Addiction in the Orchestra

Addiction in the Orchestra

New documentary shares a long-kept secret of classical orchestras: Addiction rates run high among elite classical musicians.

A documentary that aired last week on Channel 4 in the UK, Addict’s Symphony, featured 10 classical musicians who had suffered from addictions that were caused mainly by the same thing they loved – performing classical music. Composer and musician James McConnel came up with the idea after his 18-year-old son Freddy, also a talented musician, died of a heroin overdose. A recovering addict himself, McConnel hoped that the documentary could save others in the music industry from the same fate.

The documentary follows the group of musicians as they pick up their instruments and work towards playing with the London Symphony Orchestra.  At the same time, the participants in the documentary struggle (some more than others) through their memories of playing music during their drug use – however, this time they are going to perform drug-free.

One woman in the documentary, Rachael Lander, who also spoke to The Guardian, opened up about her struggles with addiction while performing in an orchesetra. According to Lander, drug and alcohol abuse is very common within the orchestra. For many, stage fright becomes too much to handle, and these musicians usually take beta-blockers or a few shots of alcohol before a performance to calm their nerves. Others find that it is difficult to come down from the ‘high’ they get while performing on stage, and turn to alcohol or pills to calm them down after a performance.

For Lander, she says that her stage fright required her to take beta-blockers before the show, which she washed down with alcohol ‘as a precautionary measure’. And because the disease of alcoholism is progressive in nature, it wasn’t long before she was looking for more. The beta-blockers became Valium, and the amount of alcohol she washed it down with grew. Before long, that wasn’t working either, and her panic attacks were coming on when she wasn’t even performing because her body was unable to handle regular stressors without the aid of drugs and alcohol. Lander was unable to continue with music, and began working as a waitress instead. It was there, she says that her drinking spiraled out of control.

Two years later, as she was hurtling towards rock bottom, she was able to stop drinking with the aid of a 12-Step programme and support from her family. Since then, she has taught herself how to perform drug and alcohol free, and is working once again in the music industry. When Channel 4 approached her about this documentary, she was nervous. If you’re a rock  n’ roll artist, having an addiction problem isn’t going to stop you from getting gigs. In fact, some of the most famous rock stars of all time have had serious addiction problems that were made very public. But in the orchestra, it seems, it’s different. Lander was scared that by coming out with her addiction past, she would be committing career-suicide. However, she said “I’m frustrated with the classical-music profession and the fact that stage fright is still a touchy subject, despite the huge pressures on musicians. My story is not unique.” And she hopes that by participating in this documentary, it will help others feel less alone. And hopefully, they will ask for help.

Anxiety plays a large role in addiction, as many people who suffer from anxiety turn to alcohol and drugs to make themselves feel ‘normal’. If you or someone you know is struggling with anxiety and/or addiction, it’s important to reach out to a professional for help.