Stage Fright and the Bow Arm

September 21, 2020, 12:30 PM · No matter whether you call it stage fright, concert nerves, the shakes, or butterflies, it is a condition shared by numerous performers. One very accomplished violinist said she was so scared that she couldn’t feel her feet touch the floor when she was performing. A cellist said that losing a lot of weight helped him deal with it.

Another violinist had a difficult time transitioning from his youth as a prodigy to his adult life on the concert stage and in recordings. He experienced something common to many violinists, a shaking bow that would disrupt any hope of control.

bow butterflies

Yet he persevered because of his deep love of music and his desire to communicate with his audience. Such stage fright is the extreme kind, and it stems from a combination of negative thinking and, in my case, insufficient understanding of how the violin and bow work.

Controlling the Bow’s Flight

It was my bow arm that took the biggest hit when I experienced stage fright. It was as if I had two different bow arms, one that worked well most of the time on an unconscious level, and the other that lost all strength, direction, leverage, speed, and all the other actions I took for granted. When those disappeared, rather quickly and suddenly, it was inevitable that the bow would begin to bounce. After all, it is a floppy, aerodynamic object that needs guidance, direction, and thought. Without the proper ingredients, the system breaks down in strange, but expected, ways. Veering from a straight path and bouncing out of control are the side effects of a long, sometimes unbalanced, stick of wood.

To have the bow work one moment and then suddenly lose control of all functions made me search for answers. I realized from these two contrary thoughts that I needed to understand my bow arm better. While I tried to use relaxation techniques and humor to minimize the threat of the bow malfunctioning, I still needed as much ammunition and knowledge as I could muster to handle the bow before it devolved into random bouncing.

Three Bow Techniques Used to Gain Control

  1. Use the proper weight for the bow to stay in the string. Leverage is a factor that should be used judiciously. Too much of it at the tip will cause friction and scratching. Not being sure of how much weight to apply can lead to the bow bouncing and losing its connection to the string.

    While the amount of leverage changes with each moment that the bow moves, you should strive for a feeling of leverage that adapts naturally to wherever the bow happens to be. I call it “neutral leverage” because the changes are so infinitesimal that only a subtle, sensitive control will work. It barely deserves to be called leverage, but when the hand is clear to the right, and the tip way over to the left, it sure looks like a lever.

  2. Being comfortable with the bow means you’re able to handle it at any angle. It takes practice to be adept at keeping bows horizontal on the D string and practically vertical on the E string. I would often weaken the connection between the hair and the string if I didn’t feel confident with the angle I was playing in.
  3. I became very interested in how the hairs and the string connect and observed that I often interfered with that process by overdoing movements with my fingers. When I realized that the arm, hand, fingers, etc. are more like a conveyor belt than a complex set of moving parts, I had developed a simpler, more successful system.

Sharing Experiences and Knowledge With Others

Knowing that others share this affliction has helped me deal with stage fright. Even though I would experience it while standing alone on a stage, I knew it was shared by many. However, my process of dealing with stage fright unfolded over many years, and it was layered with details and discoveries. I have a feeling that many who have experienced it did a lot of specific work and soul-searching. I think we can learn from each other. I always appreciate when a player shares his own strategy, even though it may or may not resonate with my particular needs.

You never know what you’ll learn. In the end, we are all different, complex human beings. One violinist shared his personal breakthrough in his fight with stage fright. It was a very spiritual and religious reckoning, and it didn’t surprise me that very deep convictions would be used in his fight. Sometimes the roots of stage fright run deep, and each should be dealt with whatever means are available and with whatever works.

While trying to understand how the violin and bow work together, there is no one right way. There is only the way that works for the individual. Sometimes it may be so unique that no one else will share the same strategy. It’s the ongoing quest and the search for understanding that helps to stem stage fright.

You might also like:


September 22, 2020 at 12:13 AM · The only shakes I like are malted.

September 22, 2020 at 01:12 AM · Paul, I left off an obscure term for stage fright. It’s flop sweat. Now we’re getting into much less appetizing terms. I prefer malts.

September 22, 2020 at 06:54 AM · Round my way bow-arm shake is known as the purlies, derivation unknown

September 24, 2020 at 07:37 PM · Steve, thanks for purlies. I’ve heard that before, but I can’t find any reference to it on the internet.

I did find this, however,while I was trying to find the Yiddish translation. It’s the gold mine of stage fright terms.

The more you can identify a problem, the better you can deal with it. I find translations help in their own way.

September 28, 2020 at 05:58 AM · More on undesired bow bounce.

I feel uneasy doing yet another response to someone whose resume is two leagues above mine, but here I go again:

Nathan Cole's video on the topic reminds us that the bow Wants to bounce. the stick, the hair, and the strings all act like springs, especially in the middle. What is frustrating as a teacher is when the student can't do a controlled spicatto; the hand interferes.

Fix #4 Develop the sensation that the string is holding the bow. This is easy on the lower half of the bow on the G and D strings. The E string is tricky because it is very stiff and slick and the bow is almost vertical, pushing sideways.

#5 Make sure the right elbow is lower than the right hand. Don't push down on the bow, rather, let the right hand hang on the stick.

#6 The right shoulder is all the way down, relaxed. It doesn't appear to do anything.

#7 Be careful with the 3rd finger of the right hand. It is almost useless. If we apply any force with the 3rd finger we get reverse leverage on the stick; the hair loses traction. A demonstration: Starting with your normal bow hold, lift the third finger and tuck it behind the stick. then play your usual bowing exercises. It is a little clumsy, but you will discover how useless the third finger is.

#8 The music culture, the context, is the biggest component of stage fright. My worst nerves were for an audition committee of 3, but playing amplified solo violin in a jazz band for an audience of thousands was no problem.

This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music: Protect your instrument this winter

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Starling-DeLay Symposium
Starling-DeLay Symposium

Los Angeles Philharmonic
LA Phil

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases Shopping Guide Shopping Guide

ARIA International Summer Academy

Study with the Elizabeth Faidley Studio

Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Jargar Strings

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop


Los Angeles Violin Shop


String Masters

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine