Auditions are the lifeblood of any professional musician. And performances are at the crux of everything they work so hard for. But when the time comes to take the stage, many are overtaken by an overwhelming sense of self-doubt. What if they miss a note and embarrass themselves on stage? What if the audience refuses to applaud them? What if an audition judge deems them inferior?
And because they can’t afford to let performance anxiety take away their confidence during the most pivotal moments, musicians will try almost anything, from bananas to beta-blockers, to quiet their fears. But though stage fright and the search for relief from it is one of the most common phenomena in the world, there remains secretiveness around it. There’s long been a belief that musicians should exude pure confidence and grow to become consistently certain and fearless underneath the spotlight.
These challenges were very familiar to John Beder, himself a former classical percussionist who battled his own insecurities as a musician. Though he had left music behind after graduating from Boston University, the memories of his performance anxiety never fully left him. He had begun to question the origin of his self-doubt. He wondered if his friends and classmates felt the same way he did. And he questioned why no one seemed to ever talk about it.
John set out to answer these questions in his debut documentary Composed, the first documentary film to explore stage fright in professional classical musicians and get a glimpse of the underlying feelings of judgment and failure even the most accomplished musicians experience.
The documentary offers a closer look at the journey musicians undergo trying to gain a better understanding of themselves and overcoming the physical and mental setbacks that accompany auditions and performances. John and his team spent months interviewing and following top musicians from some of the most elite symphonies across the world, including the San Francisco Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, and the London Symphony to learn the various techniques they use to overcome their fears. Though the film is solely focused on the classical music community, the lessons from Composed can help anyone facing an obstacle in their personal or professional life.
While there is a growing acceptance that each individual experiences stagefright differently, and thus also requires experimenting with different ways to cope, some of the techniques mentioned in the documentary remain taboo even when they’ve proven to be effective.
For instance, beta-blockers, the most effective technique according to the 2015 Musicians’ Health Survey, have long been considered a controversial topic. A medication traditionally used to treat heart and blood pressure disorders, beta-blockers can help block the physical symptoms caused by anxiety. While more traditional anxiety medications, such as Zoloft, work by adjusting the chemical balance in the brain, beta-blockers have no effect on mental capacity. Instead, they stop the effects of the stress hormone norepinephrine.
So while a musician may still have a fear of missing a note as she takes the stage, beta-blockers will stop the physical symptoms of her fear. They can reduce her shaky hands, excessive sweating, rapid heartbeat, shallow breathing, and any other way her nerves present themselves. Simply put: beta-blockers erase the symptoms of fears, allowing the person to put their full attention to the task at hand.
Beta-blockers have been a common anxiety treatment within the classical music community for decades; however, much like the subject of stage fright overall, they’ve remained a taboo topic. The secretiveness surrounding beta-blockers has led musicians to seek out the medication from unreliable sources, such as friends or family, rather than gaining a prescription from more reliable sources such as Kick Health for safe prescriptions.
While beta-blockers are a large part of the conversation surrounding performance anxiety management techniques, the ultimate goal of Composed is to open up the topics surrounding performance anxiety, integrating it into regular discussions and even music education itself. But the lessons learned here are applicable regardless of industry. “I think the classical music community offers a lot of lessons to other industries. We all need to be able to face any challenge that comes our way, personally or professionally, and be able to separate that challenge from ourselves. We need to be able to understand and analyze rather than just say ‘something’s wrong with me’,” notes John.