It is that time of year again when lots of people are busy preparing for exams or recitals across the country, either for the ABRSM, Trinity or for their GCSE or A Level courses. Preparing for an exam or recital can feel quite different to getting ready for a normal performance. After all, for most recitals or exams your audience may consist of only a few people – one of which could be the examiner! This can bring about a whole host of feelings, concerns or insecurities that can be quite unfamiliar…
What things should be considered when preparing?
Ideally, there shouldn’t really be anything different in terms of preparation for a recital, exam or traditional performance with an audience. There are a number of constant things that will always be necessary irrespective of the event or occasion. These include:
- Know the notes
- Master the required techniques for the music
- Understand what you wish to communicate
The importance of thorough preparation can not be underestimated. Know the music, feel confident with it in practice and know that you can play it. This will pay dividends in a performance situation and will allow you to focus on what really matters – actually performing the music.
However, when you get in the exam room and you stand in front of the examiner with the accompanist ready, things may well start to change. You may notice that your breathing becomes a little shallow, your hands feel a little sweaty or can start to shake, you get a dry mouth or have butterflies in the stomach. Nerves, when they start to kick in, can have a really positive impact on your performance or it can make things start to go a little awry! So the question is, what should you do when you start to feel nervous?
Dealing with Nerves
The real preparation for an exam should start well before the exam. Prepare by learning what the procedure for the exam or recital will be. Where will you need to go, what time should you be there to warm up, what order will you play the pieces in and become confident with the different elements that relate to your exam. Being familiar with these details will allow you to have less concerns or worries on the day. This can give a real sense of calm and will allow you to feel much more in control of what is happening.
Visualise success a couple of weeks prior to the exam. This is something that you can build into your practice routines. Just by simply thinking about the exam going well and being successful you can give yourself a real sense of self belief. This is a technique that I have used on a number of occasions and it can be incredibly powerful. Remember that what the mind thinks about will grow. Try to visualise the exam in real detail – what colour is the piano, the colour of the carpet or wood floor and walls, the distance between you and the examiner. Also try to visualise you playing all of your scales with confidence and answering all of the listening and aural questions with ease.
Remember that the examiner and any audience members are on your side and want you to succeed. The ABRSM has done fantastic work with examiner training and all of the examiners that I have ever met have always been extremely friendly and supportive. If you are completing a recital for A Level or GCSE you know that the people there will want you to do well and the biggest worry will then shift to the recording device. Often known as red light fever (increased nerves when you know you are being recorded) this can be quite debilitating. This is where visualisation can be really useful! Remember that any performance that you do will never be completely perfect and that it is important to be prepared to work around any issues as and when they occur. Despite the well known saying, practice does not make perfect – practice makes better! If you are giving a perfect performance this will mean that there is nothing left to do and this is something that could prove to be more of a negative thing than a positive thing.
If it all falls apart in the exam, it is never a problem to just stop and ask the examiner if you may start again. At this point in time it is crucial to take your time, breathe and focus on what you are about to do rather than what you have just done. Music exists in time and space and it is not possible to go back and fix it!
Feeling nervous is a really good sign. The feeling of nerves lets you know that you still care about what you are doing and that it matters to you. The most important thing to do when the nerves begin is to shift your perspective. It is often portrayed as a bad thing to have nerves, but actually nerves can provide an excitement or buzz. This excitement can lead to a fantastic performance that has a sense of panache and flair. The way that you can make the difference between nervousness or excitement is by shifting your perspective and the way in which you think about what you are doing.
Always smile – this is a really important thing. It will help when you have to do the singing part of the exam as a smile can help you to make a better sound. Remember to breathe! This is important before you start to play as well as when you are playing in the exam. Taking slow, deep breaths before you start may help to relax you and give the opportunity to focus on what you are about to do. Think about doing some breathing exercises before the exam as this will give you the chance to relax and slow your breathing down.
As with any skill or activity, things get easier the more times that you try them. Practice your recital in front of family or friends. Aim to do a couple of practice runs as this can help you to understand how you react when you are put under a little bit of pressure. Knowing this in advance gives you the opportunity to prepare fully and know what could go wrong before it really matters!
When you are playing remember to focus on the reason that you are really there – the music! You have put in all of the hard work in advance and you deserve to do well. Focus on what you want to say with the music, forget about trying to provide a perfect rendition and think about providing the best musical performance possible. It is much better to listen to a musical, thoughtful performance than it is to listen to a dry or lifeless ‘note-perfect’ rendition.
Get a really good night’s sleep and remember to enjoy yourself!