Exams, Practising

Coffee Shop Questions: Keeping exam repertoire fresh

Theresa writes:

I am ready to sit ABRSM G7 theory and practical exams but obviously cannot due to the current situation. I’ll continue with past exam papers but with my 3 performance pieces how do I stop getting stale/bored with them ? Can you suggest any ways I can vary practice ? I recently joined a piano group so I could desensitise myself performing to others. Now I’ve got to the stage where I’m just playing my scales list and pieces through to myself once a day and I know that isn’t productive.

Frances replies:

This is a common issue, and one which many people will experience, not just during this strange time when exams have been cancelled or postponed, but whenever you are working on the same repertoire for a long time, in preparation for an exam, diploma, competition or concert.

While the need for careful preparation and deep practising is essential to enable us to play to the best of our ability in an exam or other performance situation, there is a danger that music with which we are very familiar can become stale through over-practising. When we go into the recital room on exam or concert day, it is important to have something extra to give, to add an edge to the pieces and to make them appear fresh, created anew for the examiner or audience.

When we perform, whether it is exam pieces or a full concert programme, we are “telling stories” in the music, creating narratives and atmospheres which provoke an emotional response in the listener. One of the most important pieces of advice I was given when working for my Associate Diploma, at a point when I had been learning and finessing the pieces for 18 months, was from my then teacher, Penelope Roskell, who said “always try to recall what you like about these pieces and what attracted you to them in the first place”. This is a very useful exercise, and one which I used with my own students when they were preparing for exams. We can become so immersed in the small details of the music, that we stop seeing its “bigger picture”, so take some time to think about what you like about each piece in your exam programme, what makes the pieces distinctive for you, their individual characters and intricacies, and how you might bring these aspects to life in performance. Maybe write down three or four key points for each piece and reflect on these.

On a practical level, I would recommend not practising your pieces too much, but every time you practice, try to bring variety to your practising. Doing the same things over and over again can kill the music, and too much repetitive practising of pieces can lead to complacency (because the music is well known) which can lead to silly errors which become embedded and then difficult to shift. So mix things up in your practising to keep brain and reflexes alert, and maybe return to some previously-learnt pieces as well, to play for pleasure and as a break from exam work. Meanwhile, keep up the practising of technical work – there are “easy marks” to be gained in producing polished scales and arpeggios. I would limit your playing through of the entire exam programme to once a week, and when you do this, treat it as a performance – play through without stopping to correct mistakes, but rather try to make a mental note of them as you go and then review them, reflect and make adjustments at your next practice session.

Performance practice, however, is always valuable, especially if you are a nervous performer. So take any opportunity to play for others, whether it is at home to family or at a piano club or meetup group. Performing our pieces to others is a form of “stress testing” our preparation and can reveal weaknesses which can then be worked over in practicing.

Another useful practice tool is recording and/or filming yourself playing – and this can be done very simply using a smartphone. The recorder or camera acts as another ear/listener and adds an extra layer of tension (see stress testing, above) as well as offering opportunities to review your playing and self-critique. Never listen to a recording immediately after you have made it. Wait a few hours or even a day and then listen back, highlighting first the positives – what you like about your playing – and then the aspects which need some adjustment. Write them down if it helps. The ability to self-critique, reflect and adjust is a crucial part of deep practising.

To give yourself a break from playing your pieces, take some time to listening to recordings and note aspects in the performances which you enjoy. We should never seek to imitate others, but recordings can be inspiring and enjoyable and may shed an interesting new or different light on music which we know well.

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