Terrible tremors: embracing your violin bow shakes

Is your bow the epicenter of a major seismic event?
Is your bow the epicenter of a major seismic event?

Ask any violinist about the first time they got “the shakes” in a performance, and they’ll respond with the name of the piece: the Schubert Fantasie. Shostakovich 8th quartet. Mendelssohn concerto.
And since this week’s repertoire at the LA Philharmonic is Mahler’s ninth symphony, the grand-daddy of all shaky pieces, those terrible tremors have been lurking about!
Every orchestral musician has at least one, if not several, stories about the end of the Ninth (well, let’s call it the other Ninth). Things just have a way of…happening, during that endless gaze into eternity. Here is a sampling:

  • an audience coughing fit so severe that the Lord’s name was loudly taken in vain
  • a substitute bass player leaving the stage (in platform shoes) for a lusty backstage vomit
  • the cell phone heard ’round the world, from a 2012 New York Philharmonic performance

In each instance, extracurricular activity overshadowed the drama on stage: every violinist battling his or her own personal bow demons while trying to achieve a magical pianississimo. For some of those violinists, the interruptions were a welcome relief from the unbearable tension!
Let’s let Leonard Bernstein set the scene. Jump to the last minute of this video for some wonderful bow close-ups:

So are we cowards, those of us whose bows refuse to follow our explicit instructions to stay-on-the-string-don’t-panic-and-for-the-love-of-God-play-as-softly-as-you-can?

The traditional view of the shakes

My former quartet-mate and current Indianapolis concertmaster Zach DePue once told me a story about a mentor to both of us, who has since passed away. Let me preface the story by affirming that both of us would love to be able to play the violin into our 80s the way this man could and did. But as befitted someone who put that much work into the instrument, he had strong opinions about how it should be approached. And in a public master class, he displayed little patience for a student whose bow shook, and who asked for advice about it.
“In my student days we didn’t have ‘shakes’. You got nervous and you dealt with it. Those who couldn’t eventually decided performing wasn’t for them.”
This was a fairly typical viewpoint for his generation of violinists. Can’t stand the heat? Get out of the kitchen. The problem: he was set to play Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending that very night with the student orchestra. And in the unaccompanied opening, his bow shook. And it kept shaking.
“He was trying everything,” Zach recalled, “waving his bow arm, moving around the stage, trying to walk it off!”
Was the performance ruined? No, because the guy was an awesome violinist and that’s all the audience remembered. But the students got a chance to see what I see every day from my seat in the Philharmonic: that shakes can happen to anyone at any time. Even the best players sometimes have to “walk it off”.

What causes the shakes?

If you’ve ever played golf, you’ve stood over a short putt a bit longer than you needed to. You missed. And invariably, one of your playing partners said the magic words, “You know, it’s all mental.” Hopefully you avoided wrapping your putter around his neck.
It shouldn’t be news to anyone that what we think and what we do affect each other in powerful ways. Therefore it’s almost always some combination of physical and mental circumstances that causes the shakes. Here are a few of the physical:

  • fatigued muscles in the arm or hand (from exercise or from having just played loud and fast)
  • caffeine or other stimulants in the system
  • flaw in the bow hold or bow arm

And mental:

  • garden-variety performance anxiety
  • unpleasant associations with a particular piece or passage
  • embarrassment at the possibility of shaking

To eliminate or to embrace?

This article is titled “embracing the shakes” because unfortunately, there is no foolproof way to get rid of them totally and forever. Of course, I did make a video about a safety move that has already helped many violinists get out of sticky bow situations:

So am I immune to the shakes? Of course not! But here’s what I’ve learned from observing the world’s great soloists from three feet away:
Everyone shakes. And shaking is OK.
That’s the embrace, and it’s the most important step toward reducing a shaky bow. Because the shakes behave a lot like a toddler: when they know they can get your attention any time, they’ll do it all the time. But when you deny them that power, they bother you less often.
But the embrace is just the first step. Since there are mental and physical causes for the shakes, we need hybrid solutions as well.

A three-part solution

Physical

Just by looking at the “physical” bullet points above, you’ll get a good idea of some things you can do to help yourself out: stay relaxed and efficient during powerful playing; limit caffeine and other stimulants; and follow good principles for the bow arm and hand in general.
These include:

  • nicely spaced fingers on the bow hand, with no bunching or undue spreading
  • flexibility in the bow fingers (a “dangling” bow means the fingers are already extended to the max)
  • a bow hand and elbow that are approximately the same height (no significant angle at the wrist)
  • regular and relaxed breathing during playing

Mental

Keeping your mind limber for performance is a lot like keeping house: unless you dust regularly, you can build up layers of unpleasantness that require a deep cleaning. The shakes love to hide in those layers!
My friend Noa Kageyama is a master of the mental game, and his site The Bulletproof Musician is a great place to start your deep cleaning. In general, your aim is to scrub away negative associations with playing and performing, replacing them with positive ones based on relaxed awareness and focus.
Therefore it’s important to be aware of your bow arm at all times, not just when it’s seemingly betraying you! If you’re accustomed to noticing your bow’s nuances when times are good, you’ll be better equipped to turn a shaky situation back into a normal one.
Visualization is a key component of any mental strategy for performance. You can read more about it here.
And it may help to keep the image of our old-school teacher in your head: pacing around the stage, fighting an inner battle…all while the audience takes no notice and enjoys his ravishing playing.

Pharmaceutical

Are you surprised to see medication as a solution? While it’s discussed and debated openly in the world of sport, it’s curiously taboo in music. That attitude is slowly changing, however: there’s a marvelous new documentary, Composed, that tackles the intertwined issues of performance anxiety and medication (disclosure: I was happy to participate by giving an interview).
Beta blockers, like any drug, come with tradeoffs. When they’re used properly, under a doctor’s supervision (needless to say, the only way they should be used), the physical side effects are so moderate as to be negligible. But including medication as part of your performance routine means more variables to take into account: timing, dosage, and drug interactions, for example. These extra variables are the reason why I haven’t yet tried beta blockers for performance.
But for many violinists, the tradeoffs make sense. And when I say “many”, I’m including world-class and world-famous players, those whose performances you’ve respected and admired for years. Would it change your opinion of them or their playing if you knew they took medication?

A double standard

For some reason the violin community accepts, even admires, the drug and alcohol use of its heroes. Those guys could play even when they were trashed! At the same time we shake our heads at those who are mentally “weak” enough to consider taking a beta blocker. For example, Henryk Szeryng was well known for playing under the influence of alcohol (which might be positive or negative depending on the circumstance) while Michael Rabin battled prescription drug addiction.
Only those men could say whether performance anxiety had anything to do with their decision to use drugs. If it did, even in part, would you care? Would you listen to their playing any differently?
The fact is that the decision to use any drug (including caffeine or alcohol) has to be considered in relation to its benefits and costs. Many major athletes continue to use banned performance-enhancing drugs, at great risk to their careers and reputations, because they enhance performance. For these athletes, whose livelihoods depend on beating the competition, the reward seems worth the risk. It’s just the same for professional violinists whose livelihoods depend on their ability to perform at a high level under pressure.
Finally, let’s not forget that there are other, non-career-related activities in life for which medication is now an accepted part of the process. Maybe beta blockers would be more widely accepted if we jacked up the price, rolled out a flashy ad campaign, and changed the name to Bowagra!

Let them know you care

I’ve never once remembered a violinist’s performance because of a shaky bow. Rest assured that your audience won’t either. Paint a detailed picture with your sound, give your listeners plenty to grab onto, and they’ll leave your performance talking about anything and everything besides the shakes.
These days, when I sit right next to a big-time soloist who starts to shake, I smile inside because I know the performance matters to them. So that’s the easy way to stop the shakes: stop caring. Stop caring how you play, stop caring about improving, stop caring about inspiring your audience.
But since you’ve made it through this article, I know you won’t be taking the easy way out. Embrace those shakes: they’re going to be with you for the long haul. Raise the rest of your violin game and leave the shakes far below, right where they belong.

Have you experienced the shakes? How have you coped?

12 thoughts on “Terrible tremors: embracing your violin bow shakes”

  1. As a recovering “shakeaholic” I agree with everything you wrote here.
    I’ve used a beta blocker in the past, and even though my usage wasn’t excessive, it became a mental dependency. So when I ran out, I didn’t refill the prescription. I tried my level best to deal with the problem by “manning up” and fighting my way through it. That worked at times, though it tinged every upcoming performance with a since of fear and dread. That’s not the kind of experience I wasn’t for my musical life.
    Recently my performing scenarios changed and became more stressful. A particularly bad episode of the shakes at the delicate opening of a Mozart quartet really took me for a loop and made me take notice. It wasn’t a mere quiver in the bow: my wrist seemed to have a mind of its own, fluttering wildly enough to swat flies.
    After many years of fighting the battle on my own, I decided to get some help from a performance psychologist. He put me on a regimen of physical activity, EMDR treatment and selective use of the beta blocker alongside traditional therapy to help me better understand the underlying issues. So far it’s been helpful as I’ve since had several positive playing experiences, and greatly reduced symptoms even in relatively stressful situations such as chamber music performances.
    I’ve come to the conclusion that (at least for me) there is no “garden variety” performance anxiety. Once you go past the physical/technical/music preparation issues, the root causes can be complex and nuanced; they change from situation to situation, and so they bear close examination.
    What I want to tell people who struggle with shaking or other symptoms related to fear: find the courage to delve into it as a journey of self discovery. You can’t push it away. The more you try, the harder it pushes back. Nor can you crush the fear, it will always be there on some level. But I think it can learn to live alongside it. All while it teaches you deep lessons about yourself. It compels you to be present in this moment of your life.
    For me it’s become a choice between my love of the music, my love of performing vs. fear and separation. So even if I don’t play at my best every time, or if I’m not playing in the best concert halls of the world, that’s OK. I’m moving towards joyful playing, with an open heart. Beyond that nothing else matters.

    1. Absolutely. The treatment for performance anxiety is long and varied, and definitely includes some soul searching. I saw the documentary “Composed” at NEC. Every conservatory should show it. Though awareness of performance anxiety has grown in musical education, training in dealing with it is still absent in most training programs.

  2. I think I shake because of two things: either because I’m nervous or when I’m not nervous and drawing long slow bows, it’s because my bow was tightened too much.. loosening it seems to help!

  3. Howard van der Sluis

    A couple of years ago, I had a case of the shakes during that nasty little solo in the slow movement of the Dvorak 8th symphony. Although I don’t play full time and was sweating the whole thing, I was fine for most of the solo until the very last note when my bow began to shake. I don’t think anybody noticed, but it seemed like a million years before the rest of the orchestra came in! Thanks for your advice on what to do (other than cringe) when that happens!

  4. Great article about bow shaking. I had also a bow shaking problem few years ago, it was a bit unusual, because it started to shake from the frog. after few terrible moments on stage(2 times in audition, felt awful), suddenly I’ve noticed that it’s the BOW ANGLE. Normally when people begin to shake, in a way we are so nervous about it, and the more nervous you are, the more you hold the bow and play the notes with a too much ‘outward’ bow angle to the string, so that our little finger and ring finger has no control on the bow, and the wrist is so intense, and all the weight toward the first finger and thumb.
    one day I watched Heifetz Paganini 24 on youtube, suddenly I’ve noticed that he always has a little ‘inward’ movement when he arrives to the frog with his wrist or finger. and that gave me a lot of inspiration. that’s also I realized the problem I had that shaking from the frog was, THE BOW ANGLE. you just can’t start a note with a ‘outward’ holding bow at the frog. also a little bit more bow speed and A RELAXING THUMB and not too much pressure on the string would be also helpful.
    That’s my story, I am very happy it solved now. but of course, everyone shakes the bow, just it’s nice to discover your own way to make it better.

    1. Thanks for this! Yes, often a nervous reaction is to straighten the fingers to try and stop the bow shaking. Unfortunately that only lessens the control and flexibility. I appreciate you sharing.

  5. Thanks for this and many great articles. Here are some of my techniques for avoiding bow shake:
    Maintain a reasonable or high level of physical fitness.
    Focus on breathing out and emptying the lungs, before and during any high pressure playing. It’s not just about “deep” breaths, as that puts undue emphasis on the tense state of having very full lungs.
    Listen to an think about all the other parts of the music going on around you. After all – particularly in an orchestra – if you are playing a long slow bow ppp then you are just a tiny tiny part of a beautiful whole. Thinking like this helps me in many ways, but particularly when there is exposed quiet slow playing.
    A few minutes of long slow bows (1 minute or more) during scale practice or warm-up. Every day.
    The music may convey stillness but to convey it you still need to move, however slowly. I find that bow shake comes when I think “still” too much and part of my body tenses.
    I also focus on the fact that the audience will hear much less of the shake (if any at all) than you hear from your own violin. If you are part of a large section then the audience hear even less shakes (even if all players’ bows are shaking all over the place!) Then it doesn’t matter and miraculously the bow doesn’t shake in the first place.

    1. I like these suggestions a lot! Especially the last paragraph, which I always tell students. The interesting (or terrifying) thing about the end of Mahler 9 is that it’s one of the very few exceptions to your fourth paragraph: all that’s going on is the long, slow, quiet bow! Although even then, you’re part of a section… which is why you’re required to play so soft in the first place!

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