Classical 91.5

Shaky Plays the Classics

Jan 9, 2018

I don’t always think to mention it. I’m so used to it, that in most situations I pretty much forget about it, until someone asks me if I’m nervous or wonders if they’re making me uncomfortable.

“Oh no, I’m not worried. My hands just shake! It’s called Essential Tremor.”

It’s something I’ve had as long as I can remember – at least since third grade, when I went to a neurologist. I remember three things about that visit:

  • How gross the stuff is that they put in your hair to attach the EEG monitors.
  • I corrected the grammar of the writing sample
  • The doctor said “You should be fine, as long as you don’t become a brain surgeon.”

Portrait of the artist as an awkward highschooler

It’s not brain surgery, but bowing steadily on a viola is not helped by the whole tremor thing (and jokes aside – it doesn’t really contribute to playing with good vibrato either).   

Essential Tremor is not as rare as I had thought. As a kid, I don’t ever remember ever meeting anyone else, especially anyone else who was my age, who had a tremor. I now know a number of people with tremors – some due to other conditions or that developed with age, and others who have the same thing – a life-long condition that doesn’t seemed to be linked to any other condition or disease.

It can be very frustrating to deal with a shaky bow arm – and sometimes it is hard to sort out: how much is the disability and how much is just nerves, like most other musicians have to confront?  How much is technique that could use improving? (Have I become complacent about my bow technique, too ready to blame any problem on the tremor?)

A steady, heavy coffee cup is still one of the favorite gifts I've ever received

In most situations in life, that aren’t viola playing and coffee cup-carrying, I forget about it. For many others, this condition is much more serious – affecting the ability to write, get dressed, or perform other daily tasks. It's good to know that there are resources to help.

As for the coffee cup, I’ve learned not to mess around with little Styrofoam cups of hot liquids that tend be served at events (not great for the environment anyway). I especially love a cup that a friend gave me in high school - it's sturdy and the handle keeps your hand away from the hot beverage.

And the viola, the great love of my life: I think it would be more of an issue if I had decided to try to play professionally (it's not the only reason that I don't). As a player in a community orchestra, it is only an occasional frustration: racing through Mendelssohn’s Scottish symphony last night in rehearsal at Roberts, it didn’t even cross my mind. Very long notes in very quiet passages are still my enemy.

ahhhhhhh, the last note...with a few extra bumps

It does occasionally cause me problems, and of course, worrying about it often leads to the tremor getting worse. But overall, it's good to know that at this point in my life - I'm fine. There are ways to adjust, and there is more I can do with thoughtful practice, if I get around to making time for it. 

Something that bass player Gaelen McCormick said her interview with Julia this week particularly caught my attention:  

Whatever your thing is – because everyone’s got a thing – I mean you could be 100 percent healthy in your body, but if you’ve got a thing that’s hanging you up. There’s always hope to do whatever you do, you just have to find your way, and say, I have this thing, and I want to do “x” – and, not but – and find the way that those things go together.

I hope that whatever your thing is, you can find the resources that help you out, whether it is adaptive technology, support from other people, or other ways to work through it. If Essential Tremor is something that has been an issue for you, here are some resources that you might find helpful: 

* The title of this post is part song reference, with apologies to Joni Mitchell, and part remembrance of being called out to as, "Hey, shaky, over here - " by someone when I was helping out at a soup kitchen as a kid. I realized that, even though I used to really be bothered by people noticing my tremor, at that point I felt a contrary bit of pride. Shaky? Yeah, that's me. I'll be over to help in a minute.