devices I’ve provided links where available.

Metronome: Tempo Lite by Frozen Ape 

A metronome is an essential part of any music student’s tool bag. This is a great metronome app; it is accurate and flexible. The free version has everything a new music student will need, if your music gets complicated you can upgrade to the paid app. And, if you’re an Android user there’s a paid app version for you.

Music Tutor (free) by JSplash

A great way to learn all the notes on the staff. The free version has ads, but it’s worth it for a quick and fun way to master the note names. You can customize it so that students only learn a portion of the notes at a time and then add in notes as they learn them on their instrument. There is an Android version, too.

Keezy Drummer by Elepath

This app is a fun way to experiment with rhythms. All the beats are in 4/4 time, but if students are resisting the metronome, this can be a fun alternative. Unfortunately, there is no Android version for Keezy apps yet.

Keezy by Elepath

From the same company, a great app for stepping into the creator’s shoes. You can use their sounds or make your own and then play them using the colorful buttons. It is a great way to think about music away from your usual instrument.

Voice Memos by Apple

It’s always great to have a recording device handy and since most people have a phone with them at all times it's the perfect solution. I encourage voice students to record their lessons so they can remember what we talked about and so they can use the warmup exercises from their lessons during the week. Instrumentalists and singers can use it to record an example from a lesson or to record something during practice that their teacher can then hear in a lesson. It comes standard on an iPhone.

GarageBand by Apple

If you want a great free recorder for iPad try GarageBand. This is great for recording via the built in microphone. Students can also experiment with composing for different instruments and play with loops.

Studying Voice Abroad: Summer Programs in Europe

Dale Morehouse of UMKC, my dear mentor and friend, has a witty and informative blog of his own, When he posted about options for summer programs in Europe, I knew I had to share them here.

I believe that even in today’s global village, there is an irreplaceable value in going to the places where the greatest of western music was conceived and in absorbing all we can once we’re there. Language, architecture, cuisine, ethos, and lifestyle reveal music along with score study. Experiencing music’s masterpieces where they were created unstops our inexperienced ears.

And so, from our home in America - the land of air conditioning, ice cubes, free drink refills, and screens on our windows, I rise in praise of European study for today’s young classical musician. English-language programs flourish all over the continent now, each offering its own opportunities. Take care to find a program that matches your level of ability and interest, and you will grow beyond your imagination.

He has overviews of four great programs and who they work best for. Opera Viva in Verona, Italy; Classical Music Festival in Eisenstadt, Austria; Orvieto Musica Chamber Music Festival in Orvieto, Italy; and American Institute of Musical Studies (AIMS) in Graz, Austria. Dale has taught and/or sung at all of them, so he has great insight into their workings. If you're interested in options for summer study abroad, check them out.

"How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm?" - A Paean in Praise of European Study

Using Music to Close the Academic Gap

Stretto Youth Orchestra

There was an article in the Atlantic this week about several long-term studies on how music can impact academics for students in low income schools. While there have been many studies released recently on how music may impact the brain, most of these seem to be short-term studies of small groups in which the authors infer that music is making a difference in brain function based mostly on correlation. These newer studies are long term and the groups in the studies seem well balanced. The schools participating in the studies are seeing very good early results.

Though these studies are far from over, researchers, as well as the parents and teachers of the study subjects, are already noticing a change in the kids who are studying music. Preliminary results suggest that not only does school and community-based music instruction indeed have an impact on brain functioning, but that it could possibly make a significant difference in the academic trajectory of lower-income kids.

This is great news for those kids, and it's also great news for music. These studies are showing scientifically that music is important for a well rounded education. I believe that music is important for cultural reasons — beyond helping students master other subjects, music is important in its own right. However, any study that reinforces the role of music in education is an excellent tool to help get funding and community support for maintaining excellent music programs in our schools.

You can read the article at the Atlantic.

More Advice on Practicing

She plays

It's the start of another school year and a good time to re-think practice routines. I've posted about practicing in the past, but I'm always on the lookout for more practicing strategies.

Deceptive Cadence (NPR's classical music blog) has posted an article called 10 Easy Ways to Optimize Your Music Practice. There are some great ideas for developing musicians, including:

Begin with the end in mind: have a goal for each practice session before you start playing. Just playing through your music isn't the same thing as practicing. Before you start, think: What do I want to accomplish today?

Last year, they posted a series of articles called The Young Person's Guide to Making Music, geared towards parents and students just starting out in music. The article that stands out among these is Getting Kids to Practice Music – Without Tears or Tantrums.

Regular practicing is a path towards self-discipline that goes way beyond music – it's a skill that has hugely positive ramifications for personal fulfillment and lifetime success…. But the trick is that self-motivated discipline isn't exactly first nature for most kids, so it's up to families to help create positive, engaging and fun ways to practice as a path towards self-motivation.

The articles are full of great advice, so take a few minutes to go read them!

What Does an Opera Career Look Like?

The College Audition Blog has a great article on how an operatic career gets going. There is a heavy emphasis on college degrees, although, I think some singers can opt out of these if they put together a comprehensive plan for themselves that includes studying with an excellent teacher, working with a great coach, studying foreign languages, and performing in community opera as a first step. here is the cold, hard, dirty truth about the climb to the top.



The Evolution of the Treble Clef

treble clef

The Smithsonian has a nice article with an overview of the treble clef and how the symbol we know so well came to be.

...So, with apologies to the more musically inclined reader, I looked into the origin of the treble clef and the answer was quite simple. The treble clef, the top symbol you see in the photo above, is also known as the G-clef, which gives you the first clue to its origin.

For more, visit Via a Facebook post by Lauri's List

Daily Kos: Musings on a Middle School Music Festival

This is an interesting article on the value of teaching music in public schools from a non-musician. The author talks about how his lack of understanding in music frustrates him and how he sees his daughter's music teacher bring understanding to her students.

And so I find myself sitting in a music classroom of a local high school waiting for my daughter to perform. There’s another young woman seated at the piano when I sit down and I am reminded that for many students, middle school is a time of painful awkwardness.... She begins playing and I close my eyes and give my imagination to the music…and it’s beautiful. Vulgarian that I am, I even recognize it as a piece that I’ve heard before. I open my eyes and thoughts of awkwardness are gone. At the piano sits a young musician – one who just took me to a place that I cannot reach on my own. It’s so important that music education remain a part of the public school experience. Every student should have the opportunity to learn music if, for nothing else, than for our society’s selfish interest in avoiding failure to identify and foster the next generation of gifted musicians because their families couldn’t afford private music lessons.

Go read the rest here: Daily Kos: Musings on a Middle School Music Festival by someone who doesn’t get it.

Great Advice from Joyce DiDonato

Joyce DiDonato is one of my favorite singers, and now I see that she is thoughtful and funny and wise. This is from the end of a master class at Julliard where she took time to answer questions from the audience. The video is more than 30 minutes, but if you are interested in pursuing life as a performer (or even if you want to be a successful in a challenging career of any kind) it's well worth watching. She offers excellent advice on how to overcome that nagging inner voice we all have and shares some of her personal experiences.

Ask a Voice Teacher: Finding Your Own Voice

I'm often asked the same (or similar) questions again and again by those considering voice lessons, current voice students, and their parents. Do I really need to study voice with a teacher; can't I do it on my own? At what age should my child start lessons? How many lessons do I need? Can you help me sound like a specific singer? Why can't I sing this song? And many, many more. This is the third post in the series and it deals with staying true to one's own voice. Many students come to lessons with very specific ideas about how they would like to sound. They often have a specific singer or song in their minds, but this can lead to problems down the road.

Why can't I sing this song?

I'm very open to students singing pieces that they love and are interested in. It is very rare that I'll tell a student, "I don't want you to work on this song," especially with the options available to move songs to an appropriate key. When I do, it is usually for one of two reasons. Most of the time, when this happens, I want a student to wait until they have improved technical skills for a difficult piece. Perhaps the range is too large, or maybe it requires skill in leaping larger intervals, or it could have very long phrases that require excellent breath control. In these cases, I'll let the student know that we can revisit the song once s/he has acquired the skill necessary.

Sometimes, however, a song is just not right for a singer because it requires a different sort of voice. For instance, I am not a Wagnerian soprano, so that repertoire is off the table for me (not that I mind all that much). In a futile attempt to sing over the large orchestra I would likely damage my voice. Instead, I'm more suited to Mozart and Handel where the orchestra is not as large and my voice can shine over it. It is important for singers to strive toward their own best sound and not try to become something that they are not, which leads to the next question I hear from singers.

Can you help me sound like a specific singer?

The answer is: I can help you sound your best, but that means not reducing your voice to an imitation of someone else's voice. Everyone is physically unique, so no two voices sound alike. Trying to sound like someone else would mean that you have to go out of the way to change your sound. This can lead to vocal injury. Even if a favorite singer has a healthy voice that is in the same voice type (fach) as yours, s/he may be a good role model, but you will never sound exactly alike - and this is a good thing. If we all sounded alike, the world of singing would be very boring. (I sometimes feel like this is happening a bit, but that's another post, entirely.) I try to redirect students' ideas about sound away from imitation and make it more about genre and style. Is your favorite singer Nora Jones? Let's work on some jazz standards. Do you love Luciano Pavarotti? Let's start with some Italian art songs. This way singers can work in a healthy way towards refining their own unique voices.

Do you have a question you've always wanted to ask a voice teacher? Leave it for me in the comments and I'll try to answer it in a future post.


Why Do Our Voices Sound Different To Us Than To Other People?

Voice students often have difficulty separating the sounds that they hear when they sing from what it will sound like to the rest of us. As anyone who has heard themselves on a recording knows, you sound very different in your own head. This can lead to singing in a way that sounds great to you, while it sounds "covered" or muffled to the rest of the world. Mental Floss has a great, short article on some reasons for this. Check it out. Why Do Our Voices Sound Different To Us Than To Other People? | Mental Floss.

Dealing with Nerves During Performance

In this TEDxBoomington talk, Jeff Nelsen offers some great tools for dealing with nerves during performance. Everyone gets nervous when they perform. When you let that take over, it can prevent you from doing your best.

I try to help students cope with performance nerves during the lesson so that they have some tools to deal with it when it comes up in a real-life situation. I've found for younger students, the most important thing is that they know what will happen at their performance and they know exactly what to do. We practice announcing, bowing and what to do if they make a mistake. I also encourage them to perform for their families at home before they have a performance with a large crowd. As students gain performance experience, they tend to cope with nervousness better.

Fun with Musical Instruments

Jimmy Fallon had a great game on his show Monday night. Keira Knightley, Dave Matthews, Michael Bublé and Jimmy Fallon take turns playing and guessing the names of songs they pick blindly and play on instruments also selected blindly. It looks like lots of fun. I think this would be a great game to play in a music appreciation class. Enjoy!

Do Orchestras Need a Conductor? Yes!

NPR's Deceptive Cadence recently posted an article about an orchestra's need for a conductor. Does an orchestra really need a conductor? A recent study by Yiannis Aloimonos, of the University of Maryland, came to the same conclusion as every orchestra in the world. The answer is yes; and the more experienced the conductor, the better.

When I saw the headline for this article, my first thought was, "Of course an orchestra needs a conductor, this is self evident. We don't need a study to show us that the sky is blue." This is obvious to musicians, but apparently it is not obvious to non-musicians. Now we have empirical proof that the conductor is doing much more than just waving his or her arms. Go read the article to see how they conducted the study.

Ask a Voice Teacher: Why Study Voice?

I'm often asked the same (or similar) questions again and again by those considering voice lessons, current voice students, and their parents. Do I really need to study voice with a teacher; can't I do it on my own? At what age should my child start lessons? How many lessons do I need? Can you help me sound like a specific singer? Why can't I sing this song? And many, many more. This is the second post in this series and it is for those who are considering voice lessons.

Do I really need to study voice with a teacher? Can't I do it on my own?

Of course you can study any instrument (including voice) on your own, but the benefits of studying with a good teacher are numerous. In the case of voice, it can be easy to fall into bad habits that can lead to major issues like vocal nodes. You need an expert's ear in order to help you get the most out of your voice, to make the best possible art, and to make sure your voice stays injury free. A voice teacher will also help you find new songs, try out new ideas and develop performance skills that will make you a better singer. Because there are so many things to keep track of while singing (including breath, posture, resonance, diction, interpretation and all the things that go into them), even professional singers check in with a trusted teacher to make sure they stay on track. If you just want to sing in the shower, you probably don't need a voice teacher. However, most people thinking about taking lessons will benefit from them. If you want to improve your singing for a choir, if you want to sing karaoke weekly, if you want to sing solos at church, if you want to sing in community theater you will benefit from lessons. If your goals include professional or semi-professional singing of any style, lessons are a necessity.

 How many lessons do I need?

Singing isn't the sort of task that you can take a 6 month class on and then know everything there is to know about it. Even with a doctorate in voice performance I learn new things about my voice every day. For that reason, lessons are open ended.

Sometimes students have a specific goal. For example, they want to learn a role for a musical, or improve an aspect of their singing so that it is more comfortable to sing a high note in their choir. These goals can often be met in several months. Rather than thinking of building a voice for the long-term, this is a coaching session where the student can sometimes learn some long-term skills, but the focus is on a specific short-term goal. Short-term goals are important (even for long-term students), but when the next role comes along or the next technical issue comes up, these students often don't have the skills to meet the new challenges. As a teacher, of course I would encourage students to aim for a lifetime of lessons, but I find that coaching to meet short-term goals can also give students a taste of what they might be capable of in a more open-ended lesson environment.

Google Universal Orchestra

Google has an interesting lab project called Universal Orchestra. You can participate in live music making with others across the world. The lab is set up in London at the Science Museum where visitors to the museum and those on the internet can collaborate. To participate, you wait in a virtual line to play one of four percussion instruments and then you can select pitches and control rhythm for the different parts of the instrument. The controls are pretty intuitive and It runs in a loop, so you can change the pattern over time. You can try things out on virtual instruments while you wait to play the live ones. There are four additional instruments that can only be accessed by museum visitors. While the music is minimalist in nature, the number of instruments allows for a nice variation in the loops.

Google creates a video of your time with the orchestra; my first attempt is above. I missed the tactile aspect of making music, but I liked the intuitive collaboration with other performers. I think it could be a fun way for new musicians and non-musicians to participate in collaborative music making without worrying about hitting a "wrong" note. Give it a try! Google Universal Orchestra

Ask a Voice Teacher

I'm often asked the same (or similar) questions again and again by those considering voice lessons, current voice students, and their parents. Do I really need to study voice with a teacher; can't I do it on my own? At what age should my child start lessons? How many lessons do I need? Can you help me sound like a specific singer? Why can't I sing this song? And many, many more. I'll try to answer some of these in a series of blog posts. The first post is for those considering lessons for their children.

At what age should my child start voice lessons?

This is a question I'm often asked by parents of young children who tell me, "She just loves to sing at home! Do you think she should have lessons?" This question is highly debated among voice teachers. Generally, I recommend that students wait until they are at least 10 to start voice lessons. The main concern is that a young child should never be asked to mimic the sounds of a fully mature voice, and a naturally mature and full sound is generally one of the main goals for older voice students. The voice is a complex instrument and requires coordination and a certain level of maturity in order to understand and develop the finer points of singing.

I encourage younger children interested in singing to find a great choir and to study another instrument like piano or violin. This way they will begin to work on the basics of singing (good breath, good posture, basic resonance and diction) and they will learn to read music. It isn't that they won't learn these important skills in voice lessons, it's just that they can learn these skills just as well in a good choir and they will learn other excellent musical skills, which will serve them well in future voice lessons.

There are exceptions to this rule. If a child is regularly singing solos in public, a younger student will often benefit from lessons. Also, if a student is experiencing technical difficulty while singing, lessons may be in order. Additionally, some children mature faster than others and may be ready for lessons earlier. I will always agree to a trial lesson with a young student, so that I can give the best recommendation. Above all, it's important to have realistic expectations for pre-adolescent voices.

Adventures in Teaching: Halloween

Libby Larsen, composer

This year for Halloween I decided that since I was teaching all afternoon, and students would likely come to lessons in their costumes, I would dress up, too. I hemmed and hawed about what to be, but anything too elaborate like a character from an opera seemed too difficult to maintain while teaching. I settled on composer Libby Larsen because I love her music and I look a bit like her if I change the part in my hair.

I thought Larsen would be a great choice, since most young musicians think of composers as old (or dead) European men like Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. She certainly goes against that type as a living American woman. Larsen has an excellent section for kids on her website. She includes a letter to students, an interview, and a section on composing music. From the interview:

What advice would you give to a person who wants to compose for a living?

Listen to all kinds of music, as much as you can get your hands on. Make friends with creative and artistic people. Learn to read and notate music very, very well. Listen some more. Work at your music every day. Study the music of other composers. Write everything down. Talk to musicians and music teachers as much as you can. Perform: sing, play instruments, make up your own instruments, and of course, dance!

Read the rest at Libby Larsen's For Kids page.

How to Practice: 10 Tips for New Voice Students

Many new voice students do not have a full understanding of what it means to practice between lessons. Singing through your pieces several times may help you memorize them, but you won't learn how to correct musical and technical mistakes. Students should approach each practice session as they should each lesson; with an open mind, and willing to experiment. This list is by no means complete, but here are 10 tips to incorporate into your practice time.

  1. Record your lesson. This is useful for remembering what to work on between the lessons since there often isn't time for your teacher to make written notes for you. You will also be able to hear the difference your practicing makes over time.
  2. Practice often. It is much better to work on your singing a little bit each day rather than one longer session the day before your lesson. Singers are like athletes; we are training our muscles to perform special skills. Like athletes, waiting until the last minute and doing one long prep session will get you nowhere.
  3. If you are ill, feel pain in your throat, or if you begin to loose your voice, stop singing. Singing should always feel free, not forced. If there is pain or you become horse, you are doing it wrong or there could be a medical issue that may need to be addressed by a doctor.
  4. Warm-up using exercises your teacher introduced in the lesson. Take this time to focus on different technical aspects of singing such as breath, posture, resonance and diction. Often, each exercise is meant to work on a particular skill. If you are unsure what skills go with each exercise, ask your teacher. If you work better with imagery, use the image you've worked out with your teacher for each exercise.
  5. Work on pieces in sections of 4-8 measures. You can do various exercises in each section to work on different technical aspects. For example: to work on breath, sing a section on a tongue trill (rrrr); to work on phrasing sing legato on a vowel instead of the words; or to work on rhythm, count a section while singing. Once each section is perfected you can put the piece back together by grouping sections together.
  6. Take note of trouble spots. If you make a mistake more than once, go back and correct it. Sing the notes on different vowels and then with the words. Then put the trouble spot back into the rest of the phrase to give it context.
  7. Remember that the way you say the words matters as much as the meaning. Work on correct diction as part of your practice time. One way to do this is to speak the words with a resonant voice, both with the rhythm and as you would if you were in a play.
  8. Learn to read music using solfeggio (do, re, mi, etc.) or another system. Learning notation and music theory will help you learn pieces more quickly and you will understand them better. Learning another instrument is a good way to achieve this.
  9. Approach each piece as an actor. Your job is to interpret the intent of the composer and poet/lyricist for the audience. This means you must understand the meaning behind the words and the notes. Practice time needs to include some time for research.
  10. Take time to listen to many other singers in many different styles. You have a unique voice, so listening to others, both those who have voices similar to yours and those who are very different, will give you a better frame of reference for your own voice.