June 19, 2018 / 12:47 AM

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Fear Itself: Why Some Classical Musicians Turn to Drugs Like Beta Blockers to Control Stage Fright



Much has been written lately about classical musicians who use drugs like beta blockers to deal with stage fright. Some observers outside the music world have criticized these musicians for resorting to drugs, but these commentators may not fully understand how performance nerves can affect musicians and alter the outcome of a performance.

I would like to offer one of my early experiences with performance nerves as a case in point.

I was 16 years old, playing principal horn in the National High School Music Institute (NHSMI) at Northwestern University. In orchestra we were playing Weber's Oberon Overture, which opens with a horn solo. It starts with just three simple notes, repeats a few bars later, and then the solo horn plays a few bars with the strings. Nothing to it, really. But there was something about the exposed nature of those first few notes, being the first player to break the silence, that really got to me. As the concert date approached, I could feel the pressure mounting.

I became irrationally afraid that I would lift up the horn to play and no sound would come out. Or that I would fluff the first note completely. (No matter that it was a second-space A, not even a high note.)


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