Pre-Exam Trauma

This is my old dog Bubble, who died almost 3 years ago aged 12. This picture was taken not long after we (me and ex hubby) adopted him when he was 5. His bed was by the back door in our old kitchen, and one of his favourite activities was rearranging his bedding, very noisily, until it was in a desirable position for a thoroughly good snooze.

I particularly love this picture because he looks thoroughly disgusted to have been woken up from his slumbers, and is clearly desperate for us to just leave him alone and let him get back to his highest priority activity, that of hiding beneath the covers.


The day before a music exam or a big performance, this is exactly how I feel.

I’ve spent months working for this. Tears have been shed, blisters have been popped, tendons have been strained and my poor brain has had enough. I am well prepared. I won’t play perfectly, but I won’t fail.

No one will die if I fail this exam. I’m not a brain surgeon, or a rocket scientist, or a pilot or a ship’s captain. It helps to keep things in perspective, but there’s also no harm in acknowledging that it’s a big deal, I’ve invested a lot in this and I want to play well.

I know that tomorrow, as with most performance days, I will feel fine until about 20 minutes before I have to play.

The few days before, however, is a different matter. I am thoroughly unpleasant to be around, I am grumpy, nervous and drop almost everything I touch which adds to the grumpiness. I am at high risk of injuring myself. True to form, I burnt myself this afternoon (nothing major thankfully). I try to stay away from sharp or heavy objects at this time as I am highly likely to either drop things or cut myself.

I hate practising the day before. It’s too late to do any meaningful work fixing things, a bit like cramming the night before a big science exam. I’m too flustered to take anything in. If I play well, I worry that I’ve run out of ‘good’ stuff for the exam. If I play badly, I worry it’s an indication of how I’ll play in the exam. I try to stick to calmly running through from beginning to end of my pieces, doing a little work on the tricky bits.

I hate the guilt that I feel, thinking I should be practising constantly but knowing it’s pretty much pointless. Fresh air is good, but I hate going out for distraction therapy, that makes me guilty too, and I worry I’ll forget everything I need to play well.

Generally I cope well with performance anxiety on the day of a performance, provided everything is under my control (although this isn’t always possible). I have lists for everything I need to take with me so I know I won’t forget anything. I know to leave plenty of time to get anywhere. But I hate the last turn of the key in the door, I check everything constantly and find it hard to actually get gone and on my way.

I know to avoid eating too much (or not enough), and I avoid drinking too much caffeine even if I am tired.

A few years ago, having read one of Bradley Wiggins’ books, I was introduced to the concept of Exercising the Chimp. I’ve since read more about this in Dr Steve Peters’ book The Chimp Paradox, and it’s really helped me this year. Exercising the Chimp means confronting all your niggly little fears in a controlled, rational way in order to convince yourself that you have all bases covered and you are as prepared as can be.

Mine goes something like this.

Chimp: Why are you even bothering with this, You know your fingers will shake, you’ll miss all your harmonics and you’ll probably forget all the notes

Me: My fingers will shake, yes, but it’s not the end of the world, they will expect me to be a bit nervous. I won’t miss all my harmonics, I might miss a couple but once I settle they should come better and the more I relax the more likely they are to come. I won’t forget all the notes, if I forget some I’ll just go back to a bit i can remember.

Chimp: Why are you even trying to do this, you’re an accountant you’re not a musician.

Me: Everyone is allowed to change their mind. I passed the audition to get here, I’ve had good results so far this year so I must be doing something right. I’ve been a musician a lot longer than I was an accountant, I have every right to be here.

Chimp: You’re not going to be the best here, I’d give up now if I were you.

Me: Shut up chimp, it’s not about being the best here today, it’s just about getting through this 20 minute exam and doing my best.

Chimp:Β I bet you make a really huge mistake in that horrible bit where you always go wrong. Actually, I bet you make mistakes in the good bits too.

Me:Β Shut up chimp, I know if I make mistakes, as long as I don’t lose my rhythm or flow, I can cover it. It won’t be perfect but I can keep going. If I fall off big time, I will cope and it will take a lot to really shake me. I’ve worked really hard, I’m well prepared and I can do this, I don’t need you banging on at me.

You get the picture. In the moments preceding the exam, the Chimp will be going overtime shouting horrible things. The idea is that you Exercise it regularly on your own terms, and it gets tired and gets back in its box. So you tell it to go away and you’ll talk to it later, when you can listen to it and give it your full attention. After the exam I’ll have all the Chimpy moments – could have done this better, made a real arse of that, what on earth did I do that for. It’s OK after the exam, I can learn from this and make it better next time.

Various people refer to this in various terms. It’s a common technique but I love the analogy of the Chimp banging away in his box, making a big noise so you feel you have to let him out, then letting him out until he’s tired and putting him back in again.

I’ve not found the way to deal with the shaky hands and slightly sweaty palms yet, but in truth if I didn’t feel remotely nervous, I don’t think I’d feel comfortable with that either.

Tomorrow, at 1.30 it will all be over and I’ll be getting in the car to head south. Over the weekend I’m seeing my family for the first time in ages, and I’m off to meet my friends’ new baby. I have two weddings to play at, and a lot of driving to do, but otherwise I am free to enjoy myself.

Next week I have promised myself a week of doing as I please. I have lots of things I want to do, and a big stack of new music to learn. I had banned myself from even looking at the first page of any new pieces until the exam is done. After next week the big job hunt starts.

Until then, all I will be thinking about is 20 minutes of music tomorrow at 1pm.


2 thoughts on “Pre-Exam Trauma”

  1. I hope that the exam went well and the chimp stayed in his box. I love that analogy. As for the sweaty palms and the shaking, I always remember my dance teacher telling me that if you dont get that feeling then you wont perform to your best because nerves matter. Once I understood that I found that I embraced the sweaty palms. I admit, I didnt get them on my parachute jump and I was more worried about that than the jump itself!

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