how to stop shaking on soft snare drum

shaking SUCKS. it sucks so much that it (1) ruins auditions, (2) ruins your self-confidence, and (3) ruins your ability to practice because practicing seems meaningless when you know that shaking is going to ruin your hard work.

it was my #1 biggest life obstacle to doing well in auditions, bar none.

like, there was one time in senior year of college where i played délécluse 9 in performance class and completely donked it. (donking something means exactly what you think it means: a catastrophic failure of a performance, unrecognizable and terrible.) and there was that one time when i had just started at the new world symphony...i played lieutenant kije for the principal timpanist of a major orchestra, shook a ton while i was playing, and he said i had "summer chops." (aka it sounded like i hadn't practiced all summer.) ouch.

anyway, i eventually figured out how to stop shaking. and if that's a problem for you, you can too. i made a video (and a download!) about some exercises that can help you attack the problem.

and by the way, i experienced this particularly with soft snare drum (and used that as an example in the video), but the concepts are absolutely universal and apply to all the instruments.


if you're even a little bit nervous, you can get the shakes, and even a little tiny shake can completely derail you when you're playing soft snare drum. i wanna talk to you about how to stop shaking when you're playing soft snare drum, especially for auditions, but also other stuff.

i get this question a lot.

people say: "rob, you're a pro, you won an audition, you play in a big orchestra...do you ever get nervous?"

for me, it's been quite a while since i've been really "nervous"...maybe 3 days or so. ;)

we're doing this piece at the MET by puccini: manon lescaut. in the 3rd act, i get in costume, i have a drum slung over my shoulder, i play with heavy sticks...and man, i really wish you could see what i see. i'm onstage hanging out with a bunch of soldiers and i step up on this staircase. there's a stage manager who gives me a cue, and then i have exactly 22 measures to walk up this flight of stairs, take a right, and get on this boat. below me, i see the entire orchestra looking up at me. i see the entire audience, all 4000 people, all staring. nobody else is doing anything; it's complete silence except for me playing the loudest snare drum roll i can do.

it's kinda nerve-wracking.

fortunately for me, it's a loud roll, which means the physical manifestations of shaking don't really effect a loud roll very much when you're doing big motions like that. but when you're playing an audition, you have to play soft snare drum, and those shakes will ruin you.

but you can improve nerves and you can work on getting over shaking! here's what i mean.

i want you to think about when you already play snare drum without shaking, which is in the practice room by yourself. you get used to things: the lighting in the room, how close the walls are to you, and how your snare drum sounds in that room. you're repeating the same thing over and over. 

it's easy to get comfortable with something if you do it over and over. it's called adapting. if you've ever broken your arm (the one you use to brush your teeth) and you have to use the other arm, you have to think about every single motion. the first time you do it, it feels so weird. the second time, it still feels weird, but you kind of know what to expect. the third time, it's starting to get a little routine. you don't have to figure it out as you're going.

the equation is: 1 awkward thing x multiple repetitions = 1 easy thing

you're not trying to get comfortable with soft snare drum, exactly. you're trying to get comfortable with soft snare drum in the context of an audition. there are a whole bunch of surrounding actions to the actual playing, so you have to figure out what those actions are. what are the other things that you're going to have to do or experience at an audition that you really should be more comfortable with?

start identifying those actions and practice them. anything you're scared of experiencing is something you should force yourself to get comfortable with by repeating it over and over. as soon as you start making that stuff part of your routine, you're gonna start adapting to them, which will make you feel more comfortable with them, which will help you remove the doubt, remove the nerves, and get rid of the shaking.

one thing you can practice -- literally by yourself in the practice room -- is to, when you're playing something repeatedly, set your sticks on the ground, pick them back up, and play.

another thing you can do is to walk out into the hallway with your instrument and your sticks, sit down on the ground, stand up, pick your equipment back up, go in, and play.

you're going to learn so much from doing this. your arms are going to feel so different after you carry your instrument around. you're going to get used to the experience of picking up your sticks, setting them, figuring out the exact set of motions your sticks have to go through right before you play, and then start. it's that routine that is going to make you feel so comfortable and adapt to the feeling of playing soft drum.

the MACK DADDY of practicing for a real audition experience is, of course, the mock audition.

you go through the realistic experience of someone listening to you, you use a screen, somebody else picks your excerpts for you, all that stuff. going through a realistic mock audition forces you to experience the full range of things that you're going to have to get used to and get comfortable with at an actual audition.

if you're not practicing like this, then you're not really practicing for an audition. if you get to the audition day and any 1 of those pieces or actions or experiences along the chain feels uncomfortable, you're going to start having that doubt creep back in, which is going to cause nerves, which is going to cause shaking. 

for all my successful auditions that i've done, i have prepared by doing 6 weeks of mock auditions. that's 42 mock auditions!

so in every mock, i add the element of stress training. that's where i intentionally give myself stress in order to make myself uncomfortable. making myself shake by forcing myself to do stressful things every time helps me to adapt to it.

to help you with your mocks, i made a cheat sheet of 20 stress-inducing things you can do right before your mock audition in order to train yourself to get good with stress.


one of the tricks to work on shaking is to literally induce stress during your mock auditions. you want to force yourself to experience shaking so that you can begin the process of understanding and adapting to it. here are a bunch of ideas for you to induce stress during your mock auditions that i used back in the day.

rob knopper

lincoln center plaza, 10023

hailed by @nytimes and james levine as needing 'louder triangle notes'. recorded delécluse: douze études for snare drum, percussionist in @metorchestra.