Electro-shockin, beta-blockin

A new study indicates humiliation could be the strongest of human emotions trumping sadness, disgust, surprise, etc. Just sit and think about that. Of all the things that happen to us, humiliation ranks at the very top. If you remember something like it was yesterday, there’s a non-trivial chance that on that date, at that time, you endured just a tinge (or way, way more) of embarrassment.

Humiliation is a constant, nagging fear for high-wire music performers. Don’t practice before a lesson? Get dressed down by your teacher. Miss notes at an orchestra practice? Get singled out by the conductor. For god’s sake, we have masterclasses where students’ inadequacies are put on display for a captive audience! Suddenly I’m feeling flush. Our beloved musicians fall victim to symptoms of nerve-wracking performances: sweaty palms, shaking hands, chest and muscle tightness, tunnel vision. It’s like a list of Cialis side effects.

Nobody wants to look like an ass. When you get out on that stage anything can happen. Part of the reason audiences go to shows is to see whether the performer can pull it off — that horn solo in Ein Heldenleben, the violin acrobatics of Symphonie Espagnole. Will she fall flat on her face? Can she survive??? As sports fans we like our triumphs & failures clearly defined. Ditto music

In 1962, chemistry wizard James Black found a new medicinal treatment for patients with heart disease. Black synthesized propranolol and pronethalol in his lab, and he called them “beta-blockers” for the way they suppressed the body’s fight-or-flight response. Captain Black’s invention helped patients with hypertension or a history of heart attacks to avoid heart arrhythmias or worse. It bought the patient some breathing room — folks mere steps away from a widowmaker got a new lease on life.

So it just so happens the symptoms that Dr. Black helped patients avoid are some of the very symptoms that affect our beloved entertainers — the aforementioned sweaty palms and muscle tightness, the waves of nerves a tough performance can provoke. And wouldn’t you know it, doctors broke the walls down and prescribed beta blockers for performers. No numbers exist on beta blocker usage among classical musicians, but suffice to say, anecdotally, they get some play.

I tried beta blockers when I was 21. I was pretty sure they weren’t working — I waited to perform, frantic and scatter-brained like normal. But the minute I tuned up I knew something was up. Minimal sweat. No bow shakes. Deep (not necessarily profound) relaxation. Afterwards, friends told me I sounded great. (They didn’t need to go out of their way, either.) Hard to argue with that feedback. I will not lie to you, it made performing 20 percent easier out of the gate. Eventually my prescription lapsed and I went back to performing the sweaty, jumpy way.

When you poll Americans our fear of public speaking outranks our fear of death. Why do we get so nerved up? It is our pathological aversion to humiliation. It’s so obvious it’s ridiculous to type or say. But we can’t stand being made the fool, let alone humiliating ourselves in front of hundreds/thousands/millions

Beta blockers afford a small amount of control in a fluid and unpredictable situation. Other things work too — I know people who down a beer or a cocktail before playing, others smoke that medicinal, and there’s always natural remedies — but what harm, really, are we talking about here?


Would you be disappointed finding out that your heroes — Jay Friedman, Vladimir Horowitz, Yehudi Menuhin, Leontyne Price — were dosed up on propranolol on the regular? Does the use of the performance-enhancing drugs make the high wire seem a little lower, a little less threatening — and maybe … less exciting?

My contention is this. If you are feeling the music you’re feeling it. Whether or not your musical gods get fixed up beforehand doesn’t affect your good time. (But you may stop and wonder now.) The NFL doesn’t test for Human Growth Hormone. The NBA has a laughable anti-marijuana policy (be easy, Michael Beasley). Somehow we’re able still to enjoy both. We may not be able to avoid getting our asses handed to us by imperious teachers in lessons and masterclasses, but at least there’s one simple way, if you want it, to keep that strongest of human emotions at bay when push comes to shove.


By dubuquecello

I'm a Dubuque, Iowa native. Interested in cello, tennis, donuts and other things. I'm a classical music optimist.

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