Over the past few weeks, I have accompanied students for over a dozen HSC music exams, and over forty AMEB instrumental examinations.
As a piano student, I never knew of accompanists or their roles in exams, as my examinations were a solitary affair.
For all other exams though, the student needs accompaniment for several of their pieces, to show that they can play in ensemble, and to more correctly represent the solo with harmonic accompaniment.
When I sat for my 7th Grade piano exam, the examiner actually wrote in my report that I could be a good accompanist. For years I took this as an insult (along the lines of ‘Those who can’t, teach‘), but now I actually work as an accompanist, a role which I love, and realise that it is a skill which is highly specialised and extremely challenging.
What makes it difficult?
Well, the unexpected is quite stressful! Students are prone to memory lapses when nervous, and I have had children leave out anything from a few notes to a few pages.
Physical logistics often increase the degree of difficulty, when the student or choir is behind me, or on another floor! (I have played in churches where the choir is behind me a full storey below, and the closed-circuit TV is not functioning, which makes using my ears and wits all the more important.)
What have I learnt about performing and what pointers can I share?
Enjoy! Exams can be extremely stressful, particularly when students are putting themselves under undue pressure to succeed. After months or years of preparation, there is no more to be done on the day than a last practice, then to try to enjoy the exam, as nothing else can now be changed.
Be in the moment.
If you do make a mistake during the exam (or concert), move on. Don’t spend the rest of the time punishing yourself or thinking about it, or things could quite easily spiral into more mistakes and memory lapses. Performance is very much a mental game (why else do elite athletes now come with their own psychologists?) and like sport, can be won or lost in the mind.
Focus on the good.
Once it’s over, nothing can be changed. Of course it’s helpful to know where improvements might be made, but to obsess over one wrong scale or one missed sharp is to lose sight of the big picture – a lot more went right than went wrong.
Learn what you can change.
What is in your power to change for next time? Nerves will probably always be a slight factor, but students can practise in performance settings. If not enough practice was done and the mark reflected this, then do more practice next time! Try to embrace the experience and celebrate the successes. A B+ grade is not a fail. Be proud of your achievements.
I am preaching to myself here too. Many times I have lost sleep the night after a recital, as I am so angry at myself and disappointed about one mistake. I have had to learn how to put this in perspective and to remind myself that the mistake maybe took one second in a one hour concert. This is hardly a failure.
Music is to be enjoyed. Sure, exams are helpful to provide markers and motivation to succeed and progress, but they should never completely overtake the enjoyment of learning for its own sake.