Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Trigger Words

The teacher said, “You really have to practice.  We talked about this last lesson.”  The student’s shoulders slump, as she says, “I have so much homework.  It’s just hard to fit the practicing in too.”

Another scene:  The teacher asks the student to memorize his music.  The student sighs and says, “I try, but I can’t seem to remember it all.  I’m always making mistakes and have to keep looking at the music to be sure.”

Another lesson:  “Now I want to test you a little bit,” says the teacher.  “How many beats are there in a 6/8 measure?”  The student’s eyes grow wide.  “6?  3?  Oh, wait.  There are 8.”

Trigger words.  When you use an innocent word that triggers bad feelings in a student, you might have lost the conversation.  A perfectly valid and helpful point that you are trying to make may just have missed its mark.

The scenarios above illustrate three of the trigger words I try to avoid.  Each student is different, of course, and may have different trigger words, but you can learn a great deal if you pay attention to how this idea plays out during lessons.


Experiment a little with the words you use when you teach.  For example, some students are fine with the word “practice” but I find that for many, it is a trigger word that calls up everything a student feels about “homework” — and this is true not only of students but of former students, in other words, adults.

Instead of exhorting students to practice, I tend to use the word “play”.  The more they play music, the better they will get.  As to what they do with their playing time, I feel it is my responsibility during lessons to take a student through various processes that will help them learn techniques, experience exercises, and improve their playing.  This is in fact practicing, but I don’t have to use that word; for some students, it dredges up the feeling that I am piling another assignment onto their to-do list.  Instead I recommend they play each day, without giving any time limit or suggestion, while giving them goals of how they can improve, and try to make sure they experience during the lesson some procedures to use at home.

Often I find that the word “memorize” has a similar effect to “practice”.  It triggers the preconceived notion that the student has to work hard to visualize the music and remember the entire sequence of the music.  Again, it suggests more homework, more hard work, more to-do’s to either check off or feel guilty about.

My preferred substitute for “memorize” is “learn”.  I find that “learn” tends to suggest a broader range of solutions.  A student can work on a phrase of music as a building block, get the feel of it physically, aurally, and in any other way that suits them, whether picturing an image of the sheet music, or imagining the profile of how the notes rise and fall, or thinking of it as a sound track to actions in a film.  “Memorize” tends to be what many students expect as the hard work of learning music, while “learn” tends to open up options for getting to know the music, building on the confidence we try to develop during lessons, using various strategies that go beyond having to visualize the sheet music.

The third example at the beginning of this post is the student who panics at being tested.  This is becoming more common in my teaching, especially in kids.  Maybe it has to do with the growing emphasis in schools of teaching to the test, seeking improving school-wide test results, which seems to set the highest priority on getting the right answers, rather than on understanding or thinking.  It is amazing sometimes to watch a student who is competent and intelligent suddenly become panicky and irrational when hearing the word “test” or when asked a series of questions that are perceived as a test.  I’ve seen kids understand something pretty well one minute and the next minute come up with irrelevant, silly answers to the same questions if they feel under pressure.

In this case, the trigger word could be “test” or it could be just an attitude that you are quizzing them.  It used to be fun and rewarding to lead a student through a sequence of questions toward discovering answers for him/herself.  The Socratic method.  Nowadays, I sometimes find that such questions are viewed more as if they were interrogation, or a threatening “test” throwing the student into a tizzy!  This calls up the question, “Whose side am I on?” — whether you are helping or testing your student — you may wish to read an earlier post on this topic.

Some students react quickly to any general criticism of their playing by immediately “confessing” that they didn’t practice enough, that they’re not good at this, etc. etc.  In other words, they’re ready to put themselves down if you give them a chance.  Don’t!  It’s a losing proposition.  The “trigger word” here could be a number of possible words, but the basic idea is:  try to avoid generally critizing a student’s playing and instead focus on a specific need, and best of all, focus on what they can do to improve it.  Once you’ve spun a student into general bad feelings — and this can happen unexpectedly if you’re not paying attention — it can be hard to pick them up and move forward right away.  In another post I’ve written about how the more experienced a teacher is, the more s/he is able to tackle the positive, to know what the student needs, without need for a criticism.  You might like to read this one, called Becoming Great Teachers.

What trigger words have you come across in your teaching?  Are there words you avoid or have found replacements for?  Let us know your thoughts by responding to this post.

About the Author

Ed Pearlman
Ed Pearlman has focused on performing, teaching, and judging fiddle music for over 30 years, offering performances and workshops throughout the USA and in Canada and Scotland. His original training was with members of the Chicago and Boston Symphonies, and he played with orchestras and chamber groups at Yale and in Boston. He currently teaches privately in Maine and at workshops around the countr... [Read more]

1 Comment

  1. Robyn Hodge

    Thanks for this thoughtful article Ed! Understanding the thinking processes and self talk that motivates and inspires a student (or not) is at least half of the work of teaching – thanks for these useful tips for reflecting on my own words…

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