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Dealing with Piano Exam Pressure

The debate about whether piano exams are a broadly positive aspect of piano studies will rage on for as long as there are people who have different learning objectives and different learning styles – which as far as we can see is forever. At Ian Burgess-Simpson Pianos we don’t want to antagonise any potential piano buyers in the pro-exam or anti-exam camp and so we will simply say that it’s down to personal choice. That may be real personal choice or the personal choice of one’s parents. For those who have decided (or been coerced) to take piano exams, it’s quite possible you’ll be in full preparation mode now (October). If so, we wish you well and sincerely hope any exams you attempt this year go smoothly.

Exam stress, debilitating in extreme cases, is well documented and often discussed. Few things strike more terror into a pianist's heart than imagining a total memory lapse in the silent moment before performing. To help ensure this scenario doesn’t occur, the IBS Pianos team decided to summarise advice for dealing with exam stress from several articles written on the subject. Many things are written about how to de-stress on the day of the exam, and what to do while in the exam environment. These are valid and are listed at the end of this article, but they are of limited use if you are under prepared. One needs to understand that preparation is actually where the benefit lies, and the best long-term method of lowering anxiety on the day.

By putting the exam into perspective and understanding its potential benefits, we can in many cases lower the perceived importance of the event and understand that much of the benefit comes from the preparation itself, rather than the result of the exam. Just like the training involved in an athletic or sporting challenging, the long-term benefits come from the weeks and months of training rather than how the event goes. Preparation and practice is vital, the upcoming exam is simply a way of ensuring you prepare and its result is not the sole indicator of progress.

From various articles on the subject of exam stress, this quote was particularly useful:

"Only after accepting this simple truth, you’ll notice a wonderful paradox: the less importance you give a certain event, the more chances of success you have. But beware of a dangerous trap: giving less importance to something doesn’t mean being lazy, disrespectful, disorganized and un-serious. Just do your work (or your piano practice) with love and concentration, and let the universal balance do the rest."

Unidentified man contemplating his Grade 8 piano exam

Exams (or exam preparation) have potential benefits from a technical pianistic perspective and from a psychological performance perspective. The technical benefits of exams include the following; these are realised in the months of preparation:

  1. Focus on striving for performance perfection and nuance in your exam pieces that you would not attempt if not faced with an exam. The mere attempt at performance perfection results in learning and improvement during practice. The preparation itself will push you to a new level of playing ability, which may not have occurred had you not faced the “pressure” of an upcoming exam.

  2. Focus on perfecting technical exercises and scales. Another example of benefit accruing over months of preparation. Finger strength and dexterity will have greatly improved as you slaved away over countless scales even if you make a hash of a scale during your exam.

People often ignore preparing appropriately for the performance aspect of the exam, by this we mean playing in front of other people. We referred above to the potential psychological performance benefits of the exam which come from exposing yourself regularly to performances during your exam preparation. Performing regularly for your friends, family, teacher, dog and cat will help to normalise performance pressure which is really what is most being scrutinized when you take an exam, assuming you've done the appropriate amount of practice. If you can play your pieces perfectly for yourself and for your family and friends, but are unable to play them during an exam situation due to the stress of the situation, it means you need more performance practice, it doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t know your pieces.

Lastly it's important to set expectations when it comes to making mistakes during an exam. Don't expect it to be perfect, your private performances are not perfect and there's no reason to expect your exam to be. What's different is that you don't give yourself such a hard time when you make mistakes on your own. Rather than anticipate perfection, expect that there will be slip ups and work on moving on from them. Learn to pick up at various points through your pieces, learn to move on positively rather than becoming negative and bringing the rest of the performance down.

Good luck!


Here are some particular de-stress strategies we found usefully listed in various articles:

1. Be prepared

2. Avoid over-practicing on the day

3. Remember why you are there

4. Declare that your ARE going to do well

5. Remember to breathe

6. Sing

7. Go easy on the caffeine

8. The examiners are there to pass you

So, remind yourself of these when you approach your next exam:

  • Work hard and you’ll reap the rewards

  • Relax on the day

  • Remember why you are there

  • Believe in yourself

  • Remember to breathe

  • Remind yourself that the examiners are on your side

The first thing you should be aware of is that it’s impossible to completely eliminate all your emotions while you’re performing on stage. What we need is to get rid of negative, destructive forms of anxiety and to keep the positive emotions and the necessary levels of concentration.

1. Changing your attitude

  • What’s your attitude towards piano playing in general?

  • What’s your attitude towards piano exams?

2. Practice more

  • In particular, mindful practice

3. Lowering the importance of the event

  • In the end, anxiety is fear of failing.

  • Fear creates tension. Tension creates insecurity. Insecurity leads to stress and anxiety.

4. Mastering the ‘Relaxed Concentration’ Technique

5. Learning how to breathe

6. Controlling your energy flow

7. Balancing your static piano practice with physical activity

P – Prepare. Practise smartly and leave some time for the piece to settle in before the performance. Do several practise performances, sort out page turns, outfit, shoes and stagecraft.

E – Establish expectations. Your performance will feel nothing like playing at home and so should not be compared to your home version. Set success criteria which guarantee you will have at least one reason to feel good post performance. For example: “My performance will be a success when I communicate my music,” or “when I reveal any weak sections which need more work before my next, bigger, recital.”

R – Regulate your breathing. Whilst we must not aim to eradicate nerves, “resistance is futile”, we can practise calm acceptance. By taking deep slow breaths we begin to learn how to channel nerves in a more useful way.

F – Foresee the outcome you wish for. Visualise your composed entrance, comfortable position at the piano, utter concentration and absorption in the music, your warm audience and a fabulous finish.

O – Observe. Don’t judge, just observe and accept. If a slip occurs or if a negative thought enters your mind, simply let it pass, and focus on the job at hand.

R – Relish. You have worked hard to prepare, and you have earned your moment. You can change nothing now so you may as well enjoy it!

M – Move on. Find something to feel good about after your performance and beyond that don’t dwell on it. Later, in your next lesson, it will be useful to reflect, objectively, on what you have learnt from the occasion.

1. Practice the tricky bits while preparing

2. Have a dress rehearsal

3. Know when to stop - don't over practice on the day

4. Get a good night’s sleep

5. Eat a good breakfast

6. Get there early

7. Stay hydrated

8. Breathe

9. Be prepared to make mistakes

No performance is 100% perfect - it’s incredibly rare to get full marks in every area of the exam. Even the most experienced professionals make mistakes but they know how to cope with errors.

What matters is how you react - don’t stop or apologise, simply move on and finish your performance. Permitting yourself to make mistakes will help you to feel less nervous, which has the bonus of reducing the number of mistakes you make!

10. Enjoy yourself!


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