Musicians' Health Collective

Musicians' Health Collective: Supporting the health of musicians (and normal people)

Filtering by Tag: stigma

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

I recently had one of my posts about Beta-Blockers featured on, 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.

There's Nothing Wrong with You- Working with Injury-Shaming in Music

Sometimes, despite all of your best intentions, your body doesn't cooperate.  It may be a repetitive stress injury, an immune response, tendonitis, migraines, the diagnosis of a disease, genetics, or the result of a trauma such as a car or bike accident.  You may have been eating well, sleeping enough, moving, taking your vitamins, and getting regular massages, but sometimes, things go astray and it can be hard to pinpoint how or why.  What then ensues is a series of self-destructive thoughts, such as how will I take that audition? How will I finish the semester?  What about this upcoming concert?  Will I be able to have a career? And so on.  Sometimes, a small injury can quickly escalate to a mental crisis in a matter of minutes, courtesy to your self-inflicted stress, and then the views of those around you only make things worse.  What do I mean exactly by that?

When one is suffering an performance-related injury, the automatic assumption by many administrators and teachers is that the way you play is wrong.  There's something wrong with your setup.  There's something wrong with your habits.  There's something wrong with you. I have been guilty of this thought, but I see it most frequently in academic settings and music festivals.  Here are some of the other classic responses from administrators:

Other people in this orchestra aren't hurt, why are you?

You're only doing this for attention, it can't be that bad.

Play through it, you've got important concerts coming up.

Why now?  You've been fine all year, and now you're hurt?  You have to fulfill your requirements or you won't pass.

The tricky thing with the human body is that everyone is wildly different.  There are certain basic movements that are unsafe for most bodies, and there are many things that are safe for most bodies, but musical training lives mostly in the "in-between" realm.  The truth is that music is a REPETITIVE action, and any repeated/semi-static position has mobility and stability risks of huge proportions!  Here's a great quote from Katy Bowman on this: "The problem is the repetition of stillness, not the position you're in while doing it." 

What often then occurs is a battle of school administration, faculty, medical professionals and students in trying to "get out" of certain commitments.  The counterattack is often ugly, and students are in a shaming crossfire between administrative requirements and personal pain.   Here's one of Brene Brown's TED talks on shame: " this web of unobtainable, conflicting, competing expectations about who we’re supposed to be. And it’s a straight-jacket."

So here are some of my propositions:

1. Let's all acknowledge (musicians, teachers, school administrators, schedulers, festival managers!) that classical music and the practice of all music has musculoskeletal risk.  We expect students, colleagues and musicians to practice or play for 4-6 hours a day, without injury EVER.  (If we asked an athlete to train 4-6 hours a day and never get injured, there might be some major problems, right?)

2. It's not usually safe to play more than six hours a day, and any festival or administrator that makes you or your students feel badly about going into the injury threshold zone is full of &%$#.  Young musicians may be able to bounce back more quickly than older musicians, but they may also have less body awareness and be unaware of when they've played too much or how they feel.

3.  Let's stop institutionalized injury-shaming.  Really.  If someone is truly working with an overuse injury, don't punish them by emphasizing how much school orchestra they have to make up, or putting them in a demoralizing educational situation.  Come up with a better solution to make up the hours.    When I was at conservatory, the "injured" often had to play in the freshman orchestra, in the back of the section, or play the most undesirable concert or concerts.  Talk about a shaming experience!  Maybe it makes more sense for them to be in rehearsal with a score and write a paper on what's going on in rehearsal, and what the ensemble issues are.  Have students go to a conducting class instead.  There are TONS of ways to become a better orchestra musician and fulfill an academic credit that don't rely on playing in orchestra.  Musicians already deal with the fear of "not being good enough" and putting students in a depressing situation doesn't help morale.  (In addition, don't continue punishing students after they've been injured and healed.)

4.  While there are things we can all do to be healthier and have a more tension-free setup, a student's setup is probably not totally wrong.  That's placing a value judgment on a habit, technique, or learned movement, which can be a dangerous mental place to live.  (I've had this crisis through the lens of intonation...I'm doing everything wrong, I'm a terrible person...blah blah blah)  Sometimes a student is doing something in a non-efficient way, but rarely is a motion, movement, or setup inherently wrong.  (High heels, smoking, and rhythmic/pitch inaccuracies can be the exception.)

5.  Sometimes the area of pain is not actually causing the pain.  Someone might be having a wrist/elbow issue, but the problem is the tension in the trapezius.  Or someone is having back pain, but is really having ankle and knee instability. We can't just put a band-aid fix on things without looking at the whole person, and that means everything from walking and sitting to sleeping and purse holding.

6. Let's be open to change as teachers and musicians.  Sports medicine is far ahead of arts medicine in terms of understanding the body, yet few musicians receive any of that valuable insight.  Be open to changing how you teach, how you play, and how you move in your life.  Seek other opinions if you can't help your student.

7.  Be a professional.  The excuse I often heard at music school was, "If this was a professional orchestra, then..." If schools want to be professional incubation zones, then treat students as professionals.  In a professional orchestra or ensemble, there are constraints as to how much rehearsal time a day is allow, and if a member has an injury, they're generally given protection to prevent the loss of their job. They're not generally seen as a pariah or a liar.  At a school, that means there should be accountability for conductors with regards rehearsal time and break time amounts, halfway decent chairs, and consistent policies for injury management.

7. If someone has been injured in the past, don't hold it against them, as though they may be hurt again.  Here's a great quote from Gramophone:

Whereas athletes who have injuries are treated and then expected to rise once again to the top of their game once healed, a previously injured musician is often considered unreliable physically, and doubt remains in the mind of industry leaders. Why is injury accepted, treated and supported in the sports world, yet so shaming and unacceptable in the music world?

8.  Let's acknowledge that everyone's body is different, and that some people may be immune to injury more than others.  It may have to do with the size of your frame, how muscular your are, your genetics, the size of your instrument, which side is dominant, etc.  Rather than seeing an injured person as "weak," "poorly taught," or "wrong," we can begin to change the stigma of overuse injury, illness, and recovery.

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