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‘I’m clean!’ – A classical pianist quits drugs and ends his public career

Every now and then someone breaks the silence about the drugs musicians use to get them on stage and off.

Mostly beta-blockers. Some with devastating and lasting effect.

Today, in the Australian magazine Limelight, the pianist Simon Tedeschi says he’s had enough of the skulduggery, the drugs and the conspiracy of silence that envelops every level of music administration. Doping, he declares, ‘is part of classical music’.

Read his confession, and weep. If musicians were athletes, the Olympics would have to be cancelled.

simon tedeschi2

The piece that Simon wrote may have been intended in part as deadpan humour, but he’s done musicians a service by airing the issue.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    As he says, the majority of classical musicians have taken beta blockers at some point, but what’s the big deal? I’ve taken them for auditions and big concerts before, but I’ve also not taken them for auditions and big concerts. The same holds true for pretty much everyone I know. I don’t think anyone would really judge him the way he thinks they would. I think he just wanted to quit, period, and find any old excuse to do so. I’ve never hid the fact that I’ve taken them from colleagues or family.

    • His recommendations are spectacular. I hereby second them. I volunteer to try to create a mass-produceable stage fright detector to deal with recommendation one. Thank you for posting that, Norman.

  2. Seems his “confession” was written totally tongue-in-cheek (compare with news about Lance Armstrong & Vanessa Mae!), but of course the phenomenon prevails in classical music. I personally have never understood it – if my bow arm was shaking in a performance (when I still was a cellist) to me it was a sign that I need to prepare better, not that I need to get some drugs to calm my nerves. I have musician friends who don’t use them but tried them and said it left them in a blank and unemotional state which they hated. In my experience beta blockers are much more common in the US (already at conservatory level) than, say, in Finland. Maybe the current music competition craze has made them more commonplace – music becomes a sport when speed and flawlessness become more important than an interpretation based on understanding the style and emotion behind the music.

    • Very well said. The US is home to Big Pharma, so it wouldn’t surprise me.

    • Very well said. The US is home to Big Pharma, so that only makes sense.

    • Michael Macaulay says:

      A physical response to performance anxiety does not automatically indicate a lack of preparation. It is entirely possible for an intelligent, well prepared musician to spend months of their life preparing to the fullest extent for a professional audition, and to know every note in flawless detail, only to have their performance fall apart under the extreme and unnatural pressure of the audition environment because of a lip, finger or arm tremor that occurs for no apparent reason.

      I respect your observation, but I feel that musicians who do not experience the kind of destructive performance anxiety I am describing have a tendency to judge those who suffer from it as though they are inferior musicians, much as someone who has never suffered from depression might tell someone afflicted by it to “just snap out of it.” Beta blockers are not a crutch. They do not elevate one’s musicianship to a higher plane, they merely prevent those who possess great musical talents from being doomed to eternal failure in the craft they love.

  3. …. rolling on the floor laughing

  4. Yes, I think Sasha is correct that it is tongue-in-cheek.
    However, I am struggling to work out exactly what he thinks he is satirizing? The only thing I can get from this is “everybody dopes” and the (oblique) implication that Lance Armstrong is being over-condemed.

    Also, its not funny at all.

  5. Robert Fitzpatrick says:

    There is no question that the use of beta blockers (Inderol, etc.) is widespread among performers. The problem is not use under the supervision of a physician but the clandestine use of these serious medications (aka drugs) originally intended to control various cardiac problems including, but not limited to, hypertension. Student and professional musicians often pass the pills to their friends with the advice “try this, it will help your nerves on stage in the concert or audition.” They can be at a minimum psychologically addicting; at the maximum, they can be deadly for someone with an undiagnosed, pre-existing medical problem.

    In musical capitals of the world (you know who you are) where high pressure performance expectations are supported by limited rehearsal time, quick solutions to “stagefright” or performance anxiety are a fact of life. This topic is now discussed openly in the major music schools in the USA and, I assume, around the world. Students are encouraged to find non-chemical solutions and/or to seek the advice of a physician if necessary. Stagefright is no longer a dirty word but there is still a long way to go as this article indicates.

    I find Mr. Tedeschi’s story interesting and I wish him well with or without Oprah.

    • Robert Fitzpatrick says:

      I just noticed his other great passion…Norman is right, read it and weep because the author appears to be mocking a serious problem whether in music or cycling.

      • Really fine Robert,

        I’ve just want to say that this kind of thing happens not just in classical music. On the business world, since the times I was just a Trainee, I’ve been seem not often things such someone using a stimulator substance before an important meeting, such cocaine for example. According to the few ones that I was in a position to say something about, they were using that in order to be full of faster ideas to any kind of situation, to be more aggressive imposing ideas and freely talking. Like stage fright to musician, it’s still a signal of weakness if you admit that are not able to do it on the business world. I don’t know if it was like it in the past, but it seems that it is very common in any area in the last decades. If Simon is tongue-in-cheek, I don’t know his background circumstances in order to be able to judge accurately it.

  6. So I have a cold and am performing tonight. Should I abstain from Nurofen before I go on stage? Or would taking something to remove the aches and pains of flu be cheating somehow? Taking medication to help remove (not add) negative and harmful symptoms surely needn’t be an issue. Medicine when used properly and prescribed by an informed doctor is an asset, not something to be ashamed of. My thoughts on it are here (from a while ago):

  7. Mark Mortimer says:

    Simon’s story is a sad one. I hope that he doesn’t give up performing altogether for he clearly has considerable talents.

    However, it sounds as if he can’t get through the stress of being a concert pianist without some from of pharmacological help. In view of this, Simon’s decision to give it a rest is perhaps the right one.

    Many musicians take Beta Blockers to help eliminate the nasty effects of stage fright. If they give a better performance as a result, all well and good. But like most antidepressants (of which betablockers essentially are) they turn you into an emotional zombie. This is not an ideal state for a musical performer to be in. But perhaps understandable in a society which values accuracy over emotion.

    Horowitz, perhaps the greatest pianist of them all, suffered appalling stage fright and even had to resort to ECT treatment at one time. But he still gave the most transcendent performances. Others like Cortot, Moiseiwitsch, Rubinstein played hundreds of wrong notes but were all magicians- unequalled today. They didn’t need drugs to get through shows. Simon rightly points out that with so much pressure on young performers today, with so many chasing such few opportunities, you need anything to get ahead of the pack.
    This is the true tragedy of this tale and one which needs addressing by the classical music business.

    • I’ve always been struck by the relaxed, bordering on drowsy demeanour of Plenev on stage. I can’t think of anyone comparable in this respect.
      Wonderful pianist of course, so no jibe is intended.

    • Gerhard Veith says:

      Mr. Mortimer wrote “But like most antidepressants (of which betablockers essentially are) they turn you into an emotional zombie.” I have to say from my own experience as a classical musician, who has to take a betablocker as part of a permanent medication because of some cardiac condition, that he is quite badly informed. Neither are betablockers antidepressants, nor will they turn you into an “emotional zombie”.

  8. Beta Blockers do not address the problem. If you’re nervous, you’re not ready. The path to ready will be different for everyone, but no drug can get you there. Sasha is correct.

    • If you’re nervous, you’re not ready? Not so sure about that.

    • Michael J Stewart says:

      Ah yes. That must have been Horowitz’s, Rubinstein’s and Rachmaninov’s problem then.

    • “If you’re nervous, you’re not ready.”

      This statement couldn’t be less true. I do not take betas for recitals, but for orchestra auditions and national/international competitions, I certainly do. There is too much riding on every single note.

      I’m assuming you would agree that one would only take a beta if nervous, and you’ve already said that one is only nervous if one is unprepared. Thus, it follows that you believe all people who take betas are unprepared. How to explain, then, that the vast majority of orchestra auditions are won by people who use them? That the overwhelming majority of competition winners take them?

  9. Michael J Stewart says:

    I’ve met several classical performers (mentioning no names) who claim never to be affected by stage fright or nerves. I have no reason to disbelieve them. Pretty much all if them gave technically impressive, but utterly soulless performances.

    Conversely, I’ve seen wonderful performances that in places have been affected by nerves – wrong notes, momentary memory loss etc.. Maybe performances that would never have taken place at all without the use of beta-blockers.

    I discovered the nerve suppressing qualities of beta-blockers by accident when I was at music college, having been prescribed them by my doctor for an episode of high-blood pressure. Personally, I decided not to continue using them for nerves because I felt slightly disconnected from the performance. However, I also know that we would probably be much the poorer if every artist that did use them decided to stop performing in public.

    • “I’ve met several classical performers (mentioning no names) who claim never to be affected by stage fright or nerves. I have no reason to disbelieve them. Pretty much all if them gave technically impressive, but utterly soulless performances.”

      As all of us who do perform in public know, stage fright can become a vicious circle. It is important that somehow, at some stage, that circle be broken through so that the performing experience loses its apprehensiveness and a performer can gain trust in his or her preparation for a concert. With proper medical guidance (especially to rule out those undiagnosed cases which speak against its use), the temporary use of a drug under supervision might help to achieve that goal. Otherwise, it remains a crutch with the very real possibility of a certain kind of addiction (psychological or otherwise).

      But there are other means, and I think that drugs of any sort should only be used as a last resort. For me, adequate preparation and having any number of tryout performances before an important event have proven to be the most beneficial. I never used beta blockers except for one brief period of a few weeks between having had a heart attack and having a triple bypass OP. At that time, I knew about their use among musicians, but after having had to take them for medical reasons and experiencing their effects, I thought that any musician who used them for stage fright was certainly ill-advised, if not downright crazy…

      Performing musicians, especially soloists, are often a solitary lot who spend most of their time indoors. I would also recommend getting some exercise and fresh air outdoors every day. Spend more time with friends and other people instead of practising 10 hours a day. Touch base with nature in some way or other. Get a hobby or two. Find a good balance between music and the rest of life, and you’ll probably find it much easier to do without the pills.

      • Mark Mortimer says:

        Robert’s final point is an excellent one. Many performing musicians tend to spend most of their time practising- and its no life, being shut up in a room with your instrument for 10 hours a day. Its actually a form of OCD and is very destructive, both physically and mentally, in the long term. Pianists are particularly susceptible with the overwhelming exigencies of the vast repertoire and, as a moderate piano basher myself going through a period of thinking the more I practised the more I’d be like Evgeny Kissin, I have some delusional experience. John Ogdon was a brilliant pianist and relatively stable guy until he pushed himself over the limits, firm in the believe that he was the greatest pianist/ composer since Busoni. With too much expectation on his shoulders he ended up in a mental hospital. A psychiatrist friend of mine treats classical musicians and he believes that many of their problems stem from practising too much and not getting enough of a normal life with other interests.

  10. A very clever satirical take on the lance armstrong fiasco!

  11. Simon Tedeschi says:

    Hi Norman,

    It’s a satire, or as we say in Australia- a piss take! Hope you enjoyed it. No plans to give up performing. :)

    Simon Tedeschi

  12. Simon Tedeschi says:

    Agreed. Certainly an issue that needs more discussion

    • Alan Paterson says:

      Dear Simon,

      I read your confession in full to my 15 year-old son, who is an aspiring musician. After much thought, he has agreed to take the pledge!

      Have you by any chance got a spare pledge he can take?

      Lovely item, thank you. Good to know Australians (and South Africans) have a sense of humour in this increasingly dour world.

  13. So glad you”ll still be “out there”, Simon. We enjoyed the humour of your Limelight piece but also are loving every track on the Gershwin CD. Ta!

  14. Vivienne le Cerf says:

    I couldn’t believe the number of inane responses to Simon Tedeschi’s brilliant and satirical article. Some well meaning and sympathetic to the “doping” disclosures, some aggressive and disparaging to his “drug cheating mea culpa”…IT WAS A JOKE!!! GET IT! IT WAS MEANT TO BE FUNNY! Simon Tedeschi’s witty, hilarious and tongue in cheek parody of the Lance Armstrong scandal was intended to be entertainment, and nothing more. Simon is as likely to give up piano performing in favour of cycling (parody…get it?), as the pope is to convert to Judaism.

    • I think people were confused by the fact that it wasn’t funny… (see my above comment) – what exactly is he puporting to satarize here? In my opinion it is extemely badly written, but that is my opinion.

    • Michael J Stewart says:

      Thanks, but we are not stupid. Simon Tedeschi’s article was satire. What we went on to discuss here is the reality behind the satire.

  15. Bob Burns says:

    Whatever works, as far as I’m concerned. If these drugs allow an artist to be an artist…go for it! (How many years was the public denied a chance to hear Horowitz?)

    Had I not had a problem with absolutely horrific stage fright, I might had had a career as a pianist. It showed up in college and it messed my head up so badly that I gave up any notion of being a professional musician simply because I could not control my nerves.

    And, by the way, I WAS prepared.

  16. I am also pleased that Simon is still performing. His versions of the Tchaikovsky and Grieg concertos [ABC Classics] are intriguing, perhaps controversial [no bad thing]. Even more fascinating is the fact that the Queensland Orchestra in both concertos is conducted by Richard Bonynge! I have not read a review of this CD anywhere since it’s release in 2006. Do try it.

  17. I appreciate the wit of the “confession.” It did bring back some very painful memories, though.

    In the early 80′s I was a driven conservatory student hell bent on an orchestral career. I had internalized Gunther Schuller’s warning: you are only as good as your last performance. Self worth meant winning a coveted clarinet position that might allow me a meager income with no benefits of any kind (a well-worn topic, to be sure). My playing was excellent but my performance anxiety was debilitating at times. My teacher recommended that I go to the local clinic and get a beta-blocker, which I did. Thus began a long career of use that included passing out before an audition and completely bombing an audition because I’d overdosed. A fellow musician died because their usage brought on a heart attack. Later, after winning a job, standing backstage with friends, also using, we’d try to calculate how many minutes before the performance we should take the drug to be at maximum strength when our solo started.

    Turns out, I’m a drug addict and was compulsively using whether I needed it or not. (Another subject for another time.) I had to give it up anyway, good thing. My playing was okay but I still struggle terribly with anxiety.

  18. 1) If classical musicians have to drug themselves to meet the standards of perfection demanded in today’s world, where they are compared to edited, note-perfect CD performances that never actually happened, then the damned standard has to drop to a more achievable level. Period.

    2) Like millions of Americans, I take beta blockers because of an inherited heart defect. It killed my father when I was 20 and he wasn’t yet 58. My oldest brother had his entire aorta replaced with a dacron graft. My mother and older brother both have blood pressure that could kill a moose if left untreated. And I resent the arguments made about beta blockers that they invariably turn every single musician who uses them into jelly-brained zombies incapable of emotional verity. I’d really appreciate it if some of the people who argue against them would remember that many, many people take these things to live, and I’m not a second-rate musician because some other people use the drug that saves my family’s lives as a crutch to avoid dealing with their issues. I do not use these things are a crutch to avoid stage fright, and I can tell you right now that they don’t help with that anyway. I still hate playing for other people, and I still avoid it whenever possible.

    Should I now stay that way and never perform publicly without meltdowns to convince anyone that I’m only taking them to save my life?

    Millions of people take these drugs to live. Some of us are musicians. And I’d appreciate it if musicians who have stage fear issues would kindly find another crutch to help deal with them, and if critics would kindly remember that someone of us have no choice.

    God, this whole beta blockers thing just frosts my ass. Can’t you people find another crutch?

  19. Some of the commenters above here are badly misinformed. These drugs can never substitute for preparation and therefore using them has nothing to do with a performer’s level of preparedness. Most performers get nervous while performing, but to a various degrees of course. Furthermore, nervousness affects people differently too – there are some who are almost not affected by it physically at all. Those who are may find Beta-Blockers useful.
    The only thing BBs do – the only thing they can do – is lessen the negative effect of a performer’s anxiety on the way that his or her body functions physically during the performance. Performers who take BBs still get nervous while performing at about the same level as they do when not taking them, but this nervousness affects the technical aspects of their performance less than it would otherwise – that’s all.
    Thank goodness for the availability of these remedies: they enable many wonderful musicians to perform on the level that is closer to the one that they can achieve while practicing at home or rehearsing than what they otherwise would be able to do. The excitement of the performance is still present and the brain functions at the same heightened level of awareness as it usually does in these circumstances – unless of course someone overdoses terribly. Therefore, in my opinion, reasonable use of BBs is good for the music and consequently it is good for the audience.

    • Alan Paterson says:

      This thread has largely run its course but I am glad that the last correspondents have ended it on a supportive note and without the negative hyperbole of some others. The reality is that beta blockers are marvellous drugs, often life savers. Sir James Black, a wonderful man, won the Nobel Prize in 1988 mainly for his discovery of the drug. A one time it was the world’s most prescribed medicine.
      I am in the medical profession. I have used the drug (daily) in the past for hypertension (no side effects) and know many surgeons who take it one-off prior to any surgery specifically to calm palpitations and intention tremors and then perform complex operations without going to the much over-hyped zombie state. It is NOT and has never been classified as a sedative!
      My daughter uses an occasional beta blocker to overcome supra-ventricular tachycardia with debilitating palpitations and resultant panic attacks , again with rapid relief and without side-effects.Anyone who has been in the presence of someone suffering the extreme distress of paliptations may change their mind when they observe the effect of the drug. I also have friends suffering a life-threatening familial heart problem for whom daily high dose beta blockers are essential for the whole family and a more exuberant and un-zombie bunch I have yet to meet. And, yes, son plays double bass – well. Using any drug is sometimes beyond personal choice and all drugs may have unwanted side-effects but if you can or have to use it then so be it..
      So thanks again to Simon and Norman for this most interesting (and funny and not badly written – my opinion) article and thread.

      One potentially informative (although non-referenced) article may be of interest.

  20. Ricardo Ruiz says:

    Good grief. Why is the world so beset by people incapable of perceiving irony? Simon’s piece was satire! I hate to imagine how some would have coped with Swift’s A Modest Proposal. With apopolexy, no doubt.

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