Preparing for Music Exams and Performances
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Music theory hints and tips

Here are a few hints and tips on things you can do to help prepare for a performance or exam. I will not focus on any specific thing, as the exact requirements vary from board to board (ABRSM, Trinity etc.). But this advice is relevant to any performance, whether concert or examination. There are the usual obvious things, such as good consistent practice and ensuring you know all your scales etc. However, here I am concerned with techniques to help keep you calm and ensure that you perform to the best of your ability.


Nerves are the biggest problem we have to contend with when performing. It is perfectly natural, and everyone gets nervous, but there are ways to cope with nerves so that they do not impact on your playing.

It is very helpful to be aware of what being nervous will do to you, physically. When we are nervous our system releases extra adrenalin, so our heart rate increases, we may sweat, feel shakey, and so feel tense. Because of this extra adrenalin, we sense time differently than we would do normally, so everything seems to take longer. In exams, this usually means that we rush and try to play things at a tempo we are not used to. It is important to be aware of this, and to consciously slow yourself down so you play at the tempo you’ve been practising at. A few deep and slow breaths before you start will help to calm you down, and also helps you focus on what you are doing.

In an exam or performance we want to get things over and done with as fast as possible. In exams, this often means we don’t listen to instructions properly and rush into what we are doing. For example, we may play a major scale rather than a minor etc. Before you do anything take 2 or 3 breaths to think about it before you start. Although it may feel like a long time to you, sitting the exam, it really isn’t.

In the same way, when performing a piece, stop for a brief pause before you start and think through the first couple of bars of the piece to ensure you are focused on what you are playing and that you have the tempo firmly set in your head.

Waiting to perform:

One of the worst bits before an exam or performance is waiting for it to start. Try not to over worry, and don’t think too much about what you are about to do. I would not suggest playing through your actual pieces too often just before performing, as this can make you panic about any tricky bits and actually often cause mistakes. Instead, play through some scales or other easy pieces (maybe from a previous grade) simply to keep your fingers, instrument, etc. warmed up and to help you relax. Make sure you do not over practice, particularly if you are a wind or brass player, as you do not want to go into a performance with tired lips.

If you have to wait somewhere where you are unable to play, try to have a friend with you who can stop you from panicking.

Ask questions:

If you are asked something in an exam that you don’t understand, then ask for clarification. Examiners are very helpful, they do reaslise most people will be nervous, and they will not penalise you for misunderstanding or mishearing. This is particularly important for younger children, who may get flustered in exams and forget what it is they are supposed to do at each stage and are nervous about asking a stranger questions.


Smiling makes you feel happier, relaxes you and also helps embouchure on wind instruments. Audiences and examiners do not enjoy performances if they think that the performer is miserable. If you are enjoying playing then the audience/examiner will enjoy listening.

Some performance tips:

  • Start clearly, confidently and positively – it is better to start too loud than to fade in gradually over the first few bars.
  • Keep going – if something goes wrong then keep going. You can get away with a few wrong notes, but if you stop it is obvious you have gone wrong.
  • Don’t wince! – Often the only reason an audience know that you have made a mistake is the look on your face. Remember, the audience don’t have the music in front of them and they will only know you have made a mistake if you tell them – grimacing or pulling a face will definitely let them know, not to mention it looking unprofessional.
  • The ending – don’t cut the last note short, and remember the piece is not over until all sound has stopped. On the piano, do not hold notes on the pedal whilst you look around the room. Keep your hands on the keys, and release the keys and pedal together. If you are being accompanied, then the piece does not stop until the accompaniment does.
  • Pay attention – every moment you are visible to an audience you are performing if you have 4 bars rest do not spend them looking around the room and scratching your head because people will notice.
  • Enjoy yourself – as mentioned above, if you are having fun the audience will be, too.

Recap: the two most important things are:

  1. Don’t rush! As I said above, most mistakes occur in performances because people try to do things too fast. Slow and right is always going to be better than fast and wrong.

  2. If it goes wrong, it is not the end of the world. You would be amazed the mistakes that go unnoticed by an audience, and you can always resit any exam. Even the greatest of musicians have had bad performances. Try not to get upset and just think ahead to next time and learn from your mistakes.

Good Luck!

02. February 2010 · Comments Off on Preparing for Music Exams and Performances

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