A Music Student's Exam Survival Guide
Organised by the Mental Health Foundation, the 14th-20th May marks Mental Health Awareness Week. Now a firm fixture in UK calendars, the theme for 2018 is stress, as it can be a key factor in many mental health problems.
For music students, the time of year will soon be upon us with the impending fear of the summer exams, when stress levels can soar. A highly competitive environment, performance anxiety and isolation of solitary practice can all contribute to stress and anxiety around this time. For musicians doing grade exams, these are normally three times a year, on top of other school exams, it can be highly demanding. Music students are well versed in the nerve-racking experience of presenting to examiners and the challenging nature of this can be positive and serve as a motivator for performance and practice. Yet, for some, it can be very nerve-racking and trigger or worsen existing anxiety.
16 million people experience a mental health problem in the UK and 75% of these start before a young person is 18. Among the younger population, the number of those suffering from anxiety related disorders is now one in six. This can be due to a complex myriad of reasons, but in helping to tackle stress generally, and that which is linked to exams/ musical performance, we can go some way to help to alleviate the problem.
Tips for Music Students
- Keep practicing regularly and create a timetable that factors in some practice for little and often. Practice in front of other people so you get used to playing in front of others.
- Practice aural tests – these are available with a CD so you don’t need to just practice with your teacher!
- Eat yourself to success; food is fuel! Try to eat foods that provide a sustainable amount of energy and release their energy slowly. For example, at breakfast choose wholegrain toast with eggs, or some porridge with fruit and seeds. Remember to keep drinking water throughout the day to keep you hydrated.
- Exercise and practice good posture. Playing and performing on any instrument requires muscle tension and holding movements in the same area repeatedly. This can cause muscle tension and spasm so you need to maintain the balance between strengthening the muscles with practice, and allowing the muscles to relax with rest. With posture being such an integral part of most instruments, general fitness is a great help. Try the Alexander Technique, Yoga, or Pilates – and remember that any physical exercise will help to mobilise joints and prevent injuries caused by the repetition of practice.
- Practice controlled and deep breathing as more oxygen in the body slows down the heart-rate and helps to decrease anxiety. It’s not just woodwind and brass players who need to think about it!
- Make sure your instrument is well maintained. Have spare strings and reeds in your case so your practice isn’t too interrupted, or if you think there is a problem get it sorted sooner rather than later. We can take in instruments for repair at our shops, but as we might have to send them away for a week you’ll want to do this ahead of any exams. See here for further details.
- Remember to take breaks and socialise. Practicing an instrument can be very solitary, remember to take breaks where you can unwind with friends.
Tips for Teachers
- Prepare students early and cover all aspects of what they need to know. This should include the basics of the having the pieces and scales prepared, but also have them feeling comfortable with what is expected for sight-reading and aural aspects of the exams. For more information consult your syllabus – they’re free!
- Instill confidence in your student – even if it gets to exam time and you’re not 100% sure they’re ready, they’ll feel far more confident going into the exam if they know you have faith they can pass.
- Keep the balance between criticism and postive feedback and praise. Try and remember your student might suffer badly from nerves, or have stresses of other exams which are affecting their performance in lessons, but that they still need the guidance as to what to work on in the final weeks before the exam.
Tips for Parents
For most college and university students, parents won’t have much of a direct influence, and at this stage it’s really down to the student to monitor their own practice! But for younger students this advice should be a help to parents, even if they don’t play themselves.
- Ensure your son or daughter is practicing regularly. Get in contact with the teacher and ask how much practice they would recommend. For younger children just 10 minutes a day should help them progress and is probably about how long they’ll concentrate for. For more advanced students/older children they probably want to practicing for at least half an hour to an hour each day if not more. Bear in mind this can still be broken up into small segments if this suits them better, or if they need to fit it around other time commitments.
- Keep communicating with them. Some children will feel very confident about performing and being examined, others will struggle with nerves before and on the day. If they are nervous try and be in the room when they’re practicing, or make sure they know you can hear them so they become more confident at playing in front of people. If they have friends that play you could organise a little concert – team up with other parents to get the kids together for an afternoon with the parents listening and applauding!
- Support, encourage and praise their playing and practicing. Even if you don’t play an instrument yourself, or feel you don’t know much about music, you can commend them for their hard work, and should have an idea if something has improved over the weeks of practice! Most exam pieces have recordings available to buy on CD or download, take time to listen to this with your child and see what they can work on to make their performance reflect the recording
- Plan a treat for something fun after the exam. Here at Chimes we have reminisced about what we did after an exam, whether it was get fish and chips or a nice cake that day, or get some music we’d really wanted to play but hadn’t been able to because we’d been focussing on the exam prep.
Anyone can get involved to support Mental Health Awareness Week, have a think of what you can do, whether it is promoting awareness or raising money:
For Further help and information, contact:
- If you are feeling particularly stressed or not coping, contact your GP
- MIND work to support adults with mental health difficulties: mind.org.uk
- Samaritans offer a helpline and safe place for people to talk: dial 116 123 from any phone
- Young Minds offers many publications by and for young people on mental health with a helpline for parents on 0808 802 5544
- BAPAM who deliver specialist health support to performing artists. Call to arrange an appointment for a free health assessment: 020 7404 8444