My bow hand shakes really badly when I am performing. What should I do?

When this question appeared on, Al Ku made the following comment: “Accept that there is some level of underlying anxiety of going on stage when you are not heifetz ready. Continue to perform in public with less expectation of outcome and more expectation that you want to enjoy yourself in the process. Your priority is to enjoy yourself. Second priority is to enjoy yourself. Third priority is to enjoy yourself. The moment you get into thinking of pleasing others, you set invisible targets to chase – futile.”

I can’t stress how important I think this advice is, all the more so because it’s not about technical considerations or “more things to worry about” when you get the shakes.

I just want to tell you about my experience which is a bit like yours … I’ve been playing professionally for a long time now, and big stages and large audiences generally don’t bother me. I feel that achieving a state of relaxation and being into the music myself is the most important thing I can give to an audience, and when I’m playing concerts I try to walk onstage in a peaceful state of mind. A big part of this is not having too many expectations. I’ve gradually come to realize that if you want to give something to the audience, it’s essential to play within your limits. If you’re stressing about something, the audience will feel it immediately. Much more important to play an easier piece with heart than a tricky piece in a state of tension.

BUT I recently got a bad case of the shakes – a friend asked me to play at a little fund-raiser for her music school. It was in our local village hall on a rainy night, only about 30 people came, and about 10 of them were my family. Both my brothers turned up, my parents, my wife, her brother etc etc. I was a wreck! For some reason I was desperate to please them (they don’t often hear me play) and I fell apart. I couldn’t play the easiest pieces. I was grabbing onto the bow as if I was hanging by one hand at the top of a cliff, and my left-hand fingers just went on holiday.

This destroyed my confidence for a few days – how could I lose everything so easily. How could I play to 3,000 people without fear and not to 30? Surely I needed to practice for another 5 years and re-learn my entire technique? But I came to understand that excessive expectations, too much need to please etc etc will ruin a performance every time …

So relax, enjoy yourself, go busking, play a lot in front of anyone who will listen. Your bow is shaking because you’re too nervous, so be less nervous. If you want to be less nervous, you have to lower your expectations a bit and get used to the surroundings. That’s it …

Another great technique I picked up from a fellow musician (apart from the also excellent advice of starting a performance with a great big racket that doesn’t need to much poise or control) is to talk to someone in the audience before you go on stage. Not always practical but a great ice-breaker … even making eye contact with the audience can help a lot. It helps to stop you from watching yourself performing, which is a form of “living in bad faith”.

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