August 9, 2016, 5:54 AM · Calling all violinists and other string players: What physical things happen to you when you get nervous while playing? What makes you feel like you have no control over the particular nervous trait that hits you? When you feel like you can’t control what’s happening, what do you do to manage and mitigate? What helped you bring the nervous traits under control?

Two physical manifestations of stage fright (otherwise known as concert nerves) that are shared by many, are the out-of-control bouncing bow and the inability to feel your feet planted on the ground. I have read accounts by some of the most gifted string players on the concert stage who have experienced these phenomena. The human mind has two distinct ways of reacting to fear. The first and scarier thing that may occur is that the bow arm breaks down and is incapable of moving like it’s accustomed to. Fortunately, the second way allows the mind to come to the rescue by creating new movements for the bow that will override the chaotic bow.

frozen fiddle

Feeling comfortable in your body and "feeling the ground" are examples of how natural our motions need to feel to us. Stage fright alters the comfort level of string players. However, in spite of the mind’s ability to toy with the body like a cat with a mouse, we can find comfort in knowing that music and artistry will rise to the occasion and be expressed no matter how a person feels, if the desire and the skill are within the player. The body may not cooperate fully, but the mind can always find a way.

Bow Blowout: Worse Than a Flat Tire

I doubt there is any string player who has never experienced a chaotic, sputtering, bouncing bow. There are two things that cause what I call "bow blowout." This term refers to the sudden loss of control similar to when a tire blows out: normal tire use becomes impossible and one has to maneuver to keep the car in control. In the case of the bow, the ability to control depth into the string, the distance that it moves and the speed at which it travels may likely be severely hampered. Unlike a tire blowout, no one dies, but when you’re in the middle of a performance and your bow is frozen, you may feel like you wish you were dead.

Frozen, Locked, Paralyzed

When a musician feels fear, his knowledge of his instrument and his ability to navigate music come into question. The reason accomplished musicians can play even when they are nervous is because they have a deep awareness of why things work and why they don’t. We get results one way when we feel great, and another way when we’re scared to death. The job of the professional musician is to recreate the exact sound, as we hear it in our inner ear, no matter how we feel. We have to be prepared to try Plan B if Plan A is no longer an option. If the bow arm feels that it cannot move the bow freely and with full distances, then play with an alternative technique that is possible.

Know the Bow and Its Vulnerabilities

The nature of the bow and its engineering, and the nerves and emotions that are involved in performance, lend themselves to the possibility of bow blowout.

  1. When the bow lacks purpose, it’s more susceptible to losing contact. As the bow moves, pay attention to the changing "playing point." This refers to the part of the bow that’s touching the string at any given moment. Make sure that the weight into the string is just the right amount. The audience expects a steady sound, free of unwanted surprises, and the performer’s ear should desire the same.

    For most young players, the left hand is more than enough to think about. Many never come close to moving the bow with the necessary energy.

    While the bow arm often starts out as a passive partner, gradually the mind sees its possibilities. It shouldn’t just travel from left to right with a weak, vague rhythm. Instead, it should recognize the various possibilities that a vibrating string expects from a bow. Rather than inching your way along the bow unimaginatively, experiment instead with swooping into the string. This is similar to the motion of a gondola. It feels good to move the bow this way. It’s more natural to enter the string with a lateral angle. A 90-degree, head-on approach to the string feels awkward and will not spin the string very well.

  2. The combination of deciphering where the beat and subdivisions are, and feeling confident about beginning the stroke, especially in the upper half, are integral parts of bowing skill. Any doubt can derail the bow. The mind juggling two such complex jobs can eventually just give up, leading to a paralysis of the bow’s movement.

    Picture yourself in a string section wondering when to come in. The conductor’s beat is tiny, the silence of the orchestra before the downbeat deadly, and your job is on the line. (Hey, we’re talking about abject fear. Some hyperbole is acceptable and needed here.) It’s no surprise that this triangulation of events and emotions can freeze the bow.

    Strengthening any potential weaknesses will cut down the possibilities of bow blowout. For example, work on your ability to start notes quietly at the tip. Also, learn the relationship between the conductor’s beat and when the orchestra comes in. There’s a science to this art, and while it’s not easy to explain, it eventually reveals itself to anyone who begins to examine it.

The Club is Universal; The Remedy is Individual

One of the more fascinating aspects of music, and one of it greatest ironies, is that musicians talk more about what makes each of us different than what we seek in common. Teachers in conservatories bring their individual trademarks to set themselves apart, and run the risk of forgetting to explain the nuts and bolts of being a musician and a technician.

One thing we all share is being subject to stage fright and forgetting how all the parts work. We belong to a club of shared experiences and vulnerabilities. Finding what we have in common opens up the secrets that we all seek, the complicated beauty and simplicity of playing the violin.

Some players have figured out how to deal with stage fright by reading books such as The Inner Game of Tennis and Zen and the Art of Archery. Others find comfort and deliverance by seeking a spiritual solution. Finally, some find that the Red Sea parts when a deeper awareness of how the violin and music work. Everyone who looks eventually finds the magical answers to the questions that have been facing them for years.


August 10, 2016 at 02:10 AM · I tend to grip the instrument too tightly. And, I sort of zone out during fast passages. Obviously, neither of these reaction is helpful!

August 10, 2016 at 05:45 AM · I have also experienced the cramping of the left hand during a performance, even when I'm not nervous. When I learned how tight my hand was, I eventually discovered how much the hand, wrist, arm and fingers should move, even when moving up a half step. Then it was quite enlightening to realize how much everything moves when changing to another string.

When my students are barely moving their hand while making changes on the fingerboard, I ask them to watch my ring and wrist-watch move. Those are clear indicators of movement.

Just one other thing about hand tension: you can still play beautifully with some tension, as long as the right notes are played and the vibrato is used. Relaxation is not the actual foundation of great playing. Accuracy and good planning are. It's nice to be relaxed, and we should seek it out when possible. But most of the time, there are other, more important things to concentrate on. - Paul Stein

August 10, 2016 at 09:05 AM · Tension - physical and mental- is of course part of the human condition. But for the performing artist in music, drama or dance, tension plays perhaps a disproportionate part in normal, everyday life. Carola Grindea researched this in great detail and together with a group of dedicated experts put together a symposium addressing this issue. Details here:

August 10, 2016 at 10:10 PM · I tried the "gondola approach" after reading your article and it helped tremendously!! Thank you!!

August 11, 2016 at 03:25 AM · I get bow blowout a little bit, but it's not as bad as frozen (as in, tight, fast, and/or non-existent) vibrato. My hands both get very cold when I'm nervous, then I hear the effects of the nerves, and then I get more nervous and play even worse, in a downward spiral. I found that wearing "wristies," or fingerless gloves, while playing was very helpful in combatting this problem.

August 14, 2016 at 10:33 PM · When I first began, I just wanted to hear the sound of my violin and play simple songs; now I'm all frustrated about technique and difficult passages. I was happier just having fun with it in the privacy of my own home!

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