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!

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.






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.



Finding the Beat

The Beat.  If you feel like you have trouble finding the beat, the pulse, the rhythm in music, (these words all refer to the same thing), there’s a high likelihood that you’re not from a family that dances.  There are families where everyone dances… no matter if you’re old or young, talented or not.  When a group like this gathers for an occasion, moving together is a celebration and strengthening of community.  Which is to say, dancing is something that is observed and experimented with and participated in from birth.

Step by Step.  If you weren’t blessed with a situation like this, just realize that all of the people you think of as having natural rhythm have spent many hours practicing, whether they know it or not.  The great thing is that neuroscience research proves that the brain can continue to improve and learn new skills throughout life.  Noticing the rhythm and keeping the beat is a skill, therefore if you put in the effort and time you, (yes, YOU), can also improve.

As with all skills, it’s best to start with the basics.  The first step is being able to keep track of a simple beat.

  1. First you’ll need a metronome (follow this link for more information and resources).
  2. Let’s start with setting up a slow and straightforward beat.  60 beats per minute is nice and familiar… that’s the same as the ticking of a clock.
  3. Tap along with the metronome sound with one finger.
  4. Alternate tapping with one finger from the opposite hand.
  5. When this feels successful, stand and march your feet with the beat, keeping your hands at the top of your legs so you can stay aware of the full movement of your body.
  6. Now move more of your body with the beat.  Play around with letting your body move however it wants to while staying with the pulse of the beat.  Try leading the movement with your elbows, knees, heels, head… just explore!  Let yourself be silly and have fun!
  7. Investigate the options of the metronome.  What does it feel like to go a little faster?  A little slower?  A lot faster/slower?

Practice.  Spend at least a few practice sessions (separated by doing completely unrelated things) with this metronome exploration.  When you feel comfortable with this, turn on the radio.  Generally a pop music station will have songs with simple and straightforward rhythms to tap, march, and move with.  Here are a few straightforward examples from different musical genres:

Where Did It Go? There will surely be times when you lose track of the beat.  That’s fine!  It’s an important skill to be able to realize when you’ve gotten off the beat and then successfully rejoin again.  In fact, if you’re not losing the beat enough to practice this, purposefully distract yourself.  One way is to turn off the music and then turn it back on, challenging yourself with how quickly you can return to the beat.

Adding a Vocal Layer.  A lot of times we’ll want to be able to keep the beat while singing.  Sounds easy enough, but it is actually layering on an additional skill set, so be patient with yourself.  First practice with just speaking something while moving with the metronome.  The ABC’s work well, or recite anything that’s already in your memory.  To try singing a song while keeping track of the beat, go back to something easy and familiar.  In the accompanying video I’ll demonstrate with Happy Birthday.  This song has a bonus challenge with its musical pause toward the end (called a “ritardando”).  This is a perfect place to practice getting back on the beat.

I hope you have fun exploring and practicing this skill of finding and keeping the beat! Remember to have patience with yourself and find the joy in the wonderfully messy process of learning.

But I’m Tone Deaf…

Are you really? It is a possibility, especially if you have brain damage (genetic or otherwise), but more than likely you just have an untrained skill. Just like riding a bike, it’s not something any of us are born doing, but most of us can learn.

The Test. The big clue to test if you really are tone deaf is to find out if you can hear the difference between sounds. Can you tell if one sound is higher than another? Lower than another? The same? Here is an online test you can take for free, but I want to warn you ahead of time that this is set up like a “test.”  If you have test anxiety, your results might not be accurate. You will be given two different sounds and need to pick if they are the same or different. The best way to approach the test is with curiosity. Allow yourself to play around with the sounds as you hear them. Even if you “can’t sing,” find out what happens if you hum along or use your hand to help you approximate the visualization of the highness and lowness of each sound. Give yourself as much time as you need, and play the pitches as many times as you need to feel more comfortable.

Now What?  Once you determine that you aren’t truly tone deaf, the next step is to starting noticing sounds. Sounds are all around us all of the time, but probably very early in life our brain decided it had spent enough time paying careful attention to them and set a sort of auto-pilot program so that we don’t really notice the differences unless they signify an emergency or warning of some sort. If you are wanting to develop your skill as a singer, the first step is to start noticing the sounds around you… which are high, low, the same?

Big Step with Simple Rules.  The next big step to developing your abilities has to do with the Auditory Feedback Loop. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? It is! We need to always keep in mind the power of this idea because the steps are deceivingly simple. Most of the time our brain is quick to dismiss them and we lose the advantage that they offer to get better, fast.

Auditory Feedback Loop

  1. Listen to the sound you want to reproduce.
  2. Imagine yourself making the sound. How will it feel coming out of your mouth? What will you notice?  (This crucial step is often skipped by students- don’t let it be you! By imagining the sound your body can “preset” all of the moving parts in your vocal instrument so that when air moves through your vocal folds everything is where it needs to be.)
  3. Make the sound.
  4. Evaluate— how did your sound compare with the original? Was it high, low, or the same? When you made any adjustments needed were they large or small changes?

At first, you’ll have the best results by giving yourself a lot of time to complete each step. I promise you your brain will fight against this very quickly.  “But this is too easy!”  Beware of this temptation creeping in… it will derail your efforts faster than anything else.  If you want to really hone your skills, record yourself hearing the pitch and then reproducing it. When you listen to or watch the recording you’ll have a more objective perspective of how closely you match the sound with your voice.

If you would love to sing, but have always been told you can’t match pitch, are tone deaf, or just shouldn’t try, this is the best place to start.  I have helped numerous students who come to me saying the very same things and they ALL have improved as singers.  With playfulness and curiosity in your practicing, you can, too!

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!”