Every year, thousands of children, adults and piano learners go through music exams to help them excel their piano studies. No matter which board you use to take your exams, be it: ABRSM, Trinity, Rockschool or any of the many others out there, it is not uncommon for many students to often feel stressed in the build up to their exams.
Perhaps this is something you have seen in yourself or your child? That is why today we want to help you tackle music exam stress and guide you through how, with a shift in approach and just a little hard work, you can actually help make your next music exam a fun and enjoyable experience that you’ll look back on with fond memories!
Before we do jump in, it is worth noting that for almost any piano music exam, almost all of these exams are typically performed on either an acoustic upright or grand piano. As such, if you or your child are only practising their piano playing on an digital piano or keyboard, we would highly recommend either considering purchasing an acoustic instrument, or speaking with your teacher to ensure that they get adequate practice time on a real acoustic instrument so they can get used to the touch.
Why Do We Get Stressed About Exams?
Throughout our school lives, many of us will have often found exams stressful, perhaps it is the fear of the unknown and also the fear of looking silly in front of others, everyone’s reasons for feeling stressed before an exam are unique and personal. That is why the absolute first step to helping deal with exam stress is to acknowledge the stress and remember that it is okay to feel stressed or anxious. We have written about this in our guide to overcoming the fear of performing in front of others, but a great tip to firstly help reduce your exam stress is to set yourself some perspective.
Remember, that the examiner is only there because they WANT to see you pass! There is often a misconception that examiners are there to be harsh or critical, when in reality, they are only there to help you improve your playing and ultimately succeed. Almost all of these examiners will have done these exams themselves or have seen thousands of other students come through them over the years. As such, remember that they will be empathetic of performance nerves and any worries that you may have…but most importantly, remember that they are just normal people like you, who ultimately just have a passion for piano playing and music!
Secondly, remember that in the grand scale of things, with the exception of those perhaps applying for conservatoires or competitive levels of performance, most music exams are not going to entirely change your life. Whilst they are a fantastic qualification and skill to have, they can always be retaken and 9 times out of 10 are not worth stressing over too much.
Know Your Material
Now that you’ve realised that your exam isn’t as big a deal as you perhaps first thought, one of the easiest ways to also overcome exam stress is to simply know your material so you are prepared for anything the examiner might throw your way. We often underestimate the importance of regular practice, but it is the only way to be fully sure in your abilities to perform on demand. If you are struggling to find the time to practise, or helping your child practice, read our guide to finding the time here.
Almost every exam board will have published their exam criteria and structure, so you can be sure you are learning the right material. If you are well prepared with what questions and pieces may come up, you’ll save yourself a lot of stress in the long run.
This does not mean cramming in as much material as possible the night before, but putting together a practice structure a few months before the exam and learning a little every night or during your weekly practice. There are tonnes of exercises that you can do here to help you memorise exam material, from simply practising with your teacher to creating flashcards and post it notes of key information to remember.
Speaking of practice, it is important to remember that when you are practising, to factor in time for your exam revision and theory. As fun as playing your favourite pieces is, if that is taking up 90% of your practice time, you may want to look at creating some further structure to yours or your child’s practice time. If you are struggling to perhaps structure your practice to contain everything you need to learn for your exams, read our guide here.
Depending on which grade you are taking, it is also worth knowing your marking criteria to see exactly what the examiners are looking for: Read our guides to the ABRSM exam series here.
Write Down Your Worries
Another fantastic tip that we have for exam stress relief (and general anxiety in general) is to write down exactly what is worrying you and why. This is something that can be done as part of your practice diary.
We have often found that writing down your fears and worries helps put them into context and helps you realise that they are easily scalable and can be overcome. Doing this will help you set little goals to achieve each week when you next sit down at your piano. For example, if you are struggling with a particular passage within a piece, then write down a small goal to master that particular part during your next practice session. When you next practice, you then have a clear, achievable goal for your session, for example you can begin by trying to learn the passage at half speed, or mastering the right hand movements. Once you have accomplished this, move onto another goal that will help you pass the exam.
Keeping Children Engaged
Of course, the first part of this article has been primarily focused on adult and teenage learning and having the discipline to sit down, revise and practice until you know your material. When it comes to children learning however, there can be some added challenges when it comes to practising for an exam, the main one being both focus and enjoyment when it comes to exams.
For those with younger learners, the same tips above do still apply, but ultimately it comes down to reassuring the child that this is a fun process and not to put pressure on them when it comes to the exam.
We have written about this extensively in our guides to help encourage children to play the piano, but the number one tip to keeping children engaged is to try gamifying their practice. By creating various games and combinations that will make learning fun and easy to remember, you have a far better chance at reducing their stress on the day of the exam and making sure they are well prepared.
There are a number of games and activities you can do to try this, for example read our guide to making scales and arpeggios more fun here, or if you are trying to prepare for an exam during a school holiday, read our guide to making practice fun during the holidays here.
If you are feeling like your child/teenager is struggling with coping with the stress of exams, here is another helpful guide for the 4 main signs to keep and eye out for and how you can communicate with them to help overcome the stress and burnout.
Talk To Your Piano Teacher
The single best piece of advice we can give when it comes to concerns around music exams is to speak with your piano teacher. If you are learning with a teacher who you trust, they will be able to help support you or your child to find the right method of learning and preparation for the exam. Again, remember that they WANT to see you pass, almost all teachers take pride in having high pass rates for their students, so of course they will be willing to help you.
What is also especially important here is that if you are not learning with a teacher but are struggling, it may be worth finding one. Alternatively, if you feel that your piano teacher is the one who is causing some of the stress of the exam for your child, then talk to them about it. If this persists it may be worth trying to find a new one with a different approach.
So there you have it, a quick guide to helping you overcome exam stress. We hope you have found this article helpful and have put your mind at ease. If you are struggling with your piano performance, then it may also be worth considering upgrading your instrument, read our guide to signs your piano may be holding you back here.