Why Worrying about Shaky Bow Just Makes Things Worse (and What You Could Focus on Instead)

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The summer after my sophomore year in college, I flew to Jerusalem to meet some old friends, with whom I’d be participating in a chamber music bootcamp of sorts. An intense couple weeks of daily master classes with musicians like Isaac Stern – and many others whom I never imagined I’d ever have the opportunity to meet.

Naturally, I wanted to make a good impression. But I was pretty intimidated by their presence, and the level of the other students there. I felt like a total imposter. As if I had somehow lucked into a situation that I didn’t deserve to be in.

It was probably the longest sustained period of pressure that I’d ever experienced. So maybe it’s not surprising that about a week into the workshop, in a performance on live national radio…I suddenly had an episode of shaky bow.

This was not the annoying-but-manageable jitters, but the full-blown, mortifying, what-the-heck-is-happening-to-my-arm shakes that make you feel helpless, and only get worse the harder you try to control them.

It got so bad that I ended up having to cut the last note of the piece short (the 2nd movement of the Schubert B-flat Major piano trio , if you were curious), so that I wouldn’t end the movement with an unwritten spiccato.

I couldn’t look at anyone afterwards. But when I confessed to a friend in the audience, he said he hadn’t noticed anything.

And when listening back to the recording, I have to admit that unless I listen for it, it’s probably not the thing that stands out most about the performance.

Which makes me wonder…is it possible that our nerves are a lot less noticeable to others than we think? Kind of like how listeners (and even other musicians) generally notice much fewer of our mistakes than we think they do?

And is there anything we can do to stave off such episodes of shaking?

Fear of negative evaluation

Social anxiety is not the same thing as performance anxiety – but the two share some common ingredients. One of which is the fear of being evaluated negatively by others.

And we know from research on social anxiety, that in embarrassing or anxiety-inducing situations, both socially anxious and non-anxious people have many of the same physiological reactions. Like blushing, an increased heart rate, or sweaty hands.

However, those who struggle with social phobia tend to be more hypersensitive to their physiological symptoms, and worry that other people will think less of them if they are sweating, shaking, blushing, and appear to lack confidence in the situation. Much like how in those final few bars of the Schubert, the only thing I could think about was how the other students would think less of me when they saw how nervous I was.

Put simply, a big part of social anxiety (and I think performance anxiety too) is anxiety about being anxious.

Singing on camera

A 2007 Australian study, for instance, compared the subjective1 and objective2 experience of 21 women who were high in fear of negative evaluation (FNE), and 21 women who were low in FNE, as they sang “Old MacDonald had a farm” on camera. A task, that for obvious reasons, made all participants feel pretty embarrassed and anxious.

Subjective vs. objective experience

Not surprisingly, the participants who were most concerned about being evaluated negatively, reported feeling more anxiety about singing than those who were less concerned with being evaluated poorly. The folks high in fear-of-negative-evaluation perceived more of an increase in trembling and blushing while singing too.

But here’s where it gets interesting.

While the high fear-of-negative-evaluation participants may have felt like they were shaking more and getting red in the face, their physiological responses to the situation – i.e. heart rate, breathing, sweating, and facial temperature – were actually no different than those in the low fear group.

In other words, participants in both groups experienced embarrassment and anxiety while singing, but the participants who were more worried about being evaluated negatively, were more preoccupied with their symptoms of anxiety and embarrassment, and experienced more anxiety than those who were less concerned with how they’d be evaluated.

Kind of like how my mind was so consumed with the horror of what was happening to my bow arm, and stressing about how I would lose whatever respect I might have had from the other musicians in the audience, that my anxiety instantly went up to an 11 .

Are shakes actually normal?

The fear of shaky bow stuck in my head for a while. But a few years later, I played with a friend who always seemed to be at ease and in control on stage. Who never seemed to get nervous. Until one day, when performing in a chamber music group together, I looked over and noticed that their fingers were shaking. Quite noticeably.

Of course, you couldn’t tell from listening to them play, and they looked just as engaged and focused as ever. Which made me respect them even more, as I realized that they were probably just as nervous as I was. They just didn’t let the nerves faze them.

But how…?

Don’t try to control your muscles!

Indeed, it seems that thinking about the shakes, or worrying about them in advance only makes us more nervous. Which just makes the shakes more likely to happen. And there’s a ton of evidence which suggests that one of the worst things we can do under pressure is to monitor, or try to control our muscle movements. Which might work ok in the practice room, but disrupts our coordination and timing in performance.

How, for instance, focusing on the trajectory of a tennis ball over the net leads to more accurate shots than focusing on the contact point of the ball on the racket.

Or how focusing on the sound of the piano, leads to more accurate playing than focusing on one’s fingers.

Or how watching a video while running leads to greater running efficiency than focusing on one’s breathing, or the movement of one’s muscles.

Ah-hah! So does this mean that Netflix could be our new practice buddy? Or that we could eliminate shaky bow if we could watch TV while performing? Kind of like the headphones scene in The King’s Speech ?

Ha. I wish.

But then again…sort of, maybe?

Narrative thinking

Imagery is often discussed as a practice tool. A way to augment our physical practice and build confidence.

But it’s something you can do while performing too.

Perhaps this is why some performers find it helpful to engage in “narrative thinking.” Where instead of obsessing about one’s fingers, breathing, or racing heart, you immerse yourself in telling a story with the notes, dynamics, articulations, colors, rhythms, etc..

Likewise, every single minute of our coachings that summer were devoted to exploring the music in more detail. Not once did intonation, technique, ensemble – or my shaky bow – come up.

For instance, we spent the better part of a week working on getting the character and spirit of the opening of the first movement just right. At one point, I remember the faculty debating a range of adjectives amongst themselves, eventually agreeing on the word “panache,” and the image of Cyrano de Bergerac, riding on a horse, as the one that they felt best captured how we should approach the opening (listen to Stern/Rose/Istomin playing it here ).

Night and day

And when you compare our performance on Day 1 to our performance on the final day, the difference was night and day. From our vibrato, to our articulation, bow strokes, bow distribution, phrasing, pacing, dynamics – it was like listening to a completely different group playing.

That final performance was also much less nerve-wracking, and way more fun. Perhaps in part, because I had gotten used to playing in front of these folks.

But I’d like to think that Cyrano had a little something to do with it too. After all, it took a lot of mental energy to bring these images to life, leaving me with very little mental bandwidth to worry about whatever shenanigans my arm muscles and sweat glands were up to in the moment.

Which in hindsight, was probably the entire point of the workshop. And an enduring lesson that has stuck with me. And maybe narrative thinking won’t eliminate shaky bow entirely, but maybe we don’t have to let it define our performance either. Because at the end of the day, I suspect performances are a lot like what Maya Angelou once said about people: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”


References

Chen, V., & Drummond, P. D. (2007). Fear of negative evaluation augments negative affect and somatic symptoms in social-evaluative situations. Cognition and Emotion, 22(1), 21-43.

Duke, R. A., Cash, C. D., & Allen, S. E. (2011). Focus of Attention Affects Performance of Motor Skills in Music. Journal of Research in Music Education, 59(1), 44-55.

Maddox, M. D., Wulf, G., & Wright, D. L. (1999). The effect of an internal vs. external focus of attention on the learning of a tennis stroke. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology,21, S78.

Schücker, L., & Parrington, L. (2018). Thinking about your running movement makes you less efficient: attentional focus effects on running economy and kinematics. Journal of Sports Sciences, 1-9.

Footnotes

  1. Participants were also asked to report their own subjective experience of anxiety and embarrassment. As well as their impressions of any changes in their physical reactions (e.g. Was their face getting warm? Hands sweating? Shaking? Feeling short of breath?) – from 1 (not at all) to 5 (extremely).
  2. Participants were also hooked up to a variety of devices that enabled researchers to measure physiological signs of anxiety or embarrassment – like heart rate, changes in their breathing, skin conductance (sweating), and facial flushing.

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice,
Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.

Comments

9 Responses

  1. the quote you used by Maya Angelou made me have goosebumps as I read it….so true. Thankyou very much for the article.

  2. Some interesting ideas here, especially regarding your experiences at the chamber workshop. I wonder whether intonation, articulation and other “standard” concerns would improve in a group of less skilled players if the focus was taken off the instruments and put on the music as your coaches did. I play with a group of friends of varying abilities in a wind quintet. I’m SO tired of the discussions of articulation and dynamics on every piece—and the same issues come up the next time we play that piece! Maybe a style/story focus would help things stick, or even better make those discussions unnecessary in the first place.

    1. It can be a tough balance to find – because at some point we do need to understand and discuss the nuts and bolts of things too. But it’s easy to get stuck there and forget the point of it all. Maybe your group can experiment with approaching this in reverse as you suggested? Meaning, start with the story, and making that clearer, and then addressing the articulation/dynamics/etc. as it relates to enhancing elements of the story if necessary, rather than focusing on articulation/etc., and hoping that ends up telling a story?

  3. Hi Noa,
    It is so comforting to hear that someone who plays at the level you do has felt and experienced the things a real neophyte like me does. Your advice continues to help me “shake off the shakes” and focus on playing the song.
    Also, love the quote. It’s played out every time we finish a set at our regular gig at an assisted living center-every one of us can name the mistakes we made, yet the people come up and praise and thank is for our playing like we were professionals. I think it’s cause we made them feel included and happy! Great point that if we make it about making others feel good, it all works out great.

    1. Indeed – sounds like you and your colleagues must be doing something right that they feel included and have such a great experience of the performance!

  4. Hi Noa, oftentimes your blog posts will come at important moments for me on my continued personal efforts in this field. This one came at the end of some self-research into mindfulness practices in concerts of varying importance before one that was very important to me. The premise of my experimentation was that a focused mind on the present moment would yield a less anxious and more successful attitude. I found that focusing on breathing while playing was next to worthless. Breath is erratic during playing and a useless focus for me. After some effort (and revisiting things you have said) I decided that a focus on the sound and phrasing would be ideal. But I found that it was a little too subtle for my mind and the overpowering negative and anxious thoughts would come up simultaneously and I would eventually lose my intentional focus for the negative thoughts. I needed something more powerful.

    Along comes your blog post and it strikes me immediately as the solution to my problems. Indeed, visualizing alongside the focus on sound, sometimes on objects as simple as a person, a scene from a made up opera, or a ballet move, kept my mind occupied enough on the present moment to keep focus through an entire Schubert Octet concert.

    Thanks you!

  5. I actually do like practicing with the tv on. Drives my husband crazy as you can imagine. Not sure how successful those practice sessions actually are, LOL.

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