Elevate musicality with trigger words

A simple approach to instantly approach every piece with more musicianship, storytelling and emotion - for us, and our ensembles!

In a magical dream world we would know and embody the musical character and intention of every note, in every part, in every piece we conduct. So would our ensemble members.

While it's a noble aspiration, chances are we're not quite there yet ourselves, let alone the musicians.

We are (hopefully) spending time with our scores between rehearsals, thinking deeply about the music and how to interpret it. Yet the reality is our musicians may have little or no contact with the music from one rehearsal to the next.

If your group rehearses once a week that's an even bigger challenge, because we know that retention of new information drops off sharply without reinforcement or repetition. Retention is even poorer if we only tell them something, rather than getting them to enact it themselves. Active learners retain more than passive learners.

So how can we get closer to really knowing and embodying the emotional message and character of our music, and help our musicians do the same - every single time?

Trigger words

Ask your ensemble:

What one word, image or phrase what would immediately transport you into the beginning of this piece?

What mood does the music have here?

What do you imagine in your mind's eye?

How does the music sound at the beginning?

Choosing just one word forces us, and the musicians, to practice discernment. We have to make choices about what fits and what's not quite right, refining our ideas about the music.

Having that word written on top of the music can instantaneously help us get in the right mood. This is critically important going from one piece to another in rehearsal, to avoid the inevitable "How does this one go again?".

In performance, when tensions are high, a trigger word can help focus musicians on the present moment and musical intention, rather than on anxiety or fear.

(For more on that, check out Jeff Nelsen's fabulous Fearless Performance TED Talk, which I rewatch over and over again and show just about every student I work with).

A 3rd clarinet part for Brian West's Silent Movie with 'fast on tiptoes' and 'murder mystery' pencilled on top
"Fast on tiptoes" and "Murder mystery!" immediately get the musicians in the zone of the piece.

Same question, different answers

When I ask the above questions in rehearsals the answers are always surprising. Sometimes, without consultation, many musicians come up with the exact same word. Other times the answers are incredibly diverse, but below the surface they share similar energy or sentiments.

This is the great joy and conundrum of music-making.

What's majestic to you might be arrogant to someone else. What's romantic to the violins might be cheesy to the clarinets.

We all perceive music differently. Because - newsflash - we're all different.

It took me SO LONG to accept this basic truth

As conductors we're often told you have to have THE one, unwavering, authoritative interpretation.

Yet we also have a group of humans in front of us that might have other, better ideas we haven't thought of until you hear them.

How do we reconcile this?

And what about the fact that when we go out there, all aligned in our interpretation, each audience member will have a completely different take on what they heard? One person says the music is intriguing and quirky, another says it sounds like a trash can being kicked down the street.

These questions used to plague me. I wondered if my musical ideas weren't getting through to the audience because they weren't strong enough, good enough or clear enough. Maybe I just needed to be more assertive and authoritative in front of the musicians, and let go of being so collaborative?

There's probably some truth to both challenges - and I'm constantly trying to do better.

However, what I'm now focussed on is deeply listening to and respecting the ideas of everyone in the ensemble on the journey to finding a unified interpretation. I also now understand we can't control the audience's responses - only what we give to them.

Back to reality

Let's return to those trigger words.

Each person in your group will come up with a slightly different word.

It's up to you to decide if you want everyone to write the same word on their music, or write the word that feels right to them.

Either way everyone will have a simple yet powerful gateway into the world of each piece.

But wait, there's more

Writing a word on a sheet of paper is a good start, but it's just the beginning. The next step is to challenge our musicians (and ourselves) to physically embody the words on the music.

"How would you sit or stand to show proud/immense/creepy/cheeky?"

"Ok, now freeze and look at your stand partner. What is their body language communicating to you?"

"What would your face do to show fear/despair/joy?"

"Ask your stand partner for feedback to make your face even more fearful/despairing/joyful"

These activities are incredibly simple, and every musician can experience both success and progress. Peer teaching and feedback will help them retain the emotional connection to the music even more.

Even musicians who don't play/sing at the very beginning of the music can do this to help the ensemble present a unified musical narrative. It shows them that how they contribute to (or detract from) the music when they're NOT playing/singing is just as impactful as when they are.

To reinforce this, get them to do a before and after:

"Now, sit how you were before..."

"Now show the character in your body and face..."

"What would you rather see as an audience member?"

"Let's have you 5 people sit the old way, and everyone else sit the new way. Look around. What happens when even only a few people aren't showing the music like everyone else?"

Lead by example

Of course, the job for us is to ensure we are doing OUR best to have our conducting show that character.

For me trigger words help focus MY thinking toward what really matters, and remind me what I need to communicate to the musicians.

Here's my first page of a The Mysterious Castle by Melbourne composer Tom Campbell, that I gave the world premiere of in April 2022.

The words up the top were just some of those contributed by members of the orchestra: Dracula, coffin, foreboding, creepy and ominosity (don't you just love made up words!!)

The eagle-eyed geeks will notice the red box is surrounding a tone row. This is a 12-tone piece and I really needed expressive words and imagery to prevent me from giving a clinical performance. Tom himself gave the analogy of 'Footsteps trudging in the snow' which immediately put me in a special world where I could focus on story rather than theory.

I needed lots of words and imagery to get me in the zone of this 12-tone piece, that could easily seem 'not expressive'

This is only the beginning

Putting a trigger word at the beginning of a piece is incredibly simple and effective.

Start with just one piece, then do it for all the pieces you're working on. These can be incredible tools for mentally rehearsing performances as a group.

"We're going to mentally go through the concert..."

"As I say each piece, practice getting your body into the mood of the piece..."

"We start with the Suite - exotic and mystical...then the Mysterious Castle - sombre trudging footsteps... then the Symphony, bright and joyful, elated..."

"Now think them through again, this time in your own head in your own time and show it in your body with 50% more intensity"

This only takes 30 seconds, and really reinforces for musicians the journey they're going on - and what we need to create for the audience. The more repetitions of this exercise, the more secure they'll feel come concert time.

Going deeper

Once you experience how valuable it is you'll want to do more. The next step is to write trigger words at the beginning of major contrasting sections or moments of each piece, and add more words and nuance - both for yourself and with your ensemble.

You can repeat the concert exercise above but for a single piece - mentally going through the sections before playing a full run through or large chunk. This is incredibly effective in preparing musicians for what is coming next and being intentional about what they project to the audience.

This approach helps signpost and break down longer works like symphonies, movements or medleys that travel through many musical landscapes. These works often feel too big to digest for less experienced musicians, and they don't think to look ahead, which as we know can get them into trouble! 

It's also particularly useful for groups that only come together for an intensive period like a summer camp or honour band where we need to familiarise them with the big picture as quickly as possible.

Your turn

How could you use trigger words to make your own conducting more expressive?

What would it look like to teach your ensemble/s to use trigger words?

What would you need to do this in your next rehearsal?

Great, now go do it :)

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