The recent splash of an article poking fun at the dark side of orchestral life brings to the fore a touchy subject of drug use by musicians for performance anxiety. I would love to implement a ‘drug-free’ orchestra, yet it remains much too much of a sensitive topic to address directly. However, we may need to face a moment of self-admission if classical music is to thrive.
You may wonder why it matters whether or not players are using beta-blockers. It’s the presence of performance anxiety that concerns me. Performance anxiety is a fear of something that may happen in the future. It requires a focus on something other than the present, keeping one foot in the future. A performer who is not in the present is, simply, ‘not present,” and unable to communicate creatively.
Kay Gilley presents the issue quite concisely in her book The Alchemy of Fear:
“Fear, by nature, rarely exists in present time and space, and therefore distracts us from being fully alert to conditions right now.” (p 34) “When we are afraid, we inevitably will work in a time dimension other than the present. The present is the only time dimension in which we can enact change or allow creativity to emerge.” (p.35)
Creativity can only exist in the present.
As a conductor, it is my priority to get each player to a place of “flow” – being present. That’s where the magic of music happens. Imagine if a whole room full of elite musicians were to ‘do their thing’ while fully present?! I have a feeling classical music would seldom be boring.
(Mind you, some conductors would rather the musicians were little machines that are programmed during rehearsals and simply ‘play on demand' come concert time. These musicians needn’t be present, I suppose. They probably are the most nervous, however, since the future must go exactly as planned.)
As the head coach, performance anxiety of each player is my concern. I’d love to see Kay Gilley, who currently works with NASA, apply her coaching skills to classical performance groups, but this would require everyone to acknowledge than anxiety does exists. Hopefully, we will soon move on from the dark humor surrounding the topic and begin to address the needs of musicians - as creative artists.