In today’s video, I wanted to sit down and have a casual chat with you guys about the awful exam I took around this time last year: My RCM grade 10 exam.

It’s a conversational video, and you get to see snippets of my exam commentary, and the exact marks I received.

Without going into too much detail here, I wanted to emphasize a few of my main life lessons from doing so poorly on this exam. Hopefully this video helps you by giving you an idea of what not to do if/when you decide to take an exam.

Almost failing my RCM grade 10 exam

Play By the Books

Listening to music and finding inspiration with great performers is good. Trying to play your Beethoven Sonata in the style of Barenboim is not so good.

The reason is, Barenboim (among others) is a world-class performer who has immaculate taste, and has such mastery that he can truly infuse his own style into a Beethoven piece. I am not a world-class performer, and I haven’t reached a point of mastery where I can comfortably embellish a piece in a compelling way.

But I tried! Using my Beethoven sonata as an example, I added rubato (tempo fluctuations) because Barenboim did, and I thought it sounded good. But that’s one (of many) reasons that I got a bad mark. They wanted to hear exactly what was on the page, and called me out on my non-steady tempo.

Cover tiny file
look inside
Piano Sonatas – Book I
Klaviersonaten. Composed by Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Edited by Bertha Antonia Wallner. Piano (Harpsichord), 2-hands. Urtext Editions. Pages: 283. Classical Period. Collection (softcover). With standard notation, fingerings, introductory text and thematic index (does not include words to the songs). 286 pages. G. Henle #HN32. Published by G. Henle (HL.51480032).

Dynamics, dynamics, dynamics

I’m pretty sure every single piece I played had some comment about working on dynamics. I needed a better dynamic plan, it was dynamically flat, etc.

Dynamics are one of those things that can disappear when you’re nervous. When your hands tense up, subtlety tends to go out the window. This is why I tend to bug my students about practicing dynamics, even from the very start of a song.

A lot of the time, dynamics are added as an afterthought. The thought goes like this: “I’ll learn the notes and rhythms first. Then, when I’m good at that, I’ll add in the dynamics.”

I think that line of thinking is a mistake. If the dynamics are garnish you add at the end, they’ll never truly “seep” into the piece, they’ll never become a deep part of its flavor (there I go with food comparisons again).

Learn How to Chill Out

I think performance anxiety can get worse with age. All I know is that when I was a kid, and even in my early 20s, nerves didn’t affect me nearly as much as they do now.

At my RCM Grade 10 exam, my hands were literally shaking for about half the time. It’s extremely difficult to play quickly with shaky hands! But adrenaline was coursing through my body, and I was powerless.

That’s when I learned that being emotionally prepared for an exam is nearly as important as being technically prepared. I didn’t learn any stress-reduction techniques or coping mechanisms.

It’s my goal to dive into the issue of performance anxiety, because it’s something I’d like to be able to help my students with (and you guys!). I haven’t figured it out yet – I’ll let you know when I do – but in the meantime, if you have performances or exams coming up, it might be something you want to look into.

Check out the video for more details. This was the first time I looked at my exam comments in a year, so I was basically going into it fresh. In the video, I go through five of my performance songs and talk about the comments, which you can read on the screen. They’re pretty shameful! But I’m hopeful that you can learn from my mistakes.