Whether it’s performing on an instrument, playing a sport, or speaking in public, we all get nervous. But for some, including myself, it’s a little worse than getting butterflies in your stomach. This is called performance anxiety, which causes symptoms such as nausea, trembling hands, lips, and voice, sweaty and cold hands, racing pulse, and rapid breathing. As you can imagine, or may have experienced yourself, this is not pleasant at all. In fact, it can really affect your ability to play the best that you can. After spending hours upon hours practicing and preparing for a performance or audition, it really sucks to have it all thrown away as a result of anxiety.
Psychological performance anxiety is one thing- telling yourself you aren’t good enough- but the physical effects are a completely different thing. Sure, they’re connected, but the physical effects aren’t as easy to control. To combat my performance anxiety I have sought out counseling that has really helped me gain perspective on performing. Even though I think more positively however, I can still get nauseas before performing. No matter how prepared or confident I feel, I still experience a racing heart, or sweaty palms.
Because music is such a huge part of my life, I’m always trying to find ways to reduce the effects of performance anxiety that I so often experience. Awhile ago, as I searched on the internet, I came upon the beta blocker. For those of you unfamiliar with beta blockers, they are most commonly used to treat high blood pressure, but have also been found to decrease symptoms of performance anxiety in musicians. The use of beta blockers as treatment for anxiety in musicians has been highly debated. While some swear by them, others say that they cause emotional disconnection during a performance. While I am not qualified in deciding whether or not beta blockers should be used by musicians, I read an article in which Holly Mulcahy, concertmaster for the Chattanooga Symphony and Orchestra, and Diane Nichols, a psychotherapist were interviewed on this topic.
Both gave some really good points that beta blockers should only be used in certain situations. Although beta blockers are not addictive, it is found that some musicians create a dependence for themselves on beta blockers. While beta blockers can be very beneficial in situations with high stakes, it is healthy to look for other alternatives that can curb the anxiety. Mulcahy says she also uses breathing exercises to help with her anxiety. A common misconception about beta blockers is that they are a performance enhancing drug. Unlike steroids, beta blockers can’t make you play better. They only reduce the affects of anxiety.
While there are positives to using beta blockers, Mulcahy also addresses the fact that they can result in a distance from the material she is playing. However, she finds that she is able to decrease the dose that she takes to help her connect to the music while still having an edge from the medication. In another article, Sara Sant’Ambrogio, a cellist, said, “If you have to take a drug to do your job, then go get another job.” I find this to be insensitive to those who struggle with performance anxiety. I couldn’t imagine giving up my flute . I, as I’m sure other musicians would agree with, would do just about anything to continue playing without the restrains of anxiety.
As both Mulcahy and Nichols agree on, stage fright is something that will never go away, nor should it. A little bit of nervousness is what can make a performance shine. But when those nerves are so severe that it affects your playing, beta blockers can be a great way to reduce those physical effects, when used alongside different methods of relaxation and therapy.