Possible Cure for the Musician’s Nervous Hand Shakes

One of the great benefits of Classical Guitar Immersion is the collective knowledge and experience that the participants add to the week-long event. In fact, it’s an integral part of the ‘immersion’ experience. This happens informally, with chats on the way to the dining hall, or at night by the fireside, or in our ’round tables’ where we discuss a particular subject.

One day Tom Page was telling me his thoughts on the effects of adrenaline on performance anxiety – which I found very revealing – so I asked him and Doug Campbell (an MD) to lead a discussion on the subject. Tom explained that his expertise was what he could garner from his wife (she does research on stress and immunity at Johns Hopkins University), and Doug shared that he’d retired from practicing medicine years ago, but that he had a brain iPhone app (funny guys, to boot.)

CGI Attendees

Tom discussed the idea of the guitarist’s hands shaking while playing and that it possibly comes from the effects of adrenaline. When the mind finds itself in an adrenaline producing condition, the well-known ‘fight-or-flight’ syndrome kicks in. Adrenaline signals the brain to send a signal to the large muscle groups (flexors and extensors) to fire, or ready themselves for action. Since muscles only contract by brain impulse, this causes a near-simultaneous firing of the two muscle groups. This is to allow for the ability to defend by pushing away (with the extensors) or to engage a more offensive move by pulling something inward (flexors). The rapid, near-simultaneous firing of these muscle groups in the arm also cause the hand to shake.

Notice the Spaniel's Left Paw Shaking

As soon as Tom mentioned this, I remembered early in my performing my career that my hand used to shake, and the cure I’d found. When I found my hand bouncing or shaking a bit, I used to concentrate on digging into the ‘spot’ (where nail and flesh hit the string), and depress the string a bit more from my MP joint, which causes a stronger sound. This caused my hand to stop shaking, but I remembered another thing that happened that I could never explain: my nervousness would also go away.

It’s my humble hypothesis that the latter effect (disappearance of the original anxiety) was due to the fact that I was using one muscle group over the other (the flexors over the extensors), in effect, negating the need for the extensors to fire. I’m thinking that this might have sent a signal to my brain that the danger was over, thus dissipating the adrenaline. Ultimately, this caused the original symptom to disappear, and my anxiety was greatly diminished.

So, am I wrong? Does anyone have any information on why this would happen or on the original precept? I’m curious.
Thanks – Scott

Scott Kritzer

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20 Responses to Possible Cure for the Musician’s Nervous Hand Shakes

  1. Charlie Schultz says:

    Interesting. Could it have been that your digging into the spot was a form of “letting go” (from the Inner Game) or giving self 1 something else to concentrate on, and that in turn stopped the shaking/nervousness?

  2. Scott Kritzer says:

    It certainly could have been but it I remember it being a different feeling from the effects of letting go as you mentioned. Or perhaps it was because I had no expectation of the results that I achieved……

  3. debbie says:

    tremors….an awful affliction, something I struggle with whenever playing around others. Glad to hear that you have found something that helps you.
    I don’t believe the exact cause of tremors is completely understood or well defined in medicine, hence a consistent solution to the problem has been elusive. B-blockers have helped some folks which probably reflects the biochemical processes underlying the problem which is targeted by the b-blockers.
    Just speculation on my part, but I’ve thought of tremors as a dysfunction in the lower motor neuron pathways which is more associated with involuntary muscle movement and reflexes vs higher motor neuron pathway which would involve the brain and conscious control of motor activity. Maybe by consciously contracting and digging in, you overrode or short-circuited that lower motor neuron pathway that was causing the tremor. Or maybe by focusing on that act, it detracts, removes ones awareness of the stress and stops the stress response with its associated cascade of biochemical processes. I had problems with tremors in my left hand hand, where I had problems placing my fingers for the notes and had instinctively pressed down harder with my fingers and noticed an improvement of the tremors but this had not been consistent at other times and also my fingers lost their sense of position as well as fluidness

  4. Tom Page says:

    We evolved this fight or flight response as a survival mechanism. When a lion is about to attack we need to be prepared for super-human performance at throwing a spear or climbing a tree. The creatures we evolved from did not have to execute delicate tone control on the b-string or fast scale runs to avoid being eaten. From an evolutionary point of view it is pretty smart to trade off fine motor control for big muscle performance.

    Try this experiment: with your right arm held in playing position in front of your body, tense up your bicept and tricept (upper arm). If you are like me, it causes your hands to shake. Now try instead tensing your hand; your fingers are probably pretty still. So simultaneous tensing of the large muscles (in this case the tricept which servers as the extensor of the elbow and the bicept which functions as the flexor) causes the extremities (at the end of the lever) to shake. It makes sense that in fight or flight mode the opposing muscule groups of your big muscles are poised ready to take you either direction; in the case of the arms, to thrust or parry, or in the case of the legs to duck or jump.

    So why would digging into a string help? The best I can think is because it sends a definitive and fairly robust directive to the muscle complex of the arm which overrides that poised, but tense state of ready for fight or flight which is causing the trembling.

  5. Scott Kritzer says:

    Great comments. I’ve got a student with tremors and this is a condition unrelated to conditions of anxiety. It’s a condition that while it affects his guitar playing, is not caused by it. I’m assuming this is not what you’re talking about Debbie, rather, the involuntary movement created by anxiety, right ? You’ve both summed up my supposition well.

    On B-blockers. I’ve used them and decided that I’d rather prepare for performance using a lot of what I teach in my Performance Anxiety Classes. I found that beta blockers caused me to be a bit numb and diffused the positives of getting up for a performance. I found I had many more memory slips on them and felt a bit dazed out there. My dosage was very low to boot.

  6. Karla says:

    Tom is right… It is about basic instinct. In the world of teaching anxious children (with neurological Fight/Flight responses are high), the trick is to get them to redirect their attention from the flight/flight trigger to something else. In this case, you are redirecting the “attention” of the person towards anything BUT fight/flight. This will equate to more calm.

  7. Scott Kritzer says:

    Thanks Karla. The interesting thing here is the body’s response to triggering one muscle group and the effect on the original anxiety. We’ve learned in the PAR workshops that redirecting attention can negate the effcts of PA but I’m thinking, in this case, it starts with the muscular which possibly redirects the brain OUT of a flight/fight reflex.

  8. debbie says:

    Yes Scott I’m talking about anxiety related tremors and not one with actual physical pathology underpinning although I think there are some similiar internal physical chemical processes that happen on a cellular level that occur with all tremors despite the different causes or triggers including anxiety, stress, caffeine, fatigue. We all have normal physiological tremor that occurs but is not noticable because the oscillations are so small, its not intrusive. However if there is a trigger which starts certain biochemical processes that results in increased oscillation it can become intrusive particularly with activities that involve very fine, precise movements. I noticed this when I had to do alot of suturing or at rare times when I have to thread a needle. The trigger for me was caffeine as the tremors went away when I stopped the caffeine. Its interesting that even though we know playing around others is a safe thing and the “fight or flight reflex” isn’t needed, we can’t intellectualize the phenomenon away. I do notice that by targeting the trigger which is anxiety and exposing myself to playing more around others, the problem has lessened or if I’m distracted. Consciously involving muscles by ,in your case digging in, may target the anxiety through distraction as well as affect the underlying chemical process associated with muscle movement which is probably based on similiar principles used in biomechanical loading therapy used in movement disorders. Anyway its nice to take note of what seems to work for ourselves & others in approaching the problem.

  9. Scott Kritzer says:

    Debbie said ” do notice that by targeting the trigger which is anxiety and exposing myself to playing more around others, the problem has lessened or if I’m distracted.” In my PAR Workshops I teach a form of what I think you mean by ‘distracted’ – that is focus on something other than that which causes the issue.

    I believe that if we are properly trained (well practiced) that this state of mind, what we sometimes call ‘letting go’, creates the environment for our training to manifest itself with little or no interference. I love the addage Performance=potential-interference.


  10. Anders says:

    I’d like to add a couple of thoughts: I’m severely allergic to bee venom and I’ve gone into anaphylactic shock once and had very strong symptoms several other times. I can personally confirm the link between adrenaline and shaking. I have had to do epinephrine (adrenaline) injections enough times after getting stung that I don’t even get worked up about it. I feel very calm and focused getting my injector out to give myself a shot. 5 to 10 minutes after injecting the epinephrine, a strong tremor starts up, fast-twitch style. Again, the symptom does not scare or make me nervous, but it is pretty interesting to observe the effects of that adrenaline when my mind is not a state of anxiety.

    Could your fingertip planting technique be an example of a positive feedback loop? Maybe in the past you had associated strong notes with playing well and being relaxed, and weak notes/bad tone with being nervous. Perhaps then as you dug in harder and produced those stronger notes your mind almost instantaneously associated them with the performance “going better”, or “sounding better”. I know in my case, whether it be performance anxiety or social anxiety, I’m very concerned that my anxiety symptoms are noticeable by other people. If I’m shaking and do anything new that lessens that shaking, I immediately feel a little better and think that perhaps I’m out of the woods!

  11. gregravo says:

    A friend asked if I would stop by and accompany her while she played the piano and sang. I could not find a way to politely decline so I found myself staring at pages of unfamiliar musical notation. While I have not experienced hand shaking, my own nervous reaction is only too well documented and has crippled any performance capability. The score was fairly straight forward so as we began I was not technically out of my element. As I waited for the sweats to overwhelm me I became aware that in order to compliment her voice and the piano I had to increase my own instruments amplitude. I did so by planting, pushing the string and playing with greater deliberation (thanks Scott!) So I would suggest there is a correlation between more deliberate string movement and reduced anxiety. Perhaps there is hope for me yet. Only time and PAR will tell.

  12. Scott Kritzer says:

    Bravo! 😉

  13. Scott Kritzer says:


    You may be right, as long as this feedback is unconscious (then how would I know?). I know that a feeling of confidence does not necessarily rule out hands shaking, at least this is what some of my students have reported; they’ll be going along feeling great and then all of the sudden they have the shakes. I haven’t experienced this myself for years and when I compare it to other performance anxiety techniques pretty much the same thing happens – refocus on something and the problem tends to go away. I was just wondering about the physical nature of this experience, if the mind cancels out the adrenaline because of a response of the muscular action I took.

    The kind of PA you’re talking about is very debilitating, and common to one degree or another. There are definite techniques to get over them – things that if practiced will shield you first from the affects of the PA which eventually leads to a truly confident feeling. In essence, we need to work from two directions: 1 – practice techniques, 2 – change the rules of performance.

    I am going to be doing a PAR discussion in March and starting a new PAR Workshop in April – you should join us!


  14. tiago jesus says:

    hi there, it happens the exact same thing with me. When I start strumming the guitar strings, my left hand (i’m a lefty) starts to shake. If I press the wrist on the guitar the tremours stop, otherwise it’s impossible to play… :s I’d love to know what that is. I’ve already played live, and it didn’t happen… it happens sometimes, not always… Do you have any suggestion? My name is Tiago Jesus

  15. Hi Tiago,

    Thanks for the response. Which is your plucking hand? Yes, this seems to happen to people at random. What physically happens is that the mind is sending a ‘flight or fight’ signal to your muscles which move which is one possibility that explains the hand shaking. Let me know which hand is plucking and I can give you a suggestion.



  16. Don Walker says:

    I just discovered this site and am glad I did. I have been playing guitar for years – strumming steel strings with others and having some anxiety but not debilitating anxiety….you know, the kind where your mind just goes blank (I call that a “train wreck”). I have begun solo fingerstyle instruction and am loving it. I find however that my right hand fingers shake so much I can hardly play during my lessons or when playing in front of anyone. I shake for half of my lesson and am able to play better during the second half. It is so embarassing…you would think I would be most comfortable with him. My teacher says not to worry, I am in good company and it will pass….well its been 8 months now?…I do think that playing in front of people more will help. If anyone has any other tips not covered here I would appreciate them greatly. Thanks

  17. admin says:

    Unfortunately I’ve found that repeating the experience doesn’t neccessarily deal with the effects of performance anxiety. In fact, in many cases it just reaffirms the problems. I cover quite a bit of that in my Performance Anxiety Workshops (part of my Classical Guitar Immersion programs that I lead in the summer). There are more articles on my site regarding performance; http://scottkritzer.com/category/performing-skills/

    It might help to read some on how to get more from your practice as this can be the foundation for building good performing skills. You’ll find more here: http://scottkritzer.com/category/practicing-the-classical-guitar/.

    Hope that helps!


  18. Jim says:

    My tremor has come upon me as I have gotten older. I do suffer from performance shakes, but this new tremor has nothing to do with performing because it happens when I practice.

    The “wobble” as I call it, happens when I do the most basic of RH finger motions and when using a pick. It seems, the classical end of it, to be connected mainly with my “m” movement.

    I am also studying a very subtle plectrum technique and the tremor happens there as well.

    To give an example: a single rest stroke with m produces a lasting wobble like my arm is made out of rubber. Of course, I have less time to warm up like I used to and warming up helps somewhat, but there are days when this tremor lasts all through practice.

    Only when I slow things down to an almost slow-motion or extremely slow metronome speed, quarter = 44, 54, does this abate.

    From the previous discussions, I have considered slowly eliminating my coffee intake, getting regular massages and even studying Alexander Technique.

    Can anyone chime in with some solid medical reasons/solutions for all this?

    My beloved guitar I cannot give up.

  19. Ivan says:

    Dear Scott, I recently performed Lilly Afshar’s arrangement of Gavotte at a small recital. Although this was my 3rd recital, and I didn’t feel nervous, I completely bombed due to tremors in both hands. I know I was prepared, and could play the piece almost flawlessly before and after the event. The prior two recitals were somewhat similar but the tremors were much less. I don’t know what to do. I’m studying under an instructor SO THAT I can perform in public. Now I feel like I’m wasting my time. Afterwards I went through a complete grief cycle. Now I’m increasingly disinterested in guitar. Can you help?

  20. admin says:


    Don’t be disheartened; you’re not alone. You have my respect for going into battle with this difficult instrument. I felt that same way for years (and often felt like quitting). I was finally able to overcome the effects of performance anxiety.

    First off, preparation is key. An organized and focused practice is critical but even then those performance anxiety devils can still rear their ugly heads. Memory is where most of our concern comes from. Cinch the memory and you go a long way at keeping PA at bay. Memory work like super slow practice, backward sectionals (where you play the piece backwards, phrase by phase, from the end to the beginning). I also teach my students to do something I call Left Hand Sequencing. This is done by simply watching the left hand and anticipating where the hand goes in the next shift or chord or next set of notes.

    Next, let’s talk about tone and tempo. Make sure that your getting a great tonal contact point where the nail/flesh strike the string simultaneously. Getting a great tone does a couple of important things. First, it gives you great tone. It also makes your right hand incredibly accurate. Those two factors alone will give you a great confidence. It also gives you a silent monitoring system for tempo. And keeping your tempo under control is critical. I try to never play any faster than I can get a good solid contact point on the string. When I begin to go a little too fast I start to lose that contact point and pull my tempo back. If you don’t use this as an indicator your only other point of reference is when you start going so fast that you start making mistakes. While its okay to make mistakes we don’t want to lose control. Audences don’t hear that small difference in tone, they do hear the mistakes.

    Here’s another great benefit of great tone production. Attention to tone can reduce your hand shakes. Our hands shake because adrenaline is causing the brain to move the flexor and extensor muscles almost simultaneously. Thats what adrenaline is suppose to do as we are in a fight or flight condition and those muscle groups are readying for their job. But, we can eliminate these shakes and the effect of adrenaline. When you begin to feel your hands shake simply dig your nails a little deeper into the string. As stated before this will slow your tempo but it will also send a signal to the brain that you are primarily going to be using the flexor muscles and don’t need the extensors as much. This ‘stand down’ order all but eliminates the shakes, and that nervous feeling as well!.

    Going into the performance you must change your mind set, changing the unrealistic rules of performance that we hold ourselves to (perfection). Perfection is not the goal, sharing the music is. Except the fact that its okay to make mistakes (almost everyone short of the very top greats do). This is harder than it seems. Think about it – what happens if you do make mistakes? It’s not fun but life goes on. I make mistakes in every concert I play. I only remember one concert where I didn’t and the fact was I wasn’t concerned about it one way or the other. And really, it wasn’t my best concert. So fully accept that its okay to make mistakes.

    I hope that helps my friend. Let me know how it goes and keep up the good work. You are certainly not alone. I’d be happy to chat with you via SKYPE if you have any questions!