Author Archives: mrskeys

Which Piano Skills for Singers course is right for me?

Now that there are three courses live at Piano Skills for Singers, I have been getting a lot of questions about which course to choose.  This quick little list should help you get started choosing the perfect course to help you get secure at the keyboard.  If you have any other questions, please don’t hesitate to email me at brendaearle30 (at) gmail (dot) com. I’m here to help!

Level 1 is for you if:

  • You have never played piano before
  • You haven’t played piano in a long time
  • You want a simple starting point
  • You want to get back into a practice routine and regain some technical fluidity

Level 2 is for you if:

  • You have completed Level 1
  • You have piano experience, but there are a lot of gaps in your ability
  • You need to learn how to play chords
  • You need to learn how to create your own accompaniments
  • You need to learn how to play voice exercises in 12 keys easily

Jazz Piano Accompaniment is for you if:

  • You have taken Level 2
  • You are a classically trained pianist and want to learn jazz
  • You want to learn how to play from a fake book
  • You can play chords and you want to play authentic jazz accompaniments

*If you can’t play chords fluidly, you can purchase the “Learn to Play Chords Symbols” course at a deep discount.

Do you have to be a singer to take Piano Skills for Singers?

Absolutely not!  Although these courses are geared towards singers, anyone would benefit from these well organized and easy-to-use courses.  Sign up now – all courses are 50% off through May 1st, 2020!

Level 1:  $99 NOW $49, Level 2:  $199 NOW $99, Jazz Piano Accompaniment:  $179 NOW $89

If you need help deciding which Piano Skills for Singers Course is right for you, please email me at brendaearle30@gmail.com and I’ll help you!

What Piano Skills Do Singers Need?

As a follow up to my blog post “How does piano training fail singers?”, I wanted to make a clear list of the actual skills that singers need in order to be successful.   Let’s face it:  many of us are going to need to be employed in a range of different ways in order to piece together a living.  Many of the job opportunities available to singers require strong keyboard skills.  Here is my master list of skills singers need.

All singers should be able to:

  • Play voice exercises in 12 keys hands separately
  • Play major and minor triads in 12 keys hands separately
  • Play melodies in the right hand with decent fingerings
  • Create simple accompaniments using chords (“faking”)

This basic skill set will enable a singer to practice on their own, accompany themselves, teach voice lessons, work as a section leader of a chorus, direct a community chorus and lead a singalong with children or adults.

In addition to these above skills, here are a list of piano skills that singers in different genres need.

Pop singers should be able to:

  • Play seventh chords and sus chords in 12 keys
  • Create simple accompaniments that include a bass line in the left hand
  • Play different rhythmic grooves in good time

Jazz singers should be able to:

  • Play seventh chords in 12 keys
  • Play from a lead sheet
  • Walk a bass line in the left hand, while comping rhythms in the right hand
  • Play jazz chord voicings
  • Play a Bossa Nova and other Latin grooves

Music Theatre singers should be able to:

  • Play voice exercises in 12 keys hands separately
  • Play major and minor triads in 12 keys hands separately
  • Play melodies in the right hand, while playing bass notes or chords in the left hand
  • Fake accompaniments of a variety of styles

Classical singers should be able to:

  • Play melodies in the right hand with correct articulation
  • Do simple chord analysis of scores, jotting in chord symbols
  • Play classical style accompaniments like Alberti bass and rolled adagio styles
  • Play at least 2 parts at a time of SATB choral music

Choral Conductors should be able to:

  • Play 2, 3 and 4 parts at a time of SATB choral music
  • Play a wide range of accompaniments for vocal warm-ups
  • Conduct from the piano, while playing exerpts of the score

General Music teachers should be able to:

  • Play simple accompaniments and sing at the same time
  • Play accompaniments for vocal warm-ups
  • Play interpretive music for movement and interpretation

Early Childhood Music Teachers should be able to:

  • Lead a singalong while creating simple accompaniments on the piano
  • Play and sing without looking at the keyboard (looking at student’s faces instead)
  • Play interpretive music for movement and interpretation

I have had the luxury of being employed in every single role I have listed here and these skills have been wildly helpful in my being successful in each position.

Have I overlooked any skills on this list?  Leave a reply above!

Are you missing any of these skills?  Don’t fret!  It is possible to learn each of these skills quickly, easily and inexpensively, with some work and consistency.  Check out Piano Skills for Singers – the only online piano course for singers, created by a singer.

How does piano training fail singers?

I am a singer who has the great advantage of being a pianist.  Piano is my first instrument and I was lucky enough to obtain quality instruction from the age of four.  When I entered the professional world, I realized what a huge asset my piano training was.  I was frequently being chosen for job opportunities as a voice teacher, choral director and general music educator over highly qualified singers, simply because I was able to play piano.

Thanks to my piano training, I have had the great pleasure to teach a great many singers to play piano.  What surprised me is that many of these singers had received extensive piano training, both privately and in college piano classes and yet they were still unable to function in a basic level in a vocation setting.  What went wrong?

Many of these singers blamed themselves, saying that they hadn’t practiced enough, or they were just “bad at piano” or how somehow there was something wrong with their musicianship.  That seemed impossible to me, especially since several of these supposedly “bad musicians” were elite singers, performing internationally.  (A couple of them were even Grammy nominated). So, what was the problem?

What I discovered was that the singers hadn’t failed at the piano training, it was the piano training that had failed the singers.  When I examine the syllabi of many piano classes for non-majors, I am struck by what so many of those courses entail.  There is a near-universal focus on playing scales hands together, playing challenging classical pieces hands together and tackling a variety of cadences – topics that are indeed helpful for building piano skills.  However, so much time is being spent on these challenging tasks, but is this actually useful for singers?

First of all, it is important to note that many of this traditional material was developed by pianists.  That makes sense – or does it?  These traditional piano training methods were developed to assist in building the skills a classical pianist would need in order to perform classical music.  Does this serve singers, choral conductors and general music teachers?  My contention is: absolutely not.

The more singers I trained at the keyboard, it became clear that a different approach was necessary to ensure that the right material was being taught and reinforced so that they were equipped to retain skills that would have vocational impact.  In short, singers need to learn how to play piano material that they will actually use in the professional world.  Not just pass a required class.

Here are two examples of how I approach piano training for singers.

 Scales

Playing scales hands together requires learning the particular fingerings required of each key.  This is a very time-consuming process that requires frequent repetition to learn and many months or years of repetition in order to actually retain this as a skill.  Instead of working on scales, I focus on learning how to play voice exercises hands separately in 12 keys with universal fingerings.  This fulfills the development of technical fluency in a work-related context.

Hands together classical music

So many piano classes require singers to play challenging classical works like Bach Inventions and Bartok Microcosmos.  While I agree that these pieces are useful for developing two handed independence, this is also time consuming and not immediately useful.

The first thing I work on is learning how to “fake”.  “Faking” means that you are creating accompaniments using chords and is commonly used in jazz and pop music.  In order to create these accompaniments, we work on playing triads and four note chords in 12 keys and then learn a variety of left- and right-hand patterns to create accompaniments.  It is much easier to fake accompaniments than it is to read exactly what is written on the page, so having this skill can drastically speed up a singer’s ability to accompany themselves and their students.  Plus, faking works just as well for classical music and music theatre as it does for pop and jazz.

By focusing the training down to these simpler topics does not mean that I think singers shouldn’t learn how to play classical music or hands together scales.  I just don’t think these are the first skills they should learn.  Instead, we should equip our voice students will real world skills that will ensure they have every opportunity available.  Empowering our singers at the piano should be a central part of their training.

Brenda Earle Stokes is the owner and creator of Piano Skills for Singers – the only online piano course for singers, created by a singer.  Her passion is empowering singers to gain the skills they need at the keyboard to increase their opportunities in the music industry.

Take the OMG out of DIY

I know I’m not alone when I say that there are a lot of things in business and life that I have zero affinity for.  I’m not a tech person, my administrative skills are so-so at best and I am not a naturally organized person.  At the start of last year, I made a big list of a bunch of dream projects that I have been wanting to tackle for a long time and I realized that there was one thing separating me from achieving them:  they would all require skills I don’t have.

I considered my options.   I could either:

1.  hire someone to do them or 2. Figure it out on my own.

Not having thousands of dollars at my disposal, I had no choice but to take the “figure it out” route.

Somehow in the last 18 months, I have managed to tackle several impossible-it-will-never-ever-happen tasks in a pretty successful way.  I learned how to record video and audio, how to edit multicamera videos, resulting in a successful online course and dozens of videos posted on my YouTube channel.  I also managed to do all of my own publicity and radio distribution for a new album, which got 10x more press and radio interest then my last album, which I paid a professional publicist thousands of dollars to promote.

Now I’m not bragging (well, maybe just a little…), I’m just trying to promote the idea that if I can do it, literally anyone else on Earth can.  It took some serious elbow grease, and some swearing at the computer and vowing never to take on a project like this again, but even though they felt totally undoable, these projects actually got done.  I’m going to share a few tips on how you too can tackle some of your dream projects in a DIY fashion.

  1. Figure out what skills and equipment you need. 

In order to tackle promoting my new album, I needed to gain some administrative skills that I didn’t have.  I learned that in order to send mass emails, you needed something called a “mail merge”.  For my video work, I researched which cameras and software would be effective and easy to use for my purposes.

  1. Ask for help.

Do you have a friend who is an expert at a skill you lack?  Ask them for tips on how to get started.  My friend Jan is an admin wiz and she was super helpful in answering a few questions about how to get started creating and Excel spreadsheet.

  1. Give yourself lots of time.

You’ll need time to get comfortable as you work through these new skills and you will make a lot of mistakes along the way.  Don’t give yourself a too-tight deadline, as it will take some time to use these new skills.

  1. Take an online course.

As I was getting my mind around learning how to do my own publicity, I heard of a fantastic online course called JazzFuel.  Taught by one of the top jazz managers in Europe, I learned step-by-step to prepare and execute this huge project.  It was time and money well spent!

  1. Don’t forget YouTube.

You can pretty much learn anything on YouTube as there are video tutorials for pretty much any topic under the sun.  I taught myself the video editing software Final Cut Pro using a variety of YouTube videos.

  1. Take notes as you go.

I have kept elaborate records of each step of my DIY learning, from which YouTube links I used, to step-by-step directions on how to do everything from setting up the audio on a video shoot to how to print mailing labels.  I keep all of this in a file on my computer called “How to do things” and saves me hours of time.  You can also make notes on what worked and what didn’t work, so you don’t have to repeat the same mistakes for the next project.

As we move into a new year (and new decade), everyone is starting to think about what is on the horizon.  Consider what you would be able to achieve if you weren’t hindered by the skills that you lack.  What would you accomplish if you could DIY?

Money Matters: An Interview With Financial Planner and Broadway Percussionist Dave Roth

As a freelance musician with an over twenty-year career, I am often asked for advice from younger musicians who are coming up.  My number one piece of career advice?  GET YOUR FINANCIAL HOUSE IN ORDER.  Why?  Because being a musician, an artist or any other freelance worker requires capital in order to maintain and grow it.  Being a musician also requires tenacity and longevity, which means young musicians have to take a long range approach to their careers.

To create a truly helpful experience, I enlisted the expertise of Dave Roth.  Dave is an Enrolled Agent, which is a federally authorized tax practitioner recognized by the U.S Department of the  Treasury.  He is also a professional percussionist who has been playing Broadway shows for many years.  Dave is my family’s accountant and financial advisor and he has been a tremendous resource for both my family’s finances and the complexities of my business needs.

The goal of this post is to give musicians a chance to reflect on their financial lives so they can make better choices for the future.

Q:  Financial planning can be quite terrifying for artists. What is the first thing you recommend someone doing when they decide to get their finances in order?

Dave:  First and foremost get out of debt.  If this is an issue for you then you should adopt an effective budget plan to assist in this.  I recommend the 80/20 method.  And then start putting money into investments.  No amount is too small.  The sooner you start the sooner that your wealth will start to grow.  Remember that all this is about exponential growth.  Every year that passes without putting money into investments can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in growth by the time one reaches retirement.

Q:  How much should someone be saving every month? What categories do you recommend people save in?

Dave:   That is dependent on their cost of living and their income levels.  One of the most useful tools to help with this is a financial tracking program like Quicken, iBank, Mint.com, etc.  Use of this style of tracking will assist in identifying areas of spending that can be curtailed.  9 times out of 10 it is cash withdrawals from the ATM machine.

Q:   What are some of the mistakes you see your clients making in their financial lives?

Dave:  Not “feeding the animal”.  What I mean by that is continuing to put money into an IRA to invest on a regular annual basis.

Q:   What about retirement savings. Is that something that artists should even think about?

Dave:  ABSOLUTELY!  In many ways artists need to think about it more than the average Joe because they may not work for an employer that provides a retirement program like a 401K.

Q:   What do you recommend for people who live in high cost of living areas (like NYC or LA)?

Dave:  Don’t live beyond your means.  As a NYC artist I have always been realistic about the lifestyle that I can afford.  Don’t rent or by an apartment that will drain most of your earning and savings potential.

Q: What do you wish you had done better, started/figured out sooner?

Dave: I wish I would have started putting money into my IRA much, much sooner.  I also wish I would have educated myself on how to handle my own investments at an earlier age.

Dave’s Top 5 Pieces of Advice for Artists

  1. Learn to communicate effectively
  2. Remember that your art will not put food on your table if you don’t treat it as a business.
  3. Treat your fellow artists with the same respect as you expect would be paid to you.
  4. Learn all the intricacies of taxes as it relates to a sole proprietor business or hire a professional to navigate this for you.
  5. Practice!  I’m not just talking about your art form but all aspects of life, love, health and financial wealth.

 

Dave Roth is a professional percussionist in NYC.  He is an active musician in the Broadway scene having played on nearly 40 shows and has also accompanied Sting, Sir Paul McCartney, Gladys Knight, Ricky Martin, Joni Mitchell, Natalie Cole and Aloe Blacc to just name a few.  Dave also became an Enrolled Agent licensed to practice before the IRS granted by the United States Treasury Department and has an active tax and financial planning practice with well over 200 clients.

Check out Dave’s performance website.

Check out Dave’s accounting website.

Get Your Studio Ready For Fall

We’re in the middle of summer here in the US and yet we’re already seeing signs of fall.  Back to school sales are in full swing in every store everywhere. Now that I’ve had a little time to rest and work on a few projects, I’m starting to look ahead to the fall.  I have never been a natural organizer, but I know that being organized makes a huge difference in my mental state and helps me to run my business better.  Here is a massive list of tasks that will help you get ready for fall.  Choose the ones that you think will make your life easier this fall.  A little bit of preparation now will make your transition a thousand times easier!

  1. Go through your email and delete any saved emails from last semester and any students who are no longer in your studio. Archive any important ones.
  2. Clean out your teaching binder removing any notes or music from past students. File or delete unmarked sheet music.  Do the same with your files if you use a tablet instead of a binder.
  3. Go through your bookshelf.  Sort and organize all of your books, removing any books that you no longer use.
  4. Collect all receipts and statements from the current year and file them. (You will be happy you did this come tax time!)
  5. Do a deep clean of your computer and the cloud, deleting duplicate and old files. Do a full backup of your computer system to an external hard drive.
  6. Start files for new students and prepare materials that they might need.
  7. Check your current roster. Has everyone been assigned a lesson slot?  Are payments up to date?
  8. Check your fall schedule for any conflicts. Are there any holes in the schedule that you can fill?  Are any of your days too busy?  Do you have enough time off?
  9. Compare your fall calendar with your child’s school calendar and your family calendar.Are there any overlaps that you can correct now?
  10. Do an inventory of your music and supplies.Order books, copy manuscript paper, purchase hand sanitizer, straws and office supplies as needed.
  11. Get your piano tuned. (!!!!)
  12. Do a deep clean of the studio. Vacuum under the piano, clean your computer screen and keyboard, wash the windows, take everything off your bookshelves and dust under everything.
  13. Set your goals and intentions for the fall term.What did you learn from last semester? What goals do you have for you teaching, your business, your students and your own professional development.
  14. Make space in your calendar for exercise, breaks, family time and your own musical development. (Schedule it now before you get too busy!)
  15. Set some studio-wide goals for your students.More theory, stretching, practice journals, etc.
  16. Relax and enjoy the rest of the summer. You’re ready for fall!

How are YOU getting ready for the fall semester?

Summer Reading List (and my new favorite app!)

One of my goals for 2019 has been to devote more of my time to reading.  This goes along with my digital detox, where I have chosen to spend less time mindlessly scrolling and bingewatching, and finally tackle the massive list of books I’ve been wanting to get through.  I have always been a huge reader (an old boyfriend once looked at my bookshelves and said, “Have you read any of these?”  The answer – all of them)

How am I keeping up this pace?  I am tackling my bookshelf one book at a time, and I have recently become obsessed with the Libby app.  The Libby app is a direct line to read e-books from the public library.  You can borrow and place holds on books and read them on your e-reader.  I replaced the Facebook app on my phone with the Libby app and now whenever I’m waiting in line, taking the bus or sitting at the park while my son runs around, I can read instead of mindlessly scrolling.

(I also snagged 2 free months on Kindle Unlimited, which means I have another place to score the books I need for free.  Yippy!)

My 7 year old son is a voracious reader and keeping him in books was costing us a holy fortune.  So, I downloaded the Libby and Amazon Kindle app and he is able to search and download the books that he likes.  This had made travelling a lot easier, since we no longer need a suitcase just for his reading material. (If only there were an app that covered Legos!). My husband has also upped his reading game, and is now reading some of the books that I have finished.  If this keeps up, we’ll have to cancel cable!

Just for fun, I have posted the list of books that I plan to read this summer, noting which ones I have already read.  I will be adding to this constantly all summer. Long live the Libby app!

Personal Improvement

Daring Greatly – Brene Brown

The Gifts of Imperfection – Brene Brown

The Confidence Code – Katty Kay

The Year of Less – Joshua Becker

How Children Succeed – Paul Tough

Your Money or Your Life – Vicki Robin

Grit – Angela Duckworth

What If This Were Enough? – Heather Havrilesky

Shrill – Lindy West

The Year of Less – Cait Flanders

How To Break Up With Your Phone – Catherine Price

Business

Eat That Frog! – Brian Tracy

Do It Marketing – David Newman

The One Week Marketing Plan- Mark Satterfield

30-Minute Social Media Marketing – Susan Gunelius

Off The Clock! – Laura Vanderkam

168 Hours – Laura Vanderkam

Juliet’s School of Possibilities – Laura Vanderkam

Biography

Becoming – Michelle Obama

Born A Crime – Trevor Noah

Daily Rituals – Women at Work

Q – The Autobiography of Quincy Jones

Good Things Happen Slowly – Fred Hersch

Fiction

Little Bee – Chris Cleave

Educated – Tara Westover

The Perfect Nanny – Leila Slimani

The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Year of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion

Less – Andrew Sean Greer

My Year of Rest and Relaxation – Ottessa Moshfegh

Non Fiction

Gut – Giulia Enders

Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind – Yuval Noah Harari

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson

The Difference Between Knowing and Doing

When I was in high school, music teachers weren’t always sure what to do with me.  I knew a lot of theory and information, which meant that my teachers were constantly giving me new information about jazz theory and improvising techniques.  The only problem?  I couldn’t actually play any of it.

There is a mammoth difference between knowing how to do something and actually being able to do this.  In my many years of teaching, this is often the biggest challenge I face when working with students.

One summer when I was teaching at a summer music festival, there was this hotshot young jazz pianist that was wowing everybody. He would sit at the piano and play extremely complicated and virtuostic music, while everybody sat listening, completely impressed.  Knowing that he was going to be studying privately with me, a couple of students actually came up to me and said “What are you even going to be able to teach that guy?”  (Sigh.). At his first lesson, I had him play a Blues in F at a medium tempo.  He completely fell apart.  Turns out he had spent a lot of time learning the “hip” stuff, but hadn’t really learned the basics.

The most significant improvement I have made as a pianist has been when I take the time to fill in the gaps.   I sit down and made a list of all of the skills I lack– from voicings to scales, to working through difficult keys.  I once took a lesson with the saxophonist Kirk MacDonald, who asked me to arpeggiate the chords on All the Things You Are and I couldn’t do it.  At all.  I had played that song hundreds of times, but I was still unable to manage the very basic skills.  I was stuck on the “knowing” side and very far away from the “doing”.

I think one of the reasons my private students are so successful, is due to my experience of being a “knower” for so long.  I start everyone who walks through the door in the same place – at the very beginning.  Some of the more advanced students are taken aback that I would be working them at such a “low level”, until they discover that they are actually lacking in a great deal of these crucial foundations.  Most of them are quite shocked at how much they improve when they go back to the beginning and translate what they know to what they can do.

Nowadays when I’m practicing singing or piano (or both), I take my time to make sure that what is in my head is actually coming out of my fingers/voice and isn’t just stuck in my head.  It makes practicing really engaging and fun and helps me to stay grounded as I work.

Is there anything that you “know” but aren’t able to “do?’  What could you do to tackle that?

Take A Professional Development “Staycation”

Summer is here and your Facebook feed is full of photos of colleagues and friends singing and smiling at the many workshops, conferences and institutes that are being offered at colleges and retreat spaces all over the world.  And you’re quietly tucked at home, unable to attend due to no money (thanks a lot, student loans…or bathroom renovation) or no childcare.  (Or both, in my case…sigh).

Before you get a terminal case of FOMO, I have come up with a solution to the Professional Development Blues.  I call it the Professional Development “Staycation.”  Just because you can’t hop on a play and spend three weeks studying with some master teacher doesn’t mean that you can’t grow your skills in a meaningful way this summer.

Here is a list of ideas I put together to make sure that you stay on top of your professional development, on a budget.

  1. Take private lessons with an expert in your area…or via Skype.

You may not have thousands of dollars to fly off somewhere, but what if you invested a few hundred dollars taking private lessons with a great teacher.  If there isn’t anyone in your area, there are loads of amazing teachers who teach via Skype.

  1. Swap lessons with a colleague.

Sometimes the best professional development comes from watching others teach and learning what works for them. Reach out to another voice teacher in your area and see if they’d be into a swap, or even let you observe them teach.

  1. Catch up on your reading/watching/listening

We all know you have a stack of Journal of Singing’s that have been gathering dust while you have been teaching all year.  Now would be a great idea to read them and get current.  This is also a good time to listen to the soundtracks to all of the Tony nominees, and check out the albums that got Grammy nominations this year.  This would also be a great chance to go back and binge-listen some Naked Vocalist podcasts too!

  1. Look back

If you tend to stay current with the new musicals and albums coming out, you might consider having a look back.  Binge watch some old movie musicals, watch some PBS Great Performances or even go on YouTube and see how many versions you can find of Ella Fitzgerald singing “A Tisket A Tasket.”

  1. Take an online course

There are tons of online resources for instruction nowadays, many of which are extremely comprehensive and effective.  Berklee College in Boston has tons of offerings, and if you’re looking to gain some piano skills, check out my online course Piano Skills for Singers.  

  1. Work on your business

Now would be a great time to update your website, switch to an online billing system, learn Excel, learn how to shoot and edit videos or study marketing.  Many community colleges offer courses on business topics inexpensively, or you can hit YouTube to see what is available.  You may also order a stack of books from your public library to do a deep dive into a business-related skill.

These are just a few ideas that can help you grow your skill set this summer, while you preserve your pocketbook and still get your kids (or dogs) to the park every day.  What are YOUR summer PD plans?