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Fear Itself: Why Some Classical Musicians Turn to Drugs Like Beta Blockers to Control Stage Fright

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Aug 23, 2014 06:40 PM EDT | Louise Burton ( l.burton@classicalite.com)

Classical Musicians Turning to Drugs Like Beta Blockers to Treat Anxiety and Boost Performance

According to WQXR-FM, many orchestral, operatic, chamber and solo musicians are still taking medications to calm their nerves before performing. (Photo : Classicalite)

Much has been written lately about classical musicians who use drugs like beta blockers to deal with stage fright. Some observers outside the music world have criticized these musicians for resorting to drugs, but these commentators may not fully understand how performance nerves can affect musicians and alter the outcome of a performance.

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I would like to offer one of my early experiences with performance nerves as a case in point.

I was 16 years old, playing principal horn in the National High School Music Institute (NHSMI) at Northwestern University. In orchestra we were playing Weber's Oberon Overture, which opens with a horn solo. It starts with just three simple notes, repeats a few bars later, and then the solo horn plays a few bars with the strings. Nothing to it, really. But there was something about the exposed nature of those first few notes, being the first player to break the silence, that really got to me. As the concert date approached, I could feel the pressure mounting.

I became irrationally afraid that I would lift up the horn to play and no sound would come out. Or that I would fluff the first note completely. (No matter that it was a second-space A, not even a high note.)

There was a story circulating among the NHSMI students at the time, about the previous year's principal horn player and how he ruined his lip by playing too loudly and long. Anxiety began nibbling at me. I began to be afraid that the same thing would happen to me, or that I would bite my lip while sleeping and never be able to play the horn again.

Miraculously, on the day of the concert, I felt a new strength in my lip, and I actually made it through that Oberon solo. To this day I have no idea where the strength came from.

Performance anxiety. I know it well. I went on to study the horn at Northwestern and play in many Chicago-area ensembles, but performance nerves never really left me. It may be that I simply don't crave the spotlight the way some performers do.

To this day, I have a great deal of respect for musicians who make their living by playing in public. I know how hard it is. And I can understand why they might use beta blockers, even though such usage treats the symptoms and not the cause.

But it's a mystery: Why do some musicians experience debilitating anxiety, while to others, adrenalin is what makes their performance take flight?

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