I have some students taking their diploma exams very shortly, so I thought it would be timely to put together a few thoughts on how best to prepare yourself for such an examination as the deadline approaches. Here they are, in no particular order (I will not go into the choice of programme and repertoire, etc., since you will have long since finalised that). The following advice applies to any imminent performance.
Aim to be completely ready three weeks before the date, don’t leave any note learning to the last minute and do not engage in panic practising as this will make matters worse! In the final three weeks, you need to be able to feel prepared, relatively stress-free and hopefully you can look forward to your exam. Now is the time to make sure you look after yourself with healthy eating, getting enough sleep, exercise, yoga and massage (or whatever you prefer to do for body, mind and spirit), and balancing practice time with other day-to-day activities. The bulk of your work is already done so do not over-practise.
You will basically need five types of practice:
- Performing your programme in glorious technicolour – for yourself and/or for others (see below). Record this occasionally, this will be excellent (if somewhat uncomfortable) feedback.
- Running through your programme lightly (we do this with an air of emotional detachment, mezza voce, slightly under tempo, the louder dynamics suggested).
- Spot practice (going over those places that did not withstand the pressures of the previous performance or play-through).
- Maintenance practice to keep everything in tip-top shape (routine spit and polish using practice tools such as The Three S’s).
- Silent practice away from the piano, reflecting on the score. (Do you really know where that crescendo begins? Have you perhaps forgotten about the sforzandos there?)
Since I have written about this before, please refer to my post Tackling a Programme.
Presenting Your Programme
Until you have repeatedly played through your programme in its entirety, you will never know how it feels to do this and it will feel foreign when you get to your exam. Stopping and correcting every mistake, every turn of phrase we are not happy with is something we do during our practice, but just before the final countdown we also need to practise a performance. Playing our Rachmaninov after our Bach, Mozart and Schumann feels very different from playing it by itself in isolation – not only does this involve a stylistic change of gear but also the element of stamina. I would even suggest we practise occasionally playing through our programme twice in a row, the second time lightly. Don’t do this the week of your exam, however, but two or three weeks before. This is marvellous for stamina and endurance, and it effectively shrinks the programme into something that will feel short and well within our grasp when we play it just the once. The golden rule here – stop for absolutely nothing. You must let your mistakes go by, not allowing them to affect you. Play your programme through regularly for yourself, and alternate this with spot practice. You might do a playthrough one day, then practise what didn’t quite go according to plan the day after. Play also for others, and (most important) play on as many different pianos in as many different venues as possible. This will help you acclimatise to new situations and adapt quickly to unfamiliar instruments.
Fingering, and Other Performance Decisions
Know when to leave things be. It is not a good idea to start changing fingerings, pedallings or to tamper with major interpretative decisions (such as tempos, character, etc.) in the run-up to the exam. Resist listening to other players’ recordings, and be content with what you’ve got there.
Attitude and Positive Self-Talk
If you have done everything within your powers to prepare for your exam or recital, you need to turn round any lingering negative thoughts such as “I’m not prepared”, “I always mess it up there” or “I’m worried I’m not up to the standard” and replace them with positives, such as “I have prepared my programme to the best of my ability”, “I deserve to play well”, “I am playing confidently and communicating my musical ideas clearly”. If it helps, you can write out these positive statements on a sheet of paper or say them out loud. Some people mutter them under their breath while running or exercising. Repeat them regularly until you believe them! (For more on using affirmations, click here.)
If you are playing any of your pieces with the score, you will need to make a decision whether or not you turn your own pages. If you are going to use a page turner, make sure you have arranged this well ahead and rehearsed your programme with them if at all possible. This may seem unnecessary but having your pages turned can be an unfamiliar experience. Not only might you never have played through your pieces without stopping or faltering over the more awkward turns, but if your turner does not do the job to your liking it can be an unnerving experience. Tell your turner how far away from you you would like them to sit, when and how you like your pages turned and politely request they don’t eat garlic bagels beforehand. Peter Donohoe has written an excellent article on page turning and I would advise you to read it.
Some people do not like anyone else in their space when they are performing and prefer to manage their own page turns. In a sonata or extended piece some turns may be tricky and photocopying certain pages and organising them on the piano desk may be necessary. I strongly advise you to make any photocopies you need well in advance so you can practise your programme in its entirety turning the pages where you have decided to turn them (this may not always be when you get to the bottom of the page), or using a combination of score and photocopies spread out. Please bear one thing in mind – if you have music spread out along the length of the desk what you see from your peripheral vision alters and this can be very disconcerting if you have not practised it. Your head will be facing in a different position and this affects your whole kinaesthetic sense – much more than you might imagine.
Decide what you are going to wear (smart is best) and play your programme through at least once “in costume” a day or two before. There was a time I was playing a piece that involved a lot of hand crossing and the cuffs on my dress shirt were not appropriate and got in my way. Had I taken my own advice, I would have circumvented the problem.
For a personal take on what to do on the day of a diploma, as well as much other very useful advice, Frances Wilson (The Cross-Eyed Pianist) has written a most helpful blog post on her own experiences of taking a diploma.
Oh, and good luck!
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In Part 3 of my ebook series, I explore scale and arpeggio playing in depth. Included are many ideas for practising, as well as rhythm charts, practice charts, other interactive features and video demonstrations.
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As part of my research for Part 4 (on performance), I have devised a short (very short, actually) survey – Performance Anxiety among Pianists, the results of which I will collate and include in the publication. I would be most grateful if you would take two or three minutes to complete the survey. It really is very brief, and you will be completely anonymous. Whether you are a professional pianist, a piano student or play for your own pleasure your opinion and comments count.
Let me thank you very much indeed in advance for your time and input!
Take the survey