Performance Enhancing Drugs for Musicians?
Is the scourge of the professional athletic world rearing
its ugly head in the
by Drew McManus
September 27, 2004
This summer's Olympics games were marked by
several high profile performance enhancing drug scandals.
The numbers of athletes using
illegal substances continues to rise along with the increasing number of
athletes in addiction
Several high profile
athletes tested positive for banned substances, most notably several previously
successful Greek and American competitors.
These banned substances allow athletes who use them to perform at levels beyond
normal human ability and help them achieve record breaking levels of
performance. The drug of choice in the spotlight this year is a designer steroid
named tetrahydrogestrinone (THD).
The motive behind banning such substances is obvious; everyone deserves to
perform on the level playing field of natural ability and training. However,
given the competitive nature of professional athletics, it's no surprise to
discover that there are always competitors eager to obtain an artificial edge.
And professional musicians are very similar to professional athletes; they are
constantly searching for ways to improve their performance ability. But unlike
their athlete cousins, professional musicians can rarely benefit from
artificially increased physical ability.
But there are other ways for musicians to improve
their performance; by reducing performance related anxiety.
It's nothing new for musicians to suffer from performance anxiety, otherwise
known as "stage fright". And up until the past few decades, classical musicians
haven't dabbled in performance enhancing drugs (the legal ones at least).
Performance anxiety is an issue that's typically treated as a mental challenge,
something more like "mind over matter". Almost every professional musician has a
technique or trick they use to help them remain calm and focused during
David Lockington, music director for the Grand Rapids Symphony Orchestra,
espouses a technique he refers to as visualization, which helps him establish
triggers to relax during performances; and for David it works well.
He says, "I visualize walking on stage, seeing the lights, and using all of
those as triggers to relax instead of adding to the pressures."
But some musicians have significantly more trouble obtaining those levels of
relaxation and focus using mental exercises.
Stage fright is an inherently individual condition which some individuals are
naturally better equipped to deal with than others. So what does a musician do
when they can perform at a level equal to the best of the best when they are in
their private practice studio but fall apart due to performance anxiety when
they step onto the stage?
Decades ago, musicians typically found their answers in a bottle; bourbon,
scotch, vodka, gin, take your pick. Alcohol has always been an easily
accessible means to artificially lessen the rate of vital physiological
But the pitfalls associated with that choice of
action are obvious. Alcohol not only deadens a musician's synaptic responses
(which are at the heart of performance anxiety) but they also slow down
cognitive and physical ability. Then there's that pesky addictive side effect to
Better living through pharmaceuticals
In 1965 Wyeth Laboratories developed Inderal, the brand name for propranolol,
which is an antianginal, antiarrhythmic, antihypersensative, antimigraine drug,
and beta blocker.
In English, that means it helps treat the effects of anxiety or nervous tension,
aggressive behavior, angina, high blood pressure, migraine, headaches, panic
attack, phobias, schizophrenia, tremors, and to help prevent second heart
Inderal is not habit forming, may be taken for months or even years, and proper
dosage must be determined and prescribed by a physician.
It's obvious to see why many musicians have found this drug to be
extraordinarily useful if fighting the symptoms of performance anxiety.
Some musicians who use this drug have experienced significant reductions in
their level of performance anxiety which, in turn, allows them to reach much
high levels of consistency in their performing. Best of all, it isn't habit
forming and side effects are rare and usually minor in character.
A question of ethics
If you ask a group of musicians (especially a string player) about their
feelings regarding Inderal and you'll likely get an ear full. Some players find
it to be a god send which allows them to consistently perform at their best
while others see it as an artificial crutch that eliminates a level playing
For example, two of the most stressful situations in the classical music
industry are solo performing and taking auditions. Both are directly connected
to how successful a musician is throughout their career.
Opponents of Inderal use claim that the drug provides an artificial edge to
audition candidates, allowing them to win a position over a competitor that may
otherwise deserve to win the job. They go on to point out that professional
soloists that use Inderal create an artificial product that is not
representative of their natural ability.
Proponents state that Inderal allows them to demonstrate the absolute best of
the natural ability and results of their years of hard work. They claim the drug
doesn't enhance their ability to play their instrument, it merely allows them to
display their natural ability.
One professional cellist I spoke with, who wishes to remain anonymous, swears
that without Inderal their career would have never gotten off the ground. They
said "Without Inderal I never would have reached my full potential. I've
practiced just as long and just as hard as my colleagues The only difference is
they don't suffer from the gripping fear I do when I pick up my bow in front of
Arguably, when compared to physical issues the world of medical science is only
just beginning to learn about physiological disorders. Are they more alike than
different? Are they a disease to be treated with physical and pharmaceutical
solutions or should they remain in the realm of "mind over matter".
It's difficult to come to any sort of definitive conclusion. As of now, the
issue of Inderal use among musicians is filled away under "personal choice".
But some of the potential dangers lurking in today's world are the ease with
which anyone can order prescription drugs without first seeing their physician.
And although Inderal is not nearly as harmful as other performance enhancing
drugs such as anabolic steroids, it has been a prescribed medication for the
past 39 years.
Since ethics is an issue usually left as an academic afterthought in the music
industry, one has to wonder if we'll all pick up a newspaper one day reporting
that a conservatory student was found dead in their dorm room due to an improper
usage of Inderal.
For now, Inderal will have to remain a topic that is limited to venues of
personal debate and personal choice.
To learn more about Inderal and other forms of propranolol, visit PSYweb.com and
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