Classical Musicians Can Struggle with Substance Abuse

on Wednesday, 20 May 2015. Posted in Breaking News

Blair Tindall is a noted oboist, with an illustrious career performing with the New York Philharmonic as well as several other groups and film soundtracks. A book she wrote about her experiences in the Classical music world, Mozart in the Jungle, has recently been adapted into an online video series, and shocked many people with its frequent references to pot smoking and drug use.

Drug use is frequently associated with the culture of popular music, but many people assume that the presumably more strait-laced and elitist world of Classical music do not have the same issues. However, the truth is that Classical music performance can be enormously stressful, and many musicians are tempted to self-medicate.

Many Classical musicians struggle with addiction, and debate among themselves the merits or problems of getting chemical help to deal with performance anxiety. In order to encourage people to realize their need for help, it's necessary to look at the extent of addiction in the music world, and think about its possible causes.

The stresses of performing

In 2008, Klaus Wallendorf, who plays horn with the Berlin Philharmonic said he almost always drank before performances. He is one of many musicians who developed a habit towards substance abuse in an effort to calm his nerves. Tindall calls orchestral performers "glamorous, vulnerable and largely voiceless.

" They are expected to perform a large number of complicated pieces perfectly, with intense attention to every detail, yet can also be held back if their nervousness prevents them from being able to play at all, or exhibit the emotional engagement also required for a compelling performance.

In an effort to deal with such a high level of performance anxiety, with the attitude of "whatever it takes" and total commitment to the musical performance that is necessary to sustain a career in music, many musicians can easily fall into the traps of using a substance troublingly, until they develop a sense of dependence.

Some musicians do struggle with alcoholism and drug abuse, often starting with a way to " celebrate" after a performance is over, that can often get out of control and take over a musician's life. The diminished technique and response time is viewed as harming the skills needed for a performance, and so marijuana, alcohol, and cocaine are more likely to be seen as a way to "kick back," but often turn into addictions that can damage careers, as was vividly shown in the British documentary Addict's Symphony.

Beta-blockers

However, one prescription medication is seen more frequently in the classical world, with some teachers even encouraging its use in limited cases. Beta-blockers are prescribed for heart medications, but also block adrenaline and other anxiety-producing hormones in the brain, giving the user a temporary sense of calm.

Thus, people dealing with stage fright often use them as a way to become calmer, even though that falls outside of the drug's intended purpose. Like many instances of unofficial uses of prescription medication, its use was often kept secret, its ubiquitousness hidden from the public, and therefore mostly unexamined.

In 2007, flutist Ruth McClain was fired from Rhodes College for encouraging its use among her students, igniting controversy and discussion about whether the medication was simply a useful way to reduce nervousness, without much danger or side-effects, or a troubling chemical dependency. A 1987 survey of orchestra musicians found that 70 percent of those who use beta-blockers get them from friends, not a prescription. This is troubling behavior, but the drug has a low levels of side effects or dangers of abuse, at least when taken in isolated doses irregularly.

The debate continues to rage on whether using beta-blockers have some merit when needed as or whether musicians should stick to trying meditation or other calming techniques before a stressful gig.

Classical musicians are human, often working in an extremely stressful and difficult job, and may turn to the same dysfunctional coping devices as any one else. No one can deny that music is a deeply joyful, but also stressful, all-consuming career path. In order to sustain a life filled with music making, it is important to be aware of your behavior and ways of coping, to avoid turning a "cure" into a debilitating dependency.

 

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