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Perfect Preparation: Piano Exams & Performances

The season for exams is coming up and, as always, proper preparation is vital. To help with piano performance and exam, here are some really useful tips from our guest writer Fiona Lau.
It’s that time of year again. Amidst all the usual end of term stuff there are grade exams to be prepared for. To give your pupils the best chance and to ease their nerves, there needs to be a pathway leading to the exam. My pupils have their piano exams in 2 weeks and so we have been learning the pieces but also preparing for performance and for the exam.
Preparing for performance includes these steps and helps combat anxiety:

  • Playing the piece to me in the lesson all the way through without stopping, apologising or moaning.
  • Playing the piece to the next pupil or to a family member who stops what they are doing to listen and then claps at the end.
  • Performing the piece to a small supportive group- non piano playing friends, foundation year children or a passing teacher.
  • Performing the piece in a competition, concert or assembly and receiving applause- this is a good memory to take into an exam.
  • Playing the piece on as many different pianos as possible; they are all different and pianists need to know how to adapt to them.
  • We also practise the etiquette and practice of performance i.e. walking on, adjusting the stool, putting out music, and bowing at the end (bow, say “what’s that on my shoe” in your head, and up).

Preparing for the exam incorporates some of these ideas but has to take account of the examiner, other components besides pieces, and the thought that there is a mark and a pass or fail.  In addition to general performance preparation my pupils and I do the following:

  • A mock exam a few weeks before the actual exam where I mark their exam according to the board’s criteria and then review it with them and give them a “now do” list to improve their mark.

I also have a countdown leading up to the exam with ideas taken from Harris’ Improve Your Practice!

  • I write a card to each pupil to be read in the waiting room which includes: smile, relax, enjoy, don’t forget the dynamics- type instructions.
  • A rehearsal of the entire exam including sitting in the waiting room and what to do there, the steward collecting them, walking into the exam room (and a description of what it and the piano is like), greeting the examiner, sitting down, what to play to try out the piano, playing, the aural tests, and walking out). Rehearsal takes away some fear of the unknown.

With performances and exams it is vital to have a post-performance discussion: How did you think it went? What did you enjoy? What didn’t go so well? How did you feel? This helps you to work out what, if any, feelings of anxiety your pupils experience, and how you can help them. An excellent book on this is Keeping Your Nerve! by Kate Jones.
Happy performing!
By Fiona Lau, Music Teacher and Education Consultant

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