2017-01-01 / Features

So You Want to Try...

Robyn Passante

Do you wish you could offer your friends a cold beer you made yourself? Have you wondered what meditation could do for your well-being? Will the next wedding you attend reinforce your wallflower status as you watch the dancers with envy?

The new year is the perfect time to get after a long-held desire to learn a new skill or try a new hobby. To give you a little nudge in the direction of your dreams, we asked local experts to offer a bit of insight on how to start — and how to succeed.

Denny Bannon spent 35 years teaching in the State College Area School District before retiring in 2011 and starting a new “just for fun” career that pays him in hops and smiles — he’s become an avid home brewer.

Bannon has worked up from a 5-gallon pot on his stove to an electric brewery in his basement that allows him to make and chill large batches of beer at a time. The best thing about the hobby, Bannon says, is that the risks are low and the rewards are high.

“I knew that even after doing everything wrong I could possibly do, in the end I was gonna get beer,” he says of his first-ever batch, which he made for his son’s wedding.

If you’ve been dreaming of bottling your own signature ales, it’s time to get hoppin’.

Starting Costs: A 5-gallon starter kit will run about $69-$129. “That gives you everything you need to get started but the bottles. You’ll need a couple cases of 12-ounce bottles or a case of 22-ounce bottles.”
Pro Tip:
You can save and reuse the bottles from beer you purchase. “Just make sure everything’s really clean and sanitized.” Bannon uses Powdered Brewers Wash plus Star San, but if your dishwasher has a “Sanitize” feature, you can use that. “Give it an empty run-through first to make sure it’s clean of detergents, and then sanitize your bottles — and everything else.”

Easy Does It:
The really reluctant would-be brewer can still experiment with the hobby before truly diving in. “They make 1-gallon home brew starter kits, if you’re really not sure but want to give it a try. For about $49, you’ll get everything you need to brew a gallon of beer, which gives you about 12 bottles. It’s definitely something you can do at home on the kitchen stove and chill in the sink with some cold water and ice. Then you’ll find out if you really like it.”

Next Level:
State College Homebrew Club (, Nittany Valley True Value (

Jerry Bergman started playing chess in 1960 on a team that won the western Pennsylvania chess championships three of the four years he was in high school. He continued his playing at Penn State, the first American university to accord varsity status to its chess team.

Today Bergman heads up the Donald Byrne Memorial Chess Club and encourages young and old alike to get into the centuries-old game.

Jump Start: Learn the basic moves of each game piece and begin to play — against the computer, against yourself, against an opponent. But also supplement your playing time with reading or watching online lessons for beginners, to help you understand the game better. “There are tactics and strategies,” Bergman says. “Tactics are sequences of moves to limit your opponent’s options. Strategy tends to relate more to your personality in chess. For example, some people are more defensive players. I’m a more counter-attacker.”

Pro Tip: The center squares on the board are very important. “Look for moves to strengthen that center,” Bergman says.
Loosen Up:
  If you want to win, it’s best to lose — probably a lot. “When you start out, don’t be afraid to lose. It is just a game,” he says. “We don’t learn as much when we win as we do when we lose.”
In Practice:
  Use chess problems or puzzles to get better in a different way than playing a whole game. “In these, a position is given to you and you’re told you’re supposed to find the best move, or they’ll tell you there’s a checkmate in three moves and you have to figure it out, that sort of thing. So that forces the student to analyze the position.”
Next Level:
Donald Byrne Memorial Chess Club (, Penn State Chess Club (, Schlow Centre Region Library’s Chess Club (

LaCreta Holland taught herself to cook out of necessity. With four kids and a tight budget, eating out was rarely an option. But when the family moved to Italy for five years, her approach to cooking — and love of it — shifted significantly. “We all enjoyed the Italian way of cooking food, which is just very simple and uses fresh ingredients,” she says.

Today, Holland teaches men, women and children how to make basic sauces and one-pan meals through her business, Happy Valley Learn to Cook. Learning how to make a simple red or white sauce is a kitchen confidence booster, Holland says, so start there and slowly experiment.

First Step: Keep a good vegetable peeler and three high-quality knives on hand — a paring knife, chef’s knife and serrated knife. “When you’re struggling with a knife because you’re using a steak knife from 1980 and you can’t cut the potatoes very well or the meat, that becomes very frustrating and many people blame themselves. They say, ‘I’m not good at chopping or dicing,’” Holland says. “But it’s usually the knife’s fault.”
Easy Does It: Start with a basic red sauce. Put one large can of crushed tomatoes, 3 tablespoons butter and half an onion (peeled but not chopped, keep it in one piece) in a saucepan and simmer for about 40 minutes. “Now you have a pasta sauce you can make into lasagna, dip bread in it, put it over pasta or use it as pizza sauce.” Congrats, you’re a cook!
Next Steps: Search online for a recipe that features one particular herb or ingredient you like, and follow it. “Cooking is a lifelong skill. You can call it a hobby, but we all need to eat,” Holland says. “It really is a try and keep trying kind of thing. Some things will be successful the first time; you can also mess it up terribly. It’s just a skill that takes practice.”
Pro Tip: Start with very basic seasonings: salt and pepper. Use a single herb to alter the flavor of dishes. (Fresh rosemary with roasted veggies, for example.) “Generally speaking, less is more. And you have to see what you like, too.”
Next Level: Happy Valley Learn to Cook (, Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (

Fara Lippincott has been helping families document their lives through professional photography services for 14 years. She knows that in these days of smartphones and photo sharing apps, it would seem everyone’s a photographer, but the shot is only as good as the skilled human behind the lens. “Cameras are amazing pieces of machinery,” Lippincott says. “But while they’re great machines, they don’t really know what they’re taking a photo of. So it’s up to you, the human behind it, to know what it wants to show.”

Are you a budding shutterbug (or want to be)? Lippincott has a few tips to take your photos from amateur to amazing.

Starting Costs: Today’s smartphones and apps offer a decent way to document your life, but if you want to invest in photography as a hobby, particularly if your subjects are always-moving children or pets, you’ll want a digital SLR camera ($350-$900, which includes the base and lens). Eventually you can buy new lenses to advance your photography. Another option is a mirrorless camera ($300-$700), which offers all the control of a SLR camera in a much more lightweight body.
Snap Smart: Capture the moment, not just the people. “A lot of people step back and just take it all in the frame,” Lippincott says. “But think first about what’s the story you’re telling with this shot, and draw the viewer’s eye to that. Everyone doesn’t always need to look and smile at the camera.”
Pro Tip: Stop centering and follow the classic rule of thirds. “If you look at your viewfinder and divide it into a 9-square grid, the idea to set up a nice composition is you put your subject on any of the four cross sections on the grid,” she says. “So if it’s a person, you put their eyeball on one of those spots. That breaks people out of putting everyone dead center in the frame.”
Lighten Up: Avoid squinting eyes and sharp shadows with careful placement outside. When possible, put subjects in open shade — under a tree or under the shadow of a house. In early morning or late afternoon, put the sun behind the photographer’s back, so your subjects will be softly lit.
Do Your Homework: Check out photo sharing sites to see what appeals to you and more. “Flickr is a great place to go and look around. There’s no right or wrong way to do photography, and when you go into Flickr you’ll start to see what appeals to you.  Then you can find out the settings the photographer used. You can get composition inspiration from Instagram, but on Flickr you can get all the numbers — shutter speed, aperture, all of that.”
Next Level: The Makery (, Art Alliance of Central Pennsylvania (

Have you thought about trying a sprint triathlon but hesitate because you’re not strong at one of the events? Meet Josh Cone, your new inspiration. “I was really bad at swimming,” says Cone. “I didn’t really learn how to swim until I was in my 20s. But I started getting more and more into triathlons, competing at a pretty high level a few years ago.” Today 33-year-old Cone, the Health and Living Director at the State College Family YMCA, is the sixth-ranked triathlete in Pennsylvania, with nearly 60 races under his belt.

If this three-sport event sounds like an enticing fitness challenge, follow Cone’s tips for taking the plunge.

Starting Costs: Ideally, you’ll want a decent road bike, and an entry-level one will set you back $700-$800. “It’s a little pricey to get into it,” Cone admits. “But I’ve had my road bike for 10 years and will have it for another 10 years. It was the biggest purchase I’ve ever made that made the biggest change in my life.” But any old bike will do if you want to just try the sport. “As long as there’s air in the tires and the chain stays on it, get a tune-up at the bike shop, try a tri and see if you like it.”
      You’ll also need to be fitted with a good pair of running shoes ($80-$120) at a specialty store with someone who will help you find the right style for your foot and stride. Add a pair of swim goggles, and you’re ready to train.  
In Practice: The rule of thumb for triathlon training is to try to do each activity at least twice a week: two swims, two bikes, two runs. “That’s for safety, so people’s joints are strong, so they’re not gonna get a shin splint, so they know how to handle a bike, so they feel comfortable in the water.” And if you only have time in your schedule to work out a few times a week, make it a two-for. “If you only have an hour, do a 20-minute swim, get out and change, and do a 20-minute run. That counts,” he says. “Mashing workouts together is fine.”
Easy Does It: To get a feel for the event, volunteer at one. “Any race director will be happy to have you help out,” Cone says. “That’s where I learned a lot, by helping out, and seeing really good people and watching and learning. Seeing what other people are accomplishing will inspire you.”
Next Level:  Try the Indoor Triathlon on Jan. 29 at the State College YMCA. It’s a 10-minute swim, a 10-minute bike ride, and a 10-minute run on a treadmill — all inside. “It’s very friendly for beginners,” Cone says. “They don’t have to cover any sort of distance, just do the time.”

Anna Gokieli teaches people how to stop doing everything for a few minutes and just be. That sounds simple — and is — although it takes most newbies awhile to believe it. “People think they need to know how to do meditation ‘right,’” says Gokieli of Tru Meditation & Yoga in the Serenity Wellness Centre.

“Really you just need to sit and do nothing.”

In this tech-driven, 24/7 race of body and mind, meditation is a way to rest, renew and rejuvenate. “Your blood pressure settles, your heart rate settles, your body switches from fight or flight to a deep state of relaxation, and you’re able to release emotions,” Gokieli says.

Sound appealing? Here’s how to jump off the crazy train for a few minutes and just be.

First Step: Try to find 15 minutes and a quiet space (no kids, pets or technological distractions). Sit in a relaxed manner, set a timer for however long you can spare, and close your eyes. Be still and present with your thoughts.
Misconception:  That you have to think about nothing, or repeat a single word or phrase in your mind. “The mind is going to be busy. You’re not going to go from 100,000 thoughts to zero. But just give yourself that time to do nothing. Get absorbed in whatever you need to get absorbed in,” Gokieli says. “If it feels good to pray, do that. If it feels good to imagine yourself at the beach, do that.”  
Go Deeper: To channel the experience to a deeper place and boost concentration abilities, focus on your breath. “The whole time you’re sitting there, keep focusing on your breath. Your mind will pull you away, but when you remember, go back to your breath — the sound of the breath, the sensation in your nostrils, the rise and fall of your chest. The breath is considered the anchor into the present moment in meditation. It’s something you can hold onto that’s happening right here, right now. Because the mind is always thinking of the past and the future. The breath gives us that access to the present moment.”
Next Level: Tru Meditation & Yoga (, Lila Yoga (, O-An Zendo (, Artemis Massage Studio (

Mark Ross took the only two guitar lessons he’s ever had at about age 10. “I wanted to play ‘Satisfaction,’ and the guy wanted to teach me how to play ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb,’” Ross recalls. “I hated it.” The veteran guitarist eventually taught himself and has carved out a 30-plus-year musical career, first with Queen Bee and the Blue Hornet Band and, more recently, Miss Melanie & the Valley Rats.

Teaching yourself how to play guitar is much easier today than during Ross’s pre-internet days of stacking quarters on a turntable’s needle to slow down the record and learn the licks. But while technology has changed, the basics remain the same, he says.
If you’re itchin’ to get strummin’, tune in to these tips.

Starting Costs: A guitar can cost $100-$2,000. “The main thing for a beginner is to have a playable instrument that stays in tune and sounds good enough that they can stand to listen to it,” Ross says. “If I was on a budget, I could learn on a $100 guitar. But the difference between a $100 guitar and a $200 guitar is astronomical.”
    Ross also recommends getting an electronic tuner ($15) and a good guitar humidifier ($20). “Guitars are wood, and wood doesn’t like dry. In the winter, stuff gets dry — and when wood gets dry, it shrinks and cracks.”
Easy Does It: When you’re starting, play it slow and learn it right. This tactic, Ross says, is almost always done naturally by a particular group of guitar students. “Women are far better students than men. I’ll play something for a student, and a guy will try to breeze through it at the same tempo right off the bat. A woman slows it down and gets it right, and then plays it at the proper speed.”
In Practice: Be patient with yourself; the more you practice, the better you’ll sound. “You think Jimmy Page played like a god the first time he picked up the guitar? No, he stunk like everyone else.”
Pro Tip: Use the internet as a resource, but also play with people. And listen to people who love music. “Try to play with people better than you.”
Next Level: Check in at local music stores for information on guitar instructors and lessons.

Robbie Fraleigh and Dana Ray are not the typical dance instructors who’ve been doing this since they could walk. Both discovered dance in college and high school, respectively, and joined competitive dance teams at Penn State. Now they teach others how to move to the music, with private lessons through Fraleigh Dance, proving that it’s never too late to learn how to look good and feel great on the dance floor.

First Step: Don’t know what style of dance you should learn? “It’s easiest to learn something where you love the music you’re dancing to,” Ray says. “So find music you love to dance around the room to.” If you groove to Latin-based music, you’ll enjoy learning salsa, rumba, cha-cha, samba and jive. If Frank Sinatra and other crooners make you swoon, look for an East Coast Swing dance class or foxtrot lessons. And if you’re a fan of pretty much anything on the radio right now, from blues to hip-hop to R&B to rock ‘n’ roll, then West Coast Swing is right for you.
The Good News: You’re already halfway there. “Dancing is based off walking. It’s an extension of our natural movements. It’s grounded in experiences that people already have,” Ray says. “You’re already a dancer in some ways.”
Pro Tip: Wear clothes that make you feel confident, and a pair of good flats or dress shoes with a sole that’s smooth on the bottom. “Dancing is hard to do in socks or sneakers.”
Jump Start: There’s strength in numbers, so bring your partner or friend to a group dance lesson, or find three friends and split a private lesson. (Fraleigh offers a one-hour lesson for up to four people for $60.) It’s OK to watch first, but remember wallflowers don’t bloom. “We try to make it as low risk as possible, as intuitive as possible,” Fraleigh says of his free community dance lessons. “To not feel as vulnerable as they might be otherwise.”
Next Level: Fraleigh Dance (, Penn State’s Ballroom Dance Club (, Black Cat Belly Dance (

There’s a big difference between sticking a bouquet of fresh flowers in a vase and arranging them artfully into a pleasing presentation. Just ask Sylvia Rushing, a professional floral designer who’s been creating wedding centerpieces, wreaths and beautiful displays of blooms for years. Rushing spent many years working in the floral design business in the Philadelphia area, specifically in the wedding and parties division, and now teaches floral design classes through The Makery.

Are you eager to take your bouquets from blah to brilliant? Rushing has a few how-tos to take your first steps into the world of floral design.

Go Green: A bouquet of flowers bought at a store is always missing one thing. “You need a whole lot more greens than what comes with the flowers. Don’t just start putting flowers in a vase. You have to ‘green it up’ first.” Rushing advises you to grab a pair of scissors and head to the backyard. “You can use azalea leaves, boxwood leaves, mountain laurel, evergreens, arborvitae. Use whatever greens are in your garden or around your home.”
Fresh Start: Clean up the branches so that bare stems are in the water and greens and blooms are at the top. “Put the greens in first at an angle to form a mesh for your flowers to go in,” she says.
Take Shape: With the greenery mesh in place, it’s time to add flowers. “The straightest, longest flower goes in the center, then the primary ‘showstopper’ flowers are placed toward the bottom, lower than the higher flower, as a focal point,” Rushing says. “Then the filler flowers — the smaller spray roses or pompom mums, whatever comes with the bouquet — are used to fill in any holes.”  
Stay Sharp: Use very sharp scissors and cut flower stems at an angle before placing them in the vase. “Otherwise the scissors could pinch the stem and cause the flower to have trouble drinking up water,” she says. And don’t neglect to add at least half of the packet of flower food that comes with the bouquet; it includes an antibacterial agent that helps to keep the water cleaner longer.
Pro Tip: Never overcut, always undercut. “Cut stems longer than you think you’ll need,” she says. “Once you cut a stem too short, it may not place right in your arrangement.”
Next Level: The Makery (

Cynthia Spencer has been knitting for three decades and has owned Stitch Your Art Out in Pine Grove Mills for 13 years. She says knitting isn’t just a thing to do, it’s an expression of who we are. “I have the theory that we actually have to work with our hands. I think there’s something really primal in that,” she says. “And there’s something about touching fiber that really runs deep. People clutch fiber to their hearts all the time when they come in. I think there’s something to that.”

Want to make the leap from buying cozy scarves at the store to creating one of your own? It’s easy, Spencer says. No, really!

Starting Costs: Knitting needles are $10-$16 per pair, and you’ll need a skein of yarn ($7-$30) for your first project. The price difference is based in part on the kind of fiber in the yarn: the more acrylic in the yarn, the less expensive it is.
Pro Tip: Start with a garter stitch scarf. “It’s the knit stitch over and over. That makes you become an expert in just doing the same stitch over and over again, and gets your rhythm up. Then you can start branching out to different stitches.”
In Practice: You will make mistakes, and it’s OK. “I make mistakes too. I tell my students I just make them faster and I know how to fix them,” Spencer says. “But you can rip knitting out. If things aren’t going well, you just rip it out and start again.”
Next Level: Stitch Your Art Out (, The Makery (, Main Street Yarn (

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