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Doping at the Philharmonic

By Leigh M. Wilson, Contributing Opinion Writer
Leigh M. Wilson ’22 is a Chemistry concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

Every year, graduate student musicians pursuing their M.M. degree in Performance join the audition circuit in search of an orchestral job. In the preceding months, they might spend more than eight hours each day practicing the lists of excerpts each orchestra provides — maybe Oklahoma is this month, then Nashville three weeks after, then Pittsburgh a couple of months out. They fall behind on schoolwork, regularly skipping class to practice. Years of preparation goes into these auditions, but a shaky finger, quivering lip, or sweaty palm has cost many serious musicians a much-needed job.

What if that could all go away? What if you could buy a clear mind and a relaxed body? It wouldn’t exactly make you a better musician, but it might bring out your best at a time when your best isn’t physically available.

There is such a silver bullet: the beta blocker. But is it undermining the industry?

A 2016 survey of more than 5,000 classical musicians revealed that 72 percent use or had used beta blockers in their lives, up from only about 30 percent in 1987. But few will readily admit it. For decades now, audition finalists have been operating under the influence, continuing the habit for professional orchestras for high-stakes performances. These drugs slow the heart and dull one’s senses enough to stop a tremor or catch those abdominal butterflies. Users can achieve years of mindfulness practice in just an hour. And few experience any side effects or complications.

Music and drugs have always had a close relationship. Cannabis and psychedelics, just as examples, are responsible for a great deal of the music we listen to today, with our favorite jazz, rock, hip-hop, and pop musicians extolling their effects now for decades. Popular musicians are expected to promote drug use, even as young people watch a parade of their favorite artists martyred by overdose deaths. Even some classical music, most famously Hector Berlioz’ “Symphonie fantastique,” has been influenced by drugs.

But for modern classical musicians, the choice to dope is not to achieve an artistic nirvana, but job security.

Beta blockers are by no means a direct phone line to the Muse. In fact, their dulling effects make you less sharp — an audition isn’t about being at your mental prime as much as your physical prime. Nothing you play at an audition should be spontaneous, but rather repeated so many times that your muscles can perform without thinking. It’s less art than sport.

The World Anti-Doping Association classifies beta blockers as performance-enhancing drugs. They are prohibited in golf, automobile racing, archery, shooting, and some ski and snowboard events. In 2008, a North Korean double Olympic medalist in pistol events had both medals taken away for use of the beta blocker propranolol. If your favorite golfer at the Masters Tournament, ski jumper in the Olympics, or Formula One driver in Monaco tested positive for beta-blockers, they would be stripped of their honors, too.

So why are orchestral musicians allowed to take these drugs on the job?

It would be unfathomable for a math professor to advise his students to take an Adderall before a technical interview, but in the current state of the field, some might argue that a music professor that truly wants the best for her students would be shortchanging them by not broaching the subject of beta-blockers.

Sports have governing bodies to sanction events and impose rules. Classical music isn’t a sport, and there exists no such organization to enforce something like drug use unilaterally. Nor have individual orchestras stepped up in this regard. There are simply no rules about them, and without guidance from above, the beta-blocker issue becomes one of peer pressure and individual judgment. The culture surrounding them is translucent: Most everyone in the field knows about their widespread use, but few would publicize that they once relied, or still do rely, on them, fearing it as a show of weakness or a taboo in the supposedly straight-laced field of classical music.

The conversation about drugs in an academic setting caused one college to controversially fire a flute instructor in 2004 who had been promoting beta-blockers among her adult students. The episode was widely publicized and only further hindered any chances for open discussion about the drugs. Shoving the issue under the rug is irresponsible and dangerous — a classical musician deciding to use beta-blockers shouldn’t have to go it alone, procuring drugs from friends or convincing unwitting doctors for prescriptions.

The industry faces a choice: either destigmatize beta-blockers and provide health resources, such as an in-house medical team to provide and monitor dosage, or ban them and introduce a system of drug testing as enforcement. Either option is valid, and in the absence of a regulatory body, individual organizations should be allowed to make their own choices about implementing them.

But the unacceptable third choice is to continue as we are now, ignoring musician wellness and keeping widespread drug use in the dark. Like it or not, beta blockers clearly play a part in the profession, and orchestras and conservatories have a duty to acknowledge them and be clear about their expectations. It’s time to admit that our musical ivory comes from the elephant in the room.

Leigh M. Wilson ’22 is a Chemistry concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.

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