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Exams and how to manage them

Pressurising performances come along in our musical lives at various points, whether in the form of exams, assessed recitals, auditions, competitions or something else.  This is the time of year, in the UK at least, when many students have exams looming. I have to admit that I don’t like exams and don’t particuarly like teaching students preparing for them, but I

Unfriendly examiners

understand their relevance. Given that we live in a society that still prizes them, it’s as well to consider how to manage the various pitfalls exams throw up, for students in particular as well as for the teachers supporting those students.

What to watch out for when preparing for exams

Seeing an exam as the goal for it’s own sake. This adds pressure to an already pressurising situation. The need to get a certain result on a certain day can result in performance anxiety in the exam itself and general anxiety, dread and fear in advance. And if you can find a way to see the mark you will get afterwards, as something almost irrelevant to the performance, it can help enormously.

Cartoon of Mount Pressure

Seeing an exam as a bar that needs to be reached This equally adds to the pressure. One way of dealing with this is to take an exam when it is well within your capability so that it feels more comfortable. If this isn’t an option, make sure you have thought it all through well in advance of the exam itself.


Losing confidence. It’s so easy to lose confidence if you feel there’s too much to do and too little time to do it in, or if the music is too hard. This can lead to all sorts of anxieties such as a fear you won’t do well, unrealistic expectations you need to live up to, or you might even panic about pulling out if you can’t manage the preparation required.


Keeping the pieces fresh. This is such a fine balance to find and can take time to learn. It’s important to have a long time to prepare so that you know the music very well, but without care and attention, that can easily turn and the pieces can become stale. One way of keeping pieces fresh is to learn different music at the same time, or get the exam repertoire polished early and then put it on hold for a while - although coming back to pieces already learned has its own challenges.

Reframing exam preparation:

Motivation comes from love of the learning process. Ideally, exams need to sit within a whole structure of musical learning, where motivation comes from the love of learning and the love of music. Can you be curious and fascinated when you’re preparing scales, studies and excerpts for example? Can you find what is nourishing and rewarding in exploring the music and the composers and can you express and share that through your performance?

The exam as a snap shot in time. Can you see the exam as a snap shot in time rather than an end in itself? Can you see it as another peak in a rich journey of discovering about music?


See the examiners as musicians who love music. One of the most stressful parts of taking an exam is feeling that the examiner is there to judge. They have to critique the performance of course, but can you see the examiner as just another musician, a musician who loves music so much that they want to nurture the next generation? This can help so much in terms of reducing pressure and the nerves that come with that pressure.

Cartoon of Lake Love-it

Loving the music and the performance. Ultimately the best way of seeing an exam is as another way of expressing and performing the music you love. When you’re in that space, you have a far better chance of reducing your nerves, enjoying the whole experience and performing well.



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