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How to make music practice effective – it can change your life

Men Wearing Makeup Playing Loud Guitars

When I was 12, I discovered something so fantastic, larger-than-life, and electrifying!

It was the rock band KISS.

It was colorful, loud, and crazy. But maybe even more, my parents hated it! All of a sudden, everything else faded away and I wanted to be one of these super-hero-like rock stars, slinging a guitar down at my knees with long hair blowing in the wind.

But I was an awkward, geeky, and lonely kid with thick glasses. And it was too late, wasn’t it? Didn’t anyone who became famous start when they were four years old?

So, I just consumed the music, learning the history of rock from the library books, magazines, and the radio. New York radio station WPLJ used to have a documentary series on the history of rock and I recorded every episode I could. It was pure gold!

The Itch To Play Guitar

I was itching to play guitar!

At 13, I discovered the Rolling Stones! I started digging the sounds of Cream, Led Zeppelin, and then learned about their influencers, people like John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon, and Robert Johnson.  

[By the way, this has emerged as a major success pattern in my life. New interest? Do a deep historical dive and overview of the major influencers. Get the “meta knowledge” first. The big picture.]

Stairway To Heaven

One day, a kid in my neighborhood, Steve Watson, played a school concert with his band. They played “Stairway To Heaven.” I couldn’t believe it! It was like a bolt of lightning went through my whole body.

“If he could do it, then surely I can!

He hasn’t even been playing guitar for more than a year!”

Teaching Myself

I went home and picked up my Mom’s old nylon string folk guitar and began to teach myself. Since I was already playing alto sax since the fourth grade in the school band, I had some musical training. Plus, I had some guitar lessons at five, but that didn’t last.

The Lennon McCartney Guitar Course

I bought the Lennon & McCartney guitar course and started at page one. I was motivated and I started to practice for hours every day. I went through the book page by page and practiced getting each and every exercise and song smooth.

Rolling Over The Bumps

Along the way, I realized that I could get better faster if I didn’t just play the whole thing from start to finish. I could “roll over” those bumpy spots to make them smoother by just doing that isolated part again and again. By practicing the difficult bits, I progressed rapidly.

Catching Up

Within a few months I bought myself a $30 used and battered Hondo Les Paul style electric guitar (with a Tobacco Sunburst) and a cheap amp.  I started practicing up to 9 hours a day!  I was desperately trying to catch up to “everyone else who started at 5!”

Scales, Arpeggios and Exercises

While most kids learn by playing songs, I practiced scales, arpeggios, and exercises. I actually could not play a song from memory until years later!

A Music Practice Virtuoso

I wanted to get good fast and I did left-hand-only exercises, followed by right-hand-muted-picking exercises while watching television. It drove the family crazy. I became a practice virtuoso!

Practice and Life Skills

I never became that rock star. I was close, in that I was a television host for MTV as one of the first 3 VJs to launch their channel in Asia. I got a publishing deal and toured with my band, and I have had many other adventures in my career.


For a while, I felt like the character Zelig in Woody Allen’s film of the same name. It seems I was always on the edge of a new discovery: desktop publishing, television, MTV, film composing, the Internet, advertising and education.

The Practice Mindset

Each time I reinvented myself, it was with a “practice mindset.”

I asked myself questions like:

  • How can I master this material in the shortest amount of time?
  • Who are the role models I need to model?
  • What is the history of this discipline?

Where Mastery Happens

Today as a private music teacher, I work every day with young students from age 3 to 15. Each lesson is really a lesson in learning how to practice. The actual skill-building does not happen in the lesson. Mastery happens at home in the daily practice. The lesson is where we refine “how to practice.”

The Game Of Practice

I’ve just written a book on ways to encourage practicing a musical instrument.  It’s available right now on Amazon and is free as a launch promotion for the next four days.  In the book, you’ll learn more mindsets for practicing as well 53 tips to make practice fun.

Here’s some of the fun, unique and innovative things you will learn:

  • Why learning a song is like eating a pie
  • Why every music teacher should buy stock in 3M, the maker of Post-It notes.
  • How to use beans to motivate (or coins or candies)
  • How to help your child memorize a piece of music non-liinearly
  • Why there is a right way and a wrong way to praise
  • How to make practicing a repertoire like a game
  • Using practice stickers and much more…

You can download the book at Amazon.

Thanks for reading and I look forward to your comments.

And thank you to all the great music teachers I’ve had along the way including:  Andy Blackett, Pete Brasch, Seth Shapiro, Dan Converse, Mark Elf, Conrad Cummings, Ron Sadoff, Jim Petrungaro, Pat Castle, Gene Bertoncini, Joe Lovano, and so many more.

Blog Music Lesson Piano Sheet Music For Beginners

10 Secrets How To Make Simplified Sheet Music For Kids

Part 3 of 3 on Finding Music For Teaching Kids

See Part 1: The Top 11 Sites for Public Domain Free Sheet Music

See Part 2: Where To Find Easy Sheet Music Arrangements

I have always felt comfortable rearranging sheet music and stripping out elements that are not completely necessary to get the song across. As a composer/arranger, I have a comfort level that not every music teacher has, but I want to show you that it is not as hard as you think.


You can use these to simplify any piece of music. Whether you are writing out the notation by hand or using a software package, the same rules will apply. These guidelines are from my point of view in teaching children. Many of these can apply to teens and adults as well.

1. For piano, strip out octaves in the left hand. Most young children cannot stretch an octave!

2. Consider shifting the key of the song. Many songs are written in keys that are scary to read but when shifted, become rather simple. For example, a piano song like Ray Charles’ Hit The Road Jack was originally in Bb minor because of the horn section. But it is much easier to read in A minor. On guitar, the capo makes transposition so easy!

3. For piano, consider block chords in the left hand and a single note melody in the right hand. Many pop song arrangements divide the voicings of chords between left and right hands. This is pretty difficult for young learners.

4. Simplify the rhythm. I think rhythm is probably the biggest opportunity to simplify a song. You can see some pop songs where the singer is obviously adding inflections and improvisations that are then notated exactly in the melody line. This makes for a very complex rhythm notation! And it’s completely unnecessary. It’s similar to notating jazz with dotted eighth and sixteenth notes – it makes it overly difficult to read. Just indicate swing eighths!

5. Limit the range. My students want to sing and play along to many of the songs they want to learn. But because the range is so wide, it makes it impossible. You can judiciously choose alternate notes for the high notes or see if you can shift the whole key to better accommodate your student. Guitarists really have it made with the use of a capo! For some of my students who have digital pianos/keyboards, I will often suggest a transposition using the electronics of the keyboard. This enables them to play the song in the way they have learned it but then be able to reach the vocal notes.

6. Change the meter. Many pieces of music are written with speed inherent in their choice of meter. The use of sixteenth notes can be intimidating to a beginning music student. By changing this to an eighth note, it somehow makes it easier. For younger students, I’ve made eighth notes into quarter notes.

7. Format the page with natural breaks. If you have a song with 4 measure phrases, try to keep that all on one line. You can also help students understand structure by paginating the piece so that each page contains a full section: A A B A, etc.

8. Use a larger staff and note-heads. I use gigantic staves for my preschool students learning to read music. An 8 measure song can be on two full letter-sized pages. As my students get older and able to read more, the sizing diminishes.

9. Use English rather than Italian. For tempos and dynamics, you can decide where and when to introduce these terms. But if you’re creating your own arrangement, you can decide to use more naturalistic language like, “getting faster” or “getting quieter.”

10. Use notation software on a computer or tablet to make it easier to reuse and edit for corrections. It will also look cleaner and more legible unless you have beautiful hand notation skills! There are many modern notation software systems that range from super easy to complex but powerful. I will be writing a separate article on this in the near future.

I hope you find this helpful. Feel free to forward and share this article with your colleagues.


Music Lesson Piano Lesson Piano Sheet Music For Beginners

Where To Find Easy Sheet Music Arrangements

Part 2 of 3 In A Series on Finding Sheet Music For Students

Part 1 – Top 11 Sites For Public Domain Free Sheet Music

“Can’t we play this song by Taylor Swift?”
“Well that’s a bit too hard right now.”
“But I LOVE her!”

Song Requests

I get requests for pop songs, Broadway shows, cartoon themes, film scores, and video game music almost on a weekly basis. Whatever is “hot,” I will surely hear about in a matter of weeks. I find out about a lot of new music through my students these days.

How to Handle Requests Like These?

I always honor song requests. It may be a huge reason why I retain most of  my students 4, 5, 6 years and more. I have found that matching the content of the lessons with student interest is the best way to ensure continued enthusiasm for music lessons. There’s never a big fight to practice when the student is self-motivated to learn their favorite song! I usually begin by searching for easy arrangements.

Finding Easy Arrangements

I search online for song arrangements that are in the easy category as they usually have been thought through from a beginner’s standpoint, but even then, sometimes they are just out of reach conceptually and technically for your passionate student.

Where To Buy Sheet Music?

You can buy sheet music online at several places. This is especially good when you have to find new music that is still on the charts.

Older Collections of Sheet Music

There’s always better value for money if you buy a song folio or collection of songs. There’s some great ones that cover the 1980s or Modern Broadway Show Hits or the greatest hits of…Taylor Swift.

  • Amazon
  • Barnes and Noble
  • Your local library – I am a huge fan of libraries in general and my local Brooklyn Public Library has a massive collection of scores that seems to be the best kept secret.
  • Your library network – did you know you can request books including sheet music from many area libraries?
  • Your alma mater library – depending on your college or University and your alumni (donation) status, you may have access to a treasure chest of goodies!

Free Sheet Music at Public Domain Libraries

There are many places to look for music in the public domain. This is going to be anything that is about one hundred years or older. My last post was about finding free sheet music.

Good Arrangers For Beginners

In my search, I’ve discovered a few arrangers better than others at simplifying piano songs for my students. There are several easy piano arrangements by Dan Coates, which work really well.  Nancy and Randall Faber (of Piano Adventures fame) have a bunch of great Funtime books as well as Popular Repertoire in their graded system. These are usually spot on.

Using Guitar Tabs

Many times, you can find chords to songs quicker and easier using “tab” sites. These are websites that offer chords and lyrics of popular songs, usually submitted by the users, and some offer tablature notation. Because the content is user generated, it is usually not 100% accurate. E-chords seems to have a consistently high level of quality. The chords and lyrics can be used for piano too.

Ukulele Sites

I have found that a few ukulele sites are surprisingly well done.  And you don’t have to just use it for ukulele. The chords are usable on other instruments like piano or guitar.

What if the Easy Arrangement is Still Too Hard?

If I can’t find the perfect arrangement for my student, I will usually purchase the easy arrangement and begin making modifications. If I can’t find one at all, I may just start transcribing my own notation (a lot of work!) or use guitar tabs or ukulele tabs as a starting point.


In my next post, I will give you 9 Simple Rules for Simplifying Music Arrangements.


Blog Piano Sheet Music For Beginners Resources

The Top 11 Sites for Public Domain Free Sheet Music

Part 1 of 3 in a Series on Finding Sheet Music for Students

Part 2 – Where To Find Easy Sheet Music Arrangements

As a music teacher, it sometimes feels like an endless struggle to find sheet music for your voracious roster of students! Obviously there are commercial online stores as well as the library, but there’s also an entire history of free written music available online. I’m talking about public domain music.

Public Domain Music

This is music where the copyright has expired. Bach? Beethoven? Mozart? These are all hundreds of years old and you can definitely find everything written by these composers online for free.

Modern Editions of Public Domain Music

You can find very nice editions of Bach’s inventions or Beethoven piano sonatas in every music store that are not copyright free as the publishers have added value by making editorial decisions to the work. It may not be note changes, but they may add tempo markings where there were none or dynamics, etc. For example, most music from the Baroque period was quite sparse in directional markings. Seeing a piece from the 1500’s by Palestrina with crescendos and other dynamics is most certainly the work of a modern editor. This can be useful or not. Does it add value? Or is it just an editor trying to impose his/her stylistic preferences?

Finding Free Sheet Music

Finding sheet music that is free and public domain can be tricky. Different countries have different laws regarding copyright especially in the length of term. If you are searching for something that is older than 100 years old, then you are generally safe to assume it’s copyright free. But I’m not your legal counsel. If you are using music for commercial use, you should definitely consult a lawyer. The music business is a lawyer’s playground!

In no particular order, here are 11 sites for public domain free sheet music:

  1. IMSLP
    The International Music Score Library Project (IMSLP), also known as the Petrucci Music Library after publisher Ottaviano Petrucci, is a subscription-based project for the creation of a virtual library of public domain music scores, based on the wiki principle.
  2. ChoralWiki
    CPDL was founded in December 1998, ported to ChoralWiki in August 2005, and incorporated in May 2010 as a U.S.A. 501(c)(3) tax-exempt charitable organization. Here you will find free choral/vocal scores, texts, translations, and other useful information.
  3. Musopen
    Musopen is a 501(c)(3) non-profit focused on increasing access to music by creating free resources and educational materials. They provide recordings, sheet music, and textbooks to the public for free, without copyright restrictions. Their mission is to set music free.
  4. Mutopia Project
    2,010 pieces of music – free to download, modify, print, copy, distribute, perform, and record – all in the Public Domain or under Creative Commons licenses, in PDF, MIDI, and editable LilyPond file formats.
  5. Musicalion
    A subscription-based online library offering over 27,000 compositions, including both public-domain and self-published works. Over 11,000 of the compositions are available in MusicXML format. Compositions are available in a mix of PDF, MusicXML, MIDI, and original source formats.
  6. Sheet Music Online
    Online since 1995: Now in their 21st year recommending the best sounding arrangements in print!
  7. Sheet Music Fox
    Download hundreds of thousands of free public domain sheet music titles here.
  8. Free Scores
    We offer contemporary, classical, and educational free sheet music for all instruments. is a free and legal platform for composers, arrangers, and publishers. There may be restrictions on the use of the music so check that out on the license page.
  9. Public Domain Sherpa
    This page lists resources for free sheet music that’s either in the public domain or free for certain uses.
  10. University of Virginia Library
    This site lists many links to other great free libraries of sheet music.
  11. Indiana University
    Selected public domain opera and song literature scores, as well as some online sound recordings.

I hope you find these links useful. In a future post, I will explore where to find commercial sheet music, easy beginner arrangements, and how to simplify music yourself.




What is the best mindset for music educators?

True or False: There is usually only one right way to do something.

Try to answer that quickly and without much thought. Which are you? I’ll get to why in a second.

I just returned from my fourth trip to Colombia, South America, where my wife has a very large and loving family – what a beautiful, magical country! It was a nice break and it gave me a lot of time for reflection, meditation, and reading. It gave me the mental space to get curious again about things I had forgotten about. One of these things was how I’ve noticed the shifting attitudes on music education.

In the USA, I’ve been seeing more media coverage about the positive aspects of music education. But at the same time, I’ve been noticing a difference in mindset among music teachers, parents, and society in general.

The first mindset is like this:

  • Music education is a nice way to give a rounded education and especially if you want to be a professional musician
  • You should teach classics first… and then branch out from there
  • There are strict technical exercises that produce the desired results
  • There is usually only one right way to do things
  • There are tried and true methods that have been handed down through the centuries

The second mindset is like this:

  • Music education is a great way to teach life skills regardless of professional career choice
  • Music lessons are like exercises for physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development
  • All music styles/genres are valid
  • Technique can be very personal
  • There is no single right way to do anything
  • Music is constantly changing and so is the art of teaching with new methods coming online everyday

And it is the two mindsets that can sometime cause friction. I’ve seen it in forums where teachers have criticized and bashed each other based on difference of mindset. In many ways, these two mindsets are the basic differences in society. The first  is “change is uncommon – let’s stick with the good old days” and the second is “Change is the norm – let’s embrace change.”    

What Factors Contribute to Each of These Mindsets?

When I was young, my parents were more of the first mindset. They saw music as a way to a “well-rounded education.” But when I started to get “obsessed” with music, they became concerned. Being immigrants from Thailand and Korea, they wanted a safe and secure career for me. I had been brainwashed with a mantra. If someone asked me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I would just blurt out, “A doctor, lawyer, or an engineer.” It was automatic. My parents kept trying to instill in me that music was just a hobby. And yet, you can’t deny your true calling. My brother, sister, and I are all actively engaged in the arts! It’s kind of funny now, but it was pretty hard as a teenager.

In Colombia, I asked some of my wife’s relatives about music instruction and it was still a pretty rare thing. While Colombia is booming and getting international attention as a top destination for both travel and business, life can still be hard. Good jobs are in demand. I heard many stories of young graduates waiting years to get a job in their chosen profession or going back to school to switch professions. It seemed that getting a job came down to luck and knowing the right people. So in an environment like that, who has the time and money to put towards music education? This is the first mindset.

Contrast that mindset with the one prevalent in my neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn, New York, where there is almost a de facto understanding that private music instruction is just a standard part of growing up. There is no question you will be enrolled in music, dance, art, sports, or a combination of all of them!  Most of my students are so fully booked that switching a time slot is a major hurdle. It’s like those puzzles where you can only slide one piece to move another!

Why Has Music Education Become an Afterthought?

I am more of the second mindset and would like you to consider shifting with me.  As a parent, I believe that music education and arts instruction are an essential part of my child’s life. I began my whole teaching studio focused on children because of this. My wife also shares this thinking and has made it her life’s mission working at multiple non-profit organizations throughout her career.   Currently she is Senior Director of Operations at ExpandED Schools whose mission is to expand the school day to include more extra-curricular activities that are just as important as math, science, and reading.  

You may have heard of a movement known by the acronym STEM – which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. There has been a cry for more of this educational push in the United States as they say we are lagging behind in these skills in the workplace. This to me is like the first mindset.  

STEAM is a counter-movement which adds an “A” for Arts. But I would still include the language arts of writing and reading which are inextricably linked to thinking. And of all the Arts, music alone has been proven to be the most beneficial for brain development.  As the late Steve Jobs was quoted as saying on what makes Apple great, “it’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough — that it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.”

What Makes Music Education So Important?

Besides all the things you’ve heard before like life skills of focus, discipline, persistence, grit, and study skills, I believe music is just part of our world. It is in our DNA! It is the voice of God that is vibrating through us to create everything we experience. By learning the laws of music, you align yourself with the universal principles of creation. It’s like the sea we swim in.  

Music is pure emotion and we all have our own music. By connecting the internal music with the external mechanisms of creating, producing, and sharing music, we are surely becoming more harmonious, beautiful, and sensitive people. And isn’t that what we all want? World peace. Our peace. A beautiful heart.

So if you are more of the first mindset, here’s a challenge. Try on the second mindset as if you were trying on a new coat. Wear it for a few days, weeks, or months. Then, decide whether to keep it.

I leave you with a quote from Heraclitus: “The only thing that is constant is change.”

Let me know how your “coat” fits.

Music and Science

A Roundup Of 12 Articles That Prove Benefits of Music Instruction

There have been so many articles of late that show the benefits of music education.  I thought it would be helpful to collect a bunch of the best ones I’ve seen in one place.

For parents, here’s a great starting point for research.

Here’s a treasure trove of articles that can back you in your efforts to win over your significant other, parents, or grandparents as to why you are spending so much time and money searching for the right music teacher for junior.

For music teachers, this makes for a handy marketing materials list.

These are all very informative but if you have only time for a few, I recommend reading numbers 3, 4, 9, 11.  These are from PBS, Time, National Geographic and WBUR in Boston.

12 Articles that Discuss the Benefits of Music Education

  1. Twelve Benefits of Music Education (
  2. 20 Important Benefits of Music In Our Schools (
  3. The Benefits of Music Education (
  4. This Is How Music Can Change Your Brain (
  5. Long Term Benefits of Music Study (
  6. The Importance of Music Education (
  7. The Benefits of Music Education (
  8. How Playing a Musical Instrument Benefits the Brain (
  9. Your Aging Brain Will Be in Better Shape If You’ve Taken Music Lessons (
  10. How Playing Music Benefits Your Brain More than Any Other Activity (
  11. How Playing Music Affects The Developing Brain (
  12. How Learning to Play an Instrument Can Improve Your Life (
  13. Added April 25, 2017:  9 Ways Learning An Instrument Strengthens Your Brain.