Preparing for your piano exam

With the holiday period fast approaching many students will soon be taking music exams. Preparing for a music exam is so important and by ‘preparing’, I am not referring to the amount of practice required to pass exams. This goes without saying and is expected of all candidates; a considerable amount of practice is needed to achieve satisfactory marks. Once you have prepared thoroughly for your exam the real ‘practice’ begins; performance practice.

It is too easy to go to your lessons every week and play your pieces and scales plus aural and sight reading, and think that you are now really ready for your exam. The problem with this is that you will turn up for the exam totally unprepared for the (often) huge inconvenience called nerves or performance anxiety. If you have never suffered from nerves or ‘stage fright’ before then this can come as quite a shock. You may be a super-confident player who is largely unaffected by these feelings but the overwhelming majority of candidates experience some of the following: heart palpitations, sweaty hands, memory muddle/loss or (my favourite) trembling legs and feet – exacerbated by high heels!

Don’t worry, this is all completely normal and there are many ways of dealing with these feelings. Your teacher may be instrumental in helping you deal with nerves however, you still may need to practice performing in addition to your lessons.

The main issue to deal with when experiencing any kind of performance related stress is to learn how to control your mind. Once you have achieved this you will be able to focus fully on the music you are playing and not on what your audience is thinking.

Here are a few brief tips:

1. Thorough preparation is essential as I have mentioned above; it helps counteract the self doubt that so often creeps into the mind especially when ever higher standards are expected.

2. Try to have a realistic approach to your performance. Perfectionist attitudes don’t really help. At the end of the day you just have to be satisfied with doing your best.

3. Pay attention to your posture and make sure your breathing is helping you stay calm and relaxed. Some find it helpful to do breath control exercises such as Alexander or Dalcroze techniques.

4. Acknowledgement of problems and the determination to perform, in spite of these, appears to be paramount. Learning to perform well inspite of trembling hands for example.

5. I find positive imagery to be most helpful. Thinking of images that project musical and technical skills and competence in a positive way can often tame the ‘negative voice’. The ‘I can’ mantra can help overcome all kinds of self doubt.

If you can implement some of the ideas and suggestions above then you will be well on your way to a distinction in your forthcoming exam. Don’t think you can achieve such a high mark? Yes, you can! Good luck.


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Totally agree with you, this article is really interesting and useful! I also got a blogpost about the same subject, focused on how to deal with nerves on stage:
    Nice to meet you here!

    1. Hi Justine, Great to meet you too – I will have a look at your blog. This is a fascinating topic 🙂

  2. AshKane says:

    Hey there , a very helpful examination article written by you ! Have a question, as a concert pianist if u were to perform a 10 minute piano piece for instance. Are there any strategies u use to prepare for it ? Both mentally and practically perfect.

    1. Hi! Lovely to connect with you. Glad you liked my article. Yes there are many strategies that pianists employ when preparing pieces. It’s all practice related really – how you prepare a piece from scratch and it can take a few months. Certainly there has to be certain ways of remembering finger patterns and melodic material so that the brain knows what notes/fingers to play where and crucially remembers the same patterns each time the piece is played 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.