Performance Shakiness

March 10, 2018, 1:17 PM · When I perform, my right hand gets very very shaky and it completely makes me sound bad. Everything else is fine, I get nervous but I don't forget my notes or get brain farts, just my right hand is so shaky my playing sounds unstable. Can anyone help me with this? I really want to fix this problem.

Replies (17)

March 10, 2018, 3:07 PM · It‘s hard to say. I had that when I was a beginner and even a few years in. I remember I was once playing for the first time with an orchestra and was asked to play alone. I knew the notes but started shaking so much that I overheard a flautist commenting on it and the conductor telling him to shush. It was totally in my head though. When I started feeling more confident it got much better. I think what helped me was to really believe that I could do it, since I had done it so many times before. Good luck!
March 10, 2018, 3:35 PM · It is one of the symptoms of "stage fright," brought about by excess release of adrenalin in your body, sometimes referred to as the "flight or flight" syndrome. Fiddlers lose their right arm stability, wind players lose they diaphragm (the muscle that pushes their lungs). Actors get the problem, singers get the problem. I've been told (by a performing physician) that pre-performance vomiting suppresses the adrenalin response.

It's true that it is "all in the mind" but knowing that does not help all, or perhaps even many people. A medical doctor can prescribe medicine (typically beta blockers) to suppress the adrenalin response.

I was 17 and had been playing the violin for 13 years and performing on fairly regular occasions for about 3 or 4 years when I was first hit with the same symptoms in my bowing arm for the lowest risk "performance" I had ever done. I had no idea what was happening because I did not sense any nervousness or fear. After that the problem never went away. It was another 25 years before I learned about beta blockers and started to use them and again played solo or chamber music performances without fear --or any other problems--for as long as my body could do it - a phase that started to fade in my late 70s.

I know people who realized deep down that it was "all in their heads" and after the successful use of beta blockers for a short time, no longer needed them. Of course now i know a lot of musicians in my age group who take beta blockers for circulatory and heart problems and get the added benefit of fearless, shake-free playing.

March 10, 2018, 4:17 PM · Try taking longer bows when it occurs. It will help relax your arm, which will help limit the tremors to some degree.

Avoid caffeine or other stimulants on the day of the performance, too.

March 10, 2018, 4:23 PM · In addition to the metabolic effects of adrenaline, there is the context, the situation, the culture. The "toxic perfectionism" of our classical performance world doesn't help. I play my worst on the other side of a screen from an audition committee of three. Playing in an orchestra or even second violin in a quartet is no problem.. And playing in non-classical genres neutralizes the stage-fright, I've done half-improvised amplified solos in front of thousands and just smile at the mistakes-the audience doesn't care. Being 100% technically prepared helps. One risky spot can ruin your composure for the whole piece. Experience helps; repeat performances will be less nervous than the premiere. jq
Edited: March 11, 2018, 12:23 AM · Does your hand get freezing cold too?

It’s likely adrenaline or Reynaud’s or both. You can try avoiding stimulants but it won’t stop the fight or flight response. If you aren’t interested in beta blockers, try learning some meditation, lots of warm up.Stay healthy, get good sleep the night before (don’t stay up practicing), relax as much as possible limit the stress. Gloves to keep your hand(s) warm before they get cold. The body actually restricts the flow of blood and sometimes the blood vessels spasm. Staying warm can limit the vascular response. It doesn’t improve with performance or change with risk for me. Familiarity is sometimes worse. (fear of higher expectations?)

March 11, 2018, 1:01 PM · Perform as often as you can -- even in offbeat venues like a garage, or an empty gym at school, or a local park. I've done all three -- and then some. Take every opportunity to let people hear you -- as long as you're not disturbing the peace.

One trick I employed early on was to start a performance or audition with aggressive material -- e.g., something with a lot of quick-attack chords and a lot of digging in with the bow. Playing this kind of material for a few minutes helped me burn off some adrenaline at the outset. Then I could do justice to more lyrical fare later. Think of the first solo measures in the third movement of the Tchaikovsky VC -- or some of the chord work in Kreisler's Praeludium and Allegro.

On the other hand, if you start your performance with the Meditation from Thais -- well, that one is going to betray a case of nerves right away. Save pieces like this for later in the session.

Regarding beta-blockers: I would advise against using them -- unless you have a condition that makes them medically necessary -- or if all else has failed and you must use them as a last resort in order to perform. Perlman, reportedly, simply can't perform without them. Keep in mind that you have to have a prescription for these meds. If you have a problem with cold hands, as you mentioned in your previous thread --

-- then beta-blockers, which typically slow heart rate and circulation, can make this problem still worse.

In case my advice sounds familiar, I did a little self-borrowing -- and some adaptation -- from what I told you in the earlier thread.

Agree with previous poster on avoiding caffeine and stimulants on performance day. FWIW, I avoid them on all days, so I'm conditioned to not having them.

March 11, 2018, 1:14 PM · Jane, I seem to have some of the same issues as you. I just performed two weeks ago and my hands were freezing right up until playing, and then right after, they warmed right up. I have Raynauds otherwise, so regular exercise, yoga/meditation, staying warm, good sleep etc are all very helpful.

One consideration I make for myself is the time of day of performance among other things. I seem to be at my best performing after about noon, and playing in church in the mornings is not my favorite. Doing a bit of exercise to get the blood moving right before playing is good. I drink ginger tea before performing, as it seems to warm me up, but I stay away from caffeine, as it constricts the blood vessels.

In any case, it's good to find your routine - There doesn't seem to be a "too much" warming up I can do before playing, but other people are different. I find that it helps to perform with consistency - At the very least, little things don't throw you as much.

Edited: March 13, 2018, 12:15 PM · Two suggestions:

1. Learn some relaxation techniques, especially that are quick and rely on attention and focus on breathing. I've got a brief paper on this kind of technique if you're interested.

2. Do a little self-talk.
- "I'm doing the best I can up here. If that's not good enough for some people, that's their problem."
- "Brahms never complained when I played this for him."
- "I'm making music, not just playing notes."

This reminds me of one of my favorite quotes. Ferruccio Busoni, after a concert in which he played some of his own compositions, got a terrible review in the newspaper. He sent a now famous note to the music critic: "I am sitting in the smallest room in my house. I have your review in front of me. Soon it will be behind me."


March 13, 2018, 1:09 PM · That's a really common problem. Like many said, it's all in your head. So go on stage as much as you can, and play for as many people as you can. That's the only way it helps. No amount of practicing behind closed doors will help this. Another thing that helps is to have a "pre-concert" a few hours before, play for a small audience like your friends and family members.
March 14, 2018, 2:12 AM · Jim, why exactly do you advise against the use of beta blockers, apart from cold hands which can be remedied & doesn't happen to everyone who takes them? I have yet to meet a doctor who isn't fully on board with musicians using beta blockers.

I agree with avoiding caffeine (and anything else that may lower your adrenaline levels).

March 14, 2018, 2:30 AM · I would like to say I have yet to meet a doctor who isn't full on board with any patient using any kind of pills. Using any kind of pills against stage freight is not necessary according to my experience.
March 14, 2018, 2:44 AM · I had and to a certain extent still have that problem. Stage fright effects people differently. In my case it is almost always the bow arm and hand. What helped me was to work really hard on bow technique in general so that I can control the bow better when I'm on stage. That took a long time but has helped me a lot.
March 15, 2018, 3:03 AM · "According to my experience", with all due respect, says it all. For some of us it goes beyond the norm and pills become necessary.

Beta blockers are like exercising to lower your heart rate.

March 15, 2018, 10:46 AM · "According to my experience" means my personal experience as well as the expetience with many students during my teaching career :-) I was suffering stage freight a lot during my teen age and studies. Than I realized how to get rid it. It is only about your mind and approach. Stage freight may limit you, as wel as hype you up to play much better than you eved did at home. Pills can only mask some of the symptoms as they usually do in general.
March 15, 2018, 11:33 AM · I tend to favor this as well^^^^

I'm sure beta blockers could probably help, but I've always tried to avoid anything that looks like a crutch. Maybe it isn't a crutch to someone else. To me it would be. I compare it to an athlete who feels they need something to help their performance. Unless the person has a real issue medically with their nervous system and they need this to function normally.

I tend to get nervous usually when I am in the presence of someone who has played all their life. In that case I know every little thing I do is being looked at critically and that makes me nervous.I know they can see 10 things I should be doing or am not doing correctly. It only takes my teacher less than 5 minutes to find something to correct.I am getting better though. In general I think this mentality affects pros who play amongst other pros. It's that " all eyes are on you" feeling. If it didn't matter you wouldn't be nervous. I think this is the internal pressure to be the best you can be. We sometimes allow our own standards to hinder us.
Playing in the moment helps. Focus helps.Familiarity is probably the most important for me. Familiarity with the instrument and familiarity with the material.
I play piano every week after two or three cups of coffee. You can get away with that on a piano ;) And after 20 years drinking caffeine it doesn't affect me any more.

Edited: March 15, 2018, 5:20 PM · The word 'crutch' actually works in my favor here, since crutches are used to level the playing field for people who are physically disadvantaged. You wouldn't tell someone walking with crutches to "stop depending on medicine and try deep breathing" etc., as they are only using them out of necessity.

To clarify, I'm speaking about people who seriously cannot perform without beta blockers, and have tried everything else.

Edited: March 16, 2018, 12:32 AM · What else have they tried?

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