Performance Enhancement

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?

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16 thoughts on “Performance Enhancement

  1. jonrussell20

    My understanding is that beta blockers are not really performance-enhancing, but more to help people who get debilitatingly nervous. I didn’t think your typical musician used them, but only people who have serious serious problems with nerves. I’ve also heard that they basically have the same chemical that bananas have – a food I’ve often eaten before performing because it settles my stomach and calms me down. Anyone know if this is true?

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  2. jhelliott

    Beta blockers are not “performance enhancing” drugs. They block physical symptoms of extreme nervousness: shaking hands, or in the case of an excellent flutist I know, shaking lips! They do not change one’s mental state, except that they remove one aspect of anxiety, the fear that the nerves will get in the way of one’s playing. I have used them for years, and many more musicians than I would have ever guessed use them too. And many of these musicians, including me, play new music. Basic they lower the heart rate and blood pressure–they are used at higher doses to control hypertension–and have almost no side effects, although they do dehydrate me somewhat.

    I think many musicians who might otherwise be unable to perform due to nerves have flourishing careers thanks to inderal. NPR did a segment on them last year; I was interviewed along with a violist from the NY Phil and some other prominent performers. The NYTIMES also did a big article on them last spring (I think it was last spring, but my memory is not what it once was).

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  3. kmanlove

    Yeah, Colin, we all knew. I knew a lot of musicians in undergrad that would “pop” them, which I assumed was really NOT GOOD. Playing with your body’s chemicals like that and no supervision of a doctor… eek! I could be overreacting, but you shouldn’t pop anti-depressants, so… ? Also, shouldn’t it be pills + counseling so that you may some day really overcome the problem?

    Some of my best performances came with a hefty side of nerves. I didn’t realize this until I heard the recording, of course. I just wanted to vomit. With my performance anxiety, which was really awful, I performed more and seeked counseling (every university I’ve attended offered performance anxiety counseling–for all disciplines). Granted, I rarely perform anymore…

    Performance enhancing or not, they affect your body, and who knows what that means. By overcoming my anxiety, I had some really amazing performances. I’d really hate for someone to miss out on that because of a quick fix.

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  4. Colin Holter

    I feel the same way. The semantic opposite of “aesthetic” is “anaesthetic” – in other words, a chemical that prevents us from feeling something during performance is necessarily anathema to an aesthetic experience.

    The best performances I’ve ever given were accompanied by physical distress, sometimes very intense. Even if I substitute a placebo for your beta blocker, however, it’s still possible that you’ll feel less – and as a composer and as a listener, I want you to feel everything, even, if necessary, crippling fear.

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  5. ian

    The best performances I’ve ever given were accompanied by physical distress, sometimes very intense.

    Have you considered though that perhaps not everybody is the same, and what works for you may be crippling for someone else?

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  6. mdwcomposer

    Based on direct reports of those who take beta-blockers, I have to agree with jhelliott: they are not “performance enhancers”. Also, I think it’s important to ponder jhelliott’s statement: They block physical symptoms of extreme nervousness: shaking hands, or in the case of an excellent flutist I know, shaking lips!. Again, based on working professional performers I know, that is the case. From the people I have talked to, they don’t report a lack of feeling, just less paralyzing fear (emphasis on “paralyzing”). Here’s an interesting aside: when one person I know got his prescription filled (yes, the professionals I know take them under medical supervision), he mentioned to the pharmacist that he cuts the pills in half (the dosage is much lower than when these drugs are prescribed for hypertension, as jhelliott points out), the pharmacist said “These won’t do anything at such a small dose, you may want to check back with your doctor about that”.

    Now look at this from the performer’s standpoint. If you’re a string player, and you have bow shakes when you get anxious / nervous (auditions bring out the worst), you will not get hired. Auditions are grueling beyond belief, in my opinion. I know people who take beta-blockers just for auditions but don’t as a general rule when performing. Some take them for every performance situation. Some take them when they know they’re sitting principal and / or have an important solo. But even if your bow shakes occur occasionally during performance, it reduces your chance of getting work – your colleagues notice (are you sitting next to the guy who contracted the gig?). As much as “feeling everything” (including fear) might be desirable for you, for someone who makes their living playing all the time this can be absolutely debilitating.

    Colin, you said that The best performances I’ve ever given were accompanied by physical distress, but do you really think your body would handle that year in, year out, when you’re performing over a hundred times a year (think of the average free-lancer, who sometimes packs in 3 or 4 gigs a day)?

    But the bottom line for me is that I honestly don’t believe I’m missing anything in a performance of my music (or as a listener sitting in a concert), if a performer has done the beta-blocker thing. Now when the performer does some juice, weed or blow . . . (and you might be surprised about the prevalence of those “performance enhancers” if you were able to get honest answers among the performing community at large).

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  7. Colin Holter

    The use of beta blockers at orchestral auditions, as far as I’m concerned, is a social problem rather than an artistic one. I don’t particularly care one way or the other. However, it privileges those musicians who can a) afford to come by the drugs legally or b) risk obtaining them under the table (which, according to the NYT piece, is not uncommon) – this is patently unfair.

    As a private citizen, there’s not a hell of a lot I can do about the first group, even if they develop a desire to play new music while on these drugs; it might piss me off, but based on your comments, I may find myself fighting an implacable tide.

    The second group, however, is breaking the law. I don’t have to put up with that, and neither should the orchestra managers and directors who are hearing cheated auditions. Ignore for the moment the issue of whether a performance on beta blockers is less meaningful than a “clean” performance, in the auratic sense – the ramifications of whether widespread beta blocker use could have profound social consequences in the music community, especially if some of it is illegal. You will not change my mind on this.

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  8. John Kennedy

    calming
    Some of the statements here have within them a kind of lurking arrogance about performing artists being like hired help who have to be just so in the service of the composer and employer. They are human beings who know what it takes for them to do their best and to do right by the music, and they use individual approaches to do so. As others have noted, beta blockers are used mostly for auditions or technically challenging solos in standard rep, and the notion that this impacts the ethics of audition outcomes is taking the issue a little too seriously. It is not enhancing their performance a la Barry Bonds, it is like taking a reverse-coffee. Some players will tell you they hate them, that they don’t want the edge taken off, others will say it calms them just enough to focus on the music, not the stressful situation they are in. To suggest this compromises a player’s condition at the expense of YOUR music is an interesting perspective – you are lucky to have someone who cares about being in their best possible form. I know a big 5 orch member who drank a shot of Jack Daniels before the finals of the job he won. Many conductors, me included, will have caffeine before a long piece, to assist alertness. In my experience, I have found most musicians to be very faithful to music, and are themselves the experts at what conditions they need to do their best. Unless found otherwise by the medical community, I seriously doubt beta-blockers are impacting the preciousness of any musical performance.

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  9. Colin Holter

    Not having the medical background to comment definitively on any of this, I will recuse myself from further discussion.

    But not before relating a comment from a pharmacist friend of mine who’s read this exchange. According to him, there are no over-the-counter beta-blockers on the market, which means that (theoretically) musicians who are using them have consulted professionals and determined that there is no physiological risk. Again I’m discounting the auratic and heuristic implications of beta blocker use – which I believe bears further discussion – but strictly in terms of health and safety, I think we can agree that whether or not musicians “know what it takes for them to do their best,” licensed medical practitioners know what it takes for them not to have cardiac infarctions. I’m not saying it’s likely, but this debate is going to get a lot somberer if some orchestra loses a member to beta-blocker-related heart disease.

    Also: If I found out that a performer of my music was using beta blockers without a prescription, I would narc him or her out in a heartbeat. I’d feel real bad for about thirty seconds after I got off the phone with the authorities. It’s not safe, it’s not legal, and although I can’t speak for other composers, I’ll never acknowledge that it’s an ethical way to perform my music.

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  10. jhelliott

    beta blockers
    I forgot to add that before my doctor would prescribe them for me he did a complete check including EKG (or is it EEG? I confuse the two). No one should ever take inderal without a doctor’s approval.

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  11. CM Zimmermann

    Colin,

    The use of drugs and alcohol in music (and the arts in general) has a rich tradition. The straw man of your anti-beta-blocker campaign reveals your seemingly puritanical position on this issue. Using beta-blockers is a rather benign issue in comparison with the challenges that contemporary arts face today. I would clean out the empty beer cans in the low brass sections of orchestras before sicking the drug cops on nervous performers. If you are this shocked by beta-blockers, I suggest that you give those musicians who have agreed to perform your music ‘drug tests’.

    CMZ

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  12. kmanlove

    I have a strange feeling that forcing my performers to pee into cups at the first rehearsal would only help my music. On a serious note, I’m not sure I know anyone who was actually prescribed the beta blockers that they take. That seems bad to me. Granted, at the first rock gig I ever played, our drummer was hopped up on beer and meth, and he suddenly went into Hendrix’s “Fire” (not the song the rest of us were playing), and then collapsed off the stool. I guess I’d prefer beta blockers to that.

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  13. malancaster

    Now that it has been made imminently clear that beta blockers are not ‘performance enhancing’ drugs, please allow me to address what i find peculiarly disturbing. Mr. Halter states “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” ….One can NOT control the feelings of another human being. There are many new music performers who neither cringe nor flee from musical complexity, but rather rise to the challenge of a difficult piece finding great satisfaction from their concentrated efforts. If the ultimate goal of your music is to unsettle the performer, i suggest you indicate this very clearly in the score so that those who are not intimidated by your work can realize the appropriate psychological state with theatrical training.

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  14. Colin Holter

    I know I said I’d shut up about this, but I just have to say one more thing.

    Performers take beta-blockers because they want to minimize an undesirable side effect of performance (namely, physical nervousness).

    The elimination of this undesirable side effect constitutes an improvement – an “enhancement,” if you will – of the performance, both for the player and for the audience.

    Therefore, beta-blockers are performance-enhancing drugs. Q.E.D. If you take them, they will make your performance slightly better or easier or more comfortable or whatever – if they didn’t enhance performances, nobody would take them, and I would be writing a column about something much less controversial.

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  15. CM Zimmermann

    Colin,

    I had to have ligaments in my knee reconstructed after an injury playing college soccer. I have fully recovered and continue somewhat regularly to this day. My knee does act up a bit when the weather changes and occasionally after a match. Before playing, I pop two capsules of Aleve. This seems to ‘enhance’ my performance because, at least psychologically, I am not as worried about my knee. No one on the pitch would say that I am taking ‘performance enhancing drugs’. All of the other players do not take aspirin before playing because they do not have two titanium screws holding their knee together.

    Using your anti-beta-blcoker logic, I suppose that you would not allow performers to smoke a cigarette and drink a cup of coffee before going on stage. Coffee and cigarettes certainly calm nerves.

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  16. Chris Becker

    From John Kennedy’s post…

    “…you are lucky to have someone who cares about being in their best possible form. I know a big 5 orch member who drank a shot of Jack Daniels before the finals of the job he won.”

    I don’t understand how John can equate taking beta blockers or drinking Jack Daniels with being in best possible form.

    There are many ways for a performer to relax themselves (or conversely use nervous energy in a positive way) before a stressful situation/performance. Maybe we could talk about these alternatives? Yoga or meditation are good…

    Reply

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