Q&A: Exam Preparation – Practising the Piano

A reader sent in the following question, to which I hope I have given an adequate response. Please feel free to leave comments and let’s start a discussion on the subject!

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One subject I have always had conflicting feelings about is the preparation before an exam or performance – how do you handle the last week before the performance? The last morning before the performance? Do kids play ALL of their repertoire, or just the challenging parts? Or just warm up all morning with scales? It seems to be something that is an individual thing, but it is not something I can speak with much confidence about to my students.

Thank you very much for the question, which I feel is an extremely good one. You are quite right when you say this is an individual thing, since no two people are alike. Therefore, I would not want to give a one-size-fits-all formula, but I think there is some general advice I can offer.

From my experience, I believe we should all aim to be fully ready two to three weeks before the exam or concert, with everything. Last-minute panic learning is, for most of us, disastrous but then again there are those who seem to thrive on the adrenaline! I gave some of my best playing when I had to stand in for a colleague at very short notice, probably because I didn’t have time to get nervous, or maybe if things didn’t go according to plan I would have a very good reason. This only goes to show that, assuming we know what we are doing and have put in the work at some stage, a lot of this is psychological. But as a general principle, we should be able to give a finished, polished performance two or three weeks before the date.

Just before the two to three week mark, it is necessary to play daily run-throughs of the complete programme for ourself. The pieces need to be in the order we will play them, and there can be absolutely no stopping for corrections, or to take a break. This is an integral part of the daily practising at that stage, and I call this training regimen “practising a performance” (I have written about this in detail in a previous post, To Stop Or Not To Stop?). Briefly, we play through the entire programme, take a break and go back and practise spots (the areas that let us down) before repeating the same process the next day, and every day for a week (give or take). Thereafter, in the couple of weeks that remain, we can ease off very slightly in our practising, safe in the knowledge that we can run the course and are comfortable with our programme. At this juncture, I recommend a mix of playing through with careful work: I am a great believer in continued slow practice, also hands separately. We also need to have played our programme two or three times in front of someone (a teacher, a trusted friend or colleague, family, etc.) and/or a small group. This is a totally different experience from playing for ourselves.

I have spoken with many colleagues over the years about how we each  handle concert days, and there is just one thing that stands out as universal, that we touch the instrument at some stage during the day! Some players like to go through their entire programme, but this is usually slowly and somewhat devoid of the full emotional involvement. Perhaps this is a bit like humming under one’s breath rather than singing out full-voiced, because we do need to save ourselves for the audience or for the examiner. I will usually play my entire programme through well under tempo like this in the morning, take a short walk in the early afternoon then sit around doing nothing much. I prefer not to take a nap in the afternoon because I find this alters my biorhythms, but again this SO much depends on the person. I avoid caffeine and sugar on the day, and I eat very lightly, slow release carbs are supposed to be good but I’m no expert on diet.

For the average kid who is taking an exam, I think the most important thing is not to make a big issue of it, let them go into their exam with a sense of enjoyment and an air of lightness. We’ve probably all learned from our mistakes, so they have to go through this too. It is all too easy for us teachers to pass our neuroses on to our students, so I make sure to prepare them extremely thoroughly and allow them to take the exam day in their stride. If they are prepared and have done the work, they have surely earned the right to trust this and to let go and enjoy playing – to present themselves proudly.

For more advanced students, I advise against too much playing on the actual day, and I think warming up in the green room with the programme you are just about to play can be very dangerous! I recall a time when I was going through Beethoven’s C minor concerto in the green room and had a moment of doubt about a passage I knew backwards. I went to the score and checked it, only to have the same doubt on the stage. There are plenty of occasions when there is no piano in the dressing room, and in some ways I prefer it like that.