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Tips for Memorizing Music

Tips for Memorizing Music

by Melissa Johnson

Special thanks to Tony Bertram, Kenneth Williams, and David Wilson

Whenever I interview my coworkers for a blog post, I get a variety of responses. Tony likes to sit and write out a list of answers. Kenneth gives me short, concise answers that I can jot down while I talk to him. For Wilson, however, I grab my coffee, pull up a stool, and open the voice recorder app on my phone, because I know there is no way I’ll be able to write down everything he says while he’s saying it. I love interviewing each of them because they all give me a different perspective on the subjects we discuss.

For this particular blog post, I really felt that you guys should hear everything Wilson had to say about memorizing music. So I have made a YouTube video with the original recording and have also transcribed the audio. It’s a little on the long side, but it is well worth your time if you want to do more than just play some notes that you’ve committed to memory.

First, we’ll start with the condensed, quick and easy tips:

  1. Look for patterns in the music: repeating sections, scales, etc.
  2. Memorize in small sections.
  3. Repetition is key!
  4. Know the story/message in your music.
  5. Find a way to connect emotionally to your music.

Why memorize?

Sometimes, you memorize music because your teacher tells you to or a competition requires it of you. But really, I think anytime you perform a solo or with a small ensemble, you should memorize your music.

Outside of marching band, I never really memorized music until I started taking voice lessons my junior year of college. I discovered at that point that there’s a freedom that comes with memorizing music that you may not have if you are performing with the sheet music. When you have learned the music inside and out and know it like the back of your hand, you’re free to explore the music. Your focus is no longer on reading the music note for note. You can instead focus on giving life and depth to the piece—taking in what it means to you and then conveying that to your audience.

This may be a little more difficult for with an instrumental piece (it is for me, anyway), so don’t feel bad if this doesn’t come easily to you. It takes time and practice (especially for introverts like myself).

Memorizing Music: Beyond the Notes on the Page

by David Wilson

When you set out to learn a piece of music, don’t think of it as a mechanical thing that you do with your fingers on the instrument. Stop it. That is not what music is. Music exists first and foremost as an imagination of sound in your mind. If you think up an original melody and you hear it in your head -- you never sing it, you never play it on an instrument – it is still music. It is still a melody that exists in your mind, because that’s where music comes from. So when you start to learn a piece of music, stop thinking of it in terms of, “Okay, first I play a C then I play an F then a G and then there’s a quarter note….” Stop it. Those things are incidental. They are completely incidental. Think of the melody. The very first thing that you should do is sing your part, because people that have any technical ability at all on their instrument have no problem playing “Happy Birthday.” And it’s not because “Happy Birthday” is technically easy. It’s because you have been singing that song since you were one. You know it inside and out. You recognize that melody. You have no problem knowing what’s coming next because you have it in your DNA in this culture. The very first thing you should do to learn a new piece of music is know that melody inside and out. Either sight read through it, so that as you play it, you hear it and you get to know it, or find a recording of the song and listen to it day in and day out until you know it, until you can hum along with it, until you can sing it. Because anything that you can sing, you can play by memory (I’m talking about actual recitation of the piece here). There’s a neurological component when you sing something. You have been using your voice to sing melodies. All of us have, whether we’re musicians or not. We’ve been using our voices to sing melodies since our earliest memories. Since we first started talking we started singing or humming little things. We all do it. Unless you’ve been playing your instrument for years and are just supremely skilled and proficient on your instrument, you are always going to be able to sing a melody with less thought than you can play it on your instrument because singing is just so natural to us. And I don’t mean good singing. I don’t mean you have to be perfectly on pitch and have a great sound. I’m just talking about in your car humming a melody. It is much more natural to us. It’s the same reason why humming a melody while you play it can help you with the technical ability of playing a piece of music that might be difficult for your fingers, because your voice acts as a neurological bridge between your memory of how the melody goes and the fingers that are trying to physically replicate it. So the first thing that you do is sing it. If you know this piece as a true piece of music, rather than as an exercise on the page, then game over. You’ve won. That is the number one thing to do when you’re trying to memorize a piece of music. There aren’t any other steps. Do that and everything will fall into place.

Band Instrument Care Tips

Band Instrument Care Tips

by Melissa Johnson

special thanks to Kenneth Williams and Tony Bertram

This post was inspired by a very disturbing question someone asked me recently: “Will it hurt my clarinet if I put it in the dishwasher?”

My heart leapt into my throat. “Sir, put the clarinet down and back away slowly.”

The short answer to that question is yes, that would definitely hurt the clarinet. The water would cause the pads under the keys to swell. The swollen pads would no longer seal the holes all the way when the student tried to play, rendering the instrument unplayable. All of the pads would need to be replaced, a $250 (at least) repair job.

And if that clarinet were wooden? The heat from the dishwasher would cause the wood to swell and possibly crack; an issue that is only sometimes repairable.

We've seen hundreds of dollars of repair work that could have easily been avoided. Below are tips for taking care of your band instrument to help you avoid costly repair.

Woodwind Care Tips

For flutes, oboes, clarinets, and saxophones

  • Use the swab to clean the inside of the instrument after you finish playing. Use a polish cloth to wipe down the outside of the instrument to remove fingerprints and smudges.
  • If you use a reed, be sure to store the reed in a reed case (either a reed guard or the plastic case it came in) when you put your instrument back in its case. Do not leave the reed on the mouthpiece. Doing so could result in faster deterioration of the reed (warping or chipping), mold, or (as my 7th grade band director informed me) maggots.
  • Wash the clarinet or saxophone mouthpiece regularly with mild dish soap, warm water, and a mouthpiece brush. This is the only part of the saxophone you can wash. For clarinets, you can also wash the barrel or bell (if it needs it), but never wash the upper or lower joints (the parts with the keys). Do not wash a flute or oboe.
  • If the instrument does not go together easily when you try to assemble it, use a little bit of cork grease on the corks or the end of the flute head and foot joint. Without it, the cork may tear and the keys may bend from forcing the pieces together.
  • Never store your book or sheet music on top of the instrument in the case. Doing so can result in bent keys. Store your music in a folder or buy an instrument case with an outside pocket.
  • Do not leave your instrument in a car, especially in extreme hot or cold temperatures.
  • Do not use spray cleaners on your instrument, as this can damage the pads.

Brass Care Tips

For trumpets, baritones, trombones, and tubas

  • Keep your valves/trombone slide well-oiled. Just use a couple drops of oil whenever the valves/slide start sticking or don't move quite as easily. But also be careful not to over-oil the valves/slide. Use the oil sparingly and only when you need it.
  • Be sure to apply tuning slide grease to the tuning slides whenever they become difficult to move.
  • Every now and then, give your instrument a light bath. Fill a bathtub with warm water and use a mild dish soap or a soap made for brass and a soft washcloth to clean the outside of the horn. For the inside, use the same soap and a bore cleaning brush (snake) made specifically for your instrument.
  • Clean your mouthpiece regularly with mild dish soap and a mouthpiece brush.
  • Whenever you finish playing, wipe down the outside of the instrument with a polish cloth to remove fingerprints and smudges.

General Care Tips for Brass and Woodwinds

  • Avoid eating while playing. If you can, rinse your mouth out before you start playing.
  • Only drink water while you play.

We have seen many dropped instruments this year. The repair cost on these have been at least a couple hundred dollars per instrument. While accidents do happen, there are a few measures students can take to prevent dropping their instruments:

  • Never rest your instrument on a sheet music stand.
  • Keep your instrument in its case when you are not playing it. If you are not able to do so, be sure the instrument is resting on a flat, sturdy surface or on a stand made for the instrument.
  • Avoid letting other people hold or play your instrument (especially if they are not also in band).
  • For saxophones, be sure the neck strap is secured and not broken.

Percussion Care Tips

Percussionists have it relatively easy when it comes to caring for their student bell/snare kits:

  • Store your instrument/equipment in their cases when not in use.
  • Use proper playing technique and sticks that are in good condition (i.e. no broken tips) to prevent your instrument from being damaged.
  • If you have a snare drum, replace the head whenever it is broken, dented, or starts to sound dead. (I recommend getting help changing heads from a band director, private lessons teacher, or a local reputable music store.)

Following these tips will help decrease the cost of repair and increase the life of your student's instrument. Protect your investment in your child's music career by teaching them how to properly care for and maintain their instruments.

Oh, and please don't put your instrument in the dishwasher.

Benefits of Private Lessons (Even if Your Child is in Band or Orchestra)

Benefits of Private Lessons (Even if Your Child is in Band or Orchestra)

by Melissa Johnson (Myrtle)

special thanks to David Wilson, Tony Bertram, and Kenneth Williams

We often hear parents say, “My child is already in band/orchestra, they don't need private lessons.” While school band and orchestra are great ways for your child to learn the basics and gain experience working as a member of a team, there are many benefits of enrolling your students in private lessons as well.

  1. Students receive individual attention in private lessons.

Music teachers may have 40+ students on a number of different instruments for roughly an hour each day. Subtract the time it takes the students to assemble their instruments and get settled in their seats, and the time at the end of class to disassemble and wipe down/swab the inside of the instruments, and you'll find it's nearly impossible to give each student the individual attention they need. Private lessons provide the one on one attention that will help the student excel. During these lessons, the teacher can focus on the student's needs and create a specialized curriculum for them based on their skill level and learning style.

  1. Private lessons teach skills that students can apply to all areas of their life.

Private lessons teach students learning techniques and tools that they can use in all aspects of their lives. The skills you use to excel on an instrument are the same skills that help you succeed at anything in life. When you're learning an instrument, you spend time with it, you create a practice routine, and you create a structure for your at-home practice. Private lessons instructors can help students create and stick to their practice routines, in turn teaching them organization, perseverance, and follow-through.

  1. Private lessons teach students musicality and artistry.

With the main focus of band and orchestra being learning the basics or preparing for concerts and competitions, musicality and artistry can fall by the wayside. Private lessons provide an environment where they can explore their own musicality and truly take the steps necessary to becoming a great artist.

David Wilson, who has been teaching private guitar lessons for 22 years, said, “[Private lessons] give the student the opportunity to learn one on one in an environment where they can explore their own individual musicality and truly take the steps necessary to become an artist with their instrument, and it takes taking private lessons and learning your instrument at that level. It takes the instrument you've chosen out of the realm of extracurricular activity, which is what band is, and makes it an art, makes it a personal statement, makes it, 'I'm not just in band, I'm a trumpet player.' How many people do you know that played flute in band still have their flute and use it as a consistent creative and emotional outlet, where they actually play and compose and listen to music that has flute in it? That's something that has always struck me with the kids that come in here and rent instruments for band. You've got a kid that comes in to rent a clarinet to join band, and there's not a thing on her iPod that has clarinet in it. And yet, a kid comes in to take guitar lessons, and it's because their iPod is filled with guitar music. There's a disconnect with one, and all roads lead to Rome on the other...There is amazing and culturally relevant music out there that is being made – other than classical – with the instruments students play [in band and orchestra]. Do you know how many synth patches on rap albums simulate a flute sound?”

  1. Private lessons put the student ahead.

Private lessons, in addition to taking band and orchestra, will put the student ahead of the students who are not taking lessons. This could mean getting a higher chair in class or getting into honor bands, which look great on college applications. Even if your student does not major in music, they could still earn scholarships for playing in band or orchestra at their chosen university. Private lessons could mean the difference in thousands of dollars when the student competes for those scholarships.

If your student does decide to major in music, private lessons will help prepare them for their college career and beyond. Studies show that music majors are just as busy as medical students. If the student has already established a practice routine and has organizational skills, their level of success will be much higher than the students who had not previously taken private lessons.

Private lessons are a great way to keep your child interested in their instrument and help them excel on it. Taking private lessons is a great way to help your student not only become a better musician, but also a well-rounded individual. By enrolling your child in private lessons, you are investing in their future.

An Audition Survival Guide

An Audition Survival Guide
by Melissa Johnson
special thanks to Kenneth Williams

Whether this weekend will be your first honor band audition or you've been auditioning for years, auditions can be scary. In honor of the upcoming SWOBDA auditions, we've compiled a list of last-minute things you can do to make those auditions less scary and, dare I say, actually fun.
The night before your audition:
- Run through your scales (from memory, if applicable) and audition pieces just like you would in the audition room. Wear the outfit you'll be wearing the day of the audition. If you can, gather some friends and/or family members and play your pieces for them.
-Make sure you have everything you'll need for the audition in one place: music, extra reeds, valve/slide oil, neck strap, mallets/drum sticks, etc.
-Get plenty of sleep!
The morning of the audition:
-Eat a good breakfast. You might even try some bananas, avocados, blueberries, milk, almonds, oranges, or oatmeal -- these foods have been proven to help calm nerves. Avoid caffeine, however. That will just add to your jitters.
-Wear something comfortable that you feel great in. This can do wonders for your self-esteem.
-Give yourself plenty of time to get to the audition site, and get there early.
When you arrive at the site:
-Find your audition room early to sign up for a slot and to see what scale you'll be playing.
-An hour or so before your audition time, warm up with your chromatic scale and the scale you'll be performing. Tune, and then run through your audition pieces just once. You want to be warmed up, but you don't want to play too much before the actual audition -- this could psych you out or wear you out.
-After you warm up, arrive at the audition room 20 to 30 minutes before your scheduled time (just in case they are ahead of schedule).
-For the rest of your wait, find something to do to take your mind off your nerves: make new friends, read a book, listen to your favorite music, etc.
Things to remember before your audition:
-Have fun. Why do you play an instrument? Hopefully it's because you enjoy it! Think of this as an opportunity to share something you love with other people (the judges, in this case).
-Tell yourself it's okay if you make a mistake during your audition. Even professional musicians make mistakes. We're all only human. The important thing is to keep going and pretend the mistake didn't even happen.
-Trust what you've practiced. You've put in the work, now is the time to relax and show off your mad skills.
-The judges are just people (who once sat in that audition seat themselves!). They are waiting for or hoping you'll screw up. They're rooting for you. They want you to succeed.
When you enter the audition room:
-Do not say anything and do not just jump into playing your pieces.
-Take a few deep breaths.
-Take a second to situate yourself, your instrument, and your music.
-Think through the first two or three measures of your pieces.
-Play a couple of notes to get used to the sound of the room.
-When you're ready, rock their faces off! You are a musical beast!

Good luck to everyone auditioning! No matter how you do, you should be proud of yourself. You've worked hard and faced your auditioning fears head on, and now you are a better musician/person for it. Go you!

How to choose drumsticks

How to Choose Drumsticks

by Tony Bertram and Melissa Johnson

There are three factors to consider when you are choosing drumsticks: the style of music you'll be playing, the kind of sound you want, and the drumstick feel you prefer. To choose sticks that will fit your needs, you will need to think about the drumstick's size, tip, and material. Below is a general guide to help you get started finding a set of sticks that will work for your musical needs.


Generally, there are four sizes to choose from.

7A (thin):

  • Great for lighter musical styles (such as jazz or swing)
  • Good for young, small-handed beginners
  • Can also be used for funk, pop, blues, country, and rock if you're looking to play soft and fast


  • Great for pop styles, light rock, or indie
  • Good for beginners
  • Can also be used for funk, pop, blues, country, rock, jazz, and swing if you want to play soft and fast


  • Great for rock
  • Can be used for funk, pop, blues, and country if you are more concerned about playing loud over playing soft or fast
  • Larger drumsticks also help build strength and stamina

2B (heavy):

  • Great for heavy music such as metal or heavy rock
  • These are the sticks you use when you need the most power
  • Great for building strength and stamina during practice sessions
  • Excellent for general snare drum practice


The tip of the stick you choose will depend on the sound you desire from your cymbals.


  • Natural sound
  • Full, warm sound on cymbals
  • Not recommended for electronic drumsets
  • There are also different shapes to consider with wood tips:

Ball – Good for a bright, articulate, and clean sound; recommended for light styles of music (jazz and swing)

Acorn – Provide a bigger and fuller sound; this tip makes your music rich and fat

Oval – This shape is a compromise between ball and acorn tips; it provides the largest spectrum of sound

Teardrop – Warm sound with focused low tones

Barrel – Punchy and loud


  • Longer-lasting than wood tips
  • Provide a brighter tone than wood tips
  • Great for bringing out your cymbal sound
  • Better rebound
  • Great for studio work
  • Better for electronic drumsets



  • Lighter weight/low density
  • Excellent flexibility
  • Best energy absorption (meaning you feel less vibration in your hands when playing)
  • Great for low volume or fast playing


  • Most popular
  • Medium density
  • Absorbs energy well
  • Highly versatile


  • Highest density
  • Breaks less easily than other types of wood
  • Least energy absorption (you'll feel the most vibration with these)


  • These sticks have a hollow core with plastic sleeves and tips
  • Great for loud music
  • More artificial sound than the wooden sticks

Overall, it comes down to personal preference. The best way to find your drumstick is to try many different kinds to see what you like or dislike about a set of sticks.

To be clear, using a certain type of stick won't magically turn you into an incredible drummer. Dave Weckl and Dennis Chambers are amazing drummers, no matter what type of stick you put in their hands. However, finding the right stick could help improve your speed, technique, and overall sound. Just make sure you spend more time honing your musical skills than looking for drumsticks.

Buying Your First Guitar

Tips for Buying Your First Guitar

by David Wilson and Melissa Johnson

So you've (or your child has) decided to take up guitar.

Now what?

If this is your first instrument, you may have tons of questions. New or used? Acoustic or electric?

And where do you even go to buy a guitar? Online? A retail store that sells everything from food to clothing to instruments? (Please, no to that last one.)

Don't worry, we've got you covered. Below are four tips for buying your first guitar, straight from our guitar guy himself.

  • Don't go used

Most people think they have to buy a used guitar to save money, but you can find a good, name-brand, new guitar – electric or acoustic – for well under $200.

The problem with buying used is that you can end up with a guitar that has a plethora of issues...issues that could cost more in repairs than the guitar is worth (and maybe even more than a new guitar would have been!).

If you must have that vintage 1980s guitar, go used. Otherwise, we recommend buying a new guitar.

  • Purchase from a music store

More specifically, look for a music store that has a great guitar tech on hand.

New guitars need to be set up when they arrive at the store. Having a tech on hand is key to making sure the guitar plays well before you take it home.

  • Acoustic or electric?

This is the big question. One of the biggest preconceived ideas people have is that beginners start on an acoustic guitar. Not true. Beginners can start on whichever guitar they would like. The biggest thing to consider is which guitar will spark a bigger interest in the player and keep the instrument in their hands.

Both acoustic and electric guitars have their pros and cons, and those pros and cons are roughly equal. But really, acoustic and electric guitars are two sides of the same coin, and most guitar players will learn both sides of that coin to some degree.

It is important to remember, if you decide on an electric guitar, that the amp is not just something that makes the guitar louder. The amp is fully one half of the instrument. An electric guitar is not a complete instrument without its amp, and a good guitarist plays the amp as much as they play the guitar itself.

  • Buying a guitar for the younger beginner

Electric guitars are frequently good for kids because it's easier for them to reach their short arms around the body of the instrument.

Children eight and under generally do better starting on ukulele rather than a small six string guitar. Most guitars that small are toys or just aren't well-made.

Ukes are available for well under $100 at a quality that provides easy playability, decent sound, and good intonation (the ability of the instrument to play in tune) at a cheaper price than a guitar with those same qualities.

Have questions about purchasing a guitar? E-mail or call us anytime!

Good luck on your musical journey!

Three Reasons Why You Shouldn't Buy That New $90 Clarinet

Three Reasons Why You Shouldn't Buy That New $90 Clarinet

By Melissa Johnson

Special thanks to David Wilson, Tony Bertram, and Tom Layton

In today's economy, we know the importance of spending wisely and saving whenever and wherever possible.

A good quality musical instrument is not cheap. It can be tempting to say, “Well, my kid is just starting out. We'll get a cheap instrument now and if they stick with it, we'll buy a better one later.”

But are cheap instruments really a better deal? When you buy that brand new $37 violin instead of the quality $550 version, what you're buying is a poorly made instrument that has sub-par parts and has not been made to certain specifications.

Below are three reasons why we believe investing in a quality instrument from the start is better than buying a less expensive (but also poor quality) instrument.

  1. Cheap instruments have poor sound quality and intonation

It is important for an instrument to be able to play in tune – especially string and brass instruments – to train the student's ear to hear the correct pitches they are supposed to be playing. If the instrument won't stay in tune, the student won't be able to play it properly. They'll play wrong notes, which is bad for technique and ear training. Good sound quality and intonation are also needed for the student to blend well with other instruments in ensemble settings.

  1. Cheap instruments break more easily and are costly to repair

Because they are made with low quality parts, cheap instruments tend to break more quickly and easily. This means the cost of repair could be extensive. Repairing a cheap instrument could end up costing more than it is worth or, over time, more than a high quality instrument would have initially cost.

If it is an off-brand instrument, replacement parts are unavailable when it breaks. This means ordering custom-made parts every time something fails, which will cost both time and money.

In addition, the parts of the instrument are not as durable as those on a reputable name-brand instrument. According to instrument repairman (with 40 years experience) Tom Layton:

“We have people sign a release before we work on some of those horns because I don't want to be liable if a key breaks while I try to straighten it. If you're working on a [name-brand instrument] I guarantee you can just about twist that key into a knot and it will not break. With these other horns, I've had it where you've put a little wooden dowel on there to tap it to move a key post over just a little bit and the whole key post just comes off. So now you've got a broken horn that wasn't really broken when it showed up, but it's a piece of junk and that's why it broke when you're working on it...It doesn't really make sense to spend any money on them. In the long run you save money on maintenance [buying a quality horn], and it also retains its value.”

  1. Cheap instruments are harder to play

A cheap instrument does not always play as well or as easily as one of good quality (if it plays at all). This will make learning the instrument more difficult, which can frustrate the student and potentially cause them to quit band or orchestra. While learning an instrument isn't necessarily easy, it's even more difficult when the student has to ‘fight’ a poorly made instrument.

In the long run, buying a quality instrument from the start will not only save time and money, it also gives the student the tools they need to succeed on their chosen instrument.

Unsure about whether an instrument you're considering is one of good or poor quality? Contact your local music store or ask your student's music teacher.

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