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Getting into the character of a piece, right from the first note, can sometimes be a challenge when there’s no long orchestral tutti to help set the mood. Or if you have to switch from one orchestral excerpt to another in an audition where it’s all on you.

Musicians have been known to write key words or phrases at the top of excerpts, like this, or this. Which seems like a pretty handy way to remind ourselves what we want to say with the piece, instead of blanking out and giving a generic, uninspired performance. 

But does this really work? As in, these “trigger words” can certainly help change the performer‘s emotional state, but do they translate into changes in one’s performance that a listener can actually hear?

Junior high singers

In a 2012 study (Broomhead, Skidmore, Eggett, & Mills), 155 junior high choir members were randomly assigned to receive either a short training on using trigger words (the experimental group), or participate in a regular choral rehearsal (control group).

3 performances of Happy Birthday

Everyone started out by recording a short performance of Happy Birthday1 to get a baseline of their performing ability. Here are the specific instructions they were given:

“In a moment you’ll perform ‘Happy Birthday’ twice in a row. You may start on any pitch you wish. Sing it as musically as you can. As soon as you’re ready, step to the black tape, wait for my signal, and then begin.”

Once their performance was recorded, students in the experimental group attended a 40-minute training session, while those in the control group went to choral rehearsal.

The routine

Students in the training were given a set of three trigger words to help them achieve a more optimal mindset before performing. The three words were bold – to represent the “willingness to take decisive and immediate action,” confident – to increase “hope in his or her ability to execute skills necessary for the desired outcome,” and free – to represent performing in a way that’s “unrestrained by fear, inhibitions, or concern about the outcome.”

This mantra of “bold, confident, and free” was then integrated into a simple pre-performance routine, consisting of:

  1. Taking a deep, full breath, and as they exhaled, silently saying “let it go”
  2. Taking in two or three more easy breaths, as they silently repeated the phrase “bold, confident, and free” to themselves

Practicing their new cue words

After practicing this a bit, the students were randomly divided into small groups of 5-6, so they could practice using this new technique in a series of increasingly more realistic exercises.

In the first exercise, they created and performed a short group composition with handheld percussion instruments. After the initial performance, they were asked to repeat the performance, but with the addition of their pre-performance routine. They were also asked to experiment with different trigger words – like “timid, scared, and outrageous” to feel how different words might change their mindset and experience of performing.

In the second exercise, the groups experimented with their new pre-performance routines by integrating it into a vocal performance of Mary Had a Little Lamb.

And in the third exercise, they practiced using their routine and mantra in a solo performance of Old MacDonald Had a Farm.

A second and third performance

After the training session was complete, the students in the experimental group were tested once again, with a second performance of Happy Birthday on camera. Likewise, students in the control group were excused from choral rehearsal and returned to the testing rooms to give a repeat performance of Happy Birthday for the camera.

And to see how permanent any changes in performance might be, two weeks later, students in both groups returned to give a third and final performance of Happy Birthday.

Judging expressiveness

The musicality and expressiveness of the students’ performances were determined by two high school choral teachers, who served as judges, watching each video (all mixed up and out of order, of course) and evaluating them with the Expressive Performance Achievement Measure (EPAM). This is a 19-item assessment that provides expressiveness scores related to dynamics, tone quality, timing, etc.

There wasn’t perfect agreement between the two judges, of course, but interrater reliability was .75, which is pretty good. Meaning, the judges were mostly on the same page in their evaluations, even if they didn’t agree 100%.

So how helpful was this mantra?

Changes in expressiveness

Everyone’s first Happy Birthday performances were all rated at about the same level of expressiveness. 52.53 for the control group, and 51.75 for the experimental group.

But on the second performance, things had changed, and there was a significant difference in expressiveness between the two groups2. Let’s take a closer look…

The control group’s second Happy Birthday performance, right after choir practice, was slightly more expressive, at 55.05 (an increase of 2.514 points). However, this was just below the cutoff for statistical significance3, so there is a chance that this doesn’t represent a true improvement in performance.

Meanwhile, the experimental group’s second Happy Birthday performance improved by 8.015 points, to a score of 59.77. An increase that was statistically significant. And represented a significant improvement over their first performance on all measures of the EPAM – from articulation (e.g. use of legato, explosiveness of consonants), to dynamics (e.g. phrase shaping, dynamic contrast), performance factors (e.g. facial expressions and visual cues), timing (e.g. rhythm, rubato), and tone (e.g. intensity, warmth).

Two weeks later…

When everyone was tested two weeks later, the effect of the cue words kind of disappeared, and the groups performed about the same again. Which might seem a little odd at first, but the researchers acknowledge that this could be because of their age, as when they did the same study with a group of adult singers, the effect remained even at the two-week follow-up. My guess is that since the students didn’t think much about their pre-performance routine over the two-week break, most probably forgot to use it in their final Happy Birthday performance.

Caveats

Before we get into the takeaways and action points of this study, there are a couple caveats.

Given that breathing is often an important part of effective pre-performance routines, it’s possible that it wasn’t just the cue words, but also the breathing element that helped free the students up to sing more expressively.

And it’s possible that the experience of performing for each other in small groups could have helped to reduce their expressive inhibitions more effectively than singing in larger group rehearsals too.

That said, cue words have been studied in sport settings, and are commonly used as part of pre-performance routines and as in-game concentration and motivational strategies, so the trigger words likely did have a meaningful effect as well.

So what’s the main takeaway?

Takeaways

Well, especially given that these were relatively young students, most of whom had less than a year of vocal experience, the main takeaway for me is that we are innately capable of performing more musically than we often show. That we have the instincts and technical skills necessary to perform in more compelling ways, but tend to hold back, particularly in performance settings (though likely in the practice room too). 

So it’s pretty cool that a simple set of cue words, in the absence of much extra practice, can help to unlock some of our expressive potential.

Take action

Try experimenting with the mantra used in this study (“bold, confident, and free”) in your daily run-through. And for fun, maybe give the anti-expressive mantra a try too (“timid, scared, and outrageous”). See if it feels different. And more importantly, make sure you’re taping yourself (with video, ideally), so you can see if the performances sound or look different too.

And then try different mantras. Ones that might be more personally meaningful to you. Or more relevant to the mood, character, or technical demands of each piece or excerpt.

And make sure to get in the habit of using these anytime you do a run-through, so that when it’s time to use them in an actual performance, this feels natural and automatic.


Reference

Broomhead, P., Skidmore, J. B., Eggett, D. L., & Mills, M. M. (2012). The Effects of a Positive Mindset Trigger Word Pre-Performance Routine on the Expressive Performance of Junior High Age Singers. Journal of Research in Music Education, 60(1), 62-80.

Footnotes

  1. Why Happy Birthday? Well, this was presumably a song that everyone knew by heart, had sung many times before, and could sing without looking at the music, ensuring everyone was on pretty even ground to start
  2. 55.05 vs. 59.77, p=.036
  3. p=.052, in case you were wondering…