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. 

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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

-FLUTES-Neolithic

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.