As part of the Booths Music series of useful lesson and exam tips for musicians, here is a handy guide to help with your assessment preparation. Whether it’s for ABRSM, Rockschool, Trinity, LCM or indeed any other exam board, these exam tips could make that extra difference in your final mark.
Exam Tips #1
Play your pieces for any person willing to listen
Whether this is your first exam or you’re doing your grade 8, performing in front of a complete stranger in an exam situation is nerve-wracking. So on the run up to your exam, ask a friend or family member to listen to you play your pieces, and treat it like a proper performance. This is beneficial in a number of ways. Firstly, if you’re not used to playing under pressure, this is a safe environment to try it for the first time. Resist urges to laugh or exclaim when you make mistakes, don’t re-start pieces and no matter what happens, keep going!! If you’re more used to playing in front of people, try and create more pressurised situations. Play in front of larger groups of people or people you don’t know quite as well. If no one is about to listen to you, use your phone or any other device that can record, and record yourself in one take. This will put the pressure on to do it right first time. You can also then listen to yourself back and critique your own performance. Simply put, if you are ever offered the opportunity to do a mock exam, take it! Whether feedback is offered or not, this will give invaluable performance confidence.
Exam Tips #2
Make yourself comfortable in uncomfortable situations
Exam situations have both physical and mental effects on us. Learning to recognise and manage them means you can be more in control of your exam. The trick is to simulate situations before you do your exam so that you are prepared for what your body and brain are going to put you through. Nerves will affect everyone differently, but certain symptoms are more popular than others. An increased heart rate and faster breathing is completely normal. For wind instrumentalists in particular this is likely to be the thing that affects you the most as breath control is what you’re relying on! To tackle this, while you’re practising at home, run up and down the stairs or jog on the spot very quickly for a short time or until you’ve got your heart rate noticeably up and your breathing is increased, and then try and play. You can then scribble different/ extra breath marks on your music that you can use just in case, and try different ways of getting your breathing back to normal that you can then do before you go into the exam room.
Other things to try are:
* Playing on unfamiliar instruments or in a different room to where you usually practise to experience the unfamiliarity feeling you’ll get.
* Warm up your hands until they’re clammy and sweaty, then play (this is one of the other common things likely to happen to you).
* Make a large mistake early on a piece (this can be easily replicated by playing with your eyes shut until you make a mistake), and practise keeping going no matter what.
* Do your pieces without the music. You’ll find the bits you don’t know as well and the parts that are likely to go wrong. You can mark on the places you need to look up at the music so your eye knows where on the page to go to.
Most importantly, find a way to help relax yourself or provide yourself with enough back-up options and experience to know that you can still get through your pieces even in uncomfortable situations.
Exam Tips #3
Expect the unexpected
Anything can happen in exams, from small distractions to instruments falling apart mid-piece, it’s all been done before. If you’re not good at focusing and you get distracted easily, this is the fun bit to practise. Find a willing volunteer (I have found siblings usually enjoy this…) and get them to do whatever they can to try and put you off (within reason), without physically taking the instrument off you. Clear and obvious things like dancing around the room or pulling funny faces to make you laugh.
One-off and unpredictable things like making an unexpected bang somewhere in the middle of your piece. Extremely unhelpful things like knocking the music off your stand or blowing at it like there’s a breeze. You have to assume that anything that can happen, will happen, and learn what you can do when it does. If nothing else, it should help you feel more prepared for your exam in general and give you a confidence boost.
Exam Tips #4
Don’t dwell on your mistakes
For you, any slight mishap will seem a lot worse than it probably is, as good performers are usually their own worst critic. But these can often earn you extra brownie points depending on how you deal with them. You will lose more points by going back to re-play a mistake, even if you play it right the second time. So if you’ve hit a wrong note, or something hasn’t sounded how it should, just keep going. Keeping time and rhythms and picking it back up to keep going is the best way you can deal with a mistake. Also, once you’ve got back into it, don’t worry about what you just did. Keep focussed on what is coming up and don’t lose concentration. You can reflect on your performances after the exam.
Exam Tips #5
There is no substitute for hard work
Your parents and teachers are of course there to help and support you, but they can’t learn the instrument for you. Music is one of those disciplines that you get out what you put in and it is never more clear than in exams. Those who put in the hours of practise and work for it get the results and there is no prouder feeling than knowing that you played to the best of your ability. Enjoy your chance to shine, show off what you can do and be proud of what you have achieved.
We hope you have found our guide on exam tips for musicians helpful! Look out for more lesson and exam tips.