Exams can be a stressful, high pressure situation for the student. It can be difficult to know how exactly to prepare for a piano exam, what the student should do and what the teacher should do.
The trick to exams really is all in the time leading up to it. If you follow the steps below you can arrive on the day feeling prepared and confident.
Keep practice steady
Use all the time you have available! Cramming for an exam simply does not work, it will only leave you stressed out and overly nervous on the day.
A little every day is always a better strategy. Set yourself achievable goals every time you sit down, such as being able to play the A major scale three times in a row successfully.
Split your pieces up into sections when you’re in the note learning stage. It’s much more efficient to learning 6 bars a day, than to play the whole piece every day, as you simply can’t take in all the information when everything is new.
If you think you’ll be tempted to play through the whole thing, try blocking off the other sections with post-its so you can really focus on getting the bit your working on right.
The more you have “practiced performing” the more confident you’ll feel on the day. Put yourself in situations that make you nervous.
These should build up gradually, starting with full test-flights with your teacher, then maybe just for a close friend or relative, then start arranging to have an mini-concerts with an audience, invite anyone who will come!
I always dedicate a few lessons along the way to what I call mock exams. We do a full run through, including scales, pieces, aural and theory. I don’t help or comment along the way and try to act just as an examiner will.
At the end we go back and look at what we need to improve on, and what went well. I usually also video/audio record the mock exam so that students can look back and see for themselves what needs work.
Make a plan
Use a calendar (or make your own like the one below) to mark out the time between when you will start preparing (probably between 3-6 months before) and you’re exam date.
If your exam could be any time in a given period, as ours are, assume it will be the first day it could be. You don’t want to be caught out!
Mark in goals along the way, starting from the exam date and working backwards. You should be ready at least 2 weeks before so that you have time to relax and be reassured that you are prepared. Spend the last 2 weeks playing through your pieces slowly, with some run throughs and full tempo.
On the exam day
If you’ve done everything to prepare for a piano exam you should feel confident on the day.
A little bit of nerves is perfectly normal, but just try to relax as best as you can. Your examiner is not there to trip you up. They really do want you to succeed.
I advise against playing too much on the day, and definitely not a full performance. Perhaps play some scales and warm-ups, and if you really feel the need to play your pieces, play them only very slowly. I know from experience that if I play through my pieces on the day and something goes wrong, it makes the nerves so much worse!
Try to arrive at the exam centre in good time so you can go to the loo and aren’t rushed straight into the exam room. Don’t be too early though as you don’t want to be sitting around getting more and more nervous! About 10-15 minutes is perfect.
When you go into the exam, sit down, check your bench height and adjust it to suit you. Take your time and try to relax! It’ll be over in a flash and you’ll soon be wondering what there was to worry about!
What about preparing for theory exams?
My students use my own Thinking Theory workbooks to prepare for written examinations. These books get you thoroughly ready for theory, including a practice test so you can be sure it has all soaked in.