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Sydney Morning Herald

"Staring Into the Pit of Iniquity"

June 17, 2008

Classical musicians are not paragons, but are tales of drink and drug abuse in the orchestra realistic, asks the oboist Blair Tindall.

Professional classical musicians are a glamorous, vulnerable and largely voiceless population. They sweep on stage in black tie and gowns, then quietly go home; often, we know almost nothing about their lives outside their performance.

But in recent weeks a lesser known aspect of those seemingly decorous lives has come to light, after a horn player for Simon Rattle's Berlin Philharmonic admitted to drinking before performances to calm his nerves.

"You go for tranquillisers or beer," Klaus Wallendorf told a documentary filmmaker.

"With me it was beer. Then you drink two beers and it goes smoothly so you think you should do it all the time."

The revelation prompted further admissions. The German tenor Roland Wagenfuehrer then expressed concerns about drug abuse in the opera world. So does classical music have a drink-and-drugs problem?

Let's start with full disclosure. I am a professional musician - an oboist - and have performed with four key orchestras in the United States, including the New York Philharmonic. Like many people my age (48), I've tried marijuana and Valium in the past. Today, I drink alcohol socially and use beta-blockers, which I take for performance anxiety once or twice a year. That's not so shocking, is it? Yet some would label me a troubled substance abuser.

Let's dissect the effect of various drugs, and consider why classical musicians would want to take them. Alcohol, tranquillisers, marijuana, and beta-blockers have dramatically different applications and effects, many of which are undesirable for musicians.

Obviously, musicians are not exempt from alcoholism, and it has a bad affect on performance. Classical musicians rely on minute technique and quick response time; alcohol dampens these skills. It might ameliorate stage fright, but once on stage, drunkenness only amplifies terror.

The British violinist Nigel Kennedy may have a reputation as a hellraiser, but even he says he would smoke or drink only after a concert, and not before. "Performing under the influence of alcohol or dope would be cheating the audience," he told Focus magazine in Germany last month.

Cocaine is a drug only the most successful musicians use - because it is expensive (newsflash: working musicians don't earn big). In small amounts cocaine does seem to enhance confidence, which, depending on how much preparation you have put in, could be a good thing - or highly embarrassing when it comes to reading the reviews the next day. I know some who use it while performing, but they are a tiny minority.

Tranquillisers such as Valium have similar consequences to alcohol: they compromise technique and response time. Still, some people are prescribed these drugs for medical reasons, so it is difficult to separate the "abusers" from the legitimate patients.

In general, musicians want and need to be mentally acute. Marijuana does not fit the bill. Furthermore, one of the drug's main symptoms is paranoia, which does not go well with stage fright.

Finally, we come to beta-blockers, a class of heart medications that treat blood pressure, angina and migraines. Since an article in the British medical journal The Lancet in 1965 explored their use for stage fright, they have also been widely prescribed for musicians, public speakers, and even surgeons who must steady their hands.

Beta-blockers are not recreational drugs. They do not affect cognitive abilities, but instead block adrenaline-like chemicals in the human system. For a violinist, this means performance can feel like practice, with no bouncing bow or slippery fingers.

A recent article in London's The Times reported that there is a "black market" for beta-blockers among classical musicians. But these are legal drugs - taken for medical reasons by as much as 10 per cent of the world's population; they are routinely prescribed for stage fright.

As a teenager I suffered debilitating stage fright. When I went to college I asked the conducting staff to assign me to pit orchestras, instead of onstage groups. And I asked my doctor for a prescription for beta-blockers.

On the subway in New York in 1986 I took my first dose of Inderal, a beta-blocker, 45 minutes before an audition. I still felt nervous, but my hands didn't shake as usual, I wasn't gasping for air and my mind remained clear. I played exactly as I had meticulously prepared to do. I won the job, and went on to play a Carnegie Hall debut recital, record a Grammy-nominated CD, and hold a solo position with four Broadway productions.

Beta-blockers are not a class of drug subject to abuse. No one would want to overdose: I once took too much, and the boring performance that ensued made me commit to smaller doses.

It always seems surprising to audiences that classical musicians are like any other cross-section of society - subject to the same joys, sorrows, and misbehaviour. Yes, some are alcoholics. Some are stoners, who stumble through life on pot, middling about on the worst possible gigs that barely support them. Some lose everything amid cocaine and crack abuse.

I knew a beautiful blonde cellist in New York in the 1980s who was married, owned a gorgeous apartment overlooking Central Park and landed a spot for Phantom Of The Opera, which is playing two decades later. Yet she surrendered to cocaine, and then crack. She died three years ago after battling AIDS for a decade, leaving behind a young son. She was a stellar musician, but also an ordinary human being with demons like anyone else.

Three years ago I published a book about drugs and classical music, Mozart In The Jungle. On my book tour a journalist asked me to clarify why "musicians are more noble than other people". Where did he get such an idea? We, like anyone else, are tempted. We say yes or no to drugs. But, because of our discipline, we most often say no: drugs and impairment are not worth risking a lifetime of practice.

Guardian News & Media

This story was found at: http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2008/06/16/1213468323958.html