Be prepared! Ensuring students are exam-ready for success

When I was a child and teenager taking my piano exams, my teachers never talked to me about aspects like performance anxiety or stagecraft/presentation. I went to the exam centre on the allotted day/time, took the exam and went home to await the results. I don’t recall ever being that nervous, perhaps because no teacher ever discussed the anxiety of performance with me…..

In supporting my students as they approach their grade exams, I have a number of tried and tested strategies to ensure they go into the exam room feeling confident, poised and, above all, well-prepared.

The late great Russian pianist Vladimir Horowitz used to say “I know my pieces” ahead of a performance. This is an important mantra: knowing one is well-prepared for an exam or other performance is a crucial aspect of exam preparation and can go a long way in alleviating anxiety, allowing one to play with confidence and musical vibrancy.

For students (with the support of their teacher) this means ensuring pieces are well-learnt and finessed. I encourage my students to think about the individual characters of their exam pieces (and we always try to select a “mini programme” of contrasting styles and moods to allow the student to demonstrate a broad range of technical and musical skills) and how they would like to highlight these characteristics in performance. At least a month ahead of the exam date, I expect students’ pieces to be “concert ready” and we do practise performances in lessons to focus on stagecraft and presentation. Occasionally, a piano teaching friend will come and listen to my students (and vice versa): this is a useful activity as it sets the bar slightly higher for the student by having another person/listener in the room.

In practising technical work (scales/arpeggios and exercises) I encourage accuracy, fluency and musicality. Easy marks can be picked up if technical work is well-learnt and played with good quality of sound and rhythmic cadence (I’m sure examiners would rather hear “musical” scales than monotonous, robotic scales).

I ensure that the other aspects of the exam – aural, sight-reading, musical knowledge – are all well-known and practised well in advance of the exam date.

All these things build confidence, but despite the best efforts of a sympathetic and well-organised teacher, many students feel consumed with anxiety when approaching their music exams. Perfectionist attitudes, issues with confidence and self-esteem, the feeling of being “on show”, exposed on stage or in the exam room, parental pressure, and an understandable wish to do one’s best all contribute to feelings of anxiety. In addition, a previous unhappy exam or performance experience can trigger feelings of inadequacy or nervousness.

When I taught younger children, I tried to make the exam experience feel like an adventure, something exciting and different, and a chance to “show off what you can do”. For all students, I urge them to treat the exam as a “performance” or “mini concert”, and to try and step back from the feeling they are being “judged” and to enjoy the experience, as far as possible.

Specifically in relation to performance anxiety, I reassure students that feeling nervous is “normal” and that top international musicians feel nervous too. We discuss the “whys” and “hows” of anxiety so that they understand it is a natural physiological response (“fight or flight response”) as well as an emotional one. I encourage students to come up with ways to help them personally manage their anxiety – these may include recalling a previous successful/enjoyable performance, using visualisation techniques, NLP, deep breathing and positive affirmation (“I can do it!”). Above all, I remind them that examiners are not looking for bland note-perfect performances but for music which is vibrant and expressive, with good attention to details of dynamics, articulation etc. And I reassure them that I will not be “cross” or disappointed if they don’t achieve a certain mark, that I want them to do their best and enjoy the experience.

For older/more advanced students, exam preparation also involves some discussion about the process of practising and what has been achieved to arrive at the point where the music is ready to be put before an examiner or audience. This understanding of the process and journey of learning is particularly important and helps students see exams in the wider context of ongoing musical development, maturity and progression.

To all students, young and old, beginners to advanced, Good Luck with your exams this summer!

Dispelling the myth of difficult 

There has been a lively and thoughtful response to an article which appeared in The Guardian on 27 March in which the author declared that notated music is “a cryptic, tricky language – rather like Latin – that can only be read by a small number of people“. The author, Charlotte Gill, who is neither a musician nor a music teacher, suggests that only privately-educated students can understand music and because it is difficult for most students, it should not be taught in such a formal, or “academic” way in our schools.

I was very happy to add my name to a still-growing list of signatories (which includes internationally-renowned musicians such as Sir Simon Rattle and Stephen Hough) to an open letter written in response to the article by pianist and musicologist Ian Pace in which he states that the author’s claim “flies in the face of countless initiatives over two centuries making musical literacy available to those of many backgrounds. As with written language, musical notation enables effective and accurate communication, as well as critical access to huge amounts of knowledge”

As I have written on my sister blog The Cross-Eyed Pianist, music notation is in fact not that difficult to learn, if taught well, and most children, whose brains are receptive and open to new things, can pick it up fairly quickly. What has troubled me about Charlotte Gill’s assertion (which seemed to be founded only on the fact that she found sight-reading difficult at school), in addition to the accusation that the ability to read music is somehow “elitist”, is the peddling of the idea that if something is difficult or challenging children and young people, or indeed adult learners, won’t be able to do it and therefore it should not be taught in school. Some teachers skirt around the issue of teaching music theory and notation for this very reason, and in doing so they are depriving students of an incredibly useful tool for understanding the nuts and bolts of music and denying them access to a wonderful universal language. This form of dumbing down is yet another worrying example of the anti-intellectualism and suspicion of learning and the acquisition of knowledge that pervades society today.

In my limited experience teaching piano privately to children and teenagers, and through my son’s unhappy journey through primary and secondary education, I have formed the impression that too much teaching in our state schools has been reduced to “tick-box teaching” which involves a fair amount of spoon-feeding of bite-sized information to students, largely to enable them (and their teachers) to cope with the ridiculous amount of testing which goes on in UK state schools today. Sadly, while such spoon-feeding may bring decent exam results and desirable league table positions for schools, it also robs children and young people of the opportunity or ability to think independently, creatively and critically – all skills which are part and parcel of being a well-rounded, thinking individual.

In teaching notation – and indeed in all other areas of teaching – I believe we need to dispel “the myth of difficult” – that is, if we tell students that something is difficult before they begin, the difficulty is inculcated in them from the outset and the task seems that much more onerous/impossible. One significant yet very easy way to achieve this is to change the vocabulary – that is, not to preface a lesson in music theory or the first stages of learning a new piece of music with words like “difficult” or “hard”, but instead to find positive words to describe the task. I don’t use the word “difficult” in my teaching (“there’s no such thing as difficult” is something my students hear regularly from me), nor indeed in my own musical studies: I find it discouraging and dismotivating, with a danger of setting off the cycle I have described above.
Most students, children and adults, enjoy a challenge, and children in particular are generally very open to new processes and ideas. In the teaching of notation to very young children, there exist a number of methods and systems which make the process great fun – see for example, Dogs and Birds – and a quick Google search brought up many simple yet fun and creative “methods” developed by music teachers to engage children’s attention and fire their imagination, including music dominoes and musical cupcakes And once we have engaged our students, the process becomes that much more straightforward.
In addition, when our kids are subjected to dumbed down teaching and anti-competitive attitudes (my son’s primary school sports days promoted the “everyone’s a winner” mantra and were consequently very dull events) in our schools, there is something rather gratifying about engaging with an activity which takes time and effort, and most children actively enjoy it. (It is for this reason, in my experience, that many young people actively relish the challenge of taking music grade exams as well.)

If it’s too hard, I won’t be able to do it!

Many people can’t read music because they don’t believe they can, that it is simply too difficult for them to grasp: they have been peddled the idea that it is “difficult” by teachers, peers, and parents, and such a negative, defeatist attitude simply convinces them that they won’t be able to do it. But good, intelligent, and positive teaching encourages confidence and self-belief – it turns “I can’t” into “I can!” and makes learning to read music a valuable and practical tool which gives access to a common language, develops fully rounded musicians, and sets us on a wonderful voyage of discovery.
I’d like to close this article with some notes I took at one of the ‘Virtuoso Teacher’ seminars presented by acclaimed educator Paul Harris

Dispelling the “myth of difficult”

  • Changing the vocabulary
  • Learning how to achieve
  • Removing obstacles
  • Encourage through a thorough, meticulous and supportive approach
  • Ensure that the quality of our students’ understanding is better than the quantity of their work.
  • Lessons become positive with a spirit of discovery.

Further reading:

Ian Pace’s response to Charlotte Gill’s article in The Guardian includes a link to the original article, his open letter and links to other articles written in response.