Is the scourge of the professional athletic world rearing its ugly head in the music industry?
This summer’s Olympics games were marked by several high profile performance enhancing drug scandals. Several high profile athletes tested positive for banned substances, most notably several previously successful Greek and American competitors.
These banned substances allow athletes who use them to perform at levels beyond normal human ability and help them achieve record breaking levels of performance. The drug of choice in the spotlight this year is a designer steroid named tetrahydrogestrinone (THD).
The motive behind banning such substances is obvious; everyone deserves to perform on the level playing field of natural ability and training. However, given the competitive nature of professional athletics, it’s no surprise to discover that there are always competitors eager to obtain an artificial edge.
And professional musicians are very similar to professional athletes; they are constantly searching for ways to improve their performance ability. But unlike their athlete cousins, professional musicians can rarely benefit from artificially increased physical ability.
But there are other ways for musicians to improve their performance; by reducing performance related anxiety.
It’s nothing new for musicians to suffer from performance anxiety, otherwise known as “stage fright”. And up until the past few decades, classical musicians haven’t dabbled in performance enhancing drugs (the legal ones at least).
Performance anxiety is an issue that’s typically treated as a mental challenge, something more like “mind over matter”. Almost every professional musician has a technique or trick they use to help them remain calm and focused during performances.
David Lockington, music director for the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra, espouses a technique he refers to as visualization, which helps him establish triggers to relax during performances; and for David it works well.
He says, “I visualize walking on stage, seeing the lights, and using all of those as triggers to relax instead of adding to the pressures.”
But some musicians have significantly more trouble obtaining those levels of relaxation and focus using mental exercises.
Stage fright is an inherently individual condition which some individuals are naturally better equipped to deal with than others. So what does a musician do when they can perform at a level equal to the best of the best when they are in their private practice studio but fall apart due to performance anxiety when they step onto the stage?
Decades ago, musicians typically found their answers in a bottle; bourbon, scotch, vodka, gin, take your pick. Alcohol has always been an easily accessible means to artificially lessen the rate of vital physiological activities.
But the pitfalls associated with that choice of action are obvious. Alcohol not only deadens a musician’s synaptic responses (which are at the heart of performance anxiety) but they also slow down cognitive and physical ability. Then there’s that pesky addictive side effect to deal with.
Better living through pharmaceuticals
In 1965 Wyeth Laboratories developed Inderal, the brand name for propranolol, which is an antianginal, antiarrhythmic, antihypersensative, antimigraine drug, and beta blocker.
In English, that means it helps treat the effects of anxiety or nervous tension, aggressive behavior, angina, high blood pressure, migraine, headaches, panic attack, phobias, schizophrenia, tremors, and to help prevent second heart attacks.
Inderal is not habit forming, may be taken for months or even years, and proper dosage must be determined and prescribed by a physician.
It’s obvious to see why many musicians have found this drug to be extraordinarily useful if fighting the symptoms of performance anxiety.
Some musicians who use this drug have experienced significant reductions in their level of performance anxiety which, in turn, allows them to reach much high levels of consistency in their performing. Best of all, it isn’t habit forming and side effects are rare and usually minor in character.
A question of ethics
If you ask a group of musicians (especially a string player) about their feelings regarding Inderal and you’ll likely get an ear full. Some players find it to be a god send which allows them to consistently perform at their best while others see it as an artificial crutch that eliminates a level playing field.
For example, two of the most stressful situations in the classical music industry are solo performing and taking auditions. Both are directly connected to how successful a musician is throughout their career.
Opponents of Inderal use claim that the drug provides an artificial edge to audition candidates, allowing them to win a position over a competitor that may otherwise deserve to win the job. They go on to point out that professional soloists that use Inderal create an artificial product that is not representative of their natural ability.
Proponents state that Inderal allows them to demonstrate the absolute best of the natural ability and results of their years of hard work. They claim the drug doesn’t enhance their ability to play their instrument, it merely allows them to display their natural ability.
One professional cellist I spoke with, who wishes to remain anonymous, swears that without Inderal their career would have never gotten off the ground. They said “Without Inderal I never would have reached my full potential. I’ve practiced just as long and just as hard as my colleagues. The only difference is they don’t suffer from the gripping fear I do when I pick up my bow in front of other people.”
Arguably, when compared to physical issues the world of medical science is only just beginning to learn about physiological disorders. Are they more alike than different? Are they a disease to be treated with physical and pharmaceutical solutions or should they remain in the realm of “mind over matter”.
It’s difficult to come to any sort of definitive conclusion. As of now, the issue of Inderal use among musicians is filled away under “personal choice”.
But some of the potential dangers lurking in today’s world are the ease with which anyone can order prescription drugs without first seeing their physician.
And although Inderal is not nearly as harmful as other performance enhancing drugs such as anabolic steroids, it has been a prescribed medication for the past 39 years.
Since ethics is an issue usually left as an academic afterthought in the music industry, one has to wonder if we’ll all pick up a newspaper one day reporting that a conservatory student was found dead in their dorm room due to an improper usage of Inderal.
For now, Inderal will have to remain a topic that is limited to venues of personal debate and personal choice.