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  •  The EvO:R-Pedia Musicians Tips Section

    Welcome to the EvO:R Tips Section. We call this section EvO:R-Pedia because it is like a complete reference library for Indie musicians...Just about every tip has been used so you won't find false promises and a series of books to buy after reading each tip. This section was put here by musicians so that people that followed can take this knowledge and use it's power.

    Music Exams - Controlling Performance Nerves
    By Antony Copus

    It happens to the best of us: everything sounded fine when we were practicing last night, our teacher has assured us that we are ready for the exam but now. Standing in front of the examiner our hands have started to sweat, our breathing has got faster, we're feeling sick and frankly would rather be anywhere else in the world than about to try to play music beautifully and go through the mental agility course necessary to remember a raft of scales and arpeggios.

    If this situation sounds even vaguely familiar to you then read on...

    No matter what people tell you, everyone suffers from some sort of nervousness or performance anxiety. It is, after all, a completely natural reaction to any stressful situation. Long ago in our evolutionary past our ancestors, facing a large-clawed animal would have had a simple choice: they could either stand their ground and fight or they could turn tail and run for safety. Whichever option they chose their bodies had to prepare for some sort of emergency action. Psychologists call this state the Fight or Flight response and, unfortunately for us, its physiological effects are still with us today.

    Sweaty hands, a dry mouth, nervous tremors and an upset stomach are all symptoms caused by the body’s release of adrenalin. Blood is routed away from the extremities and the stomach (this is what causes ‘butterflies in the stomach’), and towards the muscles needed for fighting or running. In order to power these muscles breathing quickens to increase the oxygen supply and the result is a body tense and poised for action. All this is great if you need to run away from a tiger but is sadly rather less useful if you are trying to play a Mozart violin concerto.

    The sabre-toothed examiner
    Of course nowadays we rarely encounter dangerous animals but there are still plenty of other stressful situations to deal with. For many people performing in front of an audience (whether it is playing an instrument or making a speech) can be a real cause for concern. So we have swapped big cats for grade 6 but the feelings of stress remain very much the same, so what can we do about it?

    Prepare thoroughly:
    There are few things more unnerving than performing in front of an audience when you are not completely sure what you are doing! In an exam, for example, the nagging worry that you haven't properly practised your scales can really affect your performance in your pieces as well. Being thoroughly prepared can give you real a confidence that can be an incredibly calming influence. Your nerves are much less likely to get out of control if you are really comfortable with all the material you have to play.

    Visualize success:
    This is a technique used by top athletes and musicians alike. A week or so before your exam, when you start your daily practice, spend a couple of minutes visualizing yourself begin successful. Close your eyes and imagine yourself in the exam giving a confident and successful performance. Try to make the image as clear and as detailed as you can. ‘See’ yourself playing all the scales you are asked easily, giving musical performances of your pieces and coping effortlessly with your sight reading, etc. This technique can be incredibly powerful. Try it, you may be surprised at the results!

    Block negative thoughts:
    In the build up to your exam it is only natural to have the occasional worry and feel a little apprehensive. It is important though to keep these thoughts in perspective. If you catch yourself thinking things like ‘I know I am going to make a mistake’ or ‘what if I muck up my scales?’ do not give them lots of attention. Instead just smile and visualize yourself performing successfully (see tip 2).

    Use your nervousness to energize your performance:
    There is a great similarity between the nervous excitement you feel climbing a big slope on a roller coaster and the nervousness you might experience when you are taking an exam. The difference between them lies only in the way you perceive and treat your feelings. You feel excited because you anticipate something good happening. When you are nervous, in contrast, it is, perhaps, because you fear something going wrong. Most experienced performers will tell you that they would not want to lose their nerves. Instead they use the nervous energy to build a sense of excitement for their performance.

    Perform in front of friends and family:
    Once you are comfortable playing your pieces and scales to yourself, ask members of your family or friends to listen. Even a small and supportive audience is enough to make most people feel a little on edge so this is a really good tip to practise what it feels like to be nervous. The logic goes something like this: if you get used to what it feels like to be nervous in a controlled and friendly environment, you will cope better with the real thing, even if little things go wrong.

    When you walk into the exam room, smile. You’ll be amazed at how much better this can make you feel. The act of smiling, even if you really don’t feel like it, encourages the release of endorphins (the body’s feel-good chemicals). These endorphins can really improve your state of mind and make you feel much more relaxed.

    Get a good night’s rest:
    Never underestimate the effect tiredness can have on your ability to perform. You might feel as if you can cope easily with little sleep but countless scientific studies have show that a tired mind just does not function as efficiently. Being tired will have the effect of making you feel less sure of yourself and this is a certain route to increasing nervousness. Get to bed on time!

    Control your breathing:
    A common symptom of nervousness is a quickening of the breathing. One of the quickest ways you can make yourself feel more relaxed is to get control of your breathing. Breathe in gently through your nose to a count of 5, and then let the air out slowly through your mouth, again to a count of 5. Don’t be tempted to gulp air in as this will only make you more tense.

    Concentrate on the music:
    In an exam room it is all too easy to forget why you started playing or singing in the first place. Hopefully, though, you will have arrived at your exam with some pieces which you enjoy playing so try to concentrate on communicating this enjoyment to your audience. After all this, really, is what music performance is all about: sharing your feelings about a piece with other people. That should be as true in an exam room as in any other performance environment.

    Don’t worry about mistakes:
    Everyone, but everyone makes mistakes. They are a normal part of live performance and it is important to remember that nobody really minds hearing the odd glitch. It is much more important to enjoy your performance, to make it involving and exciting, than it is to get hung up on trying to be perfect. Concentrating on not making mistakes will only make your music-making sterile and boring.

    And finally remember: examiners are musicians just like you. They want you to succeed and they want to enjoy listening to you play. They are certainly not just on the lookout for mistakes or bad points, …and they don’t really have sabre-teeth – well at least not most of them!

    Antony Copus has performed with most of the United Kingdom's great orchestras: the London Symphony Orchestra, the Philharmonia, the Halle and the BBC Symphony amongst many others. He was Director of Music at Bradfield College, near London, for some years before starting http://www.opuscopus.com a company dedicated to providing fun and innovative resources for young and experienced musicians alike. Visit http://www.opuscopus.com for hundreds of high quality mp3 accompaniments, exciting new books to help learning scales and improve rhythm, free resources..

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