Every now and then, I run across a piece of information that completely rocks my world, only to find that everybody on my block already knows all about it. I don’t know whether the use of beta blockers in classical music performance is common knowledge, but I find this genuinely alarming.
Apparently, beta blockers are drugs capable of slowing heart rate and calming nerves. The International Olympic Committee has banned their use in Olympic competition. However, according to an October 2004 article in The New York Times, no fewer than 27 percent of musicians polled by the International Conference of Symphony Orchestra Musicians reported taking them.
I suppose that taking performance-enhancing drugs for an orchestral audition or performance is fine with me; at that point you’re entering a large commercial enterprise anyway, and I probably won’t even notice if the third-chair viola seems unusually euphoric.
The presence of beta blockers in the new music scene is a horse of a different color. As a composer whose music hinges increasingly on its ability to induce certain psychological states in the performer, this really troubles me. Playing my music—and the music of many of my contemporaries—is not supposed to be relaxing. Particularly in new chamber music, there is something about the frisson of performance that absolutely makes the experience for me. If a drug can eliminate this sense of tightrope-walking, this intangible aura, it can cheapen the act of making music immeasurably.
Something else has really been bothering me since I first read about these drugs. How many performances have I already seen by doped players? I vividly remember the first time I heard pieces like Psappha, Superscriptio, and the second Boulez piano sonata in concert, all presented by top-notch musicians. I was overwhelmed by these renditions, but if I found out that they were chemically fortified, I’d feel utterly betrayed.
If you’re in the know, please don’t hesitate to shed some light on this issue. Are beta blockers common in new music? Should they be?