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. 

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!

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.



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!”


The Treasured Right-Here

for Caroline

With worries ahead of me

and worries behind,

a breath helps me see

right now none are mine.


When I follow the path of Breathe-Out

it is clear

that Breathe-In can keep me

in the treasured Right Here.


So in and out,

day after day,

I practice and notice and play

and play.


And though challenges will always

appear and arise,

I’ve practiced my noticing

and see through their disguise.


They’re just bits and pieces

to be nibbled away,

and nothing to ruin

this beautiful day.

Skipping along the path

This is my first teaching blog post, but I’ve been sharing a lot of the ideas I’ll soon be sharing with you with my students for many years now. I’ve discovered that generally our SELF is the biggest obstacle any of us face when it comes to learning new skills. Who could really blame the brain, though, when you consider how much energy it takes to adjust habits or build new ones? It’s always easiest to just keep doing what you have been doing.

Problem is, that’s not always the most effective (or fun) way to do it!

I’m excited to share with you the research I’ve done and tips and tricks I’ve found that make this whole story-singing endeavor more enjoyable. You have to be willing to dive in, though, and celebrate the messiness of it all. I constantly tell my students that you have to approach this instrument as if you are a curious scientist or detective. The willingness to examine your vocal production and all of the thoughts and muscles and emotions and intentions that wrap together to produce your singing is the key to success.

I will share ideas about how to make the best use of your practice time, how to embrace the nervousness that comes with any performance, and how to understand the fundamentals of how the voice works as an instrument. We’ll shine the spotlight on focus and intention and see how these skills are some of the most crucial for our entire journey. We’ll examine what it means to really connect with our audience and the story we are conveying.

There’s so much “good stuff,” so have patience and try out whatever calls to you. And let me know how’re you’re doing in the process… sharing is one of the priorities of living, right?