9 top tips for performing well in music exams

The word “exam” strikes fear in the hearts of many. Of course it doesn’t have to be that way if you approach it with the right attitude.

1. Prepare as well as you can so that whatever the result, you can truly say you did your very best.

Sometimes not doing well is down to nerves which in turn is caused by the knowing deep down that we haven’t prepared as well as we’d have liked. This causes apprehension about whether we’ll make the same mistakes we’ve been making in practice. The only solution is to work so hard that on the very day that you feel confident and ready with only a freak catastrophic incident/bad luck being able to ruin things. When you go into an exam, you want to leave feeling you did everything as well as you could and that the rest will take care of itself.
In the run-up to an exam, you should increase your practice time by at least half an hour (e.g. if you’re doing one hour’s practice a day, increase that to one and a half hours, if you practice half an hour a day, increase to one hour’s  practice a day etc), five days a week.

In order to get top marks in your selected pieces you should be able to play to memorisation level, without needing the music. This is the point at which you transform the music from a series of notes to a piano masterpiece. Concentrate on elements like articulation, expression, dynamics and tempo. Try to feel and enjoy each piece so that the performance comes through on the day of the exam.

2. Maintain good health

Before a performance, you need to have the right amount of rest. Your diet/nutrition is also important in order for your body to function properly. You cannot afford to be tired and run down as this will affect your performance. (read the articles on music performance nerves and musician health)

3. Prepare one final time

Things like the location of the venue, time of exam and what they are playing are should be prepared well in advance. Ideally try to have a mock exam, set under exam rules with your teacher. This enables you to experience exam conditions as close as possible, giving you a feel for what to expect on the day.
If this is not possible, prepare yourselves in plenty of time in order to stay calm and control yourr nerves on the day.

4. Record yourself
Playing a piece knowing you’re being recorded mentally puts you on the spot, adding a bit of pressure to peform well. This is good as it concentrates the mind, making you aim for a good recording of yourself. Because you naturally don’t want to make mistakes while being recorded, you are more focused. Do this enough times and you will get your top performance somewhere along the way. When that happens, save the recording and listen many times as a reminder of what you’re capable of achieving.

5. Visualise success

If you’re the type that worries more than the average person or gets frustrated easily then its likely you sometimes carry with you fearful thoughts. These can sabotage your success. In order to change that, replace any negative thoughts with visualisations of you performing well. This should be done regularly and also in conjunction with practice, usually before you start. When you make progress in a particular area, reaffirm your positive thoughts and gain encouragement by visualising success. Do it repeatedly. Right after each breakthrough you make, visualise success!

6. Practise performing in front of friends, family and strangers

Get used to playing in front of others. Also, be willing to get feedback from people who will tell you what needs to be said, not what you want to hear. This could be other musicians or friends of your teacher.

7. Physiology

What’s that? It’s how you control and use your body. This in turn affects your emotions. We for the most part, control our feelings and emotions. A common trait of nervousness (and therefore negativity) shallow breathing, often quickened.
One of the best ways to relax is to focus on breathing. Why not try practising some breathing exercises; breathing in through the nose gently to the count of five and then breathing out through the mouth? Focus on counting your breaths and continue doing this until you feel calm and in control.

Another area that affect is our facial expressions. It may sound simplistic but when you smile, you will send a command to your brain that says “I’m doing something that’s associated with being happy. Therefore I must be happy!”. Don’t just do it with your mouth though. This is a commonly made mistake and that’s where some of you might say “I tried that but it didn’t work!”. No, you also have to smile with your EYES. Open them wide and even pull a silly face if only for a short time. When your eyes are ‘smiling’ you’ll more likely feel the emotion associated with smiling e.g. happiness.

When you walk into the exam room/hall, smile at the examiner (and if present, the audience). Don’t slouch, or walk with your head down, looking at the examiner nervously with fearful darting eyes. Walk with purpose to wherever you are meant to perform with your head up.

This may sound easier said than done, but you’ll be surprised at how these small changes can make you feel.

8. Stay focused on enjoying the music

Never forget your objective, which is not simply to pass an exam. That’s setting your sights too low. Your aim is to share your enjoyment for the pieces you chose to learn and eventually play before the examiner. Don’t get hyperanalytical regarding what you’re doing right or wrong. Just focus on enjoying the music and playing well at the same time and it will show.

9. Don’t worry about mistakes

This is linked to visualisation of success. As mentioned earlier, worry is a form of self-sabotage. How can that help you?! Mistakes will almost always occur when performing. They are a normal part of live performance and you won’t die for playing a wrong note even if it sounds obvious to all concerned! It is much more important to enjoy the performance and make it exciting carrying the audience along with you in your journey of the piece, than to worry about being perfect.

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