Thursday, April 14, 2005

Doping scandals in music?

Yesterday we started the Social Psychology of Music unit in my Psych of Music class. It was supposed to start on Monday, but I was waylaid by illness. However, at the beginning of class a spontaneous debate started on the use of beta blockers to combat stage fright. One student, who is also an athlete, immediately compared it to steroid use. As he sees it, athletes train their bodies to perform at peak levels in arduous situations, whereas musicians train their minds to perform and emote under similar duress. And just as steroids give an unfair advantage to athletes in the development of muscle, beta blockers give an unfair advantage to musicians in the development of "ice in the veins."

Most of the other students were against this view. They argued that steroids are banned not because of unfair advantage but because they are unsafe. Beta blockers are safe (assuming you take them under the supervision of a doctor), thus they don't need to be banned. Another argument is that steroids develop muscle to a degree that natural methods could never match, whereas there are plenty of alternatives to beta blockers in overcoming stage fright. Meditation, aversion therapy, and hypnosis have all been used successfully, and there are many musicians who do not suffer from stage fright in the first place. Thus beta blockers do not give an unfair advantage, creating an escalation in anxiety-dampening drug use among musicians.

I wrote a paper on performance anxiety in grad school about 10 years ago. Some of my research involved conducting surveys on beta blocker use in various online music communities. I found a small but very vocal percentage of these communities shared similar views to my athlete student. They felt that if a musician couldn't overcome performance anxiety by "natural" means, that person shouldn't be a performer. In some cases the person felt that audiences were being deceived. In others, the person felt that the musician was not being true to their feelings, blocking them with drugs. (Beta blockers do not alter a person's mood. They prevent the body from reacting to surges of adrenaline, but do not change brain chemistry.)

I have used beta blockers in the past, solely for auditions. Regular performances do not cause debilitating anxiety symptoms for me, but auditions do. And auditions are the gateway to the regular performances, in many situations. Thus I had no qualms about using the drug. What do you think, as performers or as concert-goers?

Update: Brian Sacawa has written a post in respond to this question.

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