Musicians' Health Collective

Musicians' Health Collective: Supporting the health of musicians

A Culture of Audition Perfection and the Stigma of Beta-blockers

I recently had one of my posts about Beta-Blockers featured on violinist.com, and I ended the post with this passage:

I leave the decisions with you, but notice if beta blockers become a crutch. Do you need them for every performance opportunity? Do you find yourself using them for rehearsals as opposed to concerts or auditions? (And if you're not a BB user, that's great too.)

I am neither for nor against beta-blockers.  I just think our culture of perfection is affecting musicians profoundly, and causing a new level of performance anxiety.  Choosing to take beta-blockers should be done with an awareness of side affects and contraindications, as well as an awareness that it will only affect physiological symptoms, and do little to change your mental state of performance or auditioning.

I am neither for nor against beta-blockers.  I just think our culture of perfection is affecting musicians profoundly, and causing a new level of performance anxiety.  Choosing to take beta-blockers should be done with an awareness of side affects and contraindications, as well as an awareness that it will only affect physiological symptoms, and do little to change your mental state of performance or auditioning.

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 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.

Some people are lucky to not feel strong nerves under pressure, and other people have debilitating nerves.  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 our 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. 

Although most of us play behind a screen, there's definitely a sense of people with clipboards judging every move we make...

Although most of us play behind a screen, there's definitely a sense of people with clipboards judging every move we make...

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 (ensemble, quartet, 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 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 that person who judged others for using beta-blockers.  I thought that real musicians could control their nerves and keep calm under pressure (not a fair perspective at all!).  There's a view that if one is well-prepared, then one won't be nervous, which is rarely true.  I then saw how hard many of my colleagues were working, and how stressed they were, and I started to understand their view.   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 (as a single lady of 28 with only a dog as a dependent) judge whether someone 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?  I'd 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 that standard excerpts.  (I'd also love for student loan situations to change in the US, especially in the arts).  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?'  The stress 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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