Looking for Perfection in an Imperfect Process
We recognize that the use of beta-blockers by musicians is a serious and controversial topic. Nonetheless, we feel it is better to discuss it than to pretend that it doesn’t exist. We neither condone or condemn the use of beta-blockers, but wish to have an objective discussion about its use. Feel free to join the discussion in the comments section. – Polyphonic.org
Any conversation about audition and performance anxiety has to eventually address beta-blockers and their widespread use in music (and other performing arts). In the past few weeks since I first published this on my personal blog, I’ve received a range of emails, from complete condemnation to thanks for addressing a much ignored subject. Regardless of your opinions on beta-blockers, it’s useful to try to have an objective conversation about their widespread use, and why musicians turn to them in high stress situations, without condemning musicians who choose (or choose not) to use them.
A few weeks ago, I published an article just looking at the basic effects of beta-blockers on the nervous system, and some of the side effects of regular usage. One of the comments was interesting, “Implying that taking Drugs is great??????? Shocking ending to the article.” It made me think, “Performers used to drink before performances and auditions- yet taking beta-blockers is still heavily stigmatized?” Here’s some of my thoughts on the issue, and how my perspective has changed over the years.
Modern day classical music has moved to a place of elite virtuosity and a an emphasis on technical perfection and complete 100% accuracy. Anyone who is in the current orchestral auditioning circuit knows this to be true, and often musical intent and sound quality are ranked lower by committees to pure execution of technical passages. (Is this true for every orchestra and festival? Not necessarily, but it is a prominent priority). This is also true in competitions, and sometimes even collegiate auditions. There’s a very high emphasis on playing with perfect pitch, rhythm, accuracy, etc., which is absolutely important, but can sometimes go to the wayside under pressure (AKA. sympathetic response). Anyone who has performed or auditioned (without the use of beta-blockers) knows that things get shaky, breathing can be tricky, and accuracy can be compromised. When committees and conductors are looking for perfection under pressure, performers are left wondering what to do when their bodies betray them.
Some people are lucky to not feel strong nerves under pressure, and other people have a debilitating response. Like all things, the human body is highly variable, and individual response to stress is highly dependent on the person. When a performer spends months preparing for a competition or audition, in addition to spending money on flights and hotels, the stakes get even higher. When a diminishing job pool couples with more qualified musicians, we have a serious problem of too much supply and decreasing (often poor orchestra management too!) demand. The pressure on auditioning classical musicians these days is incredible, and I don’t think our art form has ever seen anything like it. Committees have become more and more picky, looking for perfect performance under pressure that often results in no-hires and perpetual vacancies, and many musicians stay on perpetual sub lists because they are deemed worthy to play with the orchestra regularly, but not worthy enough to be given a contract. I find the whole system to be distressing, and I completely understand why people use beta-blockers, to give themselves a better chance at employment.
Classical music is not always the most forgiving art form. Many students go to expensive private music schools for either undergrad or grad school, take out loans, and then reach a point where they need to take out another loan for an instrument. If one chooses to take auditions (large ensemble, chamber music, or solo competitions), each audition will cost anywhere from $500-$1000 domestic, and a few thousand if international. Let’s assume that many students have $50,000 in debt, and are somewhat unemployed after graduate studies. Students (or post-grads) might work a day job (administrative, educational, or retail) to start to pay back loans, and then still try to take auditions in between. The financial pressure alone is intense, and when it combines with a high volume of auditioners and a higher expectation of perfection, there’s a volatile and very intense environment. If you put in a lot of time and money to an audition of 7 minutes duration, and you slightly speed something up or play a little sharp from sympathetic response, that’s rarely forgiven by a panel. It’s the unfortunate reality of our world.
I used to be a person who judged others for using beta-blockers. I thought that real musicians could control their nerves and keep calm under pressure if they prepared well (not a fair perspective at all!). I then saw how hard many of my colleagues were working, and how stressed they were, and I started to understand their situation. I did not use beta-blockers for auditioning and performing throughout my studies, and I do believe that school is a crucial incubator for learning performance skills (in a relatively low risk environment). I also realize that some people have debilitating performance anxiety, either on a physical response level or a mental level, and I will never know what that’s like. I’d love for everyone to eat bananas and meditate and breathe their stress response away, but I honestly know that everyone is different and that every body responds differently to stress. When we’re looking at audition stress and performance under pressure, we’re not just looking at isolated anxiety, but often a whole host of issues: lack of job, huge financial pressures, need for stability for spouse/children/ etc. If I judge someone who needs beta-blockers in auditions, I’m perpetuating this idea that people must have something wrong with them if they can’t perform perfectly under pressure, and that’s not fair to the true host of stresses of our career.
The solution? Let’s look at the whole picture of auditioning in general, and be respectful or those who choose (and abstain) from beta-blockers. I’d also love to see orchestra auditions change entirely. I don’t necessarily think that playing 7 minutes of orchestral excerpts is a good indicator of how one plays in a section (especially for strings), and I think hearing solo repertoire is often more telling than standard excerpts. As classical music loses funding and audience, maybe it’s time to rethink our harsh perfection oriented standards, and instead ask ‘what makes a thoughtful musician?’ This standard is not only for auditioners, but also for many symphonic musicians who play under intense conductors in high pressure ensembles. I’d love for a shot at an even audition playing field in which no one uses beta-blockers and there’s a mindset of forgiveness for any initial shakiness. Until then, it might be time to check that harsh judgment of beta-blocker users at the door and look at the big picture issues.
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In my entire life as a musician, I never realized that the use of beta blockers was this wide spread. Now I confess, I feel completely normal! Not in using beta blockers (I prefer not to), but my immense struggles with audition anxiety. I’ve opted not to take as many auditions, but have also found a second career as an orchestra librarian. In some ways for me, the pressure is reduced considerably. I will look at my orchestra differently now, knowing I am not alone in my struggle. For a long time I honestly felt like a freak. (Of course it’s always only in our own head, no one else sees it that way.) This also helps me realize that auditions are not so scary as long as I take every opportunity to prepare properly.