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. 

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.

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.



Ways to Strengthen Learning – Center for Educational Improvement

By Amber Nicole Dilger, CEI Intern.  The clever phrase: “neurons that fire together, wire together,” was born from a 1949 theory by neurologist Donald Hebb.  One of the implications of this idea is that the more learning variations are provided to the brain, the stronger the information is embedded.  By revisiting Kolb’s Learning Cycle and layering in modern neuroscience[…]

Source: Ways to Strengthen Learning – Center for Educational Improvement

Empathy vs. Compassion – Center for Educational Improvement

By Amber Nicole Dilger, CEI Intern.  Is empathy a bad thing? The ability to feel someone’s pain or suffering, joy or excitement. The ability to share in the feelings of what it is to be human. This ability of our brain helps us be better people… or does it? In a 2015 Aspen Ideas Festival conversation[…]

Source: Empathy vs. Compassion – Center for Educational Improvement

(Book Review) Small Data: The Tiny Clues That Uncover Huge Trends

I love hunting for clues and have been a sucker for a good mystery since I was a kid. Most of my time now is searching in the realm of singing and the science of learning, but this book was too tempting for me to pass up. It’s a fun summer read that can open your eyes to the social clues all around you (including telling ones in your own life).

In Small Data, Martin Lindstrom takes us on a pinball-type adventure as we bounce around the world with him exploring the private and public lives of ordinary people in diverse cultures.  Watching as he collects clues and learning how he applies them in his consulting for branding and marketing, we start to see the method in his seemingly-random observations and experience lovely ah-ha moments as we see his suggestions play out in business implementation.

From connecting the dots of seemingly unrelated things like refrigerator magnets, fire, world religions, and legos, it seems he leaves no stone (or beer bottle) unturned.  This is a fun romp through the tales of a modern marketing detective who mines the “small data”.

Mirror Neurons and Singing

Mirror neurons are a fascinating discovery about how certain parts of our brain work.  Neuroscience has allowed us to more closely understand why, when we see someone yawn, we’ll likely yawn, too.  When we see someone do a physical action with intention, part of our brain lights up… neurons fire… as if we were doing the action ourselves.

These mirror neurons were discovered in the early 90’s by a research team in Italy led by Giacomo Rizzolatti.  Since then, more research has been published and more questions and challenges have developed.  This short video from NOVA in 2005 gives a nice overview of these so-called “empathy neurons” (but note that the mention of a possible link to autism is still hotly debated).

So how can we use this knowledge to our benefit as performers?  The key really is that observer’s brains pick up on actions delivered with intention.  It’s the difference between seeing someone just “singing the words” and someone who is feeling and exhibiting the emotion with their entire body.  Humans are very adept at picking up the smallest of clues, and whether we realize it or not, we are always observing and being observed when we are on stage.

A good way to practice this skill of emoting is to start by keeping a personal emotion journal.  Pay attention and make note of all of the ways you experience an emotion.  Use a mirror to see how your outer body is affected when you are experiencing a specific state.  Tap into noticing what is going on inside your body as well.  What does your gut feel like?  How easy or difficult is it to focus on specific things?  Start with basic emotions like:

  • happy
  • sad
  • afraid
  • angry
  • disgusted
  • surprised

Once you have a better grasp on how you personally exhibit and experience these emotions, here’s a fun grouping of other possibilities to explore:

 emotion list at

When you have a better grasp on what your body does under the influence of certain emotions, the next step is to make sure that you are showing those things while you are singing.  Perhaps the quickest and easiest way is to video yourself singing a song you’ve been working on and then watch it back.  Try to see the performance with fresh eyes, as an audience member would.  If everything is great, congratulations!  If you can tell that what you’re feeling isn’t coming across, it’s time to go “back to the score.”

With your lyrics or sheet music in front of you, mark with a pencil all of the emotional shifts that exist in the song.  The song probably can be summed up in one umbrella emotion (it’s a happy song, it’s a sad song), but anything worth it’s time to sing has more emotions when you look for them.  Make a note above each phrase where a new feeling  appears.  Once you’ve finished, compare your notes about how your body senses and shows emotions with the specific ones highlighted in your song.  Sometimes, just by making this connection in your brain, your body will more easily show what you’re feeling while singing the song.  Video yourself with this new information and see what you discover.

Remember, we now have scientific evidence that to be a performer who truly makes a connection with our audience we have to be genuine in our storytelling intentions.  Humans are pretty good at spotting a “fake!”