This is not uncommon for musicians to experience nerves or anxiety before an audition, performance, or jury. Earlier this week, I had emailed my phenomenal piano teacher and asked her for tips on how to best spend my preparation time in the last 48 hours before the exam. Her response was brilliant. I want to share it because it offers a great formula for dealing with high pressure performance situations. It may serve as a warm reminder to seasoned musicians or as welcome brand new information for musicians just beginning to have these more intense performance experiences.
I will not paraphrase what she wrote or make any corrections. Here it is:
"Make sure you have some energy for exam. It is better not to overplay and completely wear yourself out. The night before you better not play much but rather concentrate in your mind and remember everything what supposed to be at exam. Should be equal time to practise slowly and fast on scales and studies."
Please, dear reader, permit me to expand on some of her points and how they have helped me manage the pre-exam meltdown that I was facing.
1) Energy - That means SLEEP. Did you hear me? SLEEP. I don't think you heard me...SLEEP. Staying up to late to practise will not serve your memory or emotional state well at this point. With only 48 hours left, the music is either in your fingers, muscles, memory, and heart or it isn't. No turning back. Nearly as important as sleep is the type of food you are eating. Make wise choices before the performance. We all know that post-performance dinners are a deluxe treat anyway!
2) To Practise or NOT to practise: Over-practising before a performance can lead to fatigue, muscle strain, and frustration. My teacher was clear in her warning that overdoing it could wear me out mentally, emotionally, and physically. That being said, I have always told my piano students that their performance, exam, or audition should NOT be the first time that they are touching their instrument that day. Tomorrow, for my exam, I intend to play through some scales at lunch - that's it.
3) Score study: Mental preparation the night before is equally as valuable as physically playing your instrument. Considering that my technique exam has a huge number of distinct elements, it is a worthwhile use of my time to look over the requirements and be totally familiar with the tempi required. Moreover, the concert études that I will be playing do not require memorization. Therefore, I should be doing some score study tonight.
4) Change up the tempo: My piano teacher's final tip is very important. Slow practice until the bitter end is ALWAYS valuable. It always has been and always will be. Practising at your performance tempo can reveal where you might still have small struggles and will perhaps give you the confidence that you are indeed ready to perform at that higher speed.
The four most important words in my piano teacher's email were: "concentrate in your mind." What does this mean practically? Well, to put it bluntly - it means attempting to put all emotional and mental distractions aside for the time being. This is why musicians are often required to become detached on or near concert day. The amount of mental focus that is required to get through an exam or recital is staggering. My teacher's advice is basically to keep life simple for the time leading up to the performance. Keeping external distractions to a minimum is difficult but at some point becomes necessary for completing a successful performance.
So, what will I do with 23 hours remaining until exam time? I will play piano for about an hour, ensure that all of the food I eat is healthy, go for an easy run to clear my mind, and sleep. Tomorrow, I will keep a low profile in terms of socializing and surround myself with calming influences. Finally, I will trust the preparation that I have done. I will know that I have worked hard and will represent myself and my teacher well tomorrow.