Becoming a Music Teacher: A How To Guide

The first time I entertained the idea of becoming a music teacher, I was in 5th grade. We were asked by our teacher to write a speech about our future career goals to present to the class. I wrote a high school band teacherlively talk about how I wanted to become a band director. You see, as most musicians do, I grew up in a very musical family. In fact, my dad was the high school band director in my small town, which explains my enthusiasm for holding a baton. As time went on my career goals shifted, and I majored in music performance in college, rather than education. As time went on even further, I found myself teaching elementary music and loving it. All this to say that many roads lead to Rome, it just depends on how you want to get there. There’s the direct and most common path, but there’s also a couple of scenic routes. So you want to become a music teacher? Here’s how to do it:

1. Develop Your Musicianship & Professional Network

networking as a musicianThis may be the first step, but it is two things you will have to continue to do throughout your journey to becoming a music teacher, but also after you become a music teacher. Also, this first step is majorly foreshadowing steps to come. In order to become a music teacher, you must be an accomplished, or at minimum competent, musician. If you’re reading this article, it’s likely that you are in your high school years. Start now.  Learn how to practice effectively and efficiently, listen to recordings, play for people, and play with other musicians. Take music elective courses like music theory and music history. If those aren’t offered at your school or in your community, consider seeking a tutor. Although I did not have either of these courses in high school, I did take piano lessons for a very long time, which provided me with an exorbitant amount of music theory knowledge. Taking the time to absorb as much as possible in these beginning stages of becoming a music teacher will not necessarily unlock expert level skills, but will at least get you thinking and aware.


Growing your professional network in high school or your young musician years may not seem like an important step, but it is a small world, and the music world is even smaller. I played in high school honor bands with a member of the Canadian Brass and a future colleague in my undergraduate studio. It’s important to be friendly, professional, and keep in touch with those folks you play with or for. In the music business, they say it’s all about who you know. This can also be true for music education. Plus, it never hurts to be polite, friendly, and gracious, no matter your career goals.

2. Get Experience Teaching or Mentoring

This is an important step for both high school students who are considering a career in music education, as well as pre-service teachers who are completing coursework. As often as you can, take opportunities to speak in front of a group or work one on one with a younger student or friend. Even if it isn’t music related, the experience you gain critically thinking through a process and speaking effectively to a crowd will only help you in the long term.becoming a music teacher


When I was in high school, I taught piano lessons and beginning trumpet lessons to younger students. Granted, I didn’t charge as much as a professional player, but I made some pocket change and gained a lot of experience teaching one on one. I learned a lot about my own trumpet playing, and I also learned that teaching beginning brass players was not my strength. Similarly, in college I was a counselor at a fine arts camp. I thoroughly enjoyed the summer, but did not feel particularly comfortable as an authority figure to high school students.  I did, however, love to teach piano lessons to kindergartners and teach preschool music classes. These early experiences gave me an idea of what it would look like to become a music teacher. Now, I’m an early childhood and elementary music educator. Early experiences not only gives you the opportunity to practice your teaching skills, but also helps you identify what kind or area of music teaching you may best identify.


3. Apply, Interview, and Decide on a College, University, or Conservatory

You’ve decided to go for it. You love to sing or play your instrument, you get excited about working with students, and you’re officially ready to commit yourself to the life of a music educator. Now it’s time to decide where to apply. Where should you apply? What happens after that? The first step to becoming a music teacher is compiling your list of possibly schools. Although it’s easy to pick based on the successful football team, or where your friends go to school, it’s important that you think really critically about your options. As a music education major, you’ll likely be part of a music school, and an even smaller cohort of music education students. Every school has a different dynamic and it’s important to make sure you find a good fit.


applying for music schoolWhen looking at schools to apply to, research the music education faculty. Think about what area you’re thinking you may want to go into, whether band, choir, or elementary, but also remembering it may change. Many faculty members at universities do research and write articles, so make sure you take the opportunity to read any articles or publications they may have published. If you know any current students at the university, especially in the department, ask questions. Gather as much information as you can.


Once you’ve decided where to apply, you’ll begin the application process. You’ll likely be asked about your personal philosophy, which should include music and education, as well as your future career goals.  Be sure to include anecdotes about your varied musical and teaching/mentoring experiences. This is your time to shine and explain why you’ve decided to be a music teacher! After your application is submitted, a school may require an interview. This is your chance to talk about how excited and eager you are to work with kids and develop their musicianship. Also keep in mind that you’ll likely need to audition to be admitted to a music education program, since you will be a member of the music school and the education school. Take a deep breath and enjoy performing—this is why you want to teach music, to give students the opportunity to perform and share their musical gift.


After you’ve completed this somewhat rigorous process, it’s time for the waiting game. If you have done your due diligence, you’ll have a decision to make—where should you go? Odds are, particularly if you had a campus visit and a department interview, you’ll have a gut feeling about where you belong. If you find yourself unsure, make sure to communicate any questions or concerns—often times faculty are more than happy to discuss with you after an offer has been extended. Then take a deep breath and accept! You are well on your way, but the journey to become a music teacher has only begun.


4. Get Organized & Stay Focused!

Once you are in school, the real work begins. Music education students have some of the heaviest course loads of anyone I know. Often you are carrying the load of a music performance student (either in an instrumental or vocal studio) as well as an education student, as well as music education specific courses. Because of this, many music education students take a full load for 4-5 years, day planner with post-itsnot including student teaching. To make sure you swim rather than sink, get organized and stay focused! Odds are many of your colleagues will become your closest friends, which will help in holding you accountable to your schoolwork. Although the course load can be heavy, rest assured that the majority of your assignments will be exciting and immediately applicable to music teaching and learning. Often times your assignments will be proposing lesson plans and developing classroom activities that you can later use in your professional life. Take the work seriously, but also enjoy the process and take feedback gracefully and politely.


While you are in school to become a music teacher, it is a fantastic idea to start getting involved with professional organizations and attending conferences. Both usually offer student rates, which are severely discounted or even free! Seeking additional training beyond your classes will help you develop your professional network and get an inside look at how the profession really works. Develop relationships with those educators you admire and reach out for mentor-ship or advice throughout the process. Your student teaching will provide a world of knowledge and behind the scenes looks, but it’s always healthy to gather as much knowledge as possible and hear varied experiences.

5. Certification

You’ve finished your coursework, you’ve wrapped up student teaching, and your cap and gown is ironed and ready to go. Now, before you’ve even walked across the stage and gathered your diploma, it is time to get ready for your certification exams. Every state is different in the way they require you to be certified to become a music teacher. I have been certified in two different graduation from music schoolstates, and each process has been drastically different. However, you will likely have to take at least two-three tests to become eligible to teach in any given state. Additionally, state education offices push through a lot of paperwork, and can often be delayed in processing new applications. Be sure that you register for tests and apply for your certification early. Also be sure to stay in constant communication with the appropriate state office to ensure things are processed properly.


As a future music educator, you’ll likely need to pass a music specific exam to teach. Generally speaking, your education courses should have you adequately prepared for any content you may be tested on. However, state certification tests are notorious for being a little tricky, and it would probably be useful to review test-taking strategies prior to sitting for an exam. Often states will have sample questions or even full tests on their websites for you to review. Take advantage of these resources so you understand the format of the test. The same is true for any general content or professional tests you may have to take. Be sure to take the proper steps prior to taking any test, as there is often a window you must wait before retaking. This could severely delay your certification. If you take the time at the front end, you will likely be successful and be able to move through the process quite smoothly.


(Side note: There are other ways to qualify for certification other than through an undergraduate music education program. Depending on each state and its rules, options include a master’s degree with certification for those with a bachelor’s degree in music, as well as alternative certification.)


6. Finding a Job

You’ve graduated, you’re certified, and now you need to get hired to officially become a music teacher. Schools often post jobs for the following academic year the month or two of the previous job interview for music teacheracademic year. For example, if they are looking for a teacher to start in August, they will probably post the opening by May. My advice is to check for postings often and cast your net wide. The best place to look for job openings is often school or district human resource webpages. These are usually updated daily, and may get pushed to state organizations, but the school district itself is the primary source.


Since you are likely going to be applying to several different schools, I recommend making a portfolio on your computer rather than reinventing the wheel each and every time you apply. Certain elements of a teaching application will always be the same: certification, resume, teaching philosophy, and references are almost always part of an application. Take some time to develop these documents to the highest level so they are ready to go.


7. Private Studio Teaching

After years of being in school working hard to become a music teacher, you may decide through your varied experiences that classroom teaching is not for you. Additionally, many musicians spend an exorbitant amount of time honing their skills on their principal instrument, and feel they have much to offer young singers or players. No matter the case, private teaching is almost always a part of a music educator’s career, whether exclusively, or in addition to classroom teaching. To become a music teacher for one on one lessons, many of the same practice techniques and thoughtful pedagogical strategies still apply just like if you were in front of an ensemble or classroom.

young boy receiving violin lessonPrivate instructors often have the task of seeking out students, which can be a tricky endeavor. Some schools contract independent musicians and music educators to come in to their actual building to teach before or after school or even during ensemble rehearsals. Others compile a list of possible private lesson instructors for students to contact independently. Regardless, the best avenue to find students is through school programs. If you are interested in becoming a music teacher for private lessons, your best bet is to offer a free master class or section rehearsal at a school. This way, students get the chance to work with you risk free and in a more comfortable group environment. It is also not a bad idea to offer a trial lesson, where you can meet with students and parents to discuss expectations, both yours and theirs. Another way to find private students is to join a teaching network such as Musika. Referral services do the work of finding students for you and many also deal with billing so you don’t have to.

Surely, after casting your net wide and participating in a series of interviews you will find yourself at home in a new music classroom or rehearsal space. It may also happen that you decide one on one teaching is more your speed and develop a private studio. Regardless, all of your hard work will have prepared you for what is to come, but the real learning has yet to take place. Becoming a music teacher on paper is a set of steps most can follow, but becoming a music educator is a process that will continue to breathe and grow throughout your career.

Hey Joe Chords: Putting CAGED Into Practice

Practicing the CAGED Chords

In my last article, we learned about the CAGED chords. Learning the chords is the first part of the lesson, but putting them into use is where things get fun. Hey Joe, the rock standard made popular by Jimi Hendrix, is a great song to use for practicing the CAGED chords because the progression of the Hey Joe chords uses all 5 open-string major chords. These are my favorite types of exercises—the ones that aren’t exercises—but, instead, are an actual song that you can play along with.

What’s a chord progression?

Music is a language, so, let’s use the English language as an analogy:

  • The letters of the alphabet are used together to form words
  • Words are used to form sentences
  • Sentences are strung together to tell stories

In music:

  • Notes are used together to form chords
  • Chords are used together to form progressions
  • Progressions are strung together to tell the story in the song


A chord progression is two or more chords used together. Just like there are noun-verb, noun-verb-noun sentence structures that repeat in language, music has chord patterns that repeat in songs. So, in simple terms, a chord progression is a chord pattern or cycle of chords that repeats throughout the song.


Open-String Major Chords in the style of “Hey Joe”

The Hey Joe chords progression uses the CAGED chords in the following order: C-G-D-A-E. Each chord receives two beats, except the E chord which receives eight beats (or two bars). Take a look at the example below and you’ll see a chord chart that illustrates this in a typical way that musicians notate music.


hey joe chords




Begin with quarter-note strums:


Hey Joe quarter notes tabs




Then add eighth-note strums:


Hey Joe eighth notes




Finally, mix quarter-note and eighth-note strums:


hey joe rhythm



There’s also a backing track for you to practice with. Have fun!


Jazz Exercises for the Saxophone: Thinking in 12 Keys

A Couple of Hypothetical Situations


You’re at a family gathering, maybe a family reunion or a grandparent’s 80th birthday celebration. You’ve been asked to play a couple of songs you’ve been working on lately on your saxophone. Maybe you played a duet or two with your older cousin who plays as well. Right after you finish, someone starts singing “Happy Birthday”, and others join in. People are singing this simple melody and you have your saxophone in hand. You could decide to just sing along… Or, since you’ve been working on thinking in 12 keys, you could quickly figure out the key and play along on your saxophone, impressing your family.

 art saxophone concert

It’s time for your Christmas jazz band concert at school. There’s one song where you and another saxophone player are featured. It’s just a blues piece, nothing too difficult to solo over. You play a few choruses, then he plays a few choruses, then you start trading choruses, then maybe you start trading fours. At some point during the trading, he starts quoting some Christmas songs, because ’tis the season. He’s quoting “Jingle Bells”, “Deck the Halls”, “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”, etc. You’ve gotta think on your feet. You are improvising after all. Not only do you have to think of Christmas melodies, but you have to figure out how to play it in the key you’re in. Sure, you could just keep playing your best blues and jazz licks, but it would make for a much more entertaining show if you and the other saxophone player were quoting songs the audience was familiar with. Since you’ve been working on thinking in 12 keys, you step in with “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and everyone loves it.

Taking a Step Back to Look at the Big Picture

This is the third installment of a blog series entitled “Jazz Exercises for the Saxophone”. The first two articles covered beginner and intermediate concepts for playing in 12 keys. Before we move on to more advanced concepts, I think it would be advantageous to take a step back and reevaluate the way we think, and discuss different ways to think, when playing in 12 keys.

The first two installments of this blog series dealt with digital patterns and some simple common resolutions. We talked about practicing all of the digital pattern permutations and the resolutions in 12 keys, and I gave you a systematic way to practice them (the different root movements), but maybe I can be more clear on what you should be thinking when you’re practicing this material to be as efficient as possible.

saxophonists 12 keysThere are several different ways to approach jazz and jazz education; there are many different schools of thought. Likewise, there are a lot of ways to approach playing in 12 keys. Everyone learns differently. As a teacher, I need to be aware of how my students approach learning different subjects so I can cater teaching music to their specific needs. As students of music, we should be aware of how we learn. Like many things in life, learning to play in 12 keys is a spectrum of two extremes that people fall to one side of. Some people rely more on their ears and some people rely more on logic. When I say “logic”, I mean specifically relying on thought more than on your ear. In the case of playing in 12 keys, that would usually mean thinking in terms of scale degrees (in the C scale C=1, D=2; in the F# scale F#=1, G#=2, etc.).

In my opinion, it’s most effective to use a combination of both of these methods. People that rely too heavily on their ear can be extremely limited, as they haven’t learned about thinking in 12 keys. What happens when they have to play “Giant Steps” or “Cherokee” at quarter note = 300? Nobody’s mind processes external information that fast. People that rely too heavily on logic can also be limited. I worked with a bass player once who stuck completely to reading the chart. If the singer came in after four bars of interlude when it was supposed to be eight, the bass player would be off for the rest of the chart. Remember, music is an aural art. Ideally, you should employ a healthy mix of using logic and using your ear so that you can succeed in both playing and thinking in 12 keys.

The past couple of blogs have probably been pretty dry. The exercises in this blog will be more fun and immediately rewarding. I’ve picked out some easy songs for you to learn in 12 keys. See how your brain works when learning these songs. Try using logic as well as using your ear so that you begin thinking in 12 keys. See which feels more comfortable, but keep trying both methods even after you figure this out.

Examples Based on the Major Scale

These first few examples are based solely on the major scale. The first two are easy songs everyone knows. The third one is a jazz standard. Many jazz standards, although the harmony may go through many keys, are melodically based on one scale. The ‘A’ section of “Cherokee” is essentially based completely on the pentatonic scale. These examples, as well as the ones below, aren’t necessarily in the correct key. That’s not really important though, since we’re practicing these in 12 keys.

thinking in 12 keys exercise twinkle twinkle

Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star


Happy Birthday for saxophone

Happy Birthday


I Got Rhythm excerpt saxophone

I Got Rhythm

Example Based on Harmonic Minor Scale

This next example for thinking in 12 keys is based on the harmonic minor scale. This is a little more challenging as you should know your harmonic minor scale in 12 keys before attempting to play this example. Rather than writing b6 and #7 to differentiate between the harmonic and melodic minor scales, I’ve just kept the number system consistent. 1234567 based on whatever scale is being played.

Hava Nagila excerpt for saxophone

Hava Nagila

Example with Notes Outside of the Scale

This final example for thinking in 12 keys uses the major scale primarily, but has a note outside of the scale. The #4 is a common “outside” note in tonal music. Also try learning “Maria” from “West Side Story” in 12 keys. It uses the #4 as well. Maybe also try learning the theme song from “The Simpsons”. That uses #4 and b7.

star spangled banner excerpt for saxophone

Star Spangled Banner

Where to Go From Here


Hopefully learning the songs I provided in 12 keys helped you to figure out how your mind works when thinking in 12 keys. The more you do this, the more comfortable it will become. I recommend finding other simple melodies you like and learning them in 12 keys. If there’s a song you like on the radio, figure out the melody and practice it in 12 keys. This will train both your ear and your mind. When you feel comfortable learning simple melodies, move on to more difficult note art saxophone

The second hypothetical situation I referenced in the first section of this blog is actually extremely common in the jazz world. If you listen to a lot of jazz, you’ll realize jazz players quote other songs often. It could be quoting “Jingle Bells” or “Happy Birthday” or something more complex. Jazz players will often quote bebop melodies. If you want a challenge, listen to “Groovin’ High” and figure out the line that is repeated three times in three different keys. Then, learn it in the remaining nine keys. Then you’ll be able to quote that line over any ii-V-I progression.

This third installment was a brief interlude from what we discussed in the first two articles. It provides some extremely useful and fundamental information about thinking in 12 keys that will help solidify the information from the first two posts as well as in the next and final post of this blog series.

How Music Theory Can Improve Your Songwriting

How music theory can improve your songwritingFor some musicians, music theory is one of those phrases that inspires anxiety, dread, and even panic, and it’s no surprise why. If you’re not familiar with music theory, terms like “Roman Numeral Analysis” and “Triad Inversions” are probably enough to make your stomach feel a little queasy. Before I decided to study music composition in college, I distinctly remember looking down at sheet music and thinking, “This is insane. I’ll never be able to understand this. Why does this matter?” I’m going to show you how music theory can improve your songwriting.


Music theory isn’t out to get you. I promise. Its purpose is to add some order to the chaos of sound by explaining things. And if you’re a songwriter, understanding why music works the way it does can do nothing but good things for your craft. How many times have you come up with a fantastic idea for a song that went nowhere because you just couldn’t take the song where you wanted it to go? Understanding music theory will give you songwriting options that you never thought you’d have. To make things easy, I’m going to explain how music theory can improve your songwriting by using the piano as a reference point. You don’t need to know how to play piano for this article to be helpful, but you might want to print out a picture of piano keys to help you understand certain music theory terms. Garage Band software on Apple computers has a feature where you can see and play a keyboard, so use that if you need it.


What Is Music Theory?


Music theory is the study of the theoretical elements of music including sound and pitch, rhythm, melody, harmony, and notation. The idea of what creates pitches and the relationships between pitches is not only music theory but also science. When you play the A above middle C (the middle C is the C note in the middle of the keyboard) on the piano, that note has a frequency of 440 Hz. Hz, which stands for hertz, means vibrations per second. So, when you play the A above middle C on the piano, you’re playing a note that vibrates 440 times per second. All that vibration is what creates the pitch you hear. Now here is where it gets a bit tricky. When you play A440, you’re not just hearing one note but actually many notes. This is called the overtone series. The most prominent secondary note you hear is another A an octave above A440. What’s an octave? Double the 440 vibrations per second from A 440 and you’ll get a higher A note of A880, which is an interval of an octave.


piano with A440 and A880




Intervals are the differences between pitches. Understanding the relationships between pitches is the bedrock of music theory. Let’s get back to A440. When you play A440, the first secondary note you hear is A880, and the second note you hear is E660. E 660 is exactly halfway between A440 and A880. This is called a Perfect 5th, and it’s the most important interval in all of music theory. Think of the first two notes played in the Star Wars theme. That’s the sound of a Perfect 5th and if you listen close enough you’ll start to hear it in all the music you listen to.  A lot of composers believe that music is nothing more than a journey between one note and its Perfect 5th. That’s simplifying things a bit too much in my opinion, but they’ve got a point. So, we’ve discussed two intervals so far: the octave and the Perfect 5th. There’s a whole bunch of other ones, but let’s move on for now in the journey of learning how music theory can improve your songwriting.


piano with A440 and E660




Now that we’ve talked about pitches and intervals we can move on to chords. A chord is when you play two or more pitches at the same time. Play any two notes together on the piano and you’ll be playing some sort of chord. If you take the time to learn the formulas behind building simple chords you’ll be able to play chords anywhere on the piano. Let’s begin with major chords.


For the sake of simplicity, let’s build a major chord starting with middle C. We’ll call this C the root note. The best way to learn how to build chords is by counting the steps between keys. The distance between C and C# is called a half step (the distance between white keys and black keys are half steps). Count 4 half steps above C and you’ll get an E. An interval of C to E is called a major 3rd. Now we’ll add in a Perfect 5th above the root note to get the last note we need. From C, count 7 half steps and you should get a G. Play C-E-G together and you’ll get a C major chord. The formula behind all major chords is the Root + Major 3rd + Perfect 5th. We’re using a piano as an example because it’s easy, but everything I’m talking about today transcends the piano and can be played on all instruments that play multiple pitches. Try this formula anywhere on the piano and you’ll find that it works. Just make sure you’re counting the half steps correctly.


piano keyboard c major chord


Now I’ll show you an easy way to build minor chords. Play that C Major chord again and then lower the E down a half step. This changes that major 3rd to a minor 3rd. One little adjustment changes the chord drastically. This is a C minor chord. The formula behind all minor chords is Root + Minor 3rd (3 half steps) + Perfect 5th. Try playing major and minor chords in different spots around the piano. If something sounds off, double-check your fingers and try again. Being able to know how to build major and minor chords anywhere on the piano will do great things for your songwriting. After all, when it comes to creativity you want access to every option available, right?


pinao keyboard c minor chord


Before we move on from chords to how other music theory can improve your songwriting, let’s learn how to build an important chord called the diminished chord. Starting with middle C, build a minor chord using the Root + Minor 3rd (3 half steps) + Perfect 5th (7 half steps). Now, lower the Perfect 5th interval down a half step and you should have a chord with the notes C-Eb-Gb. Diminished chords are tension chords, essentially. Their purpose is to add dissonance and drama into music. Pop songwriters normally veer away from these chords, but a smartly-placed diminished chord can do huge things for your songwriting. The formula behind diminished chords is Root + Minor 3rd + Tritone (6 half steps). The tritone is behind all the tension you hear in the diminished chord, and the interval was actually banned in Renaissance church music and labeled the “chord of evil.” Sheesh!


piano keyboard C diminished chord


Major Scales


A scale is any set of musical notes ordered by fundamental frequency or pitch. I’m going to walk through how to build a major scale with you and why it’s important. Knowing how to play and identify scales will help you write melodies, compose chord structures, and be able to improvise. It’s well worth your time to learn how to build scales if you want to improve your songwriting prowess. Like chords, scales can be built with simple formulas. To build a C major scale, start with middle C and play every white note until you reach the C an octave above (8 whole steps). All major scales are built off of a pattern of whole and half steps. A whole step covers two half steps and spans the distance from C to D. The formula to build major scales is whole step – whole step – half step – whole step – whole step – whole step – half step. You can use this formula to build major scales anywhere on the piano.


piano keyboard c major scale


Major Keys


Now that you know how to build major scales and a few chords we can begin to talk about major keys. When you play a scale, you’re essentially exploring the tonality of a key note by note. Each note in the major scale has its own chord within the key. These chords are major, minor, or diminished, and they’re always arranged in the same order. The 7 chords you’ll find in major keys are 1 major, 2 minor, 3 minor, 4 major, 5 major, 6 minor, and 7 diminished. Roman numeral analysis is the process of analyzing the chords in major and minor keys, but for the sake of simplicity, we’ll stick to regular numbers for this article. Starting again with middle C, build every chord in the key by using the chord formulas I discussed earlier. This will take some practice, but start to play different major scales and chord progressions all over the piano. Once you know what to listen to you’ll be able to identify your mistakes. If you want to get serious about songwriting, knowing how to play and identify chord progressions is paramount.  For instance, in pop songwriting the relationship between the 1, 4 and 5 chords is unavoidable. The 12 bar blues is a chord progression found in thousands of songs of every kind of music and has largely shaped the way all popular music sounds today. The chords in this progression are:

1 – 1 – 1 – 1

4 – 4 – 1 – 1

5 – 4 – 1 – 1


C major 12 bar blues treble clef



Memorize the 12 bar blues in a few different keys and pretty soon you’ll start hearing it everywhere. You may not want to write blues music, but this progression’s ability to convey tension transcends genres and actually matches the natural linear form of a story. Get familiar with chord progressions like these and then make it a goal to try and add your own unique spin to them. The ability to identify chord progressions will help you out of a songwriting rut if you find yourself writing the same sort of song over and over again. When I started writing songs, I noticed that I’d often gravitate toward a 1 – 6 – 3 – 5 progression. I still like how the progression sounds, but it doesn’t hold tension the way other progressions do, so I normally steer clear of it. Engaging chord progressions are a great way of how music theory can improve your songwriting.




Once you learn how to play chords within a key you can work on going from one key to another within the same song. This process is called modulating. Done correctly, modulating is an ideal way to convey tension and emotion within a piece of music, but it’s vital that shifting keys is done in a way that serves the music you’re writing. One of the easiest ways to modulate is to introduce the 5 chord of the key you’re modulating to into a chord progression. For instance, if I’m playing a chord progression in the key of C major and I want to switch to the key of G major, then adding a thoughtfully-placed D major chord into the progression is an easy way to get there. 5 chords hold lots of tension, and the listener will intuitively understand that the music is shifting to a new key.


modulation from C to G



Extended Chords/Voicings


After you master the art of building major, minor, and diminished chords, you’ll want to add different notes and voicings to your chords to keep them interesting. Chord inversions happen when you put a note other than the root at the bottom of a chord. A C major chord is C-E-G, but when you change the order of the notes to E-C-G you’re inverting the chord, and it will sound different and a lot more interesting depending on the song’s context. If you want to hear an amazing use of inversions and perfectly-arranged chord voicings, listen to God Only Knows by The Beach Boys. Experiment with extended chords by adding non-chord tones (notes that don’t fit into a chord’s formula) into a chord. Each added note will give your chords a new identity and feel that you can’t find with your garden variety major and minor chords.


Don’t Overthink Itcolorful microphone music notes


Now that you know a little more about music theory, you’ll be able to use these tools to help you write more interesting songs, but it’s best not to obsess over the theory side of songwriting. Creativity and spontaneity are the greatest motivators for songwriting, and being overly-concerned with music theory can derail your unique process. Above everything, your ears and taste should guide your songwriting process, and music theory is just another tool at your disposal to build a good song. How music theory can improve your songwriting is ultimately up to you.

Suzuki Practice: A Daily Event

In Suzuki, students often begin lessons at a young age – say 3 or 5. So the immediate caregiver (usually one of the parents) is in charge of making sure the child has time and space to do a Suzuki suzuki practice routinepractice. Sessions don’t have to be long – it’s based on what stage the child has reached in his or her ability development and how much material the instructor is able to cover during a lesson.


Set Your Routine Early On

If you have started Suzuki lessons with your child, where will you begin in your practicing journey? Start by setting good habits early on. Ed Kreitman, Suzuki pedagogue and author of the book Teaching from the Balance Point, writes that, “Practice is the ‘work’ part of developing technique on the instrument” (75). In other words, when a student practices, he is developing a skill, whether it is the physical element of holding up the violin comfortably, or refining his ear to be able to tell when something is “in tune.”


The Parent’s Role

The parent is in charge of making sure that a Suzuki practice session is set up well – especially for young children. The parent is an attentive listener during the child’s lessons, taking notes, perhaps snapping a photo or shooting a video of what the teacher is asking the child to do.

Then, the parent becomes the ‘home coach’ or ‘home teacher.’ The parent looks up the notes, sets the agenda for the Suzuki practice session, and then sees that the child is able to successfully complete the exercises. Now, with very young musicians, this could include setting up the foot chart, placing the bow in the child’s hand properly, or even doing a clapping rhythm with the child.

practicing violin For older students, the parent is still an important figure, helping to identify when something is correct, or perhaps giving pointers on posture tips the teacher suggested. (For example, “Can you balance the marble on the f-hole? Let me watch.”) The parent also becomes an expert in telling when a piece is “ready” for a performance – or in letting the teacher know if the child is having some frustration with a certain passage or technique.

Because the parent is such an integral part of the practicing session, he or she becomes a key support of the child’s musical lifestyle. Parents pick up on children’s needs, in and outside of the music world – and this is an important element that teachers appreciate. Face it – students don’t always tell the teachers when something is hard or it hurts. But a parent can have a “sixth sense” feeling about it when something is really serious, and will be able to express that to the teacher.


How Often Do You Practice?

Shinichi Suzuki suggested the following regimen: “Practice only on the days you eat.”

Practicing every day is a truly positive method for encouraging a child’s skill development. When a child gets into the routine of daily practice, he will come to expect success and progress – and practice time. He’ll remind you, sometimes, “Mom, are we going to practice?” And yes, you will. Daily. If all you did this week was get his bow to stay straight on the violin, that is still a major victory. Why? Because you’ll be using that skill for the rest of your musical life.


Review: Why It Is Important in Suzuki Practice


reviewing music suzuki violinSuzuki practice sessions are usually founded on the concept of review. You review the skills you have learned so that you can build upon them when you reach a new element. For example, let’s think about the straight bow on the strings. If a child learns to control his bow at the very beginning, it will make “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” sound and look very good. But it will also enable the child to do tougher things, like bow circles in “Allegro” or, further down the line, up bow spiccato in “Country Dance” in Book 5.

The nice thing about using the Suzuki method is that review of techniques is usually not done by using many exercise books. Instead, you use different musical pieces to refresh your technique. Does your teacher want you to work on deep tone? She might pull out the “Waltz” from Book 2. Are you struggling with staying in a certain position? Perhaps the teacher will ask you to play all the “Twinkle” variations in fifth position. You take something you can do well, and try it in a new way to create a new learned technique.


Nuts and Bolts of Technique Refinement

Many teachers – especially at institutes – will have dice that children toss, to figure out how many times they work a technique every day. Other teachers will just say, “How old are you? Okay, you need to practice this (eight) times perfectly every day.” Maybe it sounds daunting – or perhaps it’s easy. But it is important.

Doing a technique eight times in a row – perfectly – is really the best way to iron a skill into your mind. And, it’s just good life experience. There’s nothing like reaching the second to last repetition, and bombing it, and starting over. Life lesson – if you can survive repeating this exercise over at age six, then you can probably survive other disappointments that happen later in life.


Scheduling… and Breaks… and Dangers

practice scheduleGetting back to the daily practice theme, it is a good idea to have a set schedule for your practice time. For some families, practicing first thing in the morning is the best way to fit it all in. Get up a little early, practice, and then get to school or work or whatever is on your schedule. For other families, the best time to do a Suzuki practice session is after school, or in the evening, when everyone is somewhat more relaxed.

Can you take weekends off, or skip practicing while on vacation? Well, that is up to you. Some families believe that it necessary to not practice on Sundays. You have to work with your own schedule and beliefs.

However, it is a good idea not to ‘make up’ lost practice time with a super-long session over one day. Practicing is like dripping water on a rock – one drip won’t make that much difference, and a whole bucket of water at once doesn’t affect the rock, either. If you haven’t practiced for a week, then spending three hours in one day is going to exhaust you and your child, and may lead to injury. But if you keep at it, in a slow and steady way, you’ll work new learning grooves into your brain and you’ll see your technique develop – without the danger of injury.


How Long Do You Practice?

How long should you practice? It varies with each child. Most small children can’t handle long sessions – so do something shorter. Have a brand-new beginner? Try five minute sessions. As the practice timerschild grows in her ability, you can add more minutes to each Suzuki practice session. Take it gradually – time is on your side. Your child is young, and is still growing.

Sometimes, the practice session just won’t go well. There are very few prodigies who beg to practice at a young age. Face it, the ‘newness’ of music will wear off, and your child will dodge it, just like brushing teeth or feeding the cat. And sometimes, it just won’t be a good time to practice.

What can you do? Number one, remember, you are the practice coach. A sports coach doesn’t take “I don’t want to” for an excuse to skip practice. You can’t, either. Your job is to gently, yet firmly, guide the child into the practice session and get it done. Chances are, once your child is in the middle of the practicing, he’ll forget his frump about practicing and will be just as excited as ever to finally play “Lightly Row” without dropping the toy car off the violin.

But if there is sickness or injury, or just a hard day, cut back. Many years ago, the Suzuki teacher Craig Timmerman said that even a five-minute practice session would count towards the daily practicing routine. If that’s all you can handle on one day, at least you’ve been able to do that much.

Practice Clubs – Why They Work and How You Can Do Them Too

Practicing is definitely the surest way to encourage progress in your child’s music ability. Some teachers like to implement a Suzuki practice plan for their programs. For example, maybe your program has a 100-day club, for kids who have practiced a hundred days in a row without missing one day. Or perhaps you’ll see, at a Suzuki institute, a special time when students who have been practicing for several years in a row are honored for their commitment. That can be so inspiring. When you and your child see the kids who have been doing it for five or even ten years, that makes you want to do it too. You can be just as impressive as those ‘big kids’ who play such hard music. (And, it’s fun to be on the other end, getting your picture taken for having been so dedicated to your sport of music.)

cute kids playing violinNow, what happens if your Suzuki program doesn’t have a practicing plan? Volunteer to set one up. Chances are, the instructor will appreciate your efforts and will enjoy the success a practicing program can bring.

Try a thirty day plan – set up charts to color in, or fill with stickers. Give thirty slots for the kids to fill in, one for each day of practice. Create a reward at the end of the contest – see if your local ice cream shop or pizza parlor will offer free coupons to music students who reach the point of success. (There’s nothing like seeing rows of filled-in charts dancing up on the wall of the ice cream parlor, either. Good advertisement for the Suzuki studio, and a real sense of accomplishment for the child!) Then, let it progress from there. Take it from thirty days to sixty, for the hearty souls who want to continue. And from sixty, go to ninety – and 100 is just ten days off from there.

Remember, when you set up a Suzuki practicing schedule, you are preparing your child for success. A child cannot attempt to play hard stuff until she has mastered the easy stuff – that’s the way building block pieces work. Your daily practicing will build strength, skill, and endurance, both in the physical and in the emotional world. And these are really good life lessons to learn.

Open-String Guitar Chords: Introducing the CAGED Chords

Open-String Guitar Chords That Every Player Must Know

Introducing the CAGED Chords

guitars aesthetic

The nature of learning guitar is slower than every aspiring guitarist would like. We all want to learn how to play this song or that song, or play this solo or that riff—it’s simply human nature. But, it takes time to get certain things under our fingers and digesting the hows and whys of it all also has its process. Let’s take, for example, the topic of open-string guitar chords. This concept could be overwhelming if we don’t break it down into a series of manageable, bite-size pieces. We’ll start with the CAGED chords.


How many chords are there?

This is a question that every student asks me at one point or another and the answer I give them is, “It depends on your imagination.” When I see the look of disappointment wash over their faces, I then follow with, “But, you only need to learn a few chords to begin playing most of your favorite songs!” And, now, that look of disappointment turns into wonder and curiosity. This article focuses on 5 major open-string guitar chords, often referred to as the CAGED chords, that are the building blocks of every guitarist’s chord vocabulary. These chords are also the starting point of a system that intermediate and advanced players use to learn the fret-board and “see” their way from one pattern to the next.


Can you spell “caged”? C-A-G-E-D

The CAGED chords system is a method that is used to teach the geometry behind the guitar’s layout. It helps unlock the difficulty that guitarists have when learning to connect one chord to another, one scale to another, etc. This system also spells out the 5 must-know, open-string guitar chords that we’re focusing on the moment.


When reading tabs, if there’s a letter that represents the chord symbol, like “C” for instance, and there is nothing written after it, it is then understood to be major. Every other variation uses some kind of symbol to represent it and, as your chord vocabulary grows, your ability to recognize and play these variations will grow too.


Let’s begin with the C major open-string guitar chord, represented by the C in the CAGED chords. We’ll build these chords from the bottom to top.


  • 6th string: Do not play
  • 5th string: 3rd finger plays the 3rd fret
  • 4th string: 2nd finger plays the 2nd fret
  • 3rd string: Play string open
  • 2nd string: 1st finger plays 1st fret
  • 1st string: Play string open

Guitar Tab C Chord open string


  • 6th string: Do not play
  • 5th string: Play string open
  • 4th string: 1st finger plays 2nd fret
  • 3rd string: 2nd finger plays 2nd fret
  • 2nd string: 3rd finger plays 2nd fret
  • 1st string: Play string open

CAGED Chords A chord

A (alternate fingering 1)

This fingering may seem a little bit awkward, but once you give it a try, you may it more comfortable than the previous fingering and it makes switching between the A and D chords much easier.


  • 6th string: Do not play
  • 5th string: Play string open
  • 4th string: 2nd finger plays 2nd fret
  • 3rd string: 1st finger plays 2nd fret
  • 2nd string: 3rd finger plays 2nd fret
  • 1st string: Play string open

A chord guitar alternate fingering

A (alternate fingering 2)

This finger pattern uses a bar (a “bar”, sometimes spelled barre, is when you hold down, or fret, more than one note using the same finger). In this case, use your 1st finger to fret the notes of the 4th, 3rd, and 2nd strings with your 1st or index finger. Notice that this fingering makes it very difficult to play the 1st string open. Most players simply avoid playing this string.


  • 6th string: Do not play
  • 5th string: Play string open
  • 4th string: 1st finger plays 2nd fret
  • 3rd string: 1st finger plays 2nd fret
  • 2nd string: 1st finger plays 2nd fret
  • 1st string: Do not play

A chord guitar tabs alt. fingering


  • 6th string: 2nd finger plays the 3rd fret
  • 5th string: 1st finger plays the 2nd fret
  • 4th string: Play string open
  • 3rd string: Play string open
  • 2nd string: Play string open
  • 1st string: 3rd finger plays the 3rd fret

G Chord tabs guitar

G (alternate fingering)

This is a more advanced fingering that was made popular by blues, country, bluegrass, and folk players. It makes it much easier to switch between the G and C chords that work so well together.


  • 6th string: 3rd finger plays the 3rd fret
  • 5th string: 2nd finger plays the 2nd fret
  • 4th string: Play string open
  • 3rd string: Play string open
  • 2nd string: Play string open
  • 1st string: 4th finger plays the 3rd fret

G chord tab guitar alt. fingering


  • 6th string: Play string open
  • 5th string: 2nd finger plays the 2nd fret
  • 4th string: 3rd finger plays the 2nd fret
  • 3rd string: 1st finger plays 1st fret
  • 2nd string: Play string open
  • 1st string: Play string open

E chord tab guitar


  • 6th string: Do not play
  • 5th string: Do not play
  • 4th string: Play string open
  • 3rd string: 1st finger plays 2nd fret
  • 2nd string: 3rd finger plays the 3rd fret
  • 1st string: 2nd finger plays the 2nd fret

d chord guitar tabs


Now, that you’re armed with the CAGED chords… What’s next?

In the next article in this series we’ll be looking at the classic rock song “Hey Joe” to put the CAGED chords into practice. Before we dive into that, however, let’s spend a few minutes talking about chord charts.


Reading Chord Charts

If you take a closer look at the “Hey Joe” Chord Chart you’ll notice that there are some symbols that may be new to you.

Hey Joe chord chart


  • Notice the five-line musical staff. On the staff notes are drawn to notate the melody of a song. In the case of this chord chart, rhythm slashes are used instead. These indicate the strumming pattern that is used to play the chords. This is called slash notation. When there is no discernible strumming pattern then you create your own pattern that is appropriate for the song.
  • At the beginning of the staff is a clef. The G or treble clef indicates that this music is written for and can be played on guitar.
  • The fraction that follows is called the time signature and tells us how to count the song or musical piece. For example, in this instance, the 4/4 time signature tells us that there are 4 beats per measure (the top number) and the quarter note gets the beat (the bottom number). If the time signature were to be 6/8 then it would tell us that there are 6 beats per measure (the top number) and the eighth note (1/8) gets the beat (the bottom number).
  • The staff is broken up into sections that are 4 beats each using horizontal lines called bar-lines. Each section of 4 beats is called a bar or measure.
  • The chords are indicated by the chord symbol and, in this case, the chord diagrams that appear above the staff. You should already be familiar with these.

This is a very basic overview of the elements used to read and write music notation but should be enough to get you started when we put the CAGED chords into practice.

Types of Flutes: The Modern Flute Family

The concert flute, or C flute, is what we think of when someone mentions the flute, and it is certainly the most widely played instrument in the flute family. Flutists start out learning the C flute, C flute silverand, if interested, add to their skills later by learning to play another type of flute from the flute family. Variety in flutes is not a new thing – flutes have been around for centuries, and transverse flutes, flutes that are held horizontal across the body rather than vertically, are illustrated in art as early as the Renaissance. If you’re a serious flute player – or just like to try new things and have a little fun – you may want to consider expanding your abilities to include other types of flutes in the modern flute family.


The types of flutes we find in the modern flute family especially started to develop in the 18th century, with solo players who wanted to extend the range the flute could play. Early attempts at extending range only slightly adjusted the size of the flute. In fact, this is where the separate foot joint was first introduced, allowing the flute to play as low as c1 or b1. But elongating the flute this way also caused problems. The difference in length and diameter of the cylinder reduced the fullness of the lower notes and also affected intonation and tone color. Overall, just trying to add more notes to the C flute wasn’t gaining range while keeping the sound and character of the flute. Flute makers needed to develop each size as its own instrument to perfect each of these instruments’ distinctive musical potential.


The Piccolo

The piccolo is by far the second most recognized of instruments in the flute family. Like the flute, the piccolo is a descendant of the military fife of the Middle Ages, which sounded at a tone above the piccolo. This is part of the reason piccolo is so popular in modern military marches. The piccolo’s history is very similar to that of the flute, but although it was developed in the 18th century, at about the same time as the flute, the piccolo only gained prominence a century later, when composers began using the piccolo regularly in orchestral works.


Composers first used the piccolo to extend the range of the flute. If the composer wanted a higher register than the flute allowed, the piccolo would be put on the melody with the flute playing harmony below it. The piccolo was also often used to decorate the melody using ornamentation.


Today, piccolo is used regularly in orchestral scores and opera. The piccolo can add brilliance to a march, or imitate the sound of birds, as in Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus. High, sharp sounds from the piccolo are used to represent sparks during a storm, and softer tones from the piccolo in unison with the flute can create a feeling of tranquility.

-Excerpt from Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus

The piccolo often has a bad reputation because it can sound shrill. It is also more difficult to play than the other types of flutes, especially in terms of intonation and tuning. Its smaller embouchure hole requires a tighter embouchure and a faster air stream, especially in the higher register. The higher register, also, is harder to tune anyway because of the smaller variation in wave length for each note. At about half the size of a C flute, piccolos sound a whole octave higher than the flute. The modern piccolo can play as low as d2, and as high as c5.


Modern piccolos are 12 ½ inches in length, with an embouchure hole of 10 millimeters in diameter, and finger holes of 6 millimeter in diameter. Because of the piccolo’s small size, foot joints were never developed on the piccolo, so they only have a head joint and a body joint.


types of flute piccoloPiccolos are made from wood, silver, plastic, or any combination of those materials. Wood piccolos are usually the best choice for orchestral work because they have a rounder sound; however, silver or plastic piccolos are much more popular in marching bands or other outdoor performances because they can withstand the moisture and temperature changes better than a wood piccolo can.


Though many think of the piccolo as a secondary instrument to the flute, it really has its own challenges and brings its own enjoyment. Apply yourself to learning to play the piccolo in its own right, and you can become a specialty player on this fun instrument.


The Alto Flute

The alto flute has many predecessors, dating back through the Renaissance. As flute makers worked to increase the range of the flute, they tried designs for a lower toned flute in Bb, A, Ab, G, F, Eb, and C. The development of the alto flute was also complicated for physical reasons. Lengthening the flute meant expanding the distance between the key holes, as well as between the embouchure hole and the keys, making it difficult for flutists to hold and to play.


The alto flute really settled on what it is today with the work of Theobald Boehm, who developed a system of correctly placed tone holes with a rod-axle mechanism, what we recognize on any flute alto flute classical flute typetoday as the finger keys. Boehm also recognized that just lengthening the C flute was not the way to create a great sounding instrument. Instead, he developed an alto flute that was in exact proportion to the C flute, creating a much more consistently beautiful sound.


The alto flute sounds in G, a fourth below the C flute. It is a transposing instrument, meaning the music is written in C and the instrument sounds a fourth below. It is usually about 34 inches long. To play the alto flute, flutists must use a slightly more relaxed embouchure and gentler air stream than for the C flute. The finger keys are still slightly spread from the C flute, but this is much less noticeable than in early versions.


Because of the large keys of the alto flute, it isn’t well suited to rapid fingering. But what the alto flute lacks in speed it makes up in its powerful tone and color, which is more mellow than the C flute. The alto flute’s sound can create mysterious, picturesque effects.


The alto flute is popular among recitalists. It has been used to accompany singers, and since the 19th century, it has been used in solo and chamber music, as well as orchestral works.


The Bass Flute

The least known and least played of the flute family, the bass flute has an obscure reputation, but certainly isn’t a type of flute to overlook. The bass flute sounds a full octave lower than the C flute and has a full, round sound.


bass flute type of fluteThe bass flute has always been a novelty. Partially this is because of the real challenge of designing such a large flute. The size of the bass flute has differed, usually being made anywhere from 50-60 inches in length. Flute makers have tried many different ways to accommodate the long length and heavy weight of the bass flute.


Most modern flutes use a U-bend head joint to place the embouchure hole closer to the finger holes, but many other types of construction have been attempted. Some bass flutes have been made with two bends in the head joint and the fingers holes extending vertically. This gives the bass flute a look more like a saxophone, but the sound is still made by blowing across the embouchure hole, rather than into the instrument. Other bass flutes have also been made with the tube of the flute bent diagonally below the embouchure hole and a brace which could rest on the player’s thigh to help support the instrument’s weight.


Because of these problems, it is still rare to find a bass flute part written in to any large work. Bass flute is primarily used in flute ensembles or special commercial orchestrations.


Flute Choir and Beyond….

When most people think of the flute, they only think of the concert flute, but the truth is the many types of flutes that make up the flute family are diverse. Though some have said the modern flute choir, which utilizes all of these types of flutes, is something only a flute player could love, the music written for flute ensembles really harnesses the strength of each of these unique instruments to create a truly unique sound.

Though performance opportunities are limited for some types of flutes, others are readily available. Expand your flute abilities and you’ll open yourself up to new music, new performance opportunities, and greater enjoyment of the beautiful, distinctive characteristics of each of the instruments in the modern flute family.

Jazz Exercises for Saxophone: Intermediate Studies in 12 Keys

Another Real Life Example of Playing in 12 Keys


saxophone jazz

In my last blog, I referenced a couple of instances of real life playing situations where you need to be able to play in 12 keys. In the first example, I talked about how playing in 12 keys is so rooted in jazz, whether as a rite of passage from jazz veterans to young jazz musicians or as a necessity for playing with singers in any genre. The second example was a real life experience of mine that involved playing in a wedding band where they expected me to play a four hour gig of pop songs a half step below the original recordings’ keys.


Another instance came up in my life recently where I was expected to be able to play equally and comfortably in 12 keys. I recently started playing saxophone at an urban gospel church in Brooklyn, New York. Contemporary gospel music has many interesting attributes, one of them being the constant modulations. It’s not unusual for a song to change keys three, four, or more times. The most common modulation is going up by a half step. Gospel music is a direct application of the digital patterns we worked on last time. Playing pop music isn’t incredibly complicated. You’re not taking chromatic lines through the keys; in pop music, you’re playing simple pentatonic and blues-based lines. Take, for example, the digital pattern 356 up to 1. I’m sure this sounds very familiar to you. It is one of the most common horn lines in pop music. So, it would be beneficial for you to learn to play it through all of the keys.


Another quick example of real life application is playing with blues bands or other guitar-centered groups. Non-jazz guitar players love open strings. Those open strings are E A D and G. So, those are the keys guitar players feel most comfortable playing in. Unfortunately, on saxophone those keys transpose to C# F# B E (Eb horns) and F# B E A (Bb horns). In this situation, you better feel as comfortable playing in C# as you do playing in C.


Brief Review from Part I


Before you read on, if you haven’t read the first installment of this blog series entitled “Jazz Exercises for the Saxophone: An Introduction to Playing in 12 Keys”, I highly suggest you take the time to read it before reading this one, as each successive post will build on the one before it.


Let’s start with a couple of warm-up exercises to make sure you properly digested the material from the first post. For the first example, I’ve taken the time to write out 1235 in half steps throughout the entire range of the saxophone to stress the importance of practicing these exercises in all possible registers.


Jazz Sax. Practice Exercise


Next, I’ve written out an exercise to practice the application of digital patterns to real life jazz situations. Last time we used a basic blues progression, so this time we’ll use a popular jazz standard for application practice. We’ll take the ‘A’ section from “Autumn Leaves” and apply the 1357 digital pattern exercise over it. I’ve written it out in both Eb for alto and bari saxophone (first line) and Bb for tenor and soprano saxophone (second line).


Saxophone Practice


After playing through the example provided, try to apply some other digital patterns. It would be beneficial to work through all the permutations of 1357: 1357, 1375, 1537, 1573, 1735, 1753, 3157, 3175, 3517, 3571, 3715, 3751, etc. In addition to these, you could use the 1235 digital patter in all of its permutations.



Chords vs. Progressions


When I was a young musician, I tried desperately to figure out jazz on my own. I had an interest in jazz and I definitely had the required discipline (and then some), but I couldn’t find a jazz saxophone teacher in my area. I had the desire to learn, but I didn’t have the tools. Jazz is often a process of trial and error, but it does help to have an instructor to guide you in the right direction.


One of my biggest problems was seeing each chord as its own entity. This is a problem for many reasons. It makes things more complicated than they have to be. Imagine reading a sentence and creative saxophone drawingseeing each word as its own thing, not related to the word that comes before it or after it. This process would make reading very labor intensive and time consuming. It would essentially mean you have a great understanding of vocabulary while having virtually no understanding of syntax. This leads to making things sound unnatural. I’ll explain this more later in the article.


Jazz musicians often have a great understanding of Music Theory, particularly in relation to harmony. Each chord is not its own entity; chords are not isolated or random. There are pre-dominants, dominants, and tonics. Jazz musicians understand this because they have to. This is a necessary part of being a great improviser.


With the digital pattern exercises, we were treating each chord as its own thing. Practicing digital patterns can feel like a tedious process and doesn’t sound very inspiring or interesting, but it’s a necessary first step. You need some understanding of vocabulary before you can begin to understand syntax. After understanding each chord on its own, connecting chords to create progressions is the next step.



The ii-V-I Progression


The ii-V-I progression is the most important progression in traditional jazz. Other jazz educators might think I’m crazy for making it a subheading in one installment of a series of blog posts. I could write a series completely on the ii-V-I progression. That’s how important it is. In fact, there are already thousands of method books, articles, videos, etc. that talk about the ii-V-I progression in detail. I suggest you seek out some of these valuable resources. However, for the purpose of the content of this blog, I believe this section is enough. But, I’m just letting you know how important it is.

In the example below, I’ve put a box around every time the ii-V-I progression happens in the ‘A’ section of “Autumn Leaves”.


Jazz Sax Progressions



“Autumn Leaves” illustrates both the ii-V-I in major and the iib5-V-i in minor. I’ve used “Autumn Leaves” as the example for continuity’s sake. I recommend opening up a Real Book or looking at some jazz lead sheets you have and looking for the ii-V-I progression. You might be surprised how often it occurs. It’s a major building block of many jazz standards. The ii-V-I is the syntax in the metaphor from earlier. The ii, the V, and the I are each the words that make up the ii-V-I sentence.


Common Resolutions


Now that you understand a little bit about chords vs. progressions, how can you make your improvising begin to sound a little more natural? One reason the digital patterns sound so unnatural is because there’s no connection between the chords; you’re treating each chord as its own entity. You play 1235 on one chord and then leap to 1235 on the next chord. It’s much more pleasing to the ear to connect to the next chord via half or whole step. There are many common resolutions, the most common being 7-3 and 3-7. In the example below, I’ve illustrated both of these resolutions. Notice how there is very little movement and no leaps between notes, as there were with the digital patterns. It may not sound interesting on its own. If you can either get someone to play the chords on the piano or find a play-along of “Autumn Leaves”, this exercise will be much more effective. With the chords, this example is much more pleasing to the ear than the digital patterns.


autumn leaves 12 keys

autumn leaves 12 keys ex



The 3-7 and 7-3 resolutions are the most common, but there are plenty of other examples. Some other examples that fit over the ii-V-I progression include 5-b9-5, 5-#9-7, 9-#5-7, etc. Once you’ve figured out the 3-7 and 7-3 resolutions over the ii-V-I progression in all 12 keys, try figuring out some other ones and see what sounds good to your ears.



Combining Digital Patterns and Common Resolutions


So, we’ve discussed how boring and unnatural digital patterns sound. We’ve also talked about how the common resolutions sound good but are too slow moving to be interesting as the sole base of an improvised solo. So what am I teaching you here? How to be a boring improviser? How to be a boring jazz musician? Well, here’s where this stuff begins to pay off. We’ve got all the permutations of digital patterns and we understand how to connect chords via common resolutions. When we combine these two, things start to come together. The following example demonstrates this over “Autumn Leaves” once again.


Autumn Leaves improv for Jazz Sax



In this example, we’re using digital patterns in multiple permutations, so it doesn’t sound monotonous. We’re connecting chords via half or whole step, which creates interest and makes it sound like we’re going somewhere, rather than just playing isolated patterns. We’re moving in quarter notes, so it doesn’t sound so slow moving. Sure, it might sound more like a simple bass line than a jazz saxophone player’s improvisation, but it requires a competent understanding of theory and harmony. These jazz exercises are purely exercises in harmony. Try playing the above example, but altering the rhythm. This creates a little more interest, and could potentially make for a good solo.



Summary of Part II


The first installment of my blog series “Jazz Exercises for the Saxophone” discussed the importance of 12 keys and provided the beginning of a systematic approach for learning to feel comfortable playing in every key. This second installment presented some new information that, when combined with the material from the previous lesson, can begin to make you feel comfortable playing over jazz standards.


We learned about the ii-V-I progression and how to begin to approach it. I briefly mentioned flipping through the pages of a Real Book and searching for the ii-V-I progression wherever you can find it (which will be many places). I highly recommend using the digital patterns, the common resolutions, and a combination of these two approaches over several jazz standards. For starters, I recommend playing over the blues, any rhythm changes (“I Got Rhythm”), “Autumn Leaves”, “How High the Moon”, “Solar”, and, if you’re looking for a challenge, “Cherokee”. These tunes are filled with ii-V-Is. “Cherokee” hits seven keys in one song.



jazzy saxophone graphicAnother way to practice the digital patterns and common resolutions over the ii-V-I progression is to run through the ii-V-I progression in 12 keys. Remember, the point of this blog series is to have you end up feeling comfortable playing through all the keys. You can practice this by using the root movements, as discussed in the last lesson (cycle, whole steps, half steps, minor 3rds, etc.) As an exercise, write out the ii-V-I in all the keys, in different root movements, so you have a visual while practicing. Ultimately, the ii-V-I progression should just be inherent in your mind.


Take the time to really digest all the information provided above. It’s a lot of information. There are no shortcuts in learning jazz, learning to improvise, learning to play in 12 keys. I’m trying to guide you in the right direction, but this stuff takes hours and hours of practice. I suggest finding a private teacher to assist you and make sure you’re understanding each successive lesson before moving on to the next. It also helps to have someone else play the examples for you, or with you, or play the respective chords on the piano. Jazz is an aural tradition. Ear training should be part of your daily practice. I’m available in the New York City area as well as for online lessons. Good luck practicing.



A Case for Early Childhood Music Education

When I was young, there weren’t a lot of organized activities or private lessons available for children in the three to five year old age range. Swim classes, dance classes, gymnastics, and a slew of other options for youngsters seems to be a more recent phenomenon, at least to this original small town girl. While the more overtly physical activities have gained momentum over the years, why not consider early childhood music education?

piano keyboard kids music

There is a world of opportunity for our youngest kiddos to participate in music making from the earliest ages, birth even, from Suzuki inspired lessons to an exploratory early childhood music and movement class. Now I know what you may be thinking: “Music? For a newborn or a three-year-old?” Absolutely. Think of the ways our children learn: from their environment, by imitating others, by exploring the world around them, and learning through trial and error. Although these characteristics may not be exclusive to musical experiences, they are inextricably linked to the way music and learning takes place for our youngest musicians. There are many reasons our children should participate in a rich musical environment from as early of an age as possible. Here are four for you to think about.


1. Children learn from their environment

One of the first questions I receive from parents who are contemplating music education for their younger child is whether or not it is too soon. Well, it depends. If you are talking about a three year old who you wish to begin formal piano instruction, I’m not sure his fine motor skills are developed enough to accommodate the proper technique needed to play the instrument. Additionally, his emotional maturity, and size alone, could be major roadblocks. Another issue is purely attention span. A one on one lesson where a student is asked to rote memorize note names on the lines and spaces of the staff is not going to hold a three-year-old’s attention for more than three minutes, and may be a concept simply too abstract for that age group. But what if he were playing a game with other three-year-olds? Not only would it hold his attention for much longer, but he would also learn from watching and observing other children.infant music lesson


I have taught music classes for children as young as 0 years old. Yes, a music class for newborns and their parents. I know what you’re thinking; do those infants even know what’s going on? Well, they obviously can’t verbalize or show us the steady beat, but they can experience it in their mother’s arms and by watching other babies bounced in their fathers’ laps. The point is, so much learning is from our environment. Social cognitive theorists study how we learn from our environment, through modeling and positive and negative reinforcement of others. Taking this into account, group music lessons or classes are inextricably valuable for our youngest learners who are just beginning to learn their place in the musical world.


2. Early childhood music education lays foundational knowledge through exploration and experimentation

Obviously these very young students who are infants or toddlers are not going to be playing a Bach Sonata or composing rhythm patterns after a series of group musical experiences.  However, the very nature of early childhood music, and early childhood in and of itself is play. It is often said that play is children’s work, and this is certainly the case with play in early childhood music education. Initial experiences are just that, the beginning, the foundation, the place from which inspiration and curiosity stems. The earlier our children have the opportunity to be immersed and explore within a rich musical environment, the more musical vocabulary they will develop.


general music class Let’s go back to the three year old whose parents wish for him to begin piano lessons ASAP. Indeed, a child at this young age will not be able to play four octave scales in sixteenth note patterns, but he could be placed with a teacher who understands his current stage of cognitive development and focuses on foundational skills in music. This can be done through a number of ways, whether game based or purely exploratory. These early experiences provide an entry point from which young musicians blossom.


If you were to take a peek inside a kindergarten music class, you would see this exploration model first hand. Students learn songs, play games, tell stories, and imagine different ways to express themselves with and through music. Much like learning a language, these students are learning to speak before they read and write.


3. Early experiences develop music vocabulary

We know from research that the early years in a child’s life are the most critical for development. Although this may be a sweeping generalization, it has broadly been shown that as time goes away our brain picks and chooses what attributes to keep through the process of pruning. However, the brain has great plasticity, and we can certainly continue to learn new skills at various stages of life. But just as it is said that learning a foreign language is easier as a child, the same is true of the musical language.


early childhood music educationThink of the ways a child learns to speak. She listens, she explores, she babbles, she imitates, she observes to make connections between sounds and symbols. This goes on and on until she finally connects the word “ball” to the round rubber thing the dog catches and eventually forms her mouth correctly to make the sound. The same thing happens in music. She listens, she explores, she experiments, she imitates, and begins to make connections between high and low and loud and quiet. That is, as long as she has had a musical environment or model from which to explore and imitate.


I have had many students where their first musical experience is in my kindergarten music class. I have also had many students who come from a home where there is music ever present, either by a parent or a sibling or otherwise. As the teacher, I can often tell which student is which. Those who have had a musical foundation prior to my class are ready to learn the words and read and write the language, but those who haven’t still need an interpreter.

4. Early childhood music is social, but also develops interpersonal skills and awareness

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that most parents do not enroll their students in activities for the sake of the activities themselves. You don’t sign your child up to play soccer so they can go on to win the World Cup, just like you don’t sign your child up for violin lessons so they can be the next Joshua Bell. That may be an exciting benefit, but hopefully not the basis of the appeal. The real reasons are so that children can come to know their place in the world and learn skills that help them interact with others. But also, so they can come to know themselves.


A continually toted benefit of music education is that it teaches students hard work and dedication. By playing an instrument or performing in an ensemble, they learn to make goals, strive for excellence, and work hard. That’s all good and true, but music education is not the only activity that helps those things. What makes music education, and specifically early childhood music education unique, is the process.


musical playBy observing others in a rich musical environment, our youngest musicians not only build vocabulary or learn from their peers, but they begin to develop their own musical tastes and personalities. This helps them find not only an identity as a young musician, but a young human being. Playing a game of “Ring Around the Rosie,” a kid might learn to sing a simple melody, walk in a circle, and “all fall down.” But he also learns that Johnny pulls and makes the circle cave in, Jane holds his hand too tight so he doesn’t want to stand next to her again, and Jude never “falls down” which ruins the game. But while he is making these observations, he is still walking to a steady beat, singing in head voice, and paying attention to form so he knows when to drop, all developing music vocabulary. Then, there is the whole host of extra musical renderings that take place in a music lesson that otherwise may not have transpired.



Early childhood music education is vital to a child’s development. It doesn’t matter whether or not they plan to play at Carnegie Hall or sing with the Houston Opera. These early experiences lay a foundation and develop a vocabulary so that they might come to understand the orchestra piece, or pick up on emotion in the opera, because they are a product of a rich musical environment. The vocabulary built through early experiences and explorations in a rich musical environment not only provides a foundation on which to build more complex musical concepts and skills, but gives our children the opportunity to develop the skills needed to interact with one another and understand themselves.

Belt Mix Untangled: A 5-Step Guide

Have you ever tried to learn a new song and found yourself straining to reach certain pitches, resorting to “shout-singing” or flipping into your head voice? It’s an incredibly frustrating feeling to not be able to seamlessly maneuver through the middle part of your vocal range and sing with the freedom you want—enter the belt mix.

microphone for singing


What Exactly is Belt Mix?

larynx and vocal maskTo clarify belt mix, we must first talk about belting as an independent vocal technique. Belting is simply the act of singing in chest voice past where the singer’s natural break, or passaggio, occurs and higher into the vocal range. We frequently hear singers belting in contemporary music, from pop and rock to musical theater. While many current professional singers use belting, that doesn’t mean that belting is always the most successful way to sing higher in the range and can actually cause a great deal of damage to the vocal cords if used incorrectly. As a voice teacher, I’ve never taught a student to belt unless belting already came naturally to the student and was produced in a healthy, natural way. I do, however, teach students who wish to sing repertoire that requires belting and have trouble singing fully above their breaks to use belt mix.


Belt mix occurs when the singer negotiates singing in chest voice and head voice simultaneously through the middle of the range (the part of your range above your break), hence the “mix” of the two resonators. The result of using belt mix is a well-supported voice that feels easy and free for the singer and sounds like belting to the listener. The technique specifically alleviates the pressure felt in the throat and neck that occurs when belting while still maintaining a fullness of sound. If done correctly, belt mix will provide accessibility to many of those songs that previously felt too hard, or too high, to sing and will add longevity to the voice, allowing the singer to keep practicing and performing safely for years.


How to Use Belt Mix in Five Steps

It should be emphasized that learning to use belt mix, like any other vocal technique, takes a lot of time and patience and should be done with the help of a teacher. Just remember that you are belt mix lessonbuilding the foundation for healthy, sustainable vocal production.


  1. Take a quick mental body scan—are you holding tension anywhere in the body unnecessarily? Are you locking your knees? Hunching forward? Gripping your jaw? If so, take a few minutes to do some gentle stretching to release tightness and set up a sense of good, natural posture in the body. In order to achieve the best results when you are singing, your body should feel as free and uninhibited as possible.


  1. Set up your breath—take a few large, slow inhales and exhales (keeping the shoulders and neck relaxed!) to get the breath going. A little trick I like to use when setting up my breath is to imagine the origin of my inhale in the bottoms of my feet, and then I inhale up through my legs, torso, spine, and out the top of my head before exhaling completely. Breaths that start low in the body and helps ground you will make a huge difference in your practice.


  1. Find your break (or passaggio)—use the following vocal exercise to identify where your break begins. You are specifically looking for the point in which you can no longer sing in your chest voice with ease: beginning on A3 (A below middle C), sing Do-Re-Mi-Re-Do (A-B-C#-B-C). Then, move up the scale by half step (for example, the next round of the exercise would start on B♭) until you’ve reached your break. Once you’ve found the break, flip into head voice (to avoid pushing the voice) and continue up the scale for a few pitches. Maybe try coming back down the scale and observing whether the voice transitions from head to chest in the same place (oftentimes, we can carry the head voice lower in the register when singing descending scales). The key at this point is to feel very clearly when you are in chest voice and when you are in head voice.

exercise to find passaggio


  1. Find your forward placement—the next step is to bring the voice forward. Finding a forward placement in the face (sometimes referred to as “the mask”) achieves a belt mix sound most easily. Here’s a little trick to find forward placement: hum the exercise mentioned in Step 3 from A3 until you reach a few pitches above your break on an “ng” hum (tongue raised, mouth open). You should feel very little transition through the break and more flexibility than when you sang during the previous step. Now try the singing the same exercise once again on an “Ee” vowel (like the word, “knee”), keeping the voice resonating in the same places in the face as when singing the “ng” hum.


  1. Engage your full breath support—yes, we are coming back to the breath because it’s THAT important for successful results. Start by taking a low, long inhale, imagining that you are filling your entire torso with air (front, back, sides). Then, sing the exercise from Step 3 and Step 4 from A3 through your break one more time on an “Ee” vowel. As you sing each phrase, imagine someone squeezing your sides down near your hipbones (low in the torso) like someone would squeeze a plastic ketchup bottle. Using this engagement in the torso, your voice will have the support it needs to carry it through the break without causing any tightness or feeling of pushing in the throat. The sensation in the body while singing the exercise at this point will feel more similar to singing in head voice than in chest voice—this is exactly what you want to feel. If tightness or pushing occurs, go back down the scale and try again with fully engaged breath.

word breathe


When you try out these steps to learn how to use belt mix during your next practice session, please remember that you are learning to coordinate and use your voice in a completely new way. It’s not easy, but your singing will feel so much more effortless and flexible once you can sing with belt mix. Record yourself every now and then to track progress and adjust your practice as needed. With some patience and diligence, you will be singing more freely and fully than you ever imagined in no time!



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