January 13, 2010

Getting an edge

Kiss it goodbye.What is it about age and nerves? When you would think that doing stuff would get easier as you get older, it gets more difficult. Anyone older than 30 marvels at kids who seem to have no inhibition or anxiety at all.

Skiing the other day for the first time this season reminded me of the fearlessness of kids. Even children who are novice skiers plow down the hill seemingly without regard to anything but fun, while the experienced adults take every precaution to ensure things are just-so before heading down the slope. My nine-year-old daughter, still only just getting the hang of keeping her skis parallel, was eager to take on a(nother) black diamond run with me. Persuaded to share something marginally less steep, she nonetheless zoomed past, laughing all the way.

Judging solo competitions you get a clear view of anxiety’s relationship with age. Most of the kids come up with hardly a thought about failure, and occasionally seem so aloof to the whole business that you wonder why they’re even doing it. Not a care in the world. Meanwhile, some adults routinely quake in their brogues, visibly trembling as they struggle sometimes to . . . just . . . get . . . through . . . it.

Nearly five years ago I blogged about “performance enhancing” drugs, and former Major League Baseball player Mark McGwire’s recent admission that he took steroids and human growth hormone to help his career along reminded me of it. (Unfortunately, the many comments to that post aren’t viewable, since when the blog moved to a new platform there was no way to import them to the current system.)

Whether nerve-calming beta-blockers actually enhance a piper or drummer’s performance is debatable. For all but a freakish few, a major part of the piping performance challenge is controlling one’s nerves, and, in general, the older you get, the better you become, and the better you become, the more pressure you put on yourself to live up to expectations and standards. Obviously there are unmedicated pipers and drummers who know how to control their fear, and being fearless is all about being confident, without feeling the need to prove anything to anyone.

Slumps are common in sports, and they’re surprisingly common in competitive piping and drumming. A lot more common than purple patches, anyway. As that great St. Louisan, Yogi Berra, said, “Ninety percent of this game is mental, and the other half is physical.”

I’m not sure how many top players take prescription beta-blockers. I can’t recall anyone in the game actually admitting to it, so I’d imagine that there could be a perceived stigma to it, as if it’s performance enhancing or “cheating.”

Or is it?


  1. Several of my clients play with The Cleveland Orchestra (consistently one of the top five classical ensembles in the world). They all take beta blockers and acknowledge that all but a handful in the orchestra take them regularly. Some even for rehearsals. It is no secret. They don’t really care what public perception about it is and…this just in…they actually get paid (well) to do what they do. Not admitting to it is just another item on the long list of why pipers/drummers need to get overthemselves. No one really cares. Save the mystique for something truly intriguing.

  2. Andrew raises a really good question. I never really thought about it but it makes sense. Jason, last time I checked orchestras don’t compete for prizes so there are no rules of competition like there is in piping and drumming, whether those ‘rules’ are written or not.

  3. I’m one of those adults who freaks out on the boards. It’s a weird feeling for me because I competed as a highland dancer into my 20’s without a thought to nerves, but starting out competing in piping as an adult was a whole different story. I don’t know about the pros – to me, it seems like they compete without too much nervousness. But it seems to me that adults in the lower grades feel pressure to measure up to the younger kids and are ashamed to be beaten by them. I wouldn’t go to the extreme of taking beta blockers, but I have been known to down a few bananas prior to competing. As it is, the combination of adult nerves, competition half my age, and the presence of a judge who I usually know and revere turns me to mush.

  4. It’s my belief that there are two different demons there and I am not enough of a doctor to really claim knowledge about this except for what i have experiencedl. For ten years, I had no choice but to take very powerful beta blockers and other heart rate medicine, due to having atrial fibrillation. I still had issues with racing heart beats at times, but never really noticed that I was “mellowed” out, however I did notice that I wasn’t quite as wound up with tremors in the hands.

    I’ve talked with quite a few pipers that have taken them and I’d say half of them notice the lack of tremors, and others notice the “mental gain” they get from being in more control. Preparation and confidence remain the best beta blockers of all but I personally have noticed a major difference in my playing, attitude, and control of my playing in Scotland versus playing in Canada and I am now looking to solutions, Betas being one of them. Besides , pipers have been medicating themselves with pints or “wee halves” for years and freely admit that it just helps to take the edge off.

    I”m not here to start an argument at all but in my mind, there’s a big difference between taking steroids ( that have so many reports of terrible side effects) vs very SMALL doses of “real doctor” prescribed Betas, only taking a few milligrams before playing does not seem like a huge deal to me. Let the music come out. You stop Beta’s , you gotta stop booze as well, and then what about Cigarette’s , no doubt they have helped a good few people get through the day.

    Bruce Gandy

  5. Bruce, I agree it is a slippery slope. One day it’s beta blockers, the next it’s bananas. There is no future in restircting the use of anykind of supplement. After all, we are talking about an idiom that has enough problems enforcing roster violations. Robin, of course there is a difference in the competitive nature of piping versus orchestras, but remember one crucial point, we don’t get paid by an audience that is seeking the purest form of the art. We don’t really get paid at all. Professional concert musicians are employees. I suppose if their employers wanted to drug test them, they could. But why? It’s all about the quality of the performance that gets put on the stage. Whatever it takes to make it great! Baseball and other sports are different from us. First of all, in most cases, the substances in question are illegal. Secondly, there is a history to uphold and a level playing field must be maintained across generations when it comes to things like home-run records. Drug testing really doesn’t have a place in music, competitve or not. Frankly, drugs have probably enhanced the creativity and output of some of histories best artists & musicians. Cut their life short? Sure. But enhanced the brightness of their star while it shone? Perhaps. At the very least, debatable.

  6. i believe it is important to note that beta blockers have no true anti anxiety effect. their main effect is to prevent increases in heart rate, and they can lead to less tremor. these two effects may help people feel less anxious, but the drug itself does not reduce anxiety.
    bruce m.

  7. Anxiety is both a physiological and psychological response to stress. The physiological being a release of adrenaline which can manifest in many forms. By slowing the heart, beta blockers slow the uptake of adrenaline thereby limiting the “rush” effect of the adrenaline. The psychological effect for me has been a general nervous feeling 30 minutes before competition I that I will become nervous when I go to compete this triggers the physiological effect and compounds the problem. Not only I am then nervous that I will become nervous, but the tremors start and my playing goes to hell, so I become nervous because nothing is going right, which increases my stress and my reaction. The beta blockers help prevent this rush from starting, they don’t change my thought patterns but they do give me a fighting chance of controlling my nerves by preventing the start of the rush.

    As to the debate about enhancing performances, I think there are two things to consider:

    1- beta blockers actually slow you heart and the adrenaline uptake, adrenaline makes you faster, so in effect beta blockers prevent you from reaching you “speed” potential, meaning you can’t play as fast, so they do not enhance your physical ability.
    2- For the same reason beta blockers prevent fast synapse firing in the brain, which means you can’t think as fast, so they do not enhance your mental ability.

  8. Beta blockers are certainly ubiquitous in the concert orchestra scene. Most of those musicians relate the benefits to reduced anxiety-induced tremors. Some will tell you that there is better concentration and focus. They are often perscribed to people with test taking induced anxiety. That is quite interesting because the same benefits regarding concentration and focus have been ascribed to caffeine! But excessive caffeine can be a tremor disaster. If you want to cause a local riot, show up at a target shooting contest with a thermos of coffee! The contestants don’t even want to smell the aroma. Then there is nicotine. If you’re addicted, then you better smoke or chew before a perfomance or competition, because acute nicotine withdrawl will turn you into a wreak.

    For the average guy, there is not gong to be much benefit. I think if you are someone who really “freaks out” at a perfomance or contest then there is data to suggest a benefit from Beta Blocker prophykaxis. If you just have heightened anxiety then there is probably no benefit. if you’re are someone playing at Bruce’s level or on the professional concert circuit, small benefits can be huge. I’ll always remember a famous quote from Leonard Bernstein the famous composer/performer/director…to paraphrase, “if i don’t practice for a day, I know the difference, if I don’t practice for a few days my frends notice the difference, if I don’t practice for a week everyone notices. Now for the average person the single milligram of caffiene in a single cup of joe can help concentration and focus, but can be overdone and is probably counterproductive is someone who truely needs Beta blockers.

    Now, here comes the big disclaimer…..Placebo effect is HUGE. Placebo effect is defined as a measurable effect, benefit or result that has no scientific explanation. That is not the same as the commonly held definition that placebo effect means it’s useless. Quite to the contrary, actually. Just because it’s “all in your head”, so to speak doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. Yoga, self hyponosis, meditation, controlled breathing exercises, many people find these to be beneficial and effective. As “Westerners’ though most of us are much more inclined to want to pop pills or formulations/concoctions whether they come from the pharmacist, the homeopath or our herb garden.

    I’m not even going to address the whole pot and musicians issue!

    Hope to see many of you at Winter Storm!

  9. After a speed-crazy lesson a few years ago with my teacher, I switched off of the too much caffene before playing for a lesson. With my contest days, even though i’m a regular coffee drinker (3-4 cups a day) i’ve switched to decaf on those mornings. Just doing that made sure that the caffene and the adrenaline weren’t fighting each other and it has worked out fine…as long as i’m well rehearsed and practiced.
    I attended a seminar for work a few years ago from retired Lieutenant-Colonel Dave Grossman about actually “doing the deed” you could say. His seminar showed how when the fight or flight scenario kicks-in, the body responds in certain ways. My fingers on contest day used to become like frozen fish sticks…cold, but they worked fine. His explanation unlocked why that was happening to me and it made good sense.

  10. The main reason I resumed playing solos was to help me get used to managing the nerves so I could be calmer during band contests. It’s helped, and resulted in improved technique overall, though going off the rails during solos is a new, unexpected experience! And yes, playing for well-known judges raises the level of difficulty – a certain pipes-drums editor got to hear me play the wrong bloody march at Maxville last year before I finally (mercifully) aborted…

    As for beta-blockers, it’s not “performance-enhancing” unless it actually makes you better at something; beta-blockers don’t make your fingers move faster, or your expression more musical. If a dram before the contest calms you should it be banned? Still not sure whether the bananas actually work but I figure I need breakfast anyway, right?!

  11. This is a great post Andrew, and awesome discussion. When the steroid news first started hitting, I thought about having a fake You-Tubey advertisement for our youth band indicating there were no performance enhancing drugs in OUR activity. But then our Director mentioned Beta Blockers and other things some do to calm the nerves. I definitely think there’s a HUGE leap between something to calm the nerves or tremors and help you focus and Steroids, but it’s a really interesting discussion. I could still do the video and talk about Steroids, specifically and might still some day. It’d be fun.

    I worry about how much medication we’re (as a society) getting used to taking and was really interested to see Bruce Gandy’s comments on the subject of how much they helped (or not). It sounds like in some cases they can, but they definitely shouldn’t be looked at as the silver bullet for all.

    Maybe we should call them Performance Allowers rather than enhancers? 🙂

  12. I’ve played in both orchestras and pipe bands and haven’t used beta blockers or alcohol prior to competing/playing in either. Medical conditions excepted, they shouldn’y be necessary. It’s really all about attitude and state of mind. You just need to learn to deal with it.
    “Don’t worry, be happy!”

  13. If somebody is on beta blockers for some other medical condition and they happen to help as a side effect in some way, with competing or performing, so be it. But I’m all in favour of getting to the roots of the anxiety and not subduing it or suppressing it. After all it isn’t going anywhere by that method, you’re just sitting on it. Better to get to the roots, do a bit of sorting out, and hey presto some time later, the leaves are green and fresh again, shining in the Glenfiddich breezes. I believe that every note of music you play is an expression of your inner self and that any artificial interferance you swallow with a sip of water, is going to interfere with that process. I agree with John Mitchell on this one.



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