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I’m Frozen and I Can’t Play a Thing!

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I'm a little bit afraid of you, Broadway / Harry Von Tilzer. New York, Harry Von Tilzer Music Pub. Co., 1913.
I'm a little bit afraid of you, Broadway / Harry Von Tilzer. New York, Harry Von Tilzer Music Pub. Co., 1913.

The following post is by Norman Middleton, Senior Concert Producer in the Music Division.

Concert hall conniptions. High note heebeegeebees. Booze, drugs, and wastepaper baskets. The issues surrounding performance anxiety, commonly known as “stage fright” will be examined by Senior Concert Producer Norman Middleton on April 9th at 6:15 p.m. in the Jefferson Building’s LJ119 at a pre-concert discussion called “I’m Frozen and I Can’t Play a Thing!” The discussion will include Middleton’s personal experiences with stage fright, along with reminiscences of teachers and other artists and an examination of drugs called “beta-blockers,” still widely used by musicians everywhere.

Beta blockers (which are cardiac medications, as opposed to tranquilizers and sedatives) were first marketed in 1967 in the United States for disorders like angina and abnormal heart rhythms. The most common of these drugs is propranolol, sold under the brand name Inderal. By blocking the action of adrenaline and other substances, these drugs mute the sympathetic nervous system, which produces fear in response to any perceived danger, be it a lion or a Lincoln Center audience.

Some veteran orchestral musicians dislike beta-blockers because although they supposedly calm you down,  they also “calm down” your musical sensibilities, rendering you as unmusical as a dial tone. It is said that some jurors in music competitions and orchestral auditions can tell almost instantly whether someone is “on” beta-blockers during an audition because of their dull and listless but accurate playing.

The use of Inderal by orchestral musicians is also blamed by some to be the downfall of the business of orchestras in the US–there is said to be a famous US orchestra (no names please) where at least 90% of the musicians are on Inderal! Why? Because in today’s orchestral world, there is such a demand for “getting all the notes,” that musicality falls by the wayside. But others in the industry embrace the drug and believe that taking it does not dull the musical senses.

The real worry is that many musicians obtain Inderal from colleagues and not through physicians. The drug can also be obtained while the orchestras are on tour in countries where Inderal is sold over the counter. Some musicians rely on drinking alcohol prior to a performance; this behavior, sometimes called “Dutch Courage,” is frowned upon in the industry, mostly because it does not work.

Be sure to remain calm and join Norman Middleton on April 9th for the pre-concert discussion “I’m Frozen and I Can’t Play a Thing!”

Update: watch the webcast of Norman Middleton’s lecture here.

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