The evolution of my opinion on beta blockers for performance nerves

I’ve always been a little irked at it, just because I don’t have a choice in taking them. I have to take them; a genetic heart issue runs in my family. My dad was killed by it in less than a second when I was three weeks shy of my 21st birthday, and my oldest brother has more plastic in his heart than a trophy wife has in her wallet. I’ve been on them since around 1997 or thereabouts, and I take doses far in excess of those taken by most performers (50mg twice daily).

And they don’t seem to help much; I still hate playing for others. I’m glad that I’m more of a composer at this point, where the majority of my music-making is done privately, in the blissful peace and quiet of a room occupied by me and me alone.

It’s irked me that they are looked down on, and that that opinion seems attached to a drug that I have no choice but to take. It bugs me that people say things like “they prevent you from connecting to your audience on a meaningful level” because millions of Americans have to take these things, and not because we need a psychological crutch.

That said, there are people whose adrenal glands are just a little bit more enthusiastic than others, and there’s not much they can do about it. Why shouldn’t they have these drugs as options? Who the hell has any business telling them that they can’t move an audience because they are, perhaps for the first time in their lives, not terrified while out there? How musical and “moving” can a person be who is scared out of their minds?

And in controlled doses, taken under a doctor’s direction, they really don’t do any harm to anyone. Like a daily aspirin, there are some indications that they not a bad idea across the board, provided you don’t have a pre-existing medical issue (like slow heartbeat or a tendency to thin blood) that makes them problematic.

And let’s face it, performing complex mechanical tasks while under the eyes of 500 (or 5,000) people is an unnatural act. This is not something that humans evolved to do, really. Why are we surprised that large numbers of people who do it need a little help?

I’m just not sure I buy the teacherly stance of You Shouldn’t Need Them, and I’m getting the feeling that the insistence on the part of a lot of teachers that they will destroy your musicality, make you a muck of nothing on stage, and turn you into a zombie who is incapable of moving an audience are pretty much the sorts of alarmist nonsense that we tell teenagers that marijuana will blow your legs off.

Okay, I’m not a pothead. I think I’m probably the only person left in North America who has never smoked the stuff. And I’ll admit openly that every person I’ve known who does smoke it habitually is pretty much a jelly-brained moron who can’t get their shit together.

But the alarmist shit, where we make things up to scare the kids, is just ridiculous.

I’ve heard of people who never needed it, who react to performance with excitement.

And then there’s people who take them and say, “This was the first time in my life that anyone had heard how I could really play.” (And BTW, who the fuck are you to tell this guy that he has to keep suffering? I suppose that pianist that Chopin knew who never ever performed publicly somehow still … could move an audience? Yeah, the audience was so moved they never heard him.)

I’ve also heard of more than a few people who started off taking beta blockers and found that, after they had built up enough memories and experiences of performing while not being in a state of abject terror, they could go without them.

And I’ve never heard of a single person who didn’t benefit from the advantages of performance psychology like that taught by Don Greene, whether they took beta blockers or not.

Basically, whoever you are and however extensive your problem, do the Don-Greene centering stuff. That’s always a good idea. Also, busk as much as you can.

And if your problems persists, go ahead and try the stupid beta blockers. We are not cave-dwellers. We do not have to suffer like Leopold Godowsky did. We have the means to deal with these problems.

And if you are a teacher, present the possibilities to your students in that order, and do not lie to them about beta blockers. Do not tell them that they will render them incapably unmusical or any of that slanderous bullshit. Not only do you insult the people who have no choice but to take these things, but those of your students who are forced to take them will then feel shamed and secretive about it.

Just tell them that they should do everything in their power to manage their nerves without drugs, and if the problems persist, other steps are available.

  1. Preparation
  2. Centering
  3. Busking
  4. Beta blockers

That is the order in which things should be approached. And musicians should take only as many steps as they need to deal with the problem, with constant evaluation of how each step is working. Stage fear is an ongoing maintenance issue.

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