· By Peta van Drempt
10 tips for taming the music exam monster
I used to hate music exams. I mean, I loved when I did well in them, but I hated almost everything else about them. And when I didn't do well, it sucked. It made it feel like the whole thing had been a waste of time. I didn't get the validation I wanted after all that hard work I had put in, and it really put me on a downer.
Looking back, there were so many things I could have done to make music exams a more fun and positive experience. I could have been so much more empowered, but rather those dastardly exams held power over me, because I didn't know any other way.
Since then, as I've done a lot more performing myself and accompanying other students doing their exams, I've learned a thing or two that I'd like to share with you. Hopefully these 10 tips will give you or your students a chance to make the most of those exams, and come out the other end a stronger person and musician.
1. Know why you are doing the exam
Is it because you want to, because someone else thinks you should, because your friends are doing it, because it gives you something to work towards... You need to be clear on your goals and don't let others around you dictate whether you do an exam or not. The more intentional you are about why you're choosing to an exam, the more empowered you will be over the whole process.
2. Don't just practice the same way all the time – mix it up!
It's easy to get stuck in a rut with practice. Too often we end up just playing our pieces front-to-back, over and over, not really internalising them very well.
Try spicing things up a bit. Maybe play the piece back-to-front, bar by bar. As renowned concert pianist Alpin Hong explains this is a great way to create memory sign-posts so you know how to start playing at different parts of the piece (which an be a life-saver if you forget where you're up to during the performance).
You could also try practising at different times of the day, practise in your performing clothes, practise with your eyes shut, practise while moving around (depending on your instrument), practice in front of a mirror... The list goes on. If you run out of ideas, google some more!
3. Performance is a thing to practice in and of itself
Have you ever found yourself struggling to play on stage or in an exam even though you could play the piece just fine at home when rehearsing? This usually happens because you've learned your piece but you haven't really learned how to perform it. Those are two separate things.
The adrenaline of the performance can do weird things to our brains and make it hard to stay on track. It's a skill in and of itself to harness this adrenaline-filled phenomenon and find ways to keep ourselves focused and steady while playing. This article goes into a bit more detail on how to do this.
4. Learn to embrace your audience – don't ignore them!
As Australian performance expert and coach Amanda Cole explains the audience (and in this case, the examiner!) is a crucial part of your performance. They are essential to the adrenaline and energy of the performance, and are real live people that you are sharing your beautiful gift with. Imagining they're not there, or in their underwear (!!) is counter-productive and won't help you give a performance that truly connects with the them. You probably also won't enjoy it as much as you could either. (Check out more from Amanda Cole here.)
5. Don't wait until your first accompanist rehearsal to learn how the piano part goes
As an accompanist I've seen it too many times. Students turn up for their first accompanist rehearsal with just a few weeks til their performance and suddenly they have to learn how to play with the piano part which they've not really thought about much before. They might know their own part really well, but when they try to fit it together with the accompaniment, it's all so new and unfamiliar it can take them quite a lot of work to put the puzzle together. It might mean having to relearn certain rhythms, or entries, or totally changing how the piece feels to them. Get a head start and familiarise yourself with the piano part well in advance, so when you turn up to your first rehearsal you're more confident in playing along with the accompaniment and you can make the performance truly shine. Try listening to a recording of the piece being performed and following along with the piano sheet music, or play along with piano accompaniment recordings to get a feel for actually playing along with the piano.
6. Don't peak too early
The mind is a funny thing. Have you ever tried running through your pieces in the warm-up room just before a performance, and it was the best you'd ever played them? And then you walk with head held high onto the stage or into the exam room and end up giving a less than wonderful show?
As tempting as it can be to do some last minute practice-cramming, try not to do too much the day before or the day of the exam. I have often found that putting all my adrenaline and energy into my rehearsals right before the actual performance leaves me a little empty and it can be hard to muster all that energy to 'peak' yet again for the exam itself. Which sucks when you've put so much work in up to that point.
If you've done your homework and practised solidly in the months leading up to the performance, those last few days should just be for touch-ups and keeping the music in your mind (maybe try listening to recordings during this time instead!). Take the pressure off and let yourself be refreshed and ready come performance day.
7. Have other goals you're working towards
To make sure you're not overly fixated on the exam and your result, make sure you have other musical things to throw yourself into as well. And not just competitions either – there you're still being compared to external standards and other players. Rather, have your own musical projects, perhaps compositions you're working on, other performances for fun, playing in an ensemble, starting a YouTube channel, teaching others. Try to create a rich musical life that isn't just centred on being tested or compared to others.
8. The exam is just one part of your musical journey
I used to put way too much stock in my final exam result. If I got an A or A+ I was happy. If I got anything else, I would judge myself super harshly. Which was silly, really.
The exam gave me something to work towards, helped me choose repertoire, gave me a sense of accomplishment when I got to the end. But that final grade was where I put all my hope.
If only I could have recognised that this one just one step in my journey. That it really didn't matter what exact exam result I got - examiners are just people after all, and the whole process of deciding how good a performance is is really very subjective anyway.
In hindsight I would be a lot kinder to myself going into those exams, letting myself succeed, fail, make mistakes, or play brilliantly – whatever happened. It was all okay and just another part of my musical journey.
And on top of that, I've since learned that mistakes are actually crucial to the learning process. Without them, we couldn't learn or grow. I'd rather learn and make mistakes, than live in constant fear of them and never really learn anything fully. Bring it on!
No matter how the exam day goes or what result you end up getting in the mail, it's important to acknowledge all the hard work you've done. Remember, you set your goal, you worked hard, and you made it to the end! Make sure you have something wonderful planned for when the exam is over to mark the occasion. Go to the beach, throw a party, have a milkshake at the local café with a friend, go dancing! Whatever floats your boat.
10. Onwards and upwards!
Once you've celebrated, take a well-earned break for a week or two, maybe just play some pieces for fun in that time if you feel like it. Then when you're ready, sit down, plan out your next lot of musical goals, set out a roadmap for how you're going to achieve them, then go for it!
Remember, this is your musical journey. Get clear on where you want to head, and surround yourself with people and resources to help you get there. And most importantly, enjoy the ride!
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