Everyone gets nervous, and when it’s something like a singing exam, it can feel like your nerves are out to get you – they’re just determined to make you fail even when you know you’re capable! So here are some of my key tips to help you conquer exam nerves.
Counteract every bad thought with two good ones
In the weeks leading up to your exam, every time you finish a piece or section, tell yourself two things you did well for every one mistake you think you made. That way, you’re training your brain to focus on the positive things and not to dwell on the negative – it builds confidence and self-esteem. This should be a year-round, life-long habit, but at exam time it’s never more important.
Let yourself process the (actually possible) worst case scenario and realise that’s it’s ok
If you’re a “what if” person, you’ll be used to thinking “what if I forget my words?” or “what if I freeze up in the aural tests?”. It’s so easy for these kinds of thoughts to get out of control and small things seem bigger and bigger. Somehow, forgetting your words begins to feel like the start of a domino effect which brings down governments and destroys countries… Crazy as it sounds, fighting the worries is harder than giving in. So let yourself answer the “what if”:
“Ok, what if I forget my words… I could sing to “la” – that shows I can still do the rhythm and pitch… It’s also only one song, so I have a chance to do better on the others, so I might even still get a decent mark… If I keep forgetting them, the examiner will still look for the positive things I did and try to give me marks… And worst case scenario where I forget them so much that I fail? I never have to see the examiner again, as they probably live on the other side of the country, no one but me and my teacher have to know how badly I failed (I can tell my family it was by one mark) and I can take the exam again next session…!”
Somehow, the what if just seems less scary when you answer the question rather than leaving it hanging and open-ended.
Give yourself permission to be nervous
Reverse psychology is a fact! If you give yourself permission to be nervous, you’ll find it’s less intense. By denying yourself the right to be nervous, you’re both nervous and stressed.
If you get a dry mouth, stop wishing it wasn’t like that and focusing on it as this will make it worse. Instead, just let it be dry and concentrate on breathing properly and standing well. You’ll probably find it’s less irritating, and might even stop altogether.
For more about performance psychology for musicians, click on over to the Bulletproof Musician where you can read articles on lots of topics from performance anxiety to effective practicing.
Exercise releases endorphins and makes you happier. Physical activity also helps to regulate adrenaline and stress hormones in your body. Eating healthily will help to stabilise your mood – too much sugar can cause you to have big highs and lows, so aim for slow-release carbs like whole grains. Watch out for caffeine and alcohol as they can affect your mood as well as your behaviour. Sleeping properly is vital too – aim for a regular routine, and do gentle, calming activities before bed. You can read all about what are good sleep habits on this page from NHS Choices
Meditate, breathe, pray or just be still
Taking time to practice meditation and stillness is a really good way to help calm yourself if you are nervous. Find a quiet space, sit comfortably and breathe in and out slowly and deeply – just as you should do for singing. Focus your mind on a single positive thought, or just on your breathing. If your mind wanders, bring it back gently to your breath. It can take a lot of practice to get the hang of it, but once you know how to do it, you can get into that space anywhere. Some people find a string of beads or something they can handle makes a good focal point, others like to light a candle. There are some useful apps for timing meditation and providing background noise. You can find guidance online such as this site about secular Buddhism.
If you are from a religious tradition, many have forms of meditative prayer that you may find helpful to use as an aid to calming your mind. For Christians, I can recommend resources from the Northumbria Community, Shane Claibourne’s Common Prayer and Sacred Space. You can also access this guided Prayer Garden online. If you’re a fidgety sort of person you could also using an Anglican or Catholic rosary prayer. If you are from another faith tradition, do ask your local faith leader for some ideas such as scriptural verses to focus on or prayers you can repeat.
Whatever kind of meditation you choose – secular or religious, being able to relax your mind is a vital skill for combatting nerves and stress for music and beyond.
What are your top tips for combatting exam nerves? Share them in the comments below.