Orchestra musicians debate use of Beta blockers

Posted on: March 27, 2013

In Sunday’s (3/24) St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Missouri), Sarah Bryan Miller writes, “Stage fright is the bane of the performer’s existence. Severe anxiety has interfered with the work of classical musicians, including guitarist Andres Segovia, cellist Pablo Casals and pianists Glenn Gould and Van Cliburn. … Beta blockers such as propranolol (often referred to by a brand name, Inderal) are used to treat everything from hypertension to heart attacks to tension headaches. They slow the heart rate, fight off stress hormones and restrain the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls emotion. That, in turn, calms the fight-or-flight reaction that can make heartbeats race, palms go sweaty, and minds go blank. It can make a nervous musician calm in an audition, or make a difficult solo go more smoothly. … A 1987 study by the International Conference of Orchestra Musicians indicated that 27 percent of its polled members said they used beta blockers. In more recent surveys, more than half of professional musicians and music teachers have reported using them. … There is disagreement among musicians concerning their use. To St. Louis Symphony Orchestra principal horn Roger Kaza, taking beta blockers for performance anxiety is the equivalent of taking aspirin for a headache. To retired SLSO violinist Darwyn Apple, they give the performer who takes them an unfair advantage over others. To some observers, they can make a performance dull.”

Posted March 27, 2013