Keeping a pupil interested and motivated while still making progress in the time leading up to an exam can be quite a challenge for a teacher. There are be a few dangers to watch out for and being aware of them can be very valuable.
Exam as a set goal
It’s easy for a pupil to see the exam as a goal in its own right rather than a part of an overall learning process, and they can find this very pressurizing. If they feel they need to get a certain result on a certain day, it can result in performance anxiety in the exam itself and general anxiety, dread and fear in advance.
Exam as a bar that needs to be reached
If the pupil feels they need they need to work up to the standard the exam requires, it can be pressurizing for them. One way of dealing with this is to suggest taking an exam when it is well within the pupils’ capability so that it feels more comfortable.
Watching out for a pupil’s confidence
A pupil can easily lose confidence if they feel there’s too much to do and too little time to do it in, or if the music is too hard for them, and this loss of confidence can lead to all sorts of anxieties. They may just feel they can’t live up to the teacher’s or parent’s expectations with the exam or that they won’t do well and will feel bad about that. Or they might even panic that they would have to pull out if they can’t manage the preparation required.
“I’ve been playing these pieces for ages and I’m bored!”
Who hasn’t heard this from a pupil at one time or another? It’s so easy to have a situation where the pupil has been working on pieces for too long, they get stale and then boredom kicks in. This can be tricky to manage for a teacher, especially if the pupil needs to have pieces over a long summer holiday or at a time without regular lesson input. One suggestion is to bring in other important musical learning that can be part of the lesson, such as improvisation and ensemble playing or just exploring new repertoire. It might even be good to start the pieces even earlier to accommodate broader input in lessons, to keep the pupil motivated. It can also protect a pupil from feeling that being tested is what music is all about.
Reframing exam preparation: motivation comes from love of the learning process
Possibly the best way to safeguard against potential pitfalls in exam preparation is to completely reframe what the exam and exam preparation is. Ideally, exams need to sit within a whole structure of musical learning, where motivation comes from the love of learning rather than achieving a set goal for its own sake. Then the pupil is constantly discovering more about music. They are finding out what is nourishing and rewarding about learning scales and doing aural tests. They’re continually exploring the music, the composers who wrote the music and learning how to express and share that.
Reframing the exam: the exam as a snap shot in time
From this perspective, the exam has an important place within a pupils’ music educational context. The pupil learns that their performance in an exam situation is a snap shot in time, just another peak in a rich journey of discovering about music, rather than an end in itself.
Examiners as musicians who love music
This can help a pupil see the examiner as just another musician, a musician who loves music so much that they want to nurture the next generation.
If it is possible to encourage this way of thinking in a pupil, then they have a much greater chance of enjoying exam and the preparation towards it, which will be so good for their overall view on music. They may also have fewer nerves in the exam itself and the added bonus is that they might end up doing rather well!