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!

The Performing Teacher

I meet many piano teachers, at courses, workshops and masterclasses. It is always good to meet other piano teachers, to exchange ideas, and to enjoy a collective grumble about the exigencies of the job. Many of the teachers whom I meet are also performing musicians, professional or otherwise, and many regard performing as a necessary, indeed crucial, part of the job as a teacher.

I also meet many teachers who do not perform, for one reason or another. Some cite lack of time, others anxiety or lack of confidence. I actually met one teacher who claimed she was “too afraid” to perform for her students in case she made a mistake.

As teachers, performing is, in my opinion, a necessary part of the job. An exam is a performance, and we need to be able to guide and advise our students on how to present themselves in a “performance situation” (exam, festival, competition, audition), and to prepare them physically and emotionally for the experience. A whole new and different range of skills are required as a performer, and it is important to stress to students the difference between practising and performing. We also need to be able to offer support for issues such as nerves and performance anxiety, and to offer coping strategies to counteract the negative thoughts and feelings that can arise from anxiety. How can you train others to perform if you have never done it yourself?

I used to be shy about performing, because I lacked performance opportunities when I was at school, and then had a long period away from the piano in my 20s and 30s. But I quickly realised when I started teaching that I would need to “get over myself”, and my shyness, and learn how to be a performer if I was to be useful to my students as their teacher. The hard fact about performance anxiety is the only cure is to do it. Just do it! I will never forget the sense of elation and self-fulfillment at having successfully and convincingly delivered a Chopin Étude at a concert hosted by my teacher, the first time I had performed in public in over 25 years. Sure, it was nerve-wracking, but I knew I was well-prepared – and this to me is the most crucial aspect of performing and teaching others about performing: preparation.

A successful performance demonstrates that you have practised correctly, deeply and thoughtfully, instead of simply note-bashing. Preparing music for performance teaches us how to complete a real task and to understand what is meant by “music making”. It encourages us to “play through”, glossing over errors rather than being thrown off course by them, and eradicates “stop-start” playing which prevents proper flow. You never really demonstrate your technique properly until you can demonstrate it in a performance. Performing also teaches us how to communicate a sense of the music, to “tell the story”, and to understand what the composer is trying to say. It adds to our credibility and artistic integrity as musicians. And if you haven’t performed a piece, how can you say it is truly “finished”?

I always perform in my student concerts, not to show off, but to demonstrate to my students (and their parents, who pay my bills!) that I can actually do it, that I too am continuing my piano studies by preparing repertoire for performance, and that I have managed my performance anxiety properly. I also feel that by performing with my students, we transform our concerts into a shared music-making experience.

I hope that by hearing and watching me playing, my students can better grasp aspects of technique or interpretation we might have discussed in lessons, as well as enjoying the sheer pleasure of listening to piano music, and perhaps drawing inspiration from it. I also get ideas when I am performing which inform my teaching.

For the teacher who is nervous about performing, one can start in a very low-key way by hosting an informal concert at home, or by joining a piano group, such as the one I run with my colleague Lorraine, which provides a supportive and friendly environment where people can perform for one another. Choose repertoire with which you feel comfortable, and practise performing it a few times (at least three) to friends, family and pets before putting it before an audience. I guarantee your students will be dead impressed by anything you can play as a teacher!

Resources

London Piano Meetup Group

Music from the Inside Out by Charlotte Tomlinson. A clear and well-written book on coping with performance anxiety, with tried and trusted techniques for dealing with nerves and improving self-confidence.

Guest Post: Piano exams success – 9 key points

With the spring exam season upon us, I asked a friend and colleague of mine, Melanie Spanswick, who has experience as an examiner for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM), to offer some tips on how to do well. Here are her 9 key points for exam success:

 

  1. Preparation is the key to success. You have a very short time to make an impression on the examiner so good preparation allows you to feel more confident about playing. Confidence equals distinction! Examiners recognize a distinction candidate before they play a note; they exude confidence.
  2. It is a good idea to start your exam with scales (usually you can choose to start with scales or pieces). Starting with scales allows you to get used to the piano and warm up. It also gets them over and done with.
  3. Before starting each piece, pause for 10 seconds to think about your intended tempo and interpretation. Try to focus your mind solely on the music. The examiner is looking for totally committed playing not just right notes.
  4. Musicianship is very important particularly beyond Grade 5; it will make the difference between a pass or a merit. Musical playing is important at all levels, but from Grade 5 upwards, examiners are looking for structural understanding as well as a convincing interpretation.
  5. Before starting the sight reading tests, it’s a good idea to ask yourself a few key questions; in what key is the extract? how fast should it be played? what fingering will I use? Perhaps try out some passages too (this is always encouraged by the ABRSM).
  6. Aural tests need plenty of practice before the exam so don’t leave it until the week before. Some candidates are shy about aspects of aural particularly singing, so it may be a good idea to have aural lessons in a group. You could even join a choir to practice your singing and pitching skills.
  7. One particularly useful habit all candidates should develop is the practice of playing for friends, relatives, or teachers regularly. This cannot be stressed enough. I insist on students playing their entire exam programme through (including scales) at least 2 or 3 times. It really doesn’t matter who listens or how you play, you will gain confidence from the experience which will help when you are faced with a stressful situation like a piano exam. It is so important to learn how to deal with nerves and having ‘practice runs’ will help you do this.
  8. Remember the exam is only a snapshot of your playing on a particular day so try not to be too upset or disappointed if it doesn’t go as well as you planned.
  9. Always remember that examiners are nice, friendly people who really want their candidates to achieve good marks.

Follow these rules and you will be well on the way to achieving a distinction. Good luck!!

Further resources:

Why take a music exam?

Magnus playing Vampire Blues by Kevin Wooding (ABRSM Grade 1 piano List C):

http://soundcloud.com/cross-eyedpianist/magnus-vampire-blues

Melanie Spanswick is a concert pianist and writer. More on Melanie at her blog ClassicalMel.