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Practice Paths

As you’re learning the basics of a song (rhythm, pitch, harmony, articulation, dynamics, etc.) it is often useful to take a small section of the song and repeat it numerous times. This gives your mind and body a chance to build the habits which will ultimately make it possible to play music that is too complex for the brain to think about every aspect while you’re playing it. (That goes for pretty much all music!) In order to build desirable habits, you must play your section the way you want it over and over again in relatively quick succession. If you play it another way, you will develop that habit, so it’s important you think pretty intently while developing your habit, and play it as slowly as you need to to get it just right.

My students and I use a system I created called a “Practice Path” to keep track of progress and remind ourselves of the importance of thinking while practicing. It’s pretty simple- first you choose a number to start on, corresponding with the amount of repetitions you think your section needs. For example, if it’s pretty short and seems the good habits are almost formed, you might choose to play it “3 times with the Practice Path.” You put your marker on 3, think, and then play your section. If you played it perfectly, you move your marker to the right. If you messed up, move your marker to the left. Occasionally we’ll let the marker stay in one place- if it’s correct but too slow to develop a habit, if you make a small mistake that you fix right away, if it’s correct but you don’t finish it. And of course, when we get to 0 we usually hold a bit of a celebration!

Practice Cards!

Teaching more and more voice, piano, and Conga Lessons has inspired a barrage of new teaching tools. Included in these are four sets of cards which have proved extremely useful (and fun to use!) when teaching and practicing with students. Let me introduce PowerPlay cards, Pick-a-Pitch cards, Rhythm Twist cards, and CrashChord cards. PowerPlay cards are specific to the piano, where the others can be applied to a variety of settings. The element of suspense while choosing a card and the randomness/luck involved somehow make everything feel more like a game!

All cards in use

Descriptions below:

PowerPlay cards

PowerPlay cards in use

Sometimes we need a little boost to make repetitive practicing more interesting and effective. PowerPlay cards are designed to shake things up once you’ve gotten a basic handle on a piano piece or section. (Most are specific to the needs of piano practicing as opposed to other instruments.) They are intended for use with small or medium-length sections, either in the second phase of practicing when you’re gaining speed and familiarity, or in the latter stages when you’re almost there, but still working towards consistency. Asking yourself to try to play a section while reading unrelated text aloud, transpose up a half step, or play one hand on your lap can be just the challenge needed to get over the hump!

Oh- and I should mention these cards are a hit with my students when we use them in lessons. Not only do they make practicing fun, but students are impressed with how well they’ve learned the section once we’ve applied a few cards. Depending on the student and the piece, I usually choose a selection of cards to pick from (not all cards may be appropriate for every situation), and I may expect varying levels of “perfection.”

Some of the ideas suggested on these cards were collected from my own teachers, some are particularly relevant to my current teaching approach, and many have been influenced by my Ph.D. research in music education and learning psychology.

PowerPlay card sheet

Pick-a-Pitch cards

Pick a Pitch cards in use

The Pick-a-Pitch cards are simple cards with the names of pitches on them which could be used for practice with any instrument. There are twelve cards, one for each pitch in the Western chromatic scale, and a “wild card.” If a pitch has two names (within a single sharp or flat), both names are written on the card.

We use these cards in lessons all. the. time. We use them to choose keys to play or sing scales, songs, exercises, chords and chord progressions, or to find pitches on an instrument at the beginning stages of learning. I used to use a 12-sided die, but became dissatisfied by the potential for repeating and skipping keys as well as the lack of customizability. With Pick-a-Pitch cards, I can take out pitches I don’t want to use, or we can be sure we get through all 12 keys, albeit in a random order. Pick-a-Pitch cards could also be used to learn and create the circle of 5ths, signal an answer in an ear training exercise, and make countless other learning experiences more “hands on.”

PickaPitch card sheet

Rhythm Twist cards

Rhythm Twist cards in use

We use the twelve short rhythms I chose for the Rhythm Twist cards to vary the rhythm of scales and other continuous exercises or pieces which have already been basically learned. Each card displays two identical beats in either duple or triple divisions. Subtle orange lines help students to read and feel the rhythms through a recognition of divisions, and can facilitate learning to read rhythm in the process. The accents included on each card are at the beginning of each beat and are critical to the effectiveness of the activity. Using the Rhythm Twist cards have a similar effect as the PowerPlay cards do, providing new avenues for learning through a disruption of an automated pattern. Students enjoy the challenge and variety to the repetition of scales and exercises!

Rhythm Twist card sheet

CrashChord cards

CrashChord cards in use

These are basic cards for drilling triads and 7th chords. They include each possible position or inversion of all triads and 7th chords consisting of major and minor 3rds (with the exception of the 7th chord chord built of 3 major 3rds, which spans an Augment 7th, enharmonic to an octave). This deck of cards came about after experimenting with dice (one for the chord, one for the inversion) and spinners, a process which again left me seeking greater customizability and less potential for skipping and repeating chords. We use these cards in conjunction with the Pick-a-Pitch cards when drilling chords in lessons, and I’m able to choose the quality or inversion most appropriate for the student. At the piano, we play the chords drawn and sing up the notes on letter names, although they could also be used by students learning theory, ear training, or other instruments.

There are many different systems for naming chords. These are the names (and abbreviations) I use first, and are those I learned and taught with at The Juilliard School. Students seem to transfer the understanding they gain while using these terms easily as we play from fake books and pop/jazz lead sheets, despite the possible difference in terminology.

CrashChord card sheet

Someday soon these decks of cards will be available for sale at! Currently, “beta” editions are available for purchase by my private students, and other inquiries may be made at 🙂

Research: Communicating Diverse Viewpoints in US Music Education: Perspectives from a Participating Outsider

1-full viewLast week I had the pleasure of attending and participating in the MayDay Group’s Colloquium 29: Thinking Critically About Institutions & Individuals, hosted by Gettysburg College. Besides the privilege of getting to know many fascinating, kind, and thoughtful people, I shared a small slice of my experience as a music education graduate student in a presentation titled Communicating Diverse Viewpoints in US Music Education: Perspectives from a Participating Outsider.

The presentation was based on a reflective, autoethnographic analysis I’ve been working on regarding difficulties I’ve experienced understanding and being understood in an institution in which my underlying set of values and assumptions differs distinctly from the norm, and in which my apparent race and educational background contribute to further miscommunication.

To begin with, I introduced the roots of the project and the framework I used to conduct it- the Nexus Analysis approach proposed by Scollon and Scollon. View the introduction below:

Following the introduction, I introduced the prominent discourses threading through my experience as relate to the “major players;” the institution of music education, the faculty,


undergraduate students,


and myself.  I took a moment to consider the complex relationships between my white middle class upbringing, the disillusionment and debilitating performance anxiety that lead to my exit from the classical music field, and my subsequent transformation through an immersion in the culture surrounding Irish traditional music.

4-my upbringing

5-my ITM

As part of an investigation of the interactions between myself and the other participants, I examined the benefits I’ve received as a graduate student, particularly the stimulation of my intellectual development. I also considered my motivations for entering and remaining in the field,

6- my motivation

7- my motivations

and the various issues surrounding and contributing to my experience as an outsider.  The quote by Blommaert particularly resonated with the core of my challenges in communicating and my persistence in seeking a voice:

“Voice stands for the way in which people manage to make themselves understood or fail to do so. In doing so, they have to draw upon and deploy discursive means which they have at their disposal, and they have to use them in contexts that are specified as to conditions of use. Consequently, if these conditions are not met, people ‘don’t make sense’- they fail to make themselves understood – and the actual reasons for this are manifold… Voice is the issue that defines linguistic inequality (hence, many other forms of inequality) in societies. An analysis of voice is an analysis of power effects- (not) being understood in terms of the set of socio-cultural rules and norms specified – as well as of conditions for power – what it takes to make oneself understood.”  Blommaert, 2005, p. 4-5

These “outsider effects” I divided into three categories- those relating to the structure of the institution, those revolving around issues of communication, and the emotional effects I experienced.

8- outsider effects


I then briefly situated my experiences within some of the literature on in- and out-groups within universities, focusing on similarities and differences between my experiences and those of working class students as reported in several studies. I posited that while my Irish music roots inform my assumptions about music and music-making, my middle class roots contribute to sense of empowerment and valuing of education which has lead me to persist in the university setting.

10- outgroups

Finally, we descended into the core of the project, exploring three “scenes” from my time as a graduate student and graduate assistant which I felt allowed me to examine some of the issues underlying my experience. For each scene, I suggested a potential point of change- a way in which those in power in the institution of higher ed music ed might further benefit from and facilitate the growth of students with different values and assumptions. The first scene centered around my experience attempting to learn the 3rd mvt. of the Chichester Psalms the same way I learn an Irish fiddle tune, and the various ways in which my process was not reflected or legitimized in the assignment or assessment.

11- scene 1

12- scene 1b

In the second scene, I delved into ways in which my differing sense of what is important about music, particularly Irish music, created uncomfortable experiences for me as I attempted to complete assignments in which the richness of my music was reduced to those elements commonly focused on in Western formal music education practices.

13- scene 2

The third scene represented the multitudinous occasions on which I’ve misinterpreted instruction, and some of the emotional and educational ramifications they have had on me and others around me.

14- scene 3

Following a tour through these three memories, I closed with a brief consideration of pathways to change in the field of music education. It can be overwhelming and confusing to consider change in such a complex system, and one often wonders which should come first- the chicken or the egg? Perhaps “egg changes” could be seen as those in which we help nurture new ideas and values in students and developing organizations. “Chicken changes” might be when we seek to enact change in already mature individuals and institutions.

15- chicken egg

In all, I’d say my most important realization through this analysis was the importance of taking the TIME to understand each other, to go deep, and to recognize and suspend our assumptions about others and the ways in which we might make, value, and appreciate music.


Allsup, R. E. (2016). Remixing the Classroom: Toward an Open Philosophy of Music Education.    Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Aries, E. and M. Seider (2007) ‘The role of social class in the formation of identity: A study of  public and elite private college student’, The Journal of Social Psychology 147(2): 137-57.

Archer, L. & C. Leathwood (2003). Identities, inequalities and higher education. In L. Archer et al.  (Eds,), Higher Education: Issues of Inclusion and Exclusion, pp. 175-192. London: Routledge.

Blommaert, J. (2005). Discourse: A critical introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.

Dunbar-Hall, P. (2006) An investigation of strategies developed by music learners in a cross-‘         cultural setting. Research Studies in Music Education, 26, 63-70.

Fairclough N. (1992). Discourse and social change. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

Foucault, M. (1972). The archaeology of knowledge and the discourse on language. New York:  Vintage.

Friedmann, J. (2005) Place-making as project? Habitus and migration in transnational cities. In J.  Hillier and E. Rooksby (Eds,), Habitus: A Sense of Place, pp. 315-33. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Froehlich, H. (2006). Sociology for music teachers: Perspectives for practice. Upper Saddle River, NJ:  Pearson Prentice Hall.

Kahnemann, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

Kaufman, P. & K. Feldman (2004) Forming identities in college: A sociological approach. Research  in Higher Education, 45, 463-96.

Mantie, R. & Tucker, L. (2012) Pluralism, the right, and the good in choirs, orchestras, and bands.  International Journal of Music Education, 30(3), 260-271.

Reay, D., Crozier, G., & Clayton, J. (2009). ‘Strangers in paradise’? Working-class students in elite  universities. Sociology, 43(6), 1103-1121.

Robinson, T. (2012). Popular musicians and instrumental teachers: the influence of informal  learning on teaching strategies. British Journal of Music Education, 29(3), 359-370.

Schippers, H. (2010). Facing the music: Shaping music education from a global perspective. New  York: Oxford University Press.

Scollon, R. & Scollon, W.S. (2004). Nexus analysis: Discourse and the emerging internet. New York:  Routledge.

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Talbot, B. C. (2010). Finding a way: Discourse analysis of music transmission in Eka Sruti Illini and  implications for music education. Dissertation. University of Rochester, Eastman School of Music.

Talbot, B. C. & Mantie, R. (2015). Vision and the legitimate order: Theorizing today to imagine  tomorrow. In Conkling, S. (Ed.), Envisioning Music Teacher Education. Lanham, MD: Rowan and  Littlefield.

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1-full view

Day 25: 365 “Circle Songs”

Someone Skyped me tonight and I found myself subconsciously singing and elaborating on the ringtone for hours, which happens more than you might think!  Finally I’m “getting it out of my head” at least a little bit with this Skype circle song…

Circle 25

-Anne-Marie Hildebrandt

Day 24: 365 “Circle Songs”

Another attempt at using a Sylvia Plath poem for lyrics, as I really liked the last one (Circle 22.)  This one has a bit of an anthem feel.  I don’t feel it works as well, but it’s in a Major key, and I never like those as well…

Frog Autumn

Summer grows old, cold-blooded mother,

The insects are scant, skinny.

In these palustral homes we only

Croak and wither


Mornings dissipate in somnolence.

The sun brightens tardily

Among the pithless reeds.  Flies fail us,

The fen sickens.


Frost drops even the spider.  Clearly

The genius of plenitude

Houses himself elsewhere.  Our folk thin


Circle 24

-Anne-Marie Hildebrandt

Day 19: 365 “Circle Songs”

One more stab in my quest to make a circle song in Major that I actually like…

Circle 19

-Anne-Marie Hildebrandt
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