Top 5 Tips for Smashing a Graded Music Exam

Top 5 Tips for Smashing a Graded Music Exam 

So, you’ve got your graded exam booked, it’s a few months away but you know it will come quickly. You attend weekly lessons with your tutor who is helping you prep for it but you still feel that wee voice nagging you at the back of your mind, “what if I mess up”, “what if I forget how to play this part”, “what if I am too nervous on the day. What if, what if, what if.

What if’s are the hardest questions as you just can’t predict the future. But there’s simple steps you can follow in order to SMASH that graded exam or indeed even an exam in school or college/uni, whatever it may be, with complete ease and less nerves-you’ll sail through!

Tip 1: Practise, Practise, Practise

Practise, practise, practise! Maintaining a daily/weekly schedule of practise for at least 30 mins a day or at least a good couple of days a week will really help in learning the scales, arpeggios, theory, pieces etc like the back of your hand but not only that, building up your confidence with it all too. The more you learn and know, the better your chances will be of feeling less nervous and more in control on the day. It’s like any performance, yeah ok, you may be feeling nerves-and of course, that’s just our natural instinct as humans; we have a flight or fight response anytime the amygdala in our brain triggers an anxiety response to a situation that our body is reacting to. BUT, enough said about the biological reasons, yes nerves will play a huge part. 

HOWEVER, the more you have practised, the more every single one of those minutes of practise has sunk into your subconscious, it’s sitting there, waiting to play out. So on the day, you’re more likely to perform better if you know your material inside and out and less chance of forgetting anything. Also, if there’s a specific part of a piece you keep tripping over on-SLOW IT DOWN. It’s so easy to get frustrated with yourself but the more you break it down into sections and build it back up again, those sections will be strengthened-REPETITION IS KEY!

Tip 2: Don’t worry about forgetting the music

And on the topic of forgetting anything, if that happens (as it can do), stop, take a deep breath from the diaphragm and slow down (the examiners do understand you will be nervous, they only want you to pass), take a drink of water, gather your thoughts and try to focus. Then once you’re more focused, begin again from either the beginning or where you left off. It’s all in the breathing. If you’re really nervous beforehand, do a couple of diaphragmatic breaths to a metronome. 

Count yourself through it, breathing in for 4 counts in through the nose and mouth, hold for 4 and breath out for 4 counts, then repeat twice more then up the counts so you’re breathing in for longer and out for longer. You can also try putting your hands on your hips and bending over, this is what athletes do after maybe doing a few laps or footballers during a game. This is a really good way of getting a deeper breath. The breath will send new air into your blood and push that around your body, slowing down your heart rate, calming you down and helping you to focus.

Tip 3: Practice with a Metronome

Practise with a metronome. Even though you may not use it in the exam, it really does help to not only lock in your own inner metronome and improve your timing-but it’s also really good ear training and helps you stay in time. Practise all your scales starting at a BPM of 80 then build up 10 BPM at a time till the metronome gets faster. If you can play a scale mid tempo, you can challenge yourself to play it faster and even slower. For the slower BPMs, this challenges your anticipation as they’re a lot slower, it’s easy to misjudge the next count of the metronome and come in before the metronome. This also applies to arpeggios etc. For pieces, you would set the BPM to the given BPM and the time signature too.

Tip 4: Get Feedback

Play for people to get feedback. Of course, your teacher will provide feedback. They’ll have set out a weekly lesson plan to help get you ready for your exam. And they’ll provide professional feedback on what they feel you need to work on etc. But, it’s always good to get feedback from other people. This always comes in handy for exams and performances in general, if you tell your “audience” what they need to look out for that an examiner will be looking out for, then they can give you a judgement of what they feel you could work on from that criteria. Or, perhaps perform to friends who are also musicians, they will also be really good at giving feedback. 


Tip 5: Research the Exam Process

Do some research into the criteria the examiners will be looking at, what they’ll be looking for and how it will be graded, what the syllabus is etc. Try to find out as much about the exam as you possibly can so you are clued up on what will happen on the day, your teacher should also go through this with you. The more you know, the more relaxed you’ll feel knowing going into the exam that you’re prepared, ready and have the right knowledge of how the exam will play out. There will be loads of YouTube videos or articles on tips, advice, how to’s, do’s, don’ts etc. 

So, to recap;

  • Practise daily/weekly
  • Set yourself a structured rehearsal schedule or get your teacher to write one up for you
  • Break things down into sections, practise slowly then build it back up again
  • Practise everything with a metronome (also try practising scales with your eyes closed-this is good for finger memory, trusting yourself in that you know what you’re playing, heightened concentration etc)
  • Breathe before and during your exam to calm any nerves and to bring back focus
  • Get feedback
  • Do research
  • Prepare and you’ll SMASH ITTTT!!!

About the Author

Katie Wills is a professional piano teacher based in Glasgow, Scotland. She has many years of teaching experience, helping students of all learning abilities to develop their musicality, confidence and overall playing ability. She is passionate about helping students of all levels progress and helps to create resources for music students.

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