- by Mary Barton
Sharing the Exam Experience!
Updated: Feb 10, 2021
I am always proud of and excited for any of my piano students who have the courage to take on an exam with the Royal Conservatory of Music (RCM), be it practical or theoretical, because I understand the benefits of these exams in propelling one forward in their musical development.
Not only are RCM exams internationally recognized academically, giving the student a substantive sense of achievement and reward for their hard work, but the challenge of facing your fears and the preparation required for the exam itself greatly enhance one’s overall musical development. Though I expect it, I am nevertheless always surprised when I see how much easier the next level of piano curriculum is to the student who has just taken an exam.
Of course, I also well understand the fear and anxiety the thought of taking an exam, especially a practical exam, can produce! Particularly for adults. My first exam was as an adult, and I honestly didn’t think I could do it. But with the support of family and friends I overcame! And you can too!
I asked one of my adult students, Trevor, to share his exam experience to encourage other piano students of all ages who are toying with the idea of exams. This was Trevor's first RCM exam; I found his responses insightful and inspiring. I hope you do to!
Thinking about your exam preparations for the last months:
What were the most challenging aspects? Motivation to set aside time in the day was sometimes difficult, because it feels like the exam is so far away, but it really sneaks up on you quickly!
What did you enjoy the most about these preparations? I really liked the sound and feel of some of the new technique I had to learn for the exam, so it was a joy to play it over and over again. I could also see myself making progress, which was a satisfying feeling.
What did you least enjoy, why, and what advice would you give other students who might also encounter this or feel this way? At first, it felt a bit tedious to examine and nitpick so intensely every little detail of each individual repertoire piece at the level required for the exam. My recommendation would be recording yourself every week or two, or playing for friends. It is hard sometimes to step back and see how far you've come in your performance of a piece if you don't go out of your way to monitor that.
Do you feel you have grown as a musician in some way as a result of these preparations? If so, how? Yes, absolutely! My technique improved far more than it would have had I chosen not to take the exam. As an adult learning an instrument for the first time, I don't have parental pressure to get better. Signing up for the exam creates some of that pressure which is an impetus for improvement. I was having fun with lessons even before choosing to do the exam, but now that I have the goal of climbing through the exams, I know I'll attain my performance goals much more quickly.
Reflecting on the exam itself:
How did you feel walking into the examination room? Any thoughts you’d like to share? I was pretty nervous. This was my first exam, and as an adult learner, it was humbling to share the waiting room with a 4-year-old who was probably taking a much harder exam than mine!
Did the examiner make you feel at ease? Yes, I was welcomed at the front door with extreme encourage-ment and excitement and helpful advice upon indicating it was my first test. When I entered the exam room, the examiner was very friendly, and seemed excited to hear my selections.
What was the piano like and what was it like to play on? The piano was gorgeous and sounded wonderful. I have a digital piano at home, so playing on such a nice instrument at the exam actually took away some of my anxiety because I was looking forward to hearing my pieces on it!
How did you deal with nerves and do you have any advice or encouragement to offer students in that regard? I study psychology, so I applied strategies I've learned about during my studies. Something as simple as focusing on breathing deeply and relaxing, or pumping yourself up with positive self-talk is useful. I reviewed again the Royal Conservatory online resources that came with my practice book as I was busing to my exam, and that helped prove to me that I knew my stuff and I should trust in my practice. That said, if you haven't practiced very much, I probably wouldn't recommend that strategy, as it might increase your anxiety!
Were there any hiccups or surprises in your performance you’d like to share? How did you deal with them? How do you feel you performed overall? My hands were nervously trembling, even though the examiner was friendly and I was excited to play on the fancy piano. My fingers shook slightly too far to one side and I accidentally pressed two keys at the same time during one of my pieces, but aside from that, it went really well. I strongly recommend doing the technique portion of the exam first, because it helped me familiarize myself with the piano a little bit, and it gave me the confidence I needed to perform my repertoire selections. A surprise was that I heard Mary's voice in my head as I was playing my exam pieces, and that guided me through really trying to focus on dynamics even though I was anxious and not playing as sensitively as I would have liked.
Overall, how do you feel about having participated in the exam itself? I am proud of myself. My favourite piano pieces are all very difficult and complex, so I know that if I keep advancing in RCM levels with Mary's help, I will get closer and closer to playing my goal pieces.
What advice would you give students who are worried, nervous or apprehensive about doing an exam?
Even if you make some mistakes, it is a very encouraging, supportive, and positive environment. The notion of taking an exam was far more terrifying than actually taking the exam itself: it is over in the blink of an eye! You can look up videos online describing the exam process, so that helped me mentally prepare since I could visually see how it worked. I think everyone owes it to themselves to try at least one exam!
Would you recommend doing exams? Why or why not?
The acceleration in my study on top of the confidence boost upon completing the exam makes it impossible for me to not recommend doing exams. They provide a tangible metric for your own self-improvement, and the second I completed my exam, I was already excited about what challenges and fun and beautiful pieces studying for the next RCM level would bring into my life. Definitely give it a shot!
Trevor earned First Class Honours With distinction in his first RCM exam. And I know he would say, if he can do it, so can you!