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

By Louise Burton on Sep 19, 2013 05:37 AM EDT

Musicians experiencing performance jitters is nothing new. Some musicians feel that a little performance anxiety actually makes for a more exciting performance. But those who experience debilitating forms of anxiety often turn to medications like beta blockers to calm their nerves, as public radio station WQXR reported recently.

Performance anxiety is a subject that many musicians would understandably rather not discuss, but WQXR found several willing to talk about the taboo subject. These musicians, including Holly Mulcahy, concertmaster of the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera, said that they have observed musicians sharing beta blockers "like chewing gum or mints" backstage before a performance.

A 1987 study of the 51 largest orchestras in the U.S. found that about 27% of symphony musicians took beta blockers occasionally to help calm their nerves before a performance. And a surprising 70% percent of these musicians obtained the medication illegally.

The internet has made it even easier to obtain medications without a prescription. But there are dangers: Beta blockers were originally developed to treat high blood pressure, and are known to affect heart rate. This medication should only be taken under medical supervision.

Another problem is the recurring nature of stage fright. Musicians who suffer from debilitating stage fright have to face it at every high-stakes performance, and repeated use of medication to get through performances may become habit-forming.

The trait that allows so many musicians to excel at their craft, namely a tendency toward introspection and sensitivity to nuance, may mean that they also react more strongly to high-stress situations like an audition or competition.

Claiming that some people are more sensitive than others is not just hogwash; researchers have found that an estimated 15% to 20% of the human population responds more strongly to external stimuli. According to psychologist Elaine Aron, "the Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) has a sensitive nervous system, is aware of subtleties in his/her surroundings, and is more easily overwhelmed when in a highly stimulating environment."

And environments don't get any more stimulating than the finals of the International Tchaikovsky Competition, for instance, or auditions for concertmaster at a major orchestra. It may be that some musicians are responding to the overwhelming sense of anxiety in these situations by self-medicating. But this is a dangerous practice. And it leads to the question: If you have to take drugs in order to do something, should you really be doing it?

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TagsBeta blockers, WQXR, Holly Mulcahy, Chattanooga Symphony, Chattanooga Opera, Elaine Aron, Highly Sensitive Person, International Tchaikovsky Competition

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