Careful the Things You Say

By Amber Nicole Dilger, CEI Associate

In Stephen Sondheim’s musical, Into the Woods, there’s a haunting song that warns us:

Careful the things you say,

Children will listen. 

Careful the things you do,

Children will see,

and learn. 

Click to listen to my recording of “Children Will Listen. 

In my work as a private singing teacher I have had many students come through my door the past 17 years.  Each individual has their own goals and reasons that brought them to lessons.  There is a thread of story, though, that is heartbreakingly common especially among my adult students: when they were a child they had been told not to sing.  Most of the time it was an off-the-cuff comment from someone they respected.  Unfortunately, many times it was a school music teacher.  They dutifully obeyed and mouthed the words, and from that point onward did whatever they could to not let their true voice be heard.   We are often unaware of how an insensitive comment might land, and most children haven’t yet developed the skills to not take it personally.  To cultivate the lifelong learners our society needs, we must stay aware of the words we use.  Children must be encouraged to explore new things, and the subsequent mistakes and successes celebrated for the learning opportunities they are. 

My students come to lessons because they know deep down that they are more than the label of “not good” another person gave to them.  They each inspire me, but one student will always stand out as The Bravest.  This adult came to me determined to overcome a fear that she felt was holding her back from being fully herself.  She grew up in an environment where the disease of perfectionism was rampant, and early on it was pointed out to her when her singing attempts were not immediately correct.  Singing anything required her to make mistakes (no matter how slight) when learning a new song, and that was unacceptable.  She loved music and listening to others sing, though, and always felt left out by not participating.  Her main short-term goal when we started lessons together was to sing “Happy Birthday” to her father’s answering machine.  She had never sung “Happy Birthday” to anyone. 

A few months later, with practice and lessons and therapy all joining together to boost her confidence, she successfully made the recording.  We continued to work through the school year, and by the end of the spring she joined us in our formal studio recital singing a solo beautifully on the auditorium stage.  Considering her professed greatest fear was burning to death, and singing in front of anyone was a close second place, this was a momentous achievement.  The performance was accompanied by a lot of tears and determination, but she overcame the inhibiting ideas from her childhood and to this day continues to dive deeply into the adventures of life. 

If there is a silver lining to this tale of misplaced words, it is the perseverance of the human heart.  My students have built up the courage and allowed their curiosity to lead them to do what they can to feel good about making music.   The transformational possibilities of song, which they love so dearly and are constantly drawn to, inspire the fortitude they need to overcome their fears.  Music is something they want to participate in to the best of their ability, whatever that happens to be. 

There’s an even better story that could be told, though.  This one starts at the beginning, where all children are allowed and encouraged to fully engage in the learning process in whatever way they can.  When someone makes a mistake, they will be praised for trying.  We need to be brave and bold to try new things, to propose and explore new ideas.  Fear should not be built into failure.  Life is filled with making mistakes, and if we are taught to learn everything we can from those mistakes we will all go further, faster. 

Music and Brain Science

By Amber Nicole Dilger, CEI Associate.

Music is a Curious Thing. Archaeologists have found flutes that were created around 42,000 years ago. The location of cave paintings made over 10,000 years ago interestingly point to sound and music being an important part of the ritualistic experience. While it’s likely that we’ll never know the details of how the human ability of sound identification and replication transformed into the art of music, it is clear that interacting with sound has long been an important part of our cultural existence and development.

Listen to a recording of the oldest playable flute


from the Brookhaven National Laboratory.

Music’s Effects. What effect does music have on the brain? With the help of neuroscience, researchers now have a clearer look inside the skull, which has allowed for interesting discoveries as well as telling questions. Scientists have identified neural pathways that are almost exclusively music-activated, when before it was speculated that music was just a hodgepodge of different brain areas working together. A growing number of studies point to valuable and relevant information regarding music and its interrelationship with education. Many questions still remain regarding the hows and whys of music, but there is no need to wait for more evidence of the positive effects before infusing music into schools more fully.

Throughout Life.
Music provides measurable benefits not only for the developing childhood brain, but also for the duration of the brain’s aging process. In 2003, Harvard neurologist Gottfried Schlaug and colleagues found that after only 15 months of music instrument training, the brains of young children show growth in areas related to auditory and motor improvements. A further study by Hanna-Pladdy and Gajewski in 2012 shows that musical instrument practice for more than 10 years helps to preserve cognitive functioning through life, and that if musical skills acquisition is started at age 9 or younger it provides even more brain-benefit in old age. Overall, it appears that learning musical instrument skills early in life and continuing the practice of those skills can enhance cognitive functioning even as the brain functioning of peers is starting to decline. Hanna-Pladdy and MacKay’s 2011 study also showed a strong relationship between cognitive functioning in advancing years and the amount of time participating in music throughout life. Excitingly, the results point to benefits of early and continuing participation in music that are independent of the amount of any other education received.

Unexpected Benefits.
How is music having this effect? Many studies show exactly what you might expect. By practicing specific muscular coordination and listening activities, the corresponding areas of the brain are strengthened and enhanced. Participating in music requires translating symbols on a page into muscular actions that integrate body awareness to a high degree. Music is generally performed with and for others. This requires a high level of awareness to balance and adjust within the group.

It’s no surprise that music is a complex and multi-sensory experience. What might be unexpected, though, is how intertwined these skills are with everyday communication. Nina Kraus, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University, published a review in 2014 that highlights the effects early musical training has on the ability of the adult brain to quickly and accurately discern consonants in conversation. The adults with early musical training outperformed the non-musician adults in this activity, but amazingly the participating musical adults had not played a musical instrument in 40 years. Those who had trained the longest, though, (between 4 and 14 years), did respond the fastest. When considering how easy it is to feel isolated and lonely in situations where only portions of conversations can be understood, the value of honing auditory skills is apparent.

Valuing Evidence. The studies supporting the beneficial effects of musical training on the brain throughout life are overwhelming and continuing. The evidence is strong for taking advantage of the special window of cognitive development in students ages 9 and younger; continuing forward with musical instruction past age 9 also has measurable benefits. In this difficult time of limited funding and broad-reaching educational goals and requirements, it might be tempting to look to music class as a frivolous side activity, but the reality of studies show that this ancient element of the human condition has far-reaching wealth for learning and living.

Erasable Highlighters

In my post about how I go about memorizing songs, shows, scripts, etc., I mentioned one of my most highly-valued tools in my singing toolkit: The Erasable Highlighter. As with most things in life, though, there are caveats.

Because I have been accused of overthinking things more times than I care to admit, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the details. It is useful to know that there are two types of erasable highlighters. One type erases by friction and another type erases by chemical reaction. They each have subtle pros/cons, but honestly most people will never need to worry about the differences. In case you, too, have a curious desire for more information than is probably necessary, I’ll recap the details:

Friction.  This ink is thermosensitive, so temperature plays a big part of the appearance and  disappearance of the color. The heat from the friction of the eraser causes the ink to “disappear”, but very cold temperatures (below 14 F) can cause it to reappear. Conversely, leaving the markers (or your score) in a hot car can make the ink “disappear.” If this happens to your markers or score, just pop them in the freezer. If you have to return a score to a lending library, though, it’s best to use a chemical-based erasable highlighter. It could turn into an issue if the score you returned as unmarked was shipped in cold temperatures and suddenly had lots of markings reappear!

Chemical.  The other kind of erasable highlighter ink gets erased with a chemical reaction from the eraser-end of the marker. One end of the marker has a color tip, the opposite end has an eraser tip. A potential downside to these is that once the eraser chemical has been on the paper, you can’t re-highlight over it. Also, some of the colors aren’t erasable by the eraser tip of other colors.  So, for example, it’s best to just erase the pink color with the pink marker’s eraser. These markers also seem to dry out faster than the others, in my experience.

My Choice.  This is a rarity for me, but I tend to use what I can easily find at the time. Generally it’s the friction-based highlighters that I use most often. I congratulate myself for just making a choice and moving forward, although the What Ifs are always slightly tugging at the back of my mind. I suggest you also just buy some, use them, and enjoy all of the possibilities they have to offer!

Be sure to read the accompanying post:  The Herculean Task of Memorizing a One-Woman Show.

Memorization: Part II

Memorizing anything is possible if you break it down into manageable pieces.  This post is Part II about the details of my working process.  Be sure to read first half: The Herculean Task of Memorizing a One-Woman Show to get a better understanding of my memorization toolbox.

Remember, time is your friend. Taking breaks is very important.  It allows the brain to sort and file and tidy up the neural connections that are being made with the practicing.  If my brain starts to feel exhausted while I am working I switch to a different task, either with music or something completely different.  (There are probably dishes to be washed… just saying.)  Also, physical exercise has been shown to increase cognitive functioning and the encoding of new skills.  Circulating the blood is good for so many things, so I do myself many favors and go for a walk.  There’s also one more important use of time that shouldn’t be forgotten.  Sleep.  Lots of cleaning up and organizing happens in the brain while we sleep, so as tempting as it is, I try not to short-change myself.

Feeling more confident?  By this time, the bits and pieces should be falling into place.  My next step is, pencil in hand, to take a neutral vowel and sing my pitches in rhythm with the accompaniment and test how far I am.  I absolutely will mark the questionable spots in my score.  I also take time around now to make a note of the time markers for major sections in the accompaniment recording so I can find them more quickly in the future. Writing in the time markers for the tricky spots is also very useful.

I’d be closer to adding the words now, but there’s another intermediate step that is useful.  Singing on just the vowels of the words.  I imagine my lips have superglue on them and there’s no way I want them to touch, but I still say the words “inside” my mouth.  This sounds silly, but it works.  All the rest of the articulation muscles move (including the tongue), but my lips just don’t touch.  Consonants can be such a temptation to cheat by not using helpful breath management muscles, so at this point in the process I keep temptation far away.

Success?  Now I’ll add in the words with the accompaniment.  This is where the fun level of vocal technique really gets to be teased apart.  This does not concern memorization of words as much as memorization of muscle coordination, which is also very important.  I look for places where my tonal resonance isn’t as strong and play detective to figure out the ins and outs of those details.  Consonants, where the pitches are in my register, as well as what precedes and follows, all have considerable contribution to this layer of muscle memory.

Erasable Highlighters.  Yep.  These are immensely helpful to me and deserve a special mention.  Once I feel I have a pretty good handle on everything, I’ll try it “off book” not looking at the score.  I’ll either hand the score to someone else to follow along, or I’ll record myself so I can listen back.  Any place that isn’t quite right will get highlighted with whatever color I’ve chosen for that time through.  The next time I do a major test, I’ll use a different color highlighter.  Where I start to see colors pile up, I know I have some major work to do.  The beauty is that I can easily erase colors when it’s all over or if things have just gotten too colorfully out of hand.  (NOTEIf you’d like to know more about these magical tools, I’ve written a “bonus” post that tells you more than you need to know about erasable highlighters.)

Polishing.  By the time the colors are adorning the score, it’s up to careful repetition and focusing on the trouble spots that continue to elude my brain.  Generally, inventing outlandish stories or finding quirky connections or out-there clues will help my brain put the last puzzle pieces in order.  Sometimes, though, by this point my brain is so overworked that it’s helpful to have a friend (or the music director) step in and offer a fresh perspective.  Usually they can help come up with an idea completely foreign to me since they have the ultimate viewpoint outside of the “picture frame” of my mindset.

Success of security.  By taking the piece and practicing it in various contexts and levels of distraction, I can help gain the comfort of knowing that my brain has a firm hold on all of the material.  In live performances, one can never be sure what might happen, and you don’t want every little jiggle to throw you off your game.  Arlington was performed in a large coffeehouse that was in a 100 year old building complete with lots of charm and challenges.  (The show was set in Sara Jane’s living room, and this space really felt like you were in her home.)  I moved around within the seated audience throughout the show and there was never a moment that I couldn’t have reached out and touched, or been touched, by someone.  At each performance my blocking (movement) was slightly different just because of how people ended up sitting.  Interestingly, this space was just a portion of the coffeehouse and the main areas were still open to customers.  Although luckily it didn’t happen often, unknowing customers could easily walk into the performance space in the middle of the show.

Memorization is a personal thing, and in the end you’ll need to experiment to see what works best for you.  There are lots of times when I need to memorize something short for one performance only, and I’m not nearly this thorough in the process.  I still want to feel secure, but I know that it’s not as crucial that everything stays in my brain for a long time.  We are lucky to be in this amazing age of research where brain and learning scientists have unlocked so much information that is infinitely helpful.  Why not use all of the tips and tricks to work smarter, not harder?  Performing has enough challenges on its own!

Happy Practicing!

The Herculean Task of Memorizing a One-Woman Show

Earlier this year I had the incredible experience of playing Sara Jane in the midwest premier of the musical Arlington, written by Polly Pen and Victor Lodato. This one-woman show is unique on many levels, but I’ve had the most questions about the memorization process and thought I’d share some of my experiences here.  (Note:  As I was writing this, I realized how gigantic this post was becoming, so I’ve split it up with some supplemental posts… be sure to follow the links!)

A little background on the show.  The performance time was about an hour, completely sung through.  There were a few moments of singing duets with the accompanist, but mostly it was just me singing with the piano.  Although it is essentially a tonal piece, there are very few instances to point to and say “that’s a song.”  Sara Jane makes it a point to tell the audience that although she sang when she was younger, she doesn’t sing songs anymore.  The musical is more like a sung-through monologue, with the piano accompaniment reflecting another layer of emotion.  Basically, the musical “cues” that typical song form offers aren’t there.  This aspect of composition raised the level of difficulty for memorizing this piece exponentially.

So, how did I do it?  When I’m beginning to learn anything, I imagine it as a fascinating object displayed on a shelf.  Beautiful, but I don’t really know much about it.  If I take it down and start to turn it, seeing and feeling and sensing it from all directions, I get to know it on more intimate terms.  I know that I’ll increase my success of understanding with the more variety of ways I can absorb the piece into my brain and body.

Baby steps. The first thing to know about memorizing anything is that time is your friend. Ideally, I’ll have the score far in advance so I can take all of the necessary steps to properly “tame” it.  In a perfect world, I will flirt with it a little.  I’ll take a listen to a recording once, then go away from it for a week.  Perhaps the next time I’ll pick up the score and just read through it casually.  I’ll go away for awhile again, then test myself by writing, speaking, or singing what I can remember from these brief interactions.  By testing the brain I’m telling it that I mean business.  I want it to really start paying attention the next time I pick up the music. After that brush with panic and realizing that I don’t actually remember much, I go to the score and start to look at it intentionally.  The brain will approach the task in a more focused way this time.

In a musical utopia I would also have gotten the accompaniment track from the music director by this point.  I’d start to split up my practice sessions independently between:

  • the words
  • the rhythms
  • the pitches

I keep these categories very separate at first so that my brain has a chance to get to know each aspect thoroughly and independently before layering them together.

Words.  For the words, I write or type out the entire show as a monologue in paragraph form.  At first the brain will complain that this (or any of the breaking-it-down steps) is a waste of time, and decidedly not as glamorous as just jumping into singing the words.  I find the fun in diving to the depths of a piece this way, though, and have always been well-rewarded.

Once the words are all laid out, I start working on the words as a spoken monologue.  I make it as much of a relaxed and conversational tone as I can so that it is easy to focus on the storytelling.  It’s also a great opportunity to pay close attention to the “mouth feel” of the words.  Speaking the text in slow motion is a useful way for the brain to avoid triggering autopilot habits and especially helpful to encourage the face/mouth muscles to pay close attention to what is happening.

Rhythms.  I go to the score and ignore the words and pitches and imagine myself as a percussionist.  I zero in on the rhythms of the melody and pay close attention to how they fit in with the accompaniment.  Now is when I start marking “anchors.”  For any spot that is tricky rhythmically, I look for reassurance markers in the accompaniment.  I draw a vertical line connecting my vocal line with the accompaniment to create a strong visual image to help me know that I’m on the right path.  I set a metronome to a slow tempo and go through the piece sounding the rhythm on a neutral syllable.  I mark where the problem spots are so I can isolate them and spend more time separately figuring them out.  I believe that writing in subdivisions of counts is a perfectly valid practice helper.

I gradually increase the metronome tempo until I am able to sound the rhythms at performance tempo.  Next, I’ll pull out the accompaniment recording and continue working with the rhythms alone.  Once I feel that I’m solid with sounding the rhythms on a neutral syllable, I switch to speaking the words (a cappella) in rhythm.  When that’s comfortably up to tempo, I speak the words in rhythm over the accompaniment.

Pitches.  Again, I keep the words far away from this step at first.  I want to get the basics settled into my instrument before complicating things.  I’ll pick a neutral vowel at first and work with legato articulation, playing my melody on the piano and singing along.  Then I’ll switch to staccato (repeated “bee. bee. bee…” is useful) so that my brain/voice can’t cheat.  I’m always amazed how much pitch adjustment can happen while holding out notes.  With staccato, the pitch is either right or it is not.  A fun thing I do to test my accuracy is to play the correct pitch on the piano just a slight bit after I’ve sung.  I then can clearly hear if I was correct (or not).

Also, I take the time when I’m focusing on pitches to also look to the accompaniment for support and clues.  Where and how is the melody supported?  I circle helper pitches and chords in the accompaniment so I know where to listen for help, especially at the beginnings of phrases.

Start at the very beginning: Rarely. Perhaps it’s worth mentioning here that I rarely start at the beginning of a piece during my practice sessions.  This is a very common error that many of my new students frequently make.  I guarantee if you do this you’ll know the beginning very well, the ending not well, and the tricky spots in the middle will stay a disaster.

Spotlight the transitions.  I usually find midway into the memorizing process that once I’m into a section everything flows easily.  Getting the sections started, though, is a different story.  I’ll spend a lot of time at this point focusing on the transitions by themselves.  The last words of the previous paragraph going into the musical interlude going into the beginning of the next thing I sing.  If I was memorizing something that was interactive with another character, I would memorize the final few words of what they were saying as my cues to lead me into my response.

There’s more!  To not make this post too overwhelming, I’ve split it up, so make sure to read: Memorization: Part II.






Rhythm in Your Classroom

by Amber Nicole Dilger, CEI Associate

(reprinted from the Center for Educational Improvement July 2016 newsletter)

“But I’m not a music teacher.” 


Rhythm is an often overlooked way to bring a fun and valuable tool into the classroom of any subject matter.  By introducing information to the brain from as many angles as possible, more neural connections are created and strengthened.  Rhythm’s components of movement and distraction can be two key players in improving learning.  There is now a large collection of research that proves what many have suspected all along.  Human bodies are meant to move, and learning is enhanced by that movement.  Neuroscientist Wendy A. Suzuki suggests that we “consider how the educational system might be altered if we acknowledge exercise’s ability to brighten our mood, decrease stress, and improve our attention span and memory.  The growing evidence that exercise improves these key brain functions should encourage schools around the world to increase— not decrease— students’ physical activity.  Not only would this help students to better absorb everything from history lessons to chemistry experiments, they’d be a lot happier, too.”

Movement.  A 2013 review of studies on the effects of cardiovascular exercise on the human brain shows that exercise benefits learning by priming the molecular processes that help form memory.  When the role of fitness on the brains of preadolescent children was studied in 2015 by Chaddock-Heyman et al., evidence was found that suggests aerobic fitness benefits the both the brain and cognition.  Essentially, what happens is that a certain type of protein is created during exercise that seems to play a role in the development and maintenance of healthy neurons.  The exercise-increased proteins also pump up the hippocampus, which is a part of the brain that is responsible for memory and learning.

Distraction.  There are two parts of learning: getting things to stick in the brain, and then getting them to come back out (hopefully at the appropriate time).  Using distraction as an intentional tool can help with both of these processes.  A study at Brown University in 2014 found that if a task was to be recalled in an environment that had distractions, it was best learned in an environment that had a similar level of distractions.  It wasn’t necessary that they were the same diversions, just that they were of a similar level.

Application.  Which brings us to multiplication tables, or the periodic table, or the German alphabet.  Whatever set of data students are memorizing can be more effectively learned if elements of movement and appropriate distraction are applied.  One very fun way to do this is with rhythm.  (Please note:  if you’re someone who thinks “I have no rhythm!” follow this link for a basic tutorial video to help you find the beat and work with a metronome.) 

With students out of their chairs, start with a slow beat.  Tapping or marching is an easy way to have everyone join together in the activity.  A metronome is very helpful for keeping a steady tempo, and keeping track of the metronome number (the beats per minute, or BPM) can allow progress to be charted.  Demonstrate the recitation goal to the students; for example, decide if each word comes on a beat or every two beats.  Repeat this activity over many days and experiment with the speed.  When it seems all students have progressed to a fast tempo, do some slow motion repetitions and check that the information can be recalled under varying circumstances.

Also, adjusting movements with the tempo can add additional useful elements to the learning experience.  When all students are comfortable with one aspect, such as marching, add another layer.  Possibilities include snapping, clapping, gesturing with different parts of the body (elbows, heels, knees, shoulders).  The sillier the combination, the better the facts will stick in the brain.

Summary.  Rhythm is a valuable tool for all classrooms.  By incorporating movement and relevant distraction into lesson plans, the brain can become both healthier and more able to embed and recall information.  It is important to remember to balance this rhythm-movement activity with stationary and quiet practice to allow learning to take place in yet another context.  The goal of introducing information to the brain in as many different ways as possible will keep all students actively engaged throughout the learning process.

Trauma-Sensitive Schools: Center for Educational Improvement

Amber Nicole Dilger, CEI Intern.

The feeling of being safe and secure allows us to take risks and explore our world. This freedom to learn can be quickly destroyed, though, if a traumatic event is experienced. Research shows that students who suffer from adverse childhood experiences struggle in education, health, and social environments. The school[…]

Source: Trauma-Sensitive Schools – Center for Educational Improvement

Book Review: Practiceopedia-The Music Student’s Illustrated Guide to Practicing

Are you familiar with this book?  It was written in 2007 by Philip Johnston, and it’s a valuable resource in my teaching studio.  In fact, I keep it out as the “coffee table book” in my waiting room for students to grab a practice tip of the week to try out.

The author is a music educator who has a broad background which includes being a concert pianist as well as teaching piano, marital arts, and high school English.  I especially welcome the mixture of attentive focus and incremental goals in his practice advice.

The Practiceopedia is set up to be very easy to use and is illustrated in a way that will appeal to all ages.  Quickly skimming will always bring new ideas to the surface, and a favorite aspect of mine is the topic focus guide at the beginning of the book.  “Not wanting to practice” and “Saving time” are just two of the topics that have a multitude of practice suggestions.

My husband and I both have degrees in music and perform professionally.  We have spent many, many hours both practicing and learning how to practice.  Even with all of our experience, we both enjoy reading this book and appreciate the presentation of ideas both new to us and time-tested.  Whether you’re a parent of a student, a musician who is just starting out, or an advanced performer, this book truly has something to offer everyone on their musical journey.