Oh, the dreaded shaky guitar hands!
We practice. We prepare. We offer to share…… and out comes the Terrible Hand Wobble!
Whether you’ve had shaky hands in performance or just when you practice, you are about to discover a multitude of actions (and non-actions) that you can take to “calm the savage beast”.
Why We Wobble (The Shaky Hands Guitar Syndrome)
There are different varieties of “shaky hands guitar syndrome”, and they can come about for any of several reasons.
There are situation-specific wobbles, and perpetual wobbles.
(note: I will be using “shaky” and “wobbly” interchangeably.)
The Sudden Shake
Sometimes we shake in lessons or in performance.
We are all good and fine at home, but suddenly when we have an audience (even someone we love and trust), things go to pieces.
This type of wobble arises from nerves.
More specifically, it comes about roughly because of this scenario:
10 Steps to a Wobblier You!
- We perceive a threat (shame, judgement, failure, whatever)
- We have stress response (adrenaline/epinephrine)
- We grow tense all over (adrenaline does that)
- We begin to breathe in shorter, shallower breaths
- Our shoulders rise, further tightening our chest
- Our capillaries constrict because of the reduced oxygen
- Our muscles grow even tenser
- We lose control of our fine-motor skills (i.e. shaking)
- We freak out and tell ourselves that something is wrong
- This triggers more stress, and the cycle spirals out of control.
In a minute we’ll talk about ways to avoid this scenario, and pull out of it more quickly if it does start.
The Chronic Shake
There are many different reasons that some people are always or often shaky. These range from medical issues with fancy names to lifestyle choices, and everywhere in between.
Here are a few:
- Psychological Disorder (PTSD, GAD, panic disorder, others)
- Dehydrated (~75% of Americans are chronically dehydrated!)
- Chronically over-caffeinated (You know who you are! Oh wait, that’s me…)
- Vata imbalance (in the Ayurvedic modality, most common in people with thin body types)
- Cold (some people are chronically cold and don’t realize it. Go figure.)
- Tremors (and other age-related wobbles, like Parkinson’s)
Solutions: How to Stop Shaky Hands
We are going to break this up into two sections: immediate fixes and long-term solutions.
Short-term Fixes for Shaky Hands:
-Stay hydrated, especially just before performing
–Avoid caffeine and sugar (a radical idea, but at least before playing.)
-Eat a banana or two 30 min. prior to playing (natural beta-blockers)
–Drugs, like beta-blockers (not advisable, if for no other reason than you become detached and it makes it more difficult to connect with the music and play beautifully.)
-Do EFT, also known as “tapping” (weird and new-agey perhaps, but it works)
-Remember to breathe. To relax prior to playing, breathe in for 7 counts and out for 11 counts.
-Put your hands in hot water. Close your eyes and breathe deeply with your hands under a warm faucet: it’s like a trip to the hand-spa!
–Avoid nervous people. If someone else is going down The Dark Road, avoid them like The Plague!
-Relentless focus on rhythm. If you are already playing and start to shake, play with as much rhythmic precision and intention as you can muster. Not just a steady beat, but each note played as securely and rhythmic as possible.
For more performance tips, see also:
- 6 Tricks for Nerves – Conquer Stage Fright and Performance Anxiety
- 3 Tips to Quiet Inner Dialog in Performance
- 8 Tips for a Better Performance (classical guitar or otherwise)
Long-term Fixes for Shaky Hands:
-Always take a few minutes to relax with your eyes closed or meditate before opening your case and touching your guitar. This repeated ritual creates an “anchor” of relaxation, which you trigger when you pick up your guitar.
-Practice being as focused as possible in your practice. This trains your “autopilot” to focus when playing. Most people allow their minds to wander in practice. When it wanders in performance, it scares them and they start to shake. Always pay attention to something specific in your practice.
-Create a short warm-up ritual. It could be a couple of scales, some stretches, a phrase that you repeat to yourself, and/or anything else you like. When you go to perform, if you can do this shortly before playing, you will feel warmed up and more confident.
-Practice playing very slowly from memory. Often we rely too much on “muscle memory”. In performance or lessons, our muscle tone is different than at home, so muscle memory goes out the window. Being able to play your pieces at a very slow tempo from memory will assure you that you really do know the music, and that you do not need muscle memory. You feel more confident.
–Visualization. If you regularly visualize yourself playing with power, grace and poise, you will, over time, bring that into your playing. Olympic athletes have used visualization for decades (if not centuries) to prepare themselves for high-pressure performance. It works.
Planning and Preparing for the Worst
We all hope that wobbly hands will disappear over time.
It’s commonly said that, “The only way to get rid of performance nerves is to simply perform more.”
This may work, but it may not. Even Vladimir Horowitz, one of the greatest pianists of all time, frequently had to be physically pushed onto the stage because he was frozen with fear, even after decades of touring.
It’s a myth that we “grow out of” stage nerves. We might, but we can’t count on it.
Better to plan and prepare as if they were only going to get worse!
Just imagine: each time will be even shakier and wobblier than the time before. What do we do?
Trust in the Training and Process
Instead of hoping for the best, we can incorporate some of the long-term solutions above into our daily practice.
Not only will we feel empowered and more in control of the outcome, but by expecting the worse, we can feel elated that we only shake moderately!
Tip: Choose one or two small changes to start with (like setting a reminder to drink plenty of water and skip the sugar on your lesson day). When you are comfortable with that habit, add another.
And if you could only make one change, increased focus on specific details in your practice would be the one to pick to quiet shaky hands.