Thursday, February 28, 2013

Joyful Noise! 7 Tips to Becoming a Better Church Musician

Mrs. Jones: It’s Christmas time and you know she’s going to be singing that same carol she’s sung poorly for the past 100 years. 

Mr. Smith: Sure, he was the top saxophone player in his college band...30 years ago! He pulls out that worn out hymnbook, plows through 3 verses of another overused hymn and accepts the polite applause.

Little Suzy: She gets up to sing a solo in church and you almost have to cover your ears its so loud.

Add up these examples and its a far cry from the book of 1st Chronicles 9:33 which says, “Now these, the singers, the heads of fathers' houses of the Levites, were in the chambers of the temple free from other service, for they were on duty day and night.” During the time of King David, the worship music was serious business! This was their full-time job and they were expected to maintain a high standard of music.

Say you happen to attend a 100 member Baptist church in a small town and can’t afford to hire a music director. Does that mean you give up all music if you can’t do it right? Absolutely NOT! It does mean that you should do your best though. Here are 7 tips to help you improve your church musicianship:

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#1 Quality wins, every time
I hear it all the time, “I don’t LIKE the old stuff! Why can’t we have something more contemporary?” or “Why can’t we hear the old stuff? It’s what I know”. It’s enough to drive any music director insane. I’m not here to debate the issue of contemporary vs. traditional. What I have found over and over again, however, is that almost any tune done well is inspiring. Focus on the quality and enjoyability of your music. Remember that what makes Church music unique is its ability to embrace and encourage participation.

#2 Find a suitable arrangement
Don’t just pull out the hymnbook and play 3 verses. There are many great arrangements out there. Some organizations even use recorded accompaniments if they don’t have a suitable pianist available. One place to start would be or

#3 Incorporate ALL the attributes of music
We’re all familiar with pitch and rhythm. When rehearsing, though, make sure you’re paying attention to the other aspects too - Tempo, Contour, Timbre, Loudness, Reverberation, Meter, Articulation.

#4 Listen to yourself before presenting to others
Record yourself. Be objective when you listen to the playback. When you hear something that needs improvement, decide what needs to be done to address that problem spot. It might just be a matter of repeating the passage to commit the fingering to muscle memory.

#5 Get help
If you’ve been placed on a rotating schedule, you’ve been given a responsibility. Even the biggest names in professional music get coaching to improve their performance. The ZOEN is a great resource for this. 

#6 Keep the flow
You may have heard the story of the preacher who preached against alcoholism, saying “If it were up to me, I’d dump all the booze in the river!” The song leader promptly led the congregation in “Shall We Gather At The River?” I think a little communication is in order here. Know what the service is about and tailor your piece to that order. Typically, the beginning of a service should be upbeat and before the message, more contemplative.

#7 Know your role
Some of us want to be the big, bright shining stars - get over it!  I think Johann Sebastian Bach said it best, “The aim and final end of all music is the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.”  Poorly played, overplayed, musician-centered music in worship only makes people cringe and wait for the music to stop so they can get back to their worshipping. Humility is the key: accept thanks from others for helping them have a more meaningful worship experience, but remember from where that talent came!

Fran Beaudry is a 30-year veteran of church music ministry and a Christian school music teacher. She teaches clarinet privately and through The ZOEN. Follow her on Twitter or book an online music lesson with her. 

Friday, February 22, 2013

How [Not] To Learn Your Favorite Music

It used to be that if you wanted to take piano lessons you had one place to go: the woman down the street who has been giving lessons out of her parlor (that’s right; she still calls it a parlor) since the Hoover administration.  

It’s not that she was unpleasant—mine certainly wasn’t—but one thing was for sure: when it came to piano, she meant business. She had a system, probably involving books with specific numbered levels, a daily practice chart and a journal where she wrote your (many) weekly assignments. Stickers—she LOVES stickers—were used as a reward or encouragement, even if you were a junior in high school.

The most tenacious of her students eventually honed their skills and went on to learn some amazing music, and a few (like yours truly) even started teaching piano lessons ourselves. By the time I graduated, I also had enough stickers to cover the dashboard of my car.

Since I’m a veteran of more traditional lessons, this is where you might expect a rant about the “good ol’ days,” why we should return to our roots or whatever…but that’s actually not where I’m going with this.

There are certainly advantages to traditional piano lessons—IF becoming a concert pianist or career musician is your goal. Many people searching for a music teacher make the mistake of assuming that they must take the traditional route to eventually learn the music they love.
Sometimes well-meaning teachers will perpetuate this myth simply because that’s what they were taught as young musicians. For every student that succeeds, though, there are perhaps twenty who quit altogether after a few years.

Why does this happen? I’d say because most people aren’t cut out to be concert pianists. They have trouble reading music or could never figure out scales or just weren’t interested in Beethoven to begin with or something of the like. And that’s absolutely fine.  **Disclaimer to any future (and current) students: This doesn’t mean you’re off the hook for scales and drills. ** The truth is there is no right way to learn an instrument…or anything else for that matter. The world of music is too vast, too deep, and too universal to have just one “correct” way to do things, and time is too precious to be spent working toward the wrong goal.

The best advice I can give is to know where you want to go and what you want to get out of the experience. I’ve taught *lots* of students over the last five years and I would say that at the end of the day, the vast majority of them only wanted one thing: the ability to play something that will impress their friends.

And that, in my humble opinion is the ideal place to begin: with music that moves you and, with any luck, will give you a chance to show off.

Jason Campbell is a piano teacher and voice coach who blogs about all things music at IvoryMan. Book a lesson with him on The ZOEN or follow him on Facebook.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Let's Learn to Sing! 3 Tips for Aspiring Vocalists

The popularity of shows like American Idol, The Voice, America’s Got Talent, X-Factor and Glee has really brought singing into the spotlight. While singing your best requires ongoing practice
and a great coach, here are some tips to give your voice a boost:  

1. Keep your Face Natural and Open Your Mouth!
Watch a singer like Beyonce, Tony Bennett, Josh Groban, or Christina Aguilera. While they’re all about expressing the music, they rarely distort their face except for expressive eyes. In particular, the jaw and throat don’t show the tendons and strain often seen in an amateur singer.  ZOEN expert Daniel Foran offers the following exercise to help the jaw and tongue stay relaxed:

“Say, “ya-ya-ya-ya-ya.”  Do you feel the tongue move? Is your jaw moving with it? It shouldn’t be.  Next, place a finger lightly on your chin and observe yourself speaking the exercise “ya-ya-ya-ya-ya,” in the mirror. Make a conscious effort to relax your jaw and be sure not to move it.”
Photo Attribution: C. Fox

2. Getting “Pitchy?”  Brighten Up!

Simon, Christina or Cee Lo often critique a singer as getting “pitchy.”  When the tendency of the voice is toward the underside of the pitch, or singing “flat”, consider this:

  • Don’t Swallow Your “Ah” Vowels
Sing the syllable “nah,” full and open.  Now sing the syllable “nee” on the same pitch.  Feel where the “nee” is in your mouth?  Now sing “nah” again and put it in the same place in your mouth as “nee” but keep your sound full and open.  Singing your “ah” vowels more “forward” helps curb sour flat notes that bring nasty faces to the judges.

  • Get the Right Key
Here’s a simple old recording studio trick used by producers to help cure flat singing: transpose up a half step.  For example,  if you’re singing in the key of F and singing flat, transpose the song to F#.  In combination with brighter “ah” vowels, this could save an entire performance or session.  

3. Stand Tall and Breathe!  

Think again about those TV judges--they frequently point out “locked knees” or “stiff shoulders.”  Some posture basics:

  • Chin level to ground or slightly raised.
  • Shoulders back and relaxed, chest forward.  “Open up” your torso to your audience.  Experiment by singing in a slouch and compare the sound.
  • Stomach muscles poised, ready to expand.
  • Knees flexible, slightly bent--never locked.
  • Feet apart, roughly shoulder width and one more forward than the other.

While one or more of these tips may work for you, keep in mind that there’s no replacement for the guidance of a professional teacher and consistent practice. The popular singers we admire may have started out in DIY mode. But at some point they had to work with a coach and learn proper technique to remain healthy and sounding great.   

Are you a singer or aspiring singer?  What are some techniques or tips you’ve learned?  Please share below!

Friday, February 8, 2013

3 New Features to Help You Find the Perfect Music Teacher

We’ve got some great news for The ZOEN community! The folks behind the scenes at The ZOEN recently launched a series of improvements to make the site even easier to use. Here are 3 new features we’re really excited about:

(1) Music Teacher and Instrument Search Pages
You won’t have to look far to find our new simple search feature. Its right where you need it - at the top of the page. No more wading through complex menus, check-boxes or The search feature operates much like a Google Search - just type in a word (piano), phrase (beginner guitar), style (jazz piano) or even an artist or musician’s name into the text box. The ZOEN boasts a wide variety of music teachers with an even greater variety of skills and interests. Finding your perfect teacher is now takes just a matter of a few minutes.

(2) Lesson Scheduling and Booking System

Eager to start your lessons? Well, now you’ll be able to book your lesson right on your teacher’s profile - without multiple back-and-forth email communications. Your teacher’s availability is now visible on their profile. Schedule your next lesson or lock in a regular lesson time-slot weeks in advance. Remember - popular teachers’ schedules fill up quickly!

(3) Connect with Us on Facebook
We’ve recently launched our blog (you’re on it now!) and Facebook page to keep you involved with the ZOEN community. Connect with us to keep abreast of useful tips and information as you continue on your musical journey. You can now search for teachers directly from our Facebook page. Log in and book music lessons using your Facebook ID without the hassle of creating a new username and password.

For those of you who already appreciate the convenience of online music lessons, thank you for your support! If you haven’t yet tried your hand at learning music online, find a teacher and take a trial lesson now.

Have suggestions or ideas you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments below. We’re all ears.

Friday, February 1, 2013

14 Online Music Communities You Can't Ignore

So you want to learn to play a musical instrument? In addition to a great teacher, you’ll likely also want to find a community that shares your enthusiasm for learning. In this post, we recommend a few places to start your search for resources and insightful conversations to help you learn music online.

No matter what instrument you play and regardless of your skill level, there’s a blog out there for you. In addition to being valuable sources of information, blogs can also point you in the direction of additional resources, technology, techniques and tips. Here are a few we dig:

The Musicians Way - Veteran musician Gerald Klickstein shares his thoughts on Music practice and performance, creativity, collaboration and life as a musician.
About Piano - offers a wealth of information for piano players. From the  history of the instrument to instrument care and playing styles, there’s much to learn on this site.
Violinist - With more than 25,000 registered members, is one of the biggest online communities of violin players and enthusiasts. Ask questions or just read up!
Banjo History - Everything you’d ever want to know about banjo lives here.

What does Google+ offer to help you learn a musical instrument? More than you think! There are a number of active (and approachable) communities with insightful conversations around individual musical instruments. Check these out:

Guitar - If you’ve got guitar questions, this is a great place to get them answered. Advice is shared quickly and readily in this community.
Ukulele - An enthusiastic group of ukulele lovers. Join the discussion and share your opinions, thoughts and influences.
Barbershop Singers - 'Singing' is a catch-all term. Your tastes are probably more specific than that. Look for the group or online community that suits your interests. There's even a Google+ group for barbershop singers!
Drums & Drummers - If you’re a drummer or aspiring to be one, you’ll like what you find here. Join the discussion and share some photos. If you’ve got questions, ask away.
Harmonica - This community is especially great for inspiration. Talk with other harmonica enthusiasts and share your favorite riffs...and learn a thing or two while you're at it.

If you fancy yourself an ultra-savvy internet user, you’re probably already on Reddit. If you’re not, check it out. Its a bit intimidating at first but there is a lot of great information sharing going on within the various music communities (called subreddits). Click here for a full list of music-related subreddits. 

The ZOEN's recommendations for beginners:
r/LearnMusic - Find information and swap tips related to a shared interest of learning to play a musical instrument.
r/Saxophonics - More saxophone enthusiasm than you can shake a stick at!
r/MusicMakers - Those interested in composition and songwriting take note. This subreddit is a great place to share and get feedback on your music.
r/Guitar - This community really knows guitar. Got questions about a particular model or need suggestions of the best guitar gear to buy? Ask away.
r/Bass - Talk amps, strings, technique and songs on this subreddit. Lots of great information from more than 15,000 bass players and learners!

So there you have it - plenty of resources to expand your musical world.  Go on, find your tribe. 

Is there a blog or group we missed? Let us know in the comments below!