This week, the documentary, “Composed,” receives its formal premiere in New York City, with a panel of professionals to discuss the film afterwards, including the filmmaker, John Beder. I had the opportunity to preview the film earlier this week and offer up my first insights as a reviewer prior to the public viewing. Let me preface this by saying that I am a biased reviewer- I’ve been interested in this project since its inception, and as a professional musician who makes the bulk of my income from performances and auditions, the issues addressed in this documentary are absolutely pertinent to my daily life, and that of my colleagues and friends. That being said, “Composed” started as an inquiry into performance anxiety and beta-blocker usage amongst classical musicians, and as a finished product, explores richer and more complex issues about the nature of performance, internal pressures, music education models, and more.
The film opens with different musicians sharing why they love music and when they first remember classical music as a child. With contributions from Eugene Izotov, Christoph Eschenbach, Brant Taylor, William Short, and others, there is a foundational understanding that classical music is a profound art form that we all care deeply about and that holds deep meaning for us. From there, the narrative shifts to reveal that musicians often get profoundly nervous about performing because of the great responsibility the art demands, the great technical and musical challenges at hand, and the incredible competition for employment. Throughout the documentary, we observe a group of five young musicians take auditions, practice, and address their own personal struggles with performance anxiety. Interwoven throughout that narrative is a commentary from a series of different professionals, from symphonic musicians to medical professionals, performance coaches and instructors in other disciplines. Drawing insights from many of the highest level musicians in the field, as well as those in psychology yields a product with rich insights, not only about the complexity of performance anxiety, but also the challenging nature of performance, musical study, and practice.
The challenges of auditions are explained early in the film, not only the rigors of preparation, but also the day itself, from warmup room to the actual audition. One interesting comment from Leonard Slatkin, music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, really hit home. “(Auditions) It’s fair, but is it right?” He was speaking in regards to the many substitute musicians who repeatedly take the DSO auditions, and never win, despite being a first call sub or playing one year contracts. “They’re good enough to play in the symphony, but not good enough at taking auditions.” Others discuss the few minutes of an audition, in which a candidate has no room to be nervous but simply must perform at optimal levels, despite overwhelming odds against them. Although film crews are not permitted to actually film an audition, the documentary does follow some of the musicians’ trips, pre audition preparation, transportation, and immediate post audition responses. As a side note, I have to applaud these musicians for being vulnerable about their experiences and willingness to have someone film their pre and post audition processes.
The middle portion of the documentary examines the sympathetic nervous system, the role of eustress and stress, as well as the role that beta blockers plays in affecting the nervous system. Rarely discussed until recently, beta-blockers are often used to help manage the physiological consequences of stage fright. The unanimous conclusion of those interviewed was that beta-blockers can help performers play their best, but will not help them perform better than they normally would. Jennifer Montone, Principal horn of Philadelphia reiterates how a bedrock foundation of practice and strong mental preparation is most important, which was something echoed by many others throughout the film, including Dr. Noa Kageyama of the Bulletproof Musician.
The remainder of the film examines different ways of changing the way we as a musical community handle performance anxiety, from changing the way we train in schools and conservatories, to creating a more open dialogue about performance issues. One quote from Nathan Cole, associate concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, stood out to me. “I’m a performer, violinist, but I’m also a person. Violin doesn’t define me.” It can be so easy as a performer to tie audition or performance success with larger self-worth (or lack thereof). Gerald Klickstein, music educator and author of “the Musician’s Way,” proposes a different model of education in which students have access to a much wider spectrum of teachers, not only their private instrumental instructor, but a sports/performance psychologist or coach, body awareness teacher, and more. The film ends with different musicians offering their perspectives on how there is no one right way to tackle performance anxiety, and that opening the dialogue about these issues is the first step to addressing the issue in a greater way.
The film is a nuanced examination of the pressures and stresses of professional music-making, but also weaves in kernels of musical wisdom throughout for both musician and non-musician audiences. Drawing interviews from other 60 musicians, totaling 120 hours of footage, John Beder managed to edit the interviews into a cohesive and engaging narrative. Footage of orchestras, soloists, and chamber ensembles is interspersed throughout the film, maintaining the connection between the art form and the challenge at hand. Despite the sheer volume of interviews, the documentary is just short of 80 minutes. One look at the number of interviews reveals that there are many fantastic insights that simply didn’t make it into the film, and I wish there was a way to see more of those interviews. I can fully appreciate the amount of editing and observation needed to whittle down 120 hours of material into 1.2 hours, and Beder surely has many other gems of insight that didn’t make it in there.
I don’t have many criticisms for the film: there have been few attempts to document classical music from the perspective of a filmmaker that is also a musician, and even fewer ventures into performance anxiety. This film has the power to connect the musical community over a shared experience, but also promote a greater dialogue about these issues and usage of the many resources that are available to the modern musician. By and large, the film does not take a negative or condemning stance to beta-blocker usage, and I would’ve liked to hear from musicians for whom they do not work, or whom feel that they play worse with them. I would have also been curious to hear more from musicians about when (if at all) they use them, whether they use them for auditions and performances, or exclusively auditions, or never. Yet, it took immense courage to approach professional musicians and encourage them to talk about these issues, and even more courage for those who spoke openly about their own issues and remedies. That, in itself, is a landmark achievement which is truly astonishing. Although this is a film about musicians, it would have relevance to non musical audiences as well, as it reveals the complexity and pressures of the classical music art form. With the wide range of interviewees as well as the profound insights about performance and music itself, every classical musician should see this.
The film premieres October 19th, 8 PM, and for more information, visit www.composeddocumentary.com.