Author Archives: mrskeys

How to get the most out of your private lessons


As a longtime teacher of music, and even longer student of music, I have had the opportunity to learn via trial and error many methods that have served me and my students. Since we’re getting ready for back to school, and I’m getting ready to welcome a bunch of new students into my studio, I thought I’d share a list of tips on how to get the most out of your private lessons.  Private lessons ain’t cheap, so why not get absolutely everything you can out of them!

  1. Practice

Obviously, you must have known that this would be number 1.   Not only does practicing help you to master the many skills your teacher is teaching you, but it also helps for you to make discoveries, be creative and enjoy your lessons even more.  Aim to practice a little bit every day, even five or ten minutes and increase the length of each session once you’ve established the habit. You’ll find you love your lessons even more!

  1. Get to know your teacher

I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had people studying with me, and they have no idea what my training is or even my performance experience.  Not having a clue about your teacher means you’re not getting the most out of them.  Find out how they got into music, where they studied, what their performance background is and how long they’ve been teaching.  Ask your teacher about their experiences as a student, performer and teacher, or at the very least check out their website so you know who you’re working with!

  1. Ask questions

There is nothing I love more than for a student to ask questions. Not only does it help me to structure our work to suit their needs, but it also gives me feedback on the work we’re doing.  Be an active participant in your lessons and you will grow so much more as a musician.  Teachers love to answer your questions!

  1. Do your research

I always love it when my students dig a little deeper into the work we’re doing.  It’s always a good idea to listen to recordings of songs that you are working on, so you can get a sense of how the music is performed.  Watch YouTube videos of professionals, amateurs and students performing, so you can get a sense of what is possible.  It’s also a great idea to research the composers of the music you are learning and even the era of music, so you can get a sense of history and context.

  1. Record your lessons

I make all of my voice students record their lessons, so they can practice along with “me” between sessions.  I have some of my piano students doing this now, as it is extremely helpful to hear directions over and over again and to hear how they sound when they are playing.  Keeping an archive of lessons (I have every lesson I’ve ever taken saved in a folder in my Dropbox) helps you to go back an review past work, and it also helps for you to check in to see how much you have grown.  All you need is a smart phone and you’re good to go!

  1. Perform

Performance is something that can be tricky for people, but it’s important to remember that music is a performing art.  I always urge my students to find a way to perform in a context that they feel comfortable with, in order to grow as a musician.  It’s good to move through nerves in order to get to the core of the music, plus it’s a great way to have a goal to work towards.  You don’t have to book a concert hall to do it either: consider a nursing home, a school or even just have a few friends or family members over.  You’ll be bringing joy to them as you develop your skills.

Back to school time is always a great opportunity to start new habits and to dig a little deeper into your work.  Try out a few of these tips and let me know how it’s helped you!


How to get ready for your fall piano/voice lessons

Now that summer is winding down and our minds are on the back to school crunch, I have been getting several questions on how to prepare to start up piano/voice lessons again after summer holidays, or really any holidays when you’ve been away from your music routine for longer than a few days.

Around here (NYC), most children of school age attend camp – either sleep away or day camp, and it is rare that any of them have an instrument or even the time to practice on.   Or maybe you’re an adult student or even a professional musician/music teacher who has been away from the instrument for a few weeks and you want to get back up to speed, PRONTO.  Here are some tips to help get you (or your child) going again

  1. Get organized

The number one step to get ready for the school year is to gather all of your materials and get them organized. Yep, locate your piano books, dictation books, music binder and recordings of your lessons and get them all in one place.  Then get organized – punch holes, put in order, label, etc to make sure that everything you need is in one place.  Don’t throw anything out without discussing with your teacher first!

  1. Review

Now that your materials are assembled and meticulously organized, you should have a look over what you covered in the last term.  What songs were you working on?  What skills were you trying to develop?  What were some of the challenges you had?  Remind yourself where you left off.

  1. Create a short technical routine

If you’re a pianist, put together a few of the technical patterns together that you were working on, either scales or an etude or two.  If you’re a singer, work with a recording of a past lesson, preferably one that’s on the easier side.  Don’t start with a two-hour practice session, as you may injure yourself hitting too hard the first few times.  Give yourself a short 15 to 20 minute session once or twice a day while you build your chops back up.

  1. Reflect

Make a list of what you achieved last semester.  Did you finally sing that high A?  Did you play something very technically challenging? Did you write music for the first time? Write down a list.  Then, make a list of what you had difficulty with and even what you didn’t like about your work last term.  That might give you some clues as to what needs to be addressed this term, and will give your teacher some insight on how to structure learning for this term.

  1. Plan

Think about what you would like to accomplish this term.  Are there songs or pieces you have been inspired by?  Have you noticed deficiencies in your playing?  Did you hear some music this summer that inspired you? Make a list and bring it to your teacher.  I love it when my students come to me with an agenda and list of goals, so that we can come up with a flexible plan together!

  1. Commit

Now is the time to have a good look at your/your child’s fall schedule and figure out when the best time to practice will be. So many people don’t do this and it can cause so much stress!  Study the week’s activities and see when the best time to practice should be.  Maybe you’re a morning person, or you do best before bed.  Maybe Wednesdays are going to be crazy this year, so you won’t be able to practice. Try to come up with creative solutions to make sure practice happens every day, even if only for a short time. If the schedule is crazy packed every single day, maybe it is time to scale back and let go of a few commitments. Better now than when you’re exhausted and worn out in October.

I’m all about organization and reflection when it comes to music.  As a business owner, performer and mother to a school aged son, scheduling and organization is my best friend.  Also, remember that taking lessons is a partnership between teacher and student and the more you participate in the process, the more you’ll get out of it.

Now, get out there and enjoy the end of summer…and start practicing!


How I confronted my limiting beliefs (and how you can too!)

I have been thinking and reading a lot about limiting beliefs and how our brains can be programmed to think something is impossible even if it isn’t.  These limiting beliefs hold us back from moving forward in our lives, our relationships and our businesses and keep us “stuck”.

Back in May, I listened to an episode of one of my favorite podcasts, Happier by Gretchen Rubin, which addressed exactly this topic.  (Here is the episode to check out!). It got me thinking about what was holding me back.

For years I have been working with singers, voice teachers and songwriters, helping them to develop skills at the piano to support their music and even their livelihood.  Ever since I posted an online video giving piano tips for singers, I have dreamed of creating an online course designed to be an affordable and efficient way to help singers develop the piano skills they need.  But, I had never gotten around to doing it.  Why?

Well, that would have involved me buying equipment, learning how to use it, learning how to professionally edit the material and figure out how to get the whole thing formatted and uploaded online.  I am terrible with technology and computers, I am easily frustrated and am historically awful at following instructions.  Basically, I can’t create this course because I SUCK AT TECHNOLOGY.  After listening to the podcast, I thought to myself “is this a limiting belief?”  Clearly this belief in my sucking at technology was holding me back from a dream project.  I decided to hit it head on.

I bought the equipment and software, watched dozens of YouTube instructional videos, beta tested the equipment, tried camera angles, you name it.  I paid a web designer to set it all up on my website and launched it and people started buying it.  It was amazing.   And then it crashed.  I got a massive malware infection and the whole thing kind of blew up.

Good time to give up, right?  I felt a bit discouraged, but then I remembered how far I had come.  I learned to use complicated equipment, how to professionally edit video, how to set up lighting and how to mount it all online, and I even learned how to write code for WordPress.  How could I let one little (big) website crash hold me back?  So, I researched another online platform, re-edited the entire course, fixed my website (with help from my pal Evan), transferred my domains over to a more secure hosting site (thank you and re-launched.  It took a lot of time, but I was shocked at how calm, cool and collected I was during the entire process).

The irony of this process is not lost on me.  I created a course to help singers confront their limitations at the piano, and in order to do so I had to confront my limitations with technology.  This is yet another case of “If I can do it, you sure as heck can!”  CLICK HERE to see the online course in all it’s splendor!!

Check out the video below to see a promo video I made for my course. (I did it all by myself!!!)

The Paperless Studio – How Getting Rid of the paper saved my sanity and saved me a ton of money!

The Paperless Studio – How Getting Rid of the paper saved my sanity and saved me a ton of money!

So. Much. Paper.

Paper is an often complained about component of adult life.  We are inundated with junk mail, catalogues and papers that pile up on all available flat surfaces at home and work.  Nobody knows more about those dreaded papers than the music teacher.

I run a private studio for voice and piano lessons in our home in New York City.  My studio is our former dining room that has soundproof walls and a door.  The entire area of the studio is 7’x12’ – smaller than the guest bathrooms of my friends in the suburbs!  In a small room like mine, space is at a major premium and as a business owner, performing musician and mom I need to be organized to stay sane.

In my studio I teach piano, voice, songwriting and musicianship to students of all ages, from young children to adults to high level professionals.  Teaching all of these different subjects means that I have a lot of materials that I need to use on any given day.  Jazz piano handouts, lead sheets, notated exercises, theory sheets, sight reading examples, and for my voice students I have all of their music too.  And, I have to be prepared for anyone to come in at any time needing repertoire for auditions and performances (did I mention I’m also an accompanist and vocal coach?). I have to have thousands of songs at my fingertips at a moment’s notice.

In my old studio when I was single and living alone in a huge apartment in a pre-war building, I taught in a large room that had a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf full of books, plus two four-drawer filing cabinets filled to the brim.  When we moved to our current apartment, I ended up with a much smaller space, which meant that I had to drastically rethink my space.  Once I got all of those materials into my space, there was barely enough room for my piano and the space felt stuffy and overwhelming. Not a particularly inspiring space for my students to feel creative in.  I needed to make a change.  NOW.

My first step was to take everything out of the filing cabinet and put it into piles.  There were SO.MANY.PILES.  Once I had everything in a loose order, I made some big discoveries.

  1. I had duplicate, triplicate and even quadruplicate copies of almost everything.
  2. I had rough drafts and past edits of a lot the choral music and other music I had written over the years. In some cases, I have every draft I ever did.  It was massive pile!
  3. I had kept a lot of “just in case” paper, that I quite simply didn’t need. (Tax returns from 10 years before, old phone bills, music that was missing pages, etc)

I started out by sorting through everything I had and throwing out anything that I had duplicate or triplicate copies of.  It turns out that I had hundreds of pages of duplicate music, that I was happy to let go of.  Anything that was left over from the purge was neatly organized and put into labeled file folders.  I had rid myself of 10 huge recycling bags, and was now down to only one file cabinet. Was this all I could do?

I had heard of musicians using a tablet instead of hard copy sheet music and I was intrigued.  As a matter of fact, Harry Connick, Jr had been doing this for years.  I wondered if it was possible to go completely paperless. But how?

I started out by scanning all the single-sided loose sheets using a commercial copy machine at the school I was teaching at.  I would put a stack of papers in the top loader and zip-zap-zoop, it would save them all as a pdf, which I would email to myself.  Every time I went in to teach, I would bring another stack, until I had finished.  I then named and organized all these pdfs into files.  In my “Music” file, I had folders for pop, jazz, music theater (arranged by voice types), etc. and in my “Education” file I had folders for jazz piano, theory worksheets, sight reading, etc.

For the remaining papers that were double sided, of irregular size I switch to a bed scanner (I used an Epson Perfection V-300), where I would scan a few sheets whenever I had a few minutes here and there.  I would often get some scanning in if a there was a last-minute cancelation or if a student was running late.

I organized all the files into folder by types and backed the whole shebang to two external hard drives, because I never ever want to lose this material!  (And I don’t always trust computers). Some of my folders are “Music”, where I have subfolders like Pop, Jazz, Choral, Music Theater and “Education” which contains Jazz Lead Sheets, Sight reading sheets and Theory sheets.

Once everything was scanned and organized, I shredded and recycled about 80% of that paper.  I got rid of around 20 clear recycling bags of paper and emptied an entire 4-drawer filing cabinet and 8 storage boxes.  It was incredible how much paper I had been storing that I didn’t even need. 

Everything is saved in my Dropbox app, which I can access via wi-fi on my iPad, my iPhone or any computer with internet access.  I take my iPad with me when I go on tour, or if I’m teaching outside my studio and have no issues having my entire library with me at all times. I can easily print to my wireless printer (I use an Epson XP-330) or I can email the pdf to my student to print at home.

I use the PDF Reader pro for all the material I use on a regular basis (forScore is also great), so I am able to access everything without needing a wi-fi connection.  The app allows me to write on the scores to make note of key changes, tempo markings, etc. I have several folders organized by student names, plus a “work” folder which contains music that I am personally working on.  I even bring the iPad to gigs, as I have PDFs of a bunch of Fakebooks.

Was this a lot of work?  Heck, yes! But I chipped away at it over the course of a single semester.  And, I can firmly report that this has completely changed my life in so many ways.

Thanks to my (almost) paperless studio, I discovered that I was wasting hundreds of dollars a year on photocopies I didn’t need to make, and sheet music I didn’t need to buy.  Since I am organized now, it’s easy for me to find what my students need and then send them to or to buy their materials.

Since going paperless, I now have my students send me pdfs of their music, so they no longer need to print two copies of everything.   If they bring in something new, I can scan it quickly using the Genius Scan app ( it may be my favorite app ever.)  If someone forgets their music, it’s easy for me to access it on my second iPad (I have an iPad mini that we use on airplanes with our young son) and pass it on to my student.  No more wasted lesson due to forgotten music or even worse (for me!) no more wasted paper and ink (and money!!) having to print everything out a second time

I also have several packets of theory and jazz piano material that is ready to print wirelessly whenever I am working with a student.  I no longer have to keep multiple copies of these materials, as I now just print as I go.

Although it took some effort, going paperless was one of the best things I did for myself and my business.  What steps have you made to make your business run smoother?

I Had Nodules and This Is What I Learned

By: Brenda Earle Stokes, BFA, M.Mus

In 2016, after a bad bout of reflux, I noticed that my voice was getting hoarse.  Assuming that it was some combination of my allergies and fatigue from life in general, I did a little voice rest and drank extra water.  One week, two weeks, three weeks went by and it wasn’t getting better.  That’s when I panicked.  What if something was really wrong?? Continue reading

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About SLPs (but were afraid to ask)

An Interview with SLP Leanne Goldberg MS, CCC-SLP

By Brenda Earle Stokes, BFA, M.Mus.

Leanne Goldberg is a Speech and Language Pathologist at the Grabscheid Voice and Swallowing Center at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

Back in 2016, I was diagnosed as having vocal fold nodules.  My laryngologist recommended speech therapy, but at the time his SLP on staff was on maternity leave.  When I asked around, Leanne Goldberg’s name came up, and it turns out I already knew her socially.  She provided me with excellent care, provided me with six weeks of highly effective treatment and helped me to recover and improve my speech habits.  She was so caring towards me during this highly upsetting time in my career and was quick to answer me when I reached out for additional support. Continue reading

Allergies be gone! An Interview with my allergist Dr. Michael Lewin

Required listening…Allergies by Barenaked Ladies

It’s that time of year again!

It’s April in NYC and just we’re getting excited to finally put away our heavy coats and observe the buds on the trees and the blooming of flowers, a great many of us allergy sufferers knows what this means.  It’s time for the sniffling, sneezing, watery eyes nightmare that is spring.  And if you’re a singer, this may be a worse time of year for you than even cold and flu season. Continue reading

An End to Allergies?

Allergies are rampant these days, and can be especially debilitating for singers.  Allergies can cause stuffed nose, mucus in the throat, coughing, sneezing and even wheezing.  Left untreated, laryngitis and other vocal issues can rear their ugly heads.  I was one of these poor people.  I struggled with terrible allergies, which would often hinder my vocal performances.  Over the counter medications like antihistamines would help with the allergies but would dry me out and cause even more laryngitis.  Replacing my laryngitis with more laryngitis was not a happy solution. Continue reading

So You Don’t Have to Marry A Piano Player!

My first instrument is piano. Lessons starting at age 4, Royal Conservatory training until grade 9, when I quit to take up jazz piano full time. I spent the entire four years of university transcribing Bud Powell solos and practicing in the “woodshed” for 8 hours a day. Besides a little singing in the church choir when I was a kid, I didn’t really start singing seriously until I was in my early 20s. Continue reading