Beta Blockers and Stage Fright

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This one is personal.  As a child, youth, and young adult I don’t recall feeling overly nervous to perform.  There was a healthy amount of anticipation, butterflies in my stomach, cold fingers, even self doubt, but nothing debilitating.  I was often excited about dressing up for a performance and excited to share something I thought was pretty cool about myself.  Memorization seemed to come easily and was uninhibited by any nervousness or performance jitters.  I felt somewhat invincible, truthfully.

As I applied and auditioned for acceptance into my Master of Music program, I’ll admit I was still a bit heady having put together my resumé of a brief lifetime of experience and qualifications.  That audition marked an abrupt change in how I dealt with and managed stage fright.  There were no horrific memory slips or mistakes, just a quiet realization that I was a fish out of water–a fish that thought they had been in water all along, until that point.  You see, I had purposely taken a twelve year break from active study and performance of the violin to pursue other worthy goals and passions.  My Bachelor of Science Degree was in Business, with a Minor in International Business.  I also had earned an International Studies Certificate after a semester of intensive study in the Middle East.  A distant world away from and degree in music.  I had continued to play and love to teach and perform during that time, but bad habits had taken hold, my skill had plateaued and even declined.  I tried to focus on the fact that I had been accepted to my masters program and that there was a place for me to grow and progress there.

Facing the rigors of a Master of Music in violin performance forced my eyes wide open to the very real possibility of failure and a lack of control.  My previously manageable performance jitters became overwhelming, even crippling.  Playing for the professors and faculty was petrifying.  I felt disdain from the women professors who seemed to scoff at the thought of a mother with the audacity to return to the music world and earn a graduate degree.  Not all of them were this way, but the sentiment wasn’t veiled in anyway.  Interestingly, playing to a concert hall full of music lovers was somehow less frightening than playing intimately for a small group of close friends and those who knew me best.  I shared my deepest fears of performing and failing with my husband and a few select friends and supporters, who always encouraged me to continue anyway.

At a lesson before a solo recital my first year, I confided in my teacher that I was having trouble managing my fears of performing.  I shared what a frustration it was to know the amount of work and effort I had put in, and knowing I was fully capable of incredible performances as I had rehearsed over and over again in an empty hall and in the dressing rooms off stage some afternoons.  Those solo performances with no audience but empty chairs were soul performances.  The kind where my heart would connect to my violin, tears would well up in my eyes as the music overwhelmed my senses.  I lamented to my that I didn’t know what would come out of my violin when it was time for the performance that mattered to faculty and other students, and that my nervousness was preventing any heart from being a part of the performance.

He knew me well by then.  He knew my dilemma, and had observed this stumbling block.  He shrugged his shoulders and suggested beta blockers.

Beta blockers?  I was unfamiliar.

The use of beta blockers among musicians has become quite common since the 1970s.  The effect can lower blood pressure, hence, leading to a greater calm in performing and auditioning.  According to arts medicine specialist Dr. Alice Brandfonbrenner, “Beta-blocking drugs, primarily propranolol, have proved to be safe and effective for many musicians as one means of temporarily controlling the negative physiological symptoms of performance anxiety.”  Negative symptoms are anything that inhibits your best performance.  A racing heart that becomes a distraction, hyperventilating or not breathing at all, cold/sweaty/hot hands, shakiness, scattered and distracted thoughts, crying, vomiting–there is a huge range of what is experienced.  For a musician, the purpose of using beta blockers is to calm these negative symptoms of stage fright.  There are also positive symptoms of stage fright that you don’t want to lose.  A healthy amount of nervousness can lend to greater passion and energy in a performance.   A quickened heart rate can give one greater intensity and purpose in sound.  One can learn how to harness this energy to better communicate through performance and feel authentic on stage.  Positive nervousness can keep one on their toes, at attention to the music they are sharing.  Because beta blockers aren’t selective in their side effects, it’s difficult to know what positives a musician may dull in taking them.

Because I already had extremely low blood pressure at this junction, beta blockers were not an option for me.  I had to actively search for other methods to help me turn my stage fright into an asset to my performances.   I wanted to harness the positive symptoms of stage fright and subdue and control the negatives I experienced.

Knowing my struggle, a dear friend and avid golfer gave me a book that she said helped her golf game.  This book was written to the musician, The Inner Game of Music, by Barry Green with W. Timothy Gallwey.  It’s tagline promised to “overcome obstacles, improve concentration and reduce nervousness to reach a new level of musical performance.”  It really was just what I needed.  It helped me to identify my specific weaknesses and thought processes that were fueling the fire of my stage fright.  I learned to control my thoughts in a different way while performing that increased my connection to the music I was sharing.  I learned to breathe while performing.  (My breathing would slow to almost nothing and had previously been an unconscious response that limited my muscle movement as the decrease in oxygen settled in).

I wasn’t fixed overnight, however, the benefits and changes to my ability to perform began to improve.  I find much greater joy in performing now.  I do not worry about nerves, only to the extent that I want to ignite them to give greater connection to my audience and the works of music I perform.  I teach the techniques I have learned in my lessons with my students every day.  It was powerful for me and I know it is a benefit to them.

I will share specifics in future posts, actionable items that my students and parents can use to understand their own stage fright responses and how to work with them in powerful ways.  For now, I share this resource that was such timely help for my own journey in performance.  No beta blockers required.

Here are a few interesting reads on the use of beta blockers:

Musicians Use Beta Blockers as Performance-Enabling Drugs

Beta Blockers Help Some Musicians Fight Stage Fright

Better Playing Through Chemistry

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