The Most Important Aspect of Performing

Being a musician is a very physically demanding art. While having good technical skill to master hard music is great, if you don’t have control of your body to accomplish the most important aspect of performance – the emotion – your performance will not be so unlike a computer generated version.

The best performers out there are great not because they are masters of hard music, but because they have learned to exercise exceptional CONTROL of their body; when to hold a pause 2 seconds longer before lifting their hands from the keyboard, how to train the muscles in their hands to do perfectly spaced 32nd notes, and how to not rush a fast song, how to control a vibrato, and how to steady that bow on a string and hold it until the very last drop of sound fades into the air.

Want to be an extraordinary performer? Learn absolute fine-tuned body control. Muscle training through strengthening and condition. Practice doesn’t make perfect, but perfect practice does.


Orchestrating 101

*Originally written April 2011 – Recently updated January 2014*

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately orchestrating some of my music for my upcoming album.   In the midst of doing so, the topic does seem to be one that I end up discussing quite a lot – either within my family, or with colleagues.  I have been often asked:

Do you use a live orchestra?

How do you know which instruments are going to play which parts?

How do you write parts for all those different instruments?

How to achieve that sound?

I think to some people, orchestrating is this secret and complex thing that a small percentage of musicians actually know how to do.  Complex?  Maybe.  I suppose that depends a lot on the composer’s style.  Secret?  Well, to be perfectly honest with you, there are a lot of composers out there who do not like to divulge their secrets of orchestrating – because that is what makes their music uniquely their’s. And that’s perfectly reasonable and understandable.  While I am not particularly 100% that way, but there is a portion of my brain that thinks that if I do share certain things that I do, I would be giving away all my secrets and suddenly everyone else would be making music just like mine.  And then, what would make me still special and stand out?

However, I do believe in helping others.  If you know how to do something well, then you should share that with others and teach them.   Orchestrating is one thing that I think I can do fairly well, and I want others to excel at it too. So I’m going to share some of my orchestrating secrets here with you (Cue OneRepublic’s song “Secrets” right now). Think of this post as sort of an “Open Source” guide to orchestrating.

fixstillshot4It is actually becoming more and more rare in today’s music industry to record with a live full orchestra.  With the amazing and realistic-sounding virtual technology that is available to composers now, there is not a need to always use real instruments.

Some composers are completely open about this, others aren’t.  Why that is something to hide, I’m not sure.  I’ve asked a couple of different composers, quite plainly, about the orchestration they used and I received very vague nondescript answers. Now I think that’s a little bit silly.  Obviously, if you had used a real live orchestra on your album, wouldn’t you be so incredibly excited and proud that you would state it right there in the fine print for everyone to see? “Recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios”.  I personally have never hid the fact that portions of my orchestrations are from sampled libraries. I actually use a hybrid method of mixing real live instruments with VST libraries (Virtual Studio Technology – instruments that are pre-recorded samples of real live instruments).

The fact remains, that for any artist, whether they are independent or with a bigtime record label, to record with a full symphony orchestra is a HUGE deal.  Even veteran performers who have recorded with an orchestra before will still get goosebumps when walking onto the recording set with an orchestra.  It is both exhilarating, and expensive.

You might be surprised to learn that virtually only about 5% of TV shows record with live instruments – the rest are done from sampled sound libraries.  And many movie soundtracks will dub in with sampled library sounds as well.  Hans Zimmer creates his own VST’s to use in his music (and is finally soon releasing some to the public, which I am very excited about).

It’s exciting and sad at the same time.  While being able to pull off a quality sampled orchestra sound on your recording has become much more prevalent and accessible to the average composer in recent years, it has also put a lot of orchestra sound stages out of work across the country.  When you consider that hiring out one of the least expensive recording philharmonics in the world (The Prague Symphony) will still cost you on the low end of $25,000 (mind you, I said least expensive orchestras) , when you can purchase a quite excellent virtual orchestra sample library for the cost of anywhere between $1500 – $5,000 (depending on what make/model/version it is), the choice is clear to many composers.

However, you must know (because you are smart, I know you are), that just because you have a nice orchestra software library it doesn’t mean that POOF you are going to have an amazing album or recording.  Learning how to use a sampled library and executing it is an acquired skill that takes both ingenuity and experience.  And that is what I wanted to go into a bit.

So are you ready to buckle down and get dirty?  All right.  Here are some of my secrets to quality orchestrating…

First, I should probably tell what sort of equipment I’m working out of (Updated as of Jan 2014).

DAWS (Digital Audio Work Station): 
Cakewalk Sonar Producer X2

Orchestra Sound Libraries:
EastWest Symphonic Orchestra – Platinum Edition
Eastwest Hollywood Strings – Diamond Edition
EW Symphonic Choirs (plus the expansion edition)
Quantum Leap RA (Ethnic instruments)
QL Gypsy (strings, guitars, percussion, etc.)
QL Voices of Passion
QL Stormdrum 2
QL Massive
Rob Papen Blue (synth)
QL Massive (synth)
Synthogy Ivory II (Pianos)
Alicia’s Keys (Pianos)
QL Pianos

Kawai CN-270 Digital Piano
Kursweill PC-88 Keyboard
Audio-Technica AT2035 Condenscer Microphone
Sony MDR-7506 Headphones
Audiobox USB Interface
Yamaha 8″ Studio Monitors (sorry I can’t remember the model number)
2013 Lenova PC, 10 hard drives (both internal and external), 16 gigs of ram (will be expanding to 32), and a bunch of other specs I can’t remember – but it is essentially a gaming computer that I’m using for music (Gaming computers can handle a lot and have better processors and video cards).

deskI have about a dozen other sound libraries that I also use, but for symphonic-orchestrating purposes, the ones I listed above are my go-to sources.  I have been using the EastWest Symphonic Orchestra for several years and am very happy with it.  But there are also some other very good quality sound libraries out there – the Vienna Strings for example.  Another terrific library right there.  Also the LA Strings are magnificent as well.

So the easiest way for me to teach you some things is to basically go through what steps I take while recording and orchestrating.

  • Have a Finished Composition to work off of.
    As a pianist, I will 90% of the time not start any orchestration whatsoever until I have a finished piano part.  The reason for this is because as the piano is the featured instrument on all of my songs, it’s the backbone of the orchestration.  It is what makes up the structure of my songs – the foundation.  The orchestration is the fluffy stuff. 🙂  Also because if my piano part is not finished and recorded exactly how I want it, it causes for hours of extra editing on the orchestration – should you need to change the piano part later on.  Once I have a completed composition, I will record the piano part as a midi file and once it is recorded exactly how I want it – I can go from there…

    I will say though, that I don’t ALWAYS start with a finished piano part though. There are many times when the sounds in my various sound libraries have inspired me to write certain songs, and so playing around with loops and sounds can also be a great way to begin a piece.

  • Listening over and over and over…
    So now that I have a song to orchestrate, of course I’m usually at this point wondering how the heck I’m going to orchestrate it.  I will listen to my recorded piano part dozens of times, while coming up with various ideas in my head of how it can be orchestrated well.  Sometimes I’ll write the ideas down on scratch paper so that I don’t forget.  For example, “Low bass notes in cello at measure 48”, or “Need french horns – powerful sound – 56 – 75”, etc.. I have a peculiar ability of being able to orchestrate in my head – and will often go for long walks while replaying the music over and over in my head, composing the orchestration, replaying it, taking out parts and adding others, etc.  It’s almost like being a conductor in front of an orchestra and being able to stop/start them how I wish.  I recently spent 2 hours driving in a car in the middle of Idaho while orchestrating my arrangement of Dvorak’s New World Symphony.  This method works great for me – because I find I can come up with far better ideas in my head than on a keyboard.  At least in my head I can hear a full finished sound and the potential of the orchestration.  Maybe not everyone can do that – but my point is is that it’s important to listen to your song several times to get ideas.
  • Thinking Outside the Box…
    I never write out the orchestrations in notation before recording them.  I’m not saying this is the best practice – but it works for me and helps me to be more creative and think outside of the box.  There are some composers that are very particular and want the orchestration to sound a certain way and they will write out the parts before-hand and then go record them.  I don’t like doing that though, because when using sampled sound libraries, you can’t always 100% of the time execute a certain technique like you can with a real orchestra.  For example, fast runs.  Think of the Harry Potter soundtrack (I use that as an example because I have performed that work in concert as a violinist in the 1st violin section).  That music has the violins doing all sorts of scales and runs up and down, all over the place.  John Williams was brilliant in creating that for the violins.  However, trying to do that on a sampled sound library is not the easiest to accomplish.  Doing fast violin runs and having it sound truly authentic is almost nearly impossible.  I’m not saying that it can’t be done, but it is difficult.  And so you might be limiting yourself if you have to have your orchestration just so.  You need to work with the samples you have and be willing to change your ideas if the sound you are going for is not coming off sounding true and real.
  • First in, First Up…
    So being that a symphony orchestra has a wide variety of different instruments, how do you know where to start and what to use?  Well, to make it simple, if I have no clue what I’m doing I’ll usually just start with whatever instrument I feel needs to come in first during the piece.  Otherwise if I do have specific ideas that I want to do with the orchestration, I’ll start with those instruments and spots first.  For example, the song that I have up on my homepage right now (“Illumination”), you hear the piano part first and then the very first orchestration you hear are the fast moving violins (by the way, those violins are the “repetition” violins in the EW sound library).  I knew that when I was orchestrating that piece, I wanted some fast short-sounding violins right from the get-go.  So those were the first instruments that I recorded.
  • Picking an Articulation…
    The first thing I do after knowing what type of instrument I want to use, I will go and look for the type of articulation that I want to use.  What is “articulation” you ask?  An articulation is a technique, or way of playing.  For example, a violinist can pluck the strings and that type of articulation is called pizzicato. A violinist can play long smooth notes, and that type of articulation is called legato. Which, if you haven’t already figured out, if you don’t know your Italian musical terms, you will want to brush up on them because the sound libraries go by the true and rightful articulation names.  And they are abbreviated as well, which makes it very confusing for a novice.  For example, can you guess what the following abbreviations mean? ConLeg, Spicc, Pizz, Marc, Acc, Leg, Stacc, ….?  Those would be Con Legno (hitting the wood of the bow on the string), Spiccato (a light bouncing of the bow on the string), Pizzicato (plucking of the string), Marcato (a shorter note with an accentuated start), Accent (an explosive start or finish), Legato (smoothly connected), Staccato (short notes).I want to talk a little more about picking out your articulations.  This is key, so pay attention.  If you get anything out of my blog post, get this: If you have finished your violin section and you only have one track – go back and redo it.  In order to get a good authentic sound, you are going to need to use many different articulations – which will require several additional tracks.  Just as a real live violin section is going to perform dozens of different articulations during a song, so should you.  Think in your head, if you will, Aaron Copeland’s “Rodeo”.  Okay, if you don’t have a clue what I’m talking about, it’s the “Beef – It’s what’s for dinner” theme music. It goes Dun-diddy-dun, da-da-da-da-da-ad-da-da-DUN-dun-DUH-da-da-da-da-ad-daya-DUN.  🙂  Dy’a get that?  He uses a combination of an opening staccato note, with a slurred turn, followed by a bunch of marcato notes.  If you are using a sampled sound that is a Legato Violin section, you are not by any means going to make beef for dinner!  You will need at least 3 different tracks with 3 different string articulations in order to accomplish that music.Still confused out of your mind?

Here is a short sound clip of a song from my upcoming album that I’ve recently orchestrated, called “Fire Dance”.  In this clip you will hear a trumpet..I have purposely turned up the volume of the trumpet on the clip so that you can hear them better (normally they wouldn’t be so loud in the mix)…

I used 3 different trumpet articulations to achieve the seamless trumpet line.  Here are the screenshots of my tracks to illustrate what I mean…you can click to enlarge.This is an overall view of my song.  As you can see I have 24 tracks in this piece – multiple articulations for each instrument.

In this next shot, I wanted you to see the three different trumpet tracks I recorded.  In the audio clip, you only hear one trumpet, but it took me 3 different articulations to acheive the one trumpet sound.

And finally, in this last screenshot you can see the notes in the piano roll screen – and how they overlap to make one track.  Each color represents a different type of articulation.

  • Record by Trial and Error.
    So once you’ve picked out an articulation that you want to start recording, just go for it.  It is a series of trial and error to get the “perfect” recording.  It will sometimes take me several attempts to get my instrument to sound just how I want it to.  You also have to consider that with some samples, you can use your keyboard’s modulation wheel to add vibrato or intensity to the instrument.  This can get tricky – especially if you are trying to record multiple notes simultaneously – you might start to feel as though you need 3 hands.  My advice?  Record a basic track, no chords, and some basic mod wheel.  And then…
  • Edit, edit, edit!
    You should be able to view your track as either a Piano Roll, Event List, Staff, or like the above first picture – a Track Sequence. When I first started using this software, I had no idea when I would ever use these different types of views.  But once I learned how to edit my instruments efficiently, I realized that each view had its place and reason.  For example, the Piano Roll (as you see above in the 3rd photo), is a good screen to edit the start times of notes, the duration of notes, the velocities of notes, and the modulation of notes.  I use this view more than any other.  I will spend a tremendous amount of time with each and every track within the Piano Roll view to edit them.  Why? Well, for many reasons.  Take your strings for example.  Strings sounds happen to have a bit of latency to them – meaning when you play a note on the keyboard, the string might be ever-so-slightly behind the beat.  I’ve noticed a lot of recordings where they didn’t edit the string tracks in this regard, and they sound very late.  So what I will often do is go into the piano roll view and nudge the start times of the notes over slightly so that they sound more on tempo.  There is also another trick that I do with strings to make them sound more authentic.  I will overlap each note very slightly.  In strings, it makes them sound more real this way because it better mimics bowing – as you know strings flow from note to note.  They don’t go DUH DUH DUH, but instead they go La-ya-de-la-ya.  If that makes any sense at all.The Event List is not a view that I use very often, unless I need to edit something in extreme detail.  Every time you hit a note, change velocity, or modulation it will show up as a number in your Event List.  All of these different things are “events” happening in your track.  If you want to edit your velocity settings (how loud the notes are), knowing that velocities range from 0 – 127, you can go through each individual event and change those numbers.  Tedious, but sometimes necessary.The Staff view is helpful to me when editing piano.  I can easily edit pedal markings within the staff view.And just so you know, I spend more time editing my orchestral score than recording.  So if you find yourself doing that – it’s okay.  It doesn’t mean that I am terrible at recording – it just means I’m a bit of a perfectionist.  Oh, and that is another thing I wanted to add…like I said earlier when you are recording, just record a basic line and then edit it afterwards. This goes for harmonies.  I have found this method to be truly brilliant when creating string sections.  It’s like having a blank canvas to work on and trying different splashes of color.  For example, record a single violin line.  Then go into your Piano Roll view, and add some chording.  Move the notes around, hit play to listen, and keep changing things up.  In the meantime, edit your mod wheel so that the velocities are not stagnant and you have some depth, ebb and flow to the piece.
  • KeySwitches – Use them.
    I recently helped my mom with some orchestration on one of her songs.  She had recorded a flute, eullean pipe, and a string section (and a piano line).  Her instruments sounded very stagnant and inauthentic.  She was frustrated because she didn’t know what to do to make them sound more real. She said she went through all of the available articulations and couldn’t find anything better than what she had recorded with.  I told her that there was absolutely nothing wrong with her composing abilities and orchestration.  But it was the way that she recorded the parts that needed help.I can’t emphasize this enough – creating an authentic sounding orchestra takes a lot of time and effort.  So be prepared to put the hours in if you are wanting a stellar track.As I mentioned above, you should record all sorts of different articulations in order to get an authentic sound.  In some samples, they have an option called a “Key Switch”.  In the Eastwest software, it is abbreviated as “KS”.  It is often labelled with what notes on the keyboard act as the keyswitches, for example, “KS-C5”.  Meaning Key Switch, the note C, 5 octives up.  If you hit that particular note, it will give you a different articulation.  I love key switches because it means I only have to pull up one instrument sample to get a dozen different articulations.  But it does take some editing.  For example, in my QL Gypsy software I have a really nice sounding Gyspy Solo Violin.  This particular sampled instrument has about 15 or 20 different keyswitch articulations, ranging from the lowest C on the keyboard up to a G 2 octives higher.  Every one of those keys is a different artic.  So if I’m recording a part with this particular solo violin, sometimes the music passes me by faster than my brain can think of which keyswitch to press while simultaneously recording the violin part with my other hand.  It’s seriously like patting your head and rubbing your belly at the same time.  It’s not easy!  So what I will often do is pick the main keyswitch I want to use (ex: Legato), and record the part – making sure that I’m playing the violin notes with the best emotional value that I can.  And then once I have that recorded, I can go into my Piano Roll view and edit the Keyswitches.Going back to my mom’s piece of music, we were able to edit her parts with Keyswitches so that each of those instruments sounded incredibly real and authentic afterwards.  It was neat to hear the difference.
  • Adding other Instruments…
    So you’ve added a violin section but you now still have no clue what other instruments to add.  You know, there are no set rules on what kind of instruments you have to use.  Sure in a real symphony orchestra you are going to have all your strings, your brass, your woodwinds, and your percussion.  But remember this is your recording and your style. You can do whatever you feel like. I personally don’t like the sound of many of the woodwinds, so you won’t usually hear flutes, clarinets, or oboes in my music.  That is my preference.  However, I love French Horns.  So you will be treated to them quite often. 🙂  I would say the best way to go about it is to first identify the range of instrument you think your song needs.  Does it need a high or low instrument?  Low?  Well, okay, what sort of low instruments can you use.  Well, there is the Bass, the Cello, a Contra Bassoon, a Tuba, or even some bass percussion like Timpani or Bass drum.  Obviously it might help to know your instruments and this will help you know your options.  And remember, sometimes less is more. You don’t need to add the entire kitchen sink.  Once you know what instrument you want to record next, well you know the routine….go through your articulations, record, and then edit.
  • Combing Instruments to Achieve a Particular Sound
    Sometimes if I’m not getting that total right authentic sound I’m trying for, I will combine several articulations together. For example, this might sound weird, but combining a staccato violin articulation with a staccato brass articulation (like trumpet) and then mixing them at a level where they blend perfectly will finally give you that raw authentic sound you are going for. Also, like I said, I use a hybrid method using real live instruments I’ve recorded myself with my VST software. I’m a violinist and so I often combine my own violin with my orchestrations, as well as have featured guest artists play.  It helps to round out the sound and give it a greater sense of authenticity.
  • Details…
    There are little fine details, like cross fadings, swells, fade-ins and fade-outs that you can’t always control within the midi setting.  You can, by using “midi envelopes”, but I’ve found it to be too much work that way.  So instead, I will edit those sorts of details once I’ve exported the track as an audio file.  And the better you can edit your audio track and have it ready, the more your audio engineer will thank you.  Sloppy edits make them unhappy campers.
  • Let it Sit Overnight…
    So say you just finished orchestrating one of your songs. You’ve spent the last 12 hours on it, and you are so excited that it’s finally done that you want to upload it to your Reverbnation player right now and share it with all of your fans.  DON’T!  Absolutely do NOT do that. Trust me, I speak from experience.  First of all, you’ve been listening to this track over and over and over for hours upon hours.  I hate to tell you but your musical judgement is a bit impaired right now.  You’ve heard your track so many times by this point that your ears have become a bit numb to mistakes and details.  Trust me…close your file.  Go to bed, and come back in the morning and listen to it with fresh ears.  I guarantee you will hear things that you didn’t before, and will have a short list of spots that you need to go back and redo.  Just the other day I finished orchestration on my extended version of “Illumination”.  I really did spend all day and all night on it.  I emailed it to my hubby before going to bed so that the next morning when he was working, he could listen to it and give me his opinion.  I thought it was rather perfect. 🙂  Well, sure enough, the next day he listened to it and gave me some constructive criticism on a couple of spots that he felt needed some tweaking.  And ya know he was right.  I listened to the track again several times and noticed some other things myself.  The entire pizzicato cello section that I added at the beginning…all of a sudden sounded rather terrible to me.  So yes, have the self control to let your song sit for a while before calling it a final draft.  I will often orchestrate a song and then revisit it several WEEKS later.

So those are the main things I wanted to share with you about how to be a better orchestrator.  There are, of course, many many other things you can do to make your orchestrations great but I just don’t want to make this post too much more of a novel that it already is.  For example, you can combine instruments, add some reverb and other effects and create a whole new sounding “instrument”.

Another thing I wanted to suggest is just taking the time to listen and study great symphonic works. Or even better, soundtrack music.  You will learn a great deal by example and hearing what other great composers have done before.  Stravinsky actually published a book on orchestrating and it’s a very detailed intriguing read.  The man was really a genius when it came to orchestrations.

Anyway I’m sorry for the lengthy post, but I hope it was somewhat helpful.  Would love to hear your thoughts/comments, and any methods that you use in your own orchestrations that are helpful to you!

Happy orchestrating,


How Home Studios are Helping Students

This article originally appeared on The Music Teacher’s Helper’s Blog, where Jennifer has been a contributing author for the past year and a half. This is her final article, as she is expecting a baby this summer.

To start this off, I just wanted to say how much I have enjoyed being an author on this blog for the past year and a half and the wonderful people I have met, as well as the beneficial information I have learned as well. This will be my last article on Music Teacher’s Helper, as I’m getting ready to have my 2nd baby here quite soon, and am starting my hiatus.  

As I’ve been contemplating what topic to cover for this last article, it occurred to me while teaching, that it might be beneficial to talk about how I’ve integrated my home studio into my music lessons, and how it has affected my students for the better.

As well as being a music teacher, I’m also a composer/recording artist and so I have a studio in my home.  Many parents and students have asked me “Why do you need two keyboards?” or “How do you record all of that right here?”, as well as many other curious questions pertaining to what goes into recording music from a home studio.

To answer some of these questions, let me start off saying that my studio is all digital.  This means that I do not record any live audio with microphones at my home studio.  That requires an entirely different set-up and I usually go to a hired studio in order to record such music.  A “digital studio” is done through the use of MIDI (Musicial Instrument Digital Interface) as well as some audio cables (which I don’t use but some people do).

Some of the pieces of equipment that I have in my home studio is a 6 foot Kawai grand piano, violin, guitar, a Kawai CN270 digital keyboard (which has a very real action touch and I record piano recordings from this keyboard), a Kurzweil PC88 keyboard (a fancier keyboard with many ‘bells and whistles’ including a modulation wheel, which is essential when recording virtual instruments), 8″ Yamaha Studio Monitors, a Dell computer (with an extra amount of RAM and hard drive space, which is essential for music software), extra hard drives, and probably the most important thing is a valuable array of music software and virtual instruments (soft synths)  that I’ve collected over the years.

One thing that I do with all of my music students is record them.  Any time they perfect a song, we move from the piano over to one of the keyboards and record. 

This has been very beneficial for them in many different ways:

– For one thing, it allows them to have a collection of songs on a CD that they recorded themselves. 

– It also allows them to go back and listen to how their skills have improved from their first recording to their most recent. 

– Recording also helps them to overcome the fear of performing because as they continue to record more and more songs, they diminish nerves. Being recorded  without an audience helps them learn to tap into their inner expression and just play from the heart., and eventually translates over to live performances as well (for recitals, etc.).

– I also have my students record their recital songs before an upcoming recital and do “Self Critiques”. This is where they listen to themselves and write down things they need to work on. It’s been amazing for them to be able to hear what they sound like outside of their own head, and has pushed them to work very hard.

Over the years of allowing my students access to my home studio, I have been able to assist students in entering composition contests, making their own albums, and the best part has probably just been being able to open their eyes to whole new world of music that they may have otherwise not been been exposed to.  I have several students now interested in building their own home music studios so that they can continue the journey of writing/recording their own music.  They now know that learning to play the piano isn’t just learning songs out of a method book, but that they can be part of the imagination and creative process of music.  They can arrange songs, add different instrumentations to the recordings, and learn how to edit as well.

I have one student in particular who recently won a state-level division of a “Reflections” competition for middle schoolers, where she composed her own song, recorded it and submitted it along with the sheet music as well.  While she did all of the work on her own in the composition process, I was able to help her record and notate the sheet music from my studio.  The experience only sparked an interest in her, and her parents have now been helping her to set up a basic studio in her room. 

If you think your child or student would be interested in setting up a home digital studio as well, I can suggested a few pieces of key equipment:

A Digital Keyboard/Piano.  This is essential, and you will want to be sure you get one that has both audio and midi outlets/inlets.  This way you can connect the keyboard directly to a computer.  You don’t need an expensive keyboard, but I would suggest making sure you find one that has all 88 keys.(as they come in various forms with lesser amounts of keys). 88 keys is especially essential if your child/student is a pianist.  You can find decent keyboards for under $500, such as this portable digital keyboard. For something more piano-esque and slightly more expensive, I would suggest this digital piano.  The difference between a digital keyboard and a digital piano is that the keyboards tend to have more sounds and synthesizers, and usually are portable. You need to buy a stand to put it on, as well as a bench.  Digital pianos usually come on their own stand (screwed together, so not easily portable) and do not have all the fancy buttons and gadgets.  As you noted earlier, I have both in my studio and they both serve two different purposes. I have found that the digital pianos are better for pianists because the keys are usually weighted, wood, and play/feel much more like a real piano.  A digital keyboard will feel lighter, more plastic-like but with the benefit of being able to record a wide variety of sounds and instruments.

–  A Computer.  This can be a laptop or desktop, whichever you prefer.   Since I am not a travelling performer, I have a desktop that stays in my studio. However, some musicians prefer laptops so that they can be more mobile.  You will want to be sure you have a decent sound card as well, and depending on how much software you plan to invest in, you will want extra RAM and hard drive space.

Software.  Let me first say that you do need software to record.  At least on a very amateur basis.  In fact, the  2nd keyboard that I suggested above has the ability to record mulit-tracks within its own built-in computer.  So for beginners, that is a great place to start.  That keyboard also comes with some basic software that you can put on your computer in order to transfer your recordings from the keyboard’s internal computer to your own computer.  However, neither the keyboard or the software it comes with allows you the ability to edit your recordings and has limited midi use. 

When I first started out, I used a free software called Audacity.  You can download it here. It is very basic, but very helpful.  You can record audio with this program (run an audio cord from your keyboard to your computer and it will record whatever synth or piano sound your keyboard is outputting).  You can also splice, change volume levels, eq’s, add special effects, add fade-in’s/out’s, etc.  But again, Audacity does not work with MIDI.  If you are wanting to get into using virtual instruments (soft synths) then you would need to go to the next step up and purchase a DAWS program (Digital Audio Work Station), such as Cakewalk, Sonar, ProTools, Cubase, etc and that is the pricepoint where a studio starts to get more expensive and more on the professional level.  There are many programs out there, and most even offer a LE version to get you started.  (I personally use Sonar Producer 8).

I don’t want to get into too many details regarding the benefits and differences of recording with MIDI, but to explain what exactly midi does – it basically is a way to record music that has the flexability of changing what you recorded into any instrument that you wish.  For example, you can record a piano part and change it into sounding like a harp.  Midi obviously requires that you have the necessary software programs to translate your tracks into these other sounds, which again, gets into a whole other arena of music studio software that I’m not going to go into for this article as I’m trying to keep this information basic.

Another piece of software that might be beneficial, is a notation program.  Some DAWS have the ability to print out notation from MIDI, but not without much editing. Those types of programs were not designed to be notation programs and so that aspect of them are very limited.  I would suggest referring to a previous article I wrote regarding notation programs for further help on this topic, as I suggested a few different freewares available as well as professional grade programs.

With the continued advancement in technology, more and more younger students are getting interested in music and technology.  It is both motivating and exciting for them to be able to create music using the advancements available today for home studios.  What I have covered here is very basic, so if you have any more detailed questions please don’t hesitate to leave a comment or email me directly at ( and I’d be happy to help. Thanks again for a wonderful experience here on the Music Teacher’s Helper Blog as an author, and I wish you all happy music making!

Diary of a Score: Part 1

Many people have been asking me how the film score is coming that I am composing for Ryan McNeal’s short film Minuet“. I thought I would post a little bit it about what I’ve done so far, and my process through it all.

So far I have watched the rough cut of a film about 5 or 6 times. This cut has the temp music on it. It’s been good to hear what type of music Ryan chose to put in there, but I didn’t want to watch it too many times fearing that my mind would subconsiously learn that that is how it should be.

I recently was able to obtain a cut of the film without any music, which I uploaded into my sequencing software, Sonar Producer 8, and I’ve have viewed this version at least 20 times, with many more viewing sessions to come.

Last week, I went through the film in detail and wrote down any moment where I felt that music was needed (not thinking about the temp music, but just what I felt was needed for the scene). This included writing down specific timestamps on the film for later reference.

For example, for one cue in particular this is what I wrote down:

START 00:06:05:12 – solo piano (to represent lonliness)
00:06:31:22 – Cairpre is on deck and see stuffed animal on beach trail from afar. Need cue to let audience know he sees something.
00:06:34:01 – Goes down the stairs in a hurry, start building intensity in the music but not too much yet.
00:06:52:07 – Starts running, yelling “Elise!”. Music should be fast, intense as he runs.
00:06:58:04 – Elise is standing on beach, there is a sense of danger. Audience needs to feel through the music that she is in danger.
00:07:07:05 – Cairpre runs up to Else and grabs her, she jumps. Music starts to die down.
00:07:18:10 – Claire’s vocal theme starts as Cairpre looks up and around at the beach. Haunting, beautiful music.
00:07:35:23 – Music starts to die down as they walk up the beach. Elise says “I just wanted to see her again.”
END 00:07:41:22 – Music at complete stop. Elise pulls away from Cairpre
Total time: 1 minute, 36 seconds

As you can see, writing down what goes on in the scene at what times creates a map for me for when I compose the music. I will know, for example, that from this time to that time, there needs to be 9 seconds of intense music. Then the next 14 seconds need to dying down and gradually fading out.

With the above notes, I then watched the scene several more times to figure out what I heard in my head as far as the music.

Since the scene starts with Caipre waking up from a dream and then going out onto his deck, I knew that I wanted the music to portray his sense of lonliness and despair since he lost his daughter. The solo piano represents this.

When he sees his granddaughter’s stuffed bunny on the beach, it signals to him that she had snuck out during the night and was somewhere on the beach. So I then started to melt the solo piano into some strings, where the harmonies were tight and intense but not too much yet, because I wanted to save that for a moment happening only several seconds later.

As he picks up the bunny and starts running towards the beach, the music picks up in speed and intensity. I brought in some very short bowed notes on the violins, some longer strings lines from the rest of the orchestra, and some timpani beats and cymbal swells to add to the intensity.

Getting the music to sync exactly with the timing of the scene was difficult, because the “intense” theme I started to develop ended up being too long. I went back and rewrote the section, then adding a key change which shifted the intensity up a notch as well. Then, as Cairpre looks up to see the ghost of his daughter on the beach, the music needed a change there. I felt that the beautiful spirit of Claire needed to be represented by a haunting vocal line. So as Cairpre looks up to see her standing on the beach from afar, you hear a beautiful voice overlaying the strings and piano (which, by the way, the vocals you here on the sample below are just temporary and created using software. They will eventually be replaced by a live voice from a real soprano).

Now, to hear how this all came together, here is the sample of what I came up with.  You can just click on the link and an mp3 will come up momentarily.

Bunny on Beach Cue

The hard part about composing for film, is you might spend a lot of time composing a cue and the director ends up not liking it, or it doesn’t fit the scene.  What you might be hearing in your head may or may not be what the director hears in his/her head for that particular scene.

Ryan loved this cue, however, once they got it synced up to the film, he wasn’t sure that the timing of the climax of the scene matched the timing of the climax of the music.  It is very true that the music can change a scene entirely and it’s got to be timed exactly.

For those who are fans of M. Night Shyamalan films, do you think you would be as greatly affected by the film if the music didn’t have certain cues in it to stir those emotions within you?  For example, in the movie “The Village”, you do not see any danger in the movie until the final moments of the film and yet you are greatly affected emotionally by certain musical and audio cues from the very beginning.

Another cue that I recently worked on, was a scene for where Caipre has a flashback dream.

The cue starts with the tail-end of a scene where Cairpre says goodnight to his granddaughter and closes her bedroom door. She blows out a candle, the screen goes black.  Next you see some ocean waves hitting some rocks on the seashore, and then moves to show Caipre in bed sleeping, apparently experiencing a dream or nightmare.  You then see him have a flashback dream of the moment he found his daughter dead on the beach.  Waves are crashing all around, he looks very much alone and saddened, and full of dispair.  Then, he wakes up suddenly and sits up in bed.

My idea for the music for this scene was to show how haunted Cairpre still is by the passing of his daughter.  My idea was to have the music play in reverse for the flashback.  It sounds misconstrued and nonsensical, which is how dreams are most of the time.  And then the music comes to a complete stop as Cairpre suddenly wakes up.

This was a bit tricky to execute and I tried several different ways to do this.

First I recorded a very basic string section part with some minimal harmonies. I then took that part and reversed it.  This didn’t end up working, because apparently when you reverse string parts they sound exactly the same backwards.  Which, makes sense.  When a bow hits the string it attacks the instrument the same way no matter if it is coming or going.  Whereas, with a piano, the notes are struck with a hammer, thus making the reverse effect much more noticable.  If you think of a piano note being struck and then slowly fading out. If you reverse that, you would get a note that slowly fades in and then ends with a striking.

So I then added a piano part, which knowing it was going to be played in reverse, did not need to make sense or be melodic.  In fact, I added some very off-key notes in there just to see how it would sound.  Upon reversing it, and lining it up with the strings it actually worked quite well.  With the striking of the piano strings, it also created somewhat of a rhythmic pounding nature to the sequence, which I wouldn’t have acheived otherwise with just strings.  I also added some pizzacato notes in the strings for the reverse section as well, which again, you don’t really pick up but you would notice them gone if they were taken out.  At least my ears do.

So you can hear this short cue by clicking the following link:

>> Flashback Dream Sequence <<

I have one other cue that I’ve finished so far and it is the music for the intro to the film.  But I’ll save that to share at some other time.

So far, out of the 9 cues that I counted up that I will need to compose, I have completed these 3.  However, like I said, due to film editing and sequencing, I can’t say these cues are final until they actually cut a final cut of the film.  6 more cues to write.  The film is in line to hopefully be finished by the beginning of September. However I am due to have a baby around the middle of August and so it’s my goal to finish the music for the film by the middle of July if not sooner.

And that’s a rap for this post.  More to come at a later time.

Read “Diary of a Score: Part 2” here.

Motivating Students to Practice

This article originally appeared on March 22, 2010 on the Music Teacher’s Helper Blog, where Jennifer participates as an author on a monthly basis. Original link: 

I recently asked a group of parents what was the one thing they needed help with regarding their children’s music lessons, as well as something that the teacher could be working on as well.  The answer:  Motivating children to practice.

I’ve had this discussion with my own students’ parents many times.  Some parents really push their kids, and some have little to no involvement at all.  What are they doing wrong? What are they doing right? These are things they ask me. 

I personally do not think that there is one right answer because every person is unique.  For example, I was a very self-motivated child and never had to be told to practice.  I just did it, and excelled at it. However, I know that some of my students don’t progress with this type of method in the home and practicing does not happen.

It can be true of the reverse as well though.  Some children may need to be reminded or pushed to practice, and therefore they excel with that type of motivation.  Whereas other children, when pushed too hard, back away or rebel.

Here are some things that I have found to help me with my students, as well as advice that I would offer to parents. 

What can the parent do to help the child?

Know your child and what type of motivation will work for them.  If the child is very self motivated, that is great!  But it doesn’t mean that they don’t want your involvement.  Be pro-active to step in the room while they are practicing and compliment them, or give other types of positive reinforcement. On the other hand, if your child does need reminders, be consistent with them.  Help them to know that it’s important every week, not just the weeks that you remember to step in and say something.  I have one student who earns allowance money when she practices, but the method only works when her parents are consistent in motivating her.  I’ve seen weeks go by when she didn’t practice because her parents were not being involved enough.

Help the child see the value in music.  I know it is hard for an 8 year old to imagine what his or her life will be like when they are 25 years old, but I can’t count how many times I’ve heard adults say to me “I quit taking piano when I was young and it was such a mistake. I wish I could go back and take lessons again.”  Parents can help children know the value that musical talent brings to society.  Take them to a symphony concert, or to a musical that would inspire them.  Help them to be aware of future opportunities where they could be of help with their talent.  I’m not saying that you should tell your child that they need to work hard so that they can be a concert pianist.  I’m merely saying that there are so many valuable experiences to be had in music, including service opportunities within the community.

Set up a reward system.  Now, again, with what I said earlier about different personality types, this may only be necessary for those students who need a little extra motivation.  I used to do a point system in my studio where the students could earn points every week for things like showing up on time, keeping their fingernails trimmed, practicing, etc.  At the end of the month, depending on how many points they earned they could choose a prize out of the prize box.  More points afforded them more valuable prizes than lower points.  Another example – right now I have a student who has an agreement with her parents that they will pay for her piano lessons only if she practices.  If she fails to practice, then she has to pay for her lesson that week out of her allowance money.  This might seem a bit on the negative side of motivation, but again, for some students this is what works for them (and I know personally that this is the only method that her parents have tried that has actually worked). 

What can the Teacher to do help the student?

Be their biggest cheerleader.  I am a big fan of positive reinforcement with children and teenagers.  With everything they have to deal with these days, they really need a cheerleader.  Teachers really need to take off their critical hats quite often and look for any positive thing that the student is doing right and praise them for it.  I think we as teachers sometimes listen to our students play and hear every tiny mistake and we work them until the song is eventually perfect.  But there are some students that will never play that song perfect as hard as you work them, but they are playing it the best that they possibly can.  As a teacher, you need to recognize this and praise them.  Positive comments and reinforcement only encourage students to keep working hard and practicing.

Competition.  Now this might not work for all students, but I do know that some students can be very competitive.  Every time it is getting near recital time at my studio, you can feel this pressure in the air and the students are either working really hard on their recital songs, or so far beyond trying that they want to give up entirely.  For those ready to give up (or for those only giving a mediocre attempt at their songs), I will sometimes casually mention that “So and so has been working really hard on her song for the recital, and wow I think she is about the same age as you.”  I try to plant this little seed in their head as non chalant as possible, but I always see them back the next week with a song that has been practiced to death.  Kids can be competitive, and they like to win.  If they know that their peers are trying hard, then gosh darnitt they will try hard too. Along with planting “seeds of competition” in their head, you could also hold a real competition with your students.  I’ve had practicing competitions where the student who practiced the most hours for a certain period of time would get a prize.  We hold a prize ceremony and masterclass and present the prize.  It’s      amazing how much harder the students work when there is a prize at stake, as well as competition with their peers.

Expect their best, not your best.  This kind of goes along with some of the things I mentioned in #1, but more specifically, knowing when to “have a chat” with your students about practicing.  I will be the first to admit that I love to have a fun atmosphere with teaching.  I want my students to have fun and enjoy the music that they are learning and love coming to lessons each week.  But with that sort of atmosphere sometimes comes a sense of “I don’t have to work hard” from certain students.  Of course this is not true, and when I see a need to bring it up, I will “have the chat” with students.  This chat usually involves me letting them know how much I do expect from them, how impressed I am when they do practice, and what a difference it makes.  In a nutshell, I let them know that they are capable of much more than they are giving me and I want to see that from them.  I don’t expect them to give me perfection, but I do expect them to give me their best.

Do you have any ideas or comments to add to this topic?  I would absolutely love to hear any methods that work for you as either a parent or teacher.  Please do share.

Teaching Lessons through Online Video Chat: An Interview with Kathy Parsons

This article originally appeared in The Music Teacher’s Helper’s Blog, where Jennifer appears as a monthly writer.  

In case you haven’t heard, it’s a WONDERFUL time to be alive and involved in the world of music!  

With the continual advancements in technology, the way that we create music, share it, and teach it is so incredibly different than how it was only just 10-15 years ago.  

Meet Kathy Parsons – a piano teacher from Florence, Oregon who recently relocated from the San Francisco area. Not only does she teach, but she heads a website called where she writes music reviews for a plethora of renowned musicians. She has had the pleasure of working with artists like David Lanz, Suzanne Ciani, and Spencer Brewer to name only a few.  

And what is even more intriguing, is that despite having recently left California to move an entire state away to her Oregon coastal home, Kathy still teaches a good number of her Californian students by way of modern technology and the internet.  

How is this done? Find out as I share my interview with Kathy Parsons on how she utilizes technology to advance her teaching studio…  

JT: You have been teaching piano for many years. How did you decide to become a teacher, and was it something you had always planned to do?   

KP: As a young person, I divided my time fairly equally between the piano and visual arts. My plan was to teach piano and continue doing my artwork part-time, but, as so often happens, life had other plans. I have been a full-time piano teacher for 27 years and part-time for the past two. I’ll have my 29th anniversary in January. I’d say it was more of a calling than a plan.   

JT: You recently relocated to the central Oregon coast. While this was a huge undertaking for you, you managed to come up with a way to retain some of your piano students despite living in a different city. Can you explain how you were able to do this?   

KP: When I decided to move from the San Francisco Bay Area to the central Oregon Coast, I knew it would be difficult to find new students and I hated to leave some of my students in CA. I was talking to one of my adult students about moving one day, and she told me about her video chat conversations with her brother in Spain over Skype. I had never heard of video chat at that point, so I started doing some investigating since this student was confident that we could continue lessons that way. I have some good contacts at Yamaha in the academic division, and they were kind enough to put me in touch with their “internet guru,” who was doing online lessons. He sent me some very helpful info and once I understood the basics, it was actually easier to work things out on my own.  

I started talking up internet lessons with my students and their parents before I moved. When I left CA, it sounded like close to twenty of my existing students would continue lessons over the internet, but once we got down to reality, only a few followed through 

JT: Did the thought of using the internet and video seem intimidating at all? How was the learning curve?   

KP: Starting anything this new and different is intimidating, especially when so few other people have tried it. At the same time, it is very exciting to be a trail-blazer of sorts. Learning how to do remote lessons was really fairly easy – it was convincing the parents to try it that was difficult. Early on, the pianos sounded like they were under water, which was obviously a big problem. The video feeds had good and bad days, and initially, the service froze up quite often. The service has improved tremendously over the past couple of years.   

JT: Is there a specific internet service or software that you use in order to teach this way? Can you list the equipment involved?   

KP: I have been using Skype, iChat, and Google video chat services. They all have good and bad points. iChat has the clearest video by far, and the sound quality is usually quite good. For Mac users, it seems to be the best option. Google’s video chat seems to be very stable and the sound quality is really good. The video is so-so, but adequate. Skype is very good, but is prone to freezes and dropped calls from time to time. Skype and Google are both free services.Most laptops now come with cameras built in, so that makes it easy. Students who don’t have those use the separate webcams. On my end, I’m using a MacBook laptop with a 13” screen. I hope to upgrade to a bigger screen next year, but the 13” screen is fine. The most important ingredient seems to be a fast internet service. I’m using wireless broadband and am very lucky to be working with a small local company called OregonFast. They are very interested in what I’m doing with the technology and have been extremely helpful and supportive.

JT: Okay, so I’m starting to understand what equipment it takes to do this, but, explain this to me: How do you have this set up? Both you and the student have pianos at each end of the camera. The student plays as you watch, and vice versa?   

KP: Yes. When I am talking to students or watching or listening to them play, I have the camera aimed at my face. When I am playing for students, I angle the camera so that it is on my hands. Students have their cameras positioned so I can see exactly what they are doing. On the screen, from my end, the video of the student fills most of the screen, and then there is a smaller box inset so I can see what they are seeing from their end.  

JT: Do you charge the normal amount for these lessons? I thought perhaps they might cost a bit more because of the equipment involved, but I don’t know.   

KP: I have been charging the same rates I was charging before. I used to travel to lessons, so even though there are some expenses on this end for lessons, I’m saving a lot of travel time and gas.  

JT: Do these types of lessons take the same amount of time as traditional in-person lessons?   

KP: Yes. I still do 45-60 minute lessons weekly.   

JT: How do your students enjoy doing lessons this way? Were they pretty open to the idea?  

KP: My students seem to really enjoy online lessons. One of my adult students absolutely loves that she can do her lessons in her pajamas after work! My youngest students right now are twelve, but they have been doing lessons online for a couple of years. At least for now, I wouldn’t take any very young beginners. I think the teacher should be there and very hands-on for beginners. The kids I have now started with me when I was in CA. My adult students say they think this is just as good as having me in the room with them. In some ways, it ’s actually better since it is so focused and adult students don’t seem to get nearly as nervous.   

JT: Have you obtained new students through this method, or do you only retain the previous students?   

KP: I started the mother of one of my younger students online once she could see that it was working well for her daughter. So far, I have only started one student who found me on my website. He is a retired man who lives in Wisconsin. We’ve been doing lessons for about eight months, and he says he just loves it.


JT: Do you feel that you are able to teach as effectively using this method as you would if you were right there in person? For either/or, can you please explain the differences, pro’s, con’s, etc.?  

KP: It’s a little hard to say because I was getting very discouraged as a teacher in CA. There is just too much competition for time and students seemed to be less and less willing to practice enough to advance very well. I’m not sure if I’m enjoying teaching online more because it is going well or because I’m no longer teaching 43 lessons a week! For adult students, I think this method is just as effective as being in the room. They don’t seem to get nearly as nervous, which is a plus. I feel there is still a very big distrust of the technology from people who have not tried it. This will change over time, but right now it’s a bit of a hard sell.   

JT: Do you think that this method will be the “way of the future” in the teaching world? For example, perhaps instead of searching for a local teacher, a person would just be able to go online and take piano lessons from a music professor in Italy.  

KP: I think that’s possible, but piano teaching seems to be very tradition-bound in a lot of ways. I saw a demonstration awhile back where a pianist in NY was playing a Yamaha piano with a computer hook up to a piano in Los Angeles with the same hook up. The pianist in NY was actually able to play the LA piano remotely. It was astounding! The keys on the LA piano moved, as did the pedals! With that technology, there would be very little difference in doing lessons in person or remotely, but not a whole lot of people have the kind of money it would take buy the equipment.   

JT: Well thank you for taking the time to talk with me, and for giving your perspective and valuable insights to the readers of The Music Teacher Helper’s Blog. This has been very fascinating for me, and I think it will be equally so for other piano teachers out there as well.   

If you have any further questions for Kathy Parsons, you can contact her via her website at  

Kathy Parsons has been teaching piano privately since January 1981. Based in Hercules, CA (SF Bay Area) until the summer of 2007, Kathy has taught students from the age of 5-66, enjoying them all. Now located in Florence, OR, she is continuing to teach via the internet (explained here).
Kathy grew up in Oakland, CA, and started playing the piano at about age 5. Art and music were always the driving forces in her life, and she graduated with a BFA degree from the California College of Arts and Crafts in 1974. Once she started teaching piano a few years later, music became her driving passion. She started writing a monthly newsletter for her students that opened a variety of doors, allowing her to communicate with many composers and artists, especially as the so-called “new age” piano style began to grow. Finding new age to be a bridge between pop and classical music, Kathy discovered that students of all ages could readily identify with this style of music. As sheet music came into print, Kathy incorporated the best of it into her teaching repertoire. She also mixed contemporary composer bios and interviews into her newsletter along with the classical composers, and eventually started doing in-home student workshops with some of her favorite contemporary composers. The list of artists who have performed for and worked with Kathy’s students is impressive, and includes David Lanz, Suzanne Ciani, David Nevue, Robin Spielberg, Kevin Kern, Spencer Brewer, and many others. The newsletter and online music newsgroups in the mid-90’s led to Kathy becoming one of the staff writers for the print version of Bill Binkelman’s “Wind and Wire” magazine. When that was discontinued, she was offered a place to continue writing CD reviews and artist interviews on the site that became Solo Piano Publications. She was the primary writer for that site until early 2008. She then set up her own site (, which allows her to expand her endeavors into other areas.
Kathy moved to the central Oregon coast in July 2007, looking for a quieter lifestyle and to be closer to the ocean and nature. She continues to teach and write, and is looking forward to expanding her online presence.