You have decided that you are now ready to take the exam. That needs a good dose of courage for starters. There might be a part of you feeling rather exposed and a bit vulnerable, be wary of letting any feelings of insecurity creep in as you’re about to do the exam.
Remind yourself of what you know already: it’s fun, it’s an adventure and it’s a wonderful way of discovering more about yourself and the learning process. This way you will get so much more out of the whole experience - and you will keep a lid on your nerves too!
So here are a few of my top tips for the time just before your exam. You may well have all these covered when performing on your familiar instrument, but they can disappear into the ether when you are out of your comfort zone.
- Drink water: being well hydrated can really affect your concentration, so bring a water bottle with you.
- Bring food: you may have different needs on the new instrument, so be prepared. If you normally don’t eat before a performance, you may find that on the new instrument you suddenly need the fuel. So bring food just in case.
- Stretch out any tense muscles: you will be using different muscles on the new instrument, so you may find you are more physically tense and less aware of it. Work out a few simple stretches in advance and practice them as you are waiting. This can be very calming too.
- Breathe: breathing is simple and very effective. There is nothing better for calming a jangled nervous system than taking a few long, slow deep breaths. It counteracts the fight-flight response and tells your body it is safe. And do it in the exam room too.
- Focus: as an experienced musician, you will most likely have a real handle on this, but nevertheless all sorts of stray thoughts can pop up when you’re out of your comfort zone. Give yourself practice run-throughs in advance when you can keep tabs on how you focus. Be absolutely in the present moment, notice if you lose concentration and pull it back to the task at hand.
- Watch your Inner Critic: this is the negative, inner talk that can be a nightmare for nerves, and can get the upper hand if you’re not careful. Find ways of reassuring yourself - how far you’ve come, what you’ve learnt, why you’re doing this. See it all objectively and do what you can to take any negative emotion out of the equation.
- Watch you don’t apologise: it’s not your main instrument and you are aware of your limitations. That’s fine – but don’t let on. Apologising or justifying doesn’t put you in an emotionally healthy space for performing well. Be unapologetic, walk tall, smile at the examiner and just go for it!
- Visualisation: this is best done in advance of the exam, but equally, you can do it as you’re waiting. See and feel the exam as being a positive, fun experience and do this in your mind until it is a more dominant feeling than anything negative. The very strong likelihood is that you will experience what you have imagined, so making sure it’s positive will be way more enjoyable.
Good luck, have fun, enjoy it – and see you on the other side!
Charlotte Tomlinson is widely recognised as an international expert in performance anxiety as related to musicians. She works primarily as a Performance Coach, helping musicians perform at their peak on stage and working intuitively to support them in expressing the music in the best way they can, by moving through any physical, emotional or psychological blocks. She travels internationally and gives talks, master classes and performance coaching for conservatoires, universities and festivals internationally and throughout the UK. These have included Yale Summer Music School, USA, Verbier Academy and Verbier Festival Orchestras, the Imani Wind Festival, New York, amongst others.
She has been interviewed regularly for BBC TV and radio, and her book Music from the Inside Out is highly regarded. She herself has interviewed top international musicians on film about how they manage performance stress, available on www.beyondstagefright.com.
Charlotte lives and works in Oxford where she has a thriving performance coaching and piano teaching practice. www.charlottetomlinson.com