Beta-Blockers, Performance Anxiety, and the Results of the Musicians' Health Survey with John Beder
In the last year, John Beder has not only interviewed many classical musicians about their experiences with performance anxiety and beta-blockers, but also drafted his search into a cohesive survey for ICSOM (The International Conference for Symphony Orchestra Musicians), which has not addressed musicians and performance anxiety in almost 30 years. On Wednesday, almost a year after initially launching his Musicians' Health Survey and reviewing the data, John shared his findings at the 2016 ICSOM conference in Washington D.C.
K: With those who were comfortable discussing their beta blocker usage, how did they impact their performances, auditions, or other circumstances?
J: Throughout the project many of the musicians we talked to about beta-blockers heard about them as the “easiest" and “quickest" way to address performance anxiety. Fast and easy of course sounds perfect when so much time is already consumed by all the other demands of the profession. While we spoke with many people who had positive things to say about the use of beta blockers, many of the musicians we spoke to about beta blockers had a nuanced view of their application. They spoke about them as complimenting a diversity of methods for addressing performance anxiety, rather than using beta blockers to get around more traditional methods of performance preparation.
Many had spent a significant amount of time studying how to perform more confidently on stage, beyond the technical and musical demands of performing. Ultimately, beta blockers are not for everyone, and are certainly not a replacement for preparation or some sort of panacea for performance anxiety. This, I think, is the most important take away from any discussion around beta-blockers: that they are a part of a larger conversation about performance skills which is missing from many of our music education programs.
K: For those who don't use them, how do they manage their performance anxiety?
J: Many of the musicians we spoke to who had not tried beta blockers also invested a significant amount of time figuring out how to address performance anxiety. Many used mindfulness techniques and meditation, while others borrowed from sports psychology with things like heart monitors, biofeedback machines, and breathing exercises. We try to talk about as many of these as possible in the film in addition to beta blockers but with the impressive quantity of approaches we only had time to focus on a few of the most practiced. It’s interesting to note as well that the conversations never started with “I don’t get nervous” since every single person we talked to expressed experiences and instances of performance anxiety.
K: Tell me about the Musicians' Health Survey that you launched a year ago and your findings since then.
J: It’s been a year now since we distributed the study (2015 Musicians’ Health Survey) to ICSOM and it has been wonderful to see participation from orchestras around the country. A total of 447 musicians responded and some of the results are being shared at this year’s ICSOM conference in Washington DC. Professor Williamon with the Royal College of Music in London is still working on the formal analysis but much of what we learned will be discussed and presented at this year’s conference.
Some interesting initial data I can share about the survey is that in 1987 women made up 34% of the respondents whereas our study reported 48% women to 52% men. Today’s classical musician also reported better than average health and there was major increase in physical exercise as a method to address performance anxiety. In 1987 61% of musicians reported regular exercise and in 2015, 68% reported regular exercise. As a means for addressing performance anxiety, however, exercise was used by 17% in 1987 and 74% in 2015, a striking increase.
With regard to beta-blockers, the study shows that 72% of ICSOM musicians have tried using beta blockers for performance anxiety. Out of that group, 90% said they would consider using them for auditions, 74% would consider them for solo or featured performances, and 36% would consider them for orchestra performances. By comparison, in 1987 a reported 27% of ICSOM musicians had tried beta-blockers, representing a significant uptick (45%) over the last 28 years. Also in 1987 of those who’d tried beta-blockers 72% said they would use them for auditions while only 4% would use them for orchestra performances compared to today’s 36%.
Some other popular methods musicians reported trying included more experience (87%), eating bananas (54%), meditation (49%), and performance psychology (44%).
K: How do the survey and your findings factor into your work with the documentary and your work in Musicians' performance health?
J: The 2015 Musicians’ Health Survey is really just the start of a bigger conversation we hope to have with our film Composed. We can’t encourage musicians enough to explore performance skills outside of the notes on the page. Musicians are too often left feeling isolated in their struggle with performance anxiety despite the fact that 98% of ICSOM musicians report having experienced it at some point. The statistics here and ones to follow will likely prompt conversations about the beta blockers alone but our goal is not to adjudicate on the use of beta blockers, rather to promote an environment where talking about performance anxiety is accepted and encouraged as part of what it means to be a performer.
*In Fishbein et al. (1987) Senza Sordino
K: Thanks- I look forward to hearing more about this survey and new findings as the documentary moves towards completion!