Why Beta-Blockers Won't Help You Become a Better Musician in the Long Run (And 3 Things That Will)

Posted by Anthony Cerullo on Jul 21, 2016 08:00 AM

shutterstock_379851928That's the face of a man who's expecting one little pill to solve all of his performance anxieties. (Image via Shutterstock)

There are a number of compelling arguments supporting the use of beta-blockers in the realm of music. This article, however, is not one of those arguments.

There are various musicians out there who claim certain drugs help their craft by enhancing concentration and technical skill. That may be true for those musicians, but to succeed in music, beta-blockers aren't necessary. In fact, they may even hold you back from reaching your full potential. To understand why this is and how to find an alternative solution, we must first understand beta-blockers from their foundation.

What are beta-blockers?

Originally, beta-blockers were used to manage cardiac problems and prevent the heart from having a second attack. Besides that, they've been used to treat hypertension, although this is no longer the first choice for patients as of 2016.

Beta-blockers are part of a certain drug class that helps stop the body's normal reaction to stress. Sometimes, stress is a key instinct that we rely on in dangerous situations, but many musicians find that stress can inhibit their ability to play. 

Performance anxiety is quite common among musicians who will tell tales of shaky hands, a racing heart, and loss of breath. Reactions like these are based on our instinctual system known as "fight or flight." When the body encounters a stressful situation, it cranks up the energy. While this is great if you're being chased by a rabid wombat, nervous energy doesn't exactly come in handy while onstage.

[Musicians: How to Channel Stress Into a Performance Tool]

For this reason, it's easy to see why a musician would be attracted to a drug that blocks this response. Many might even be searching where to get beta-blockers at this instant. Before you continue, realize that they might not be as effective as you think.

Why musicians rely on beta-blockers

Performance anxiety can be overwhelming. It can turn some of the most talented musicians into cowering shells of their former selves. Many might not even believe in the effects of beta-blockers but are willing to try anything. They have not had success eliminating stress in the past, so they turn to a pill for a quick fix. It might not even work for them, but the comfort of addressing the issue is enough for some people, at least temporarily. For this group, anything is better than nothing.

Then, you have the other group who believe beta-blockers actually work. This group of people claims that beta-blockers eliminate stress, increase focus, and reduce annoyances.

Getting up onstage in front of a large group of people comes with a variety of distractions. Suddenly that song you may have mastered earlier in practice becomes an impossible feat. Every aggravating noise in the room seems to target you, and the smallest points of physical discomfort are magnified tenfold. By taking a pill, though, all these distractions disappear and you're left to focus solely on the music.

Now, everyone experiences the effects of this drug differently. It's possible for beta-blockers to have a positive effect on you, but there's also a large group of people who are fooled by the placebo effect. According to clinical trials, one in three people who try any given drug (assuming that they believe in it) respond positively to its reaction. Using that logic, it's fair to assume that one out of every three people who use beta-blockers and find them useful are actually falling victim to the placebo effect.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. If taking a drug can fool someone into ridding himself of performance anxiety, there doesn't seem to be any harm in that. The purpose of this discussion isn't to say beta-blockers are an evil entity that are killing musicians everywhere. It's quite possible that they can improve the situation of performance anxiety, but it should be noted that there are other ways. These alternatives are not only natural but more permanent than the effects of a beta-blocker.

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How to (naturally) cure performance anxiety

Everyone loves a quick fix, but they aren't always the best solutions to a problem. Performance anxiety is a very real problem for musicians and can have a negative impact on their careers. It's quite understandable why the urgency to fix it has become so fierce. There's no time to sit with a psychologist when you have a headlining gig six hours away. As a result, we see quick fixes come into play.

Performance anxiety is complicated, though. It cannot be fixed overnight, but there are a few strategies you can learn. Over time, these strategies can be implemented into your practice and living habits, which will eventually help take your performing abilities to new heights.

Besides performing at a high level, these strategies will change your perception about anxiety altogether.

1. Self-evaluation

One helpful alternative to beta-blockers is self-evaluation. Self-evaluation is the process of getting to know yourself better, both as a musician and a person. All it takes is a few minutes each day.

Start by finding a quiet environment. From there, start to identify the issues of your stress. Ask yourself what your motives are for performing, what your strengths and weaknesses are, and what exactly you're afraid of. Remember, this is self-evaluation, not criticism. It's just a simple way to organize your issues, as anxiety tends to cloud the mind.

2. Gradual improvements

This may sound crazy, but an effective way to cure the effects of stress is to seek it out in small doses. Search for opportunities that would put a minor level of stress on you and challenge your skills. You don't want them to overwhelm you, but overcoming these small bouts of anxiety will help build confidence.

Additionally, incorporate visualization of a performance into your routine. Visualization can help the mind better prepare for the onslaught of stressful emotions that come with a gig. Eventually, your body will adjust to the feeling of stress and convert it into an exciting energy than can be used onstage.

3. Embrace anxiety

The whole point of drugs like beta-blockers, alcohol, and other substances is to cover up anxiety. It takes an "out of sight, out of mind" approach to treatment. While that may work temporarily, that's no cure for anxiety. Like those drugs, simply trying to ignore anxiety while onstage won't work either.

The best approach to coping with performance anxiety is acknowledging its presence. Don't block out the audience or any source of your stress. Instead, see it as a part of the act.

Every musician has to battle with performance anxiety at some point. It's a necessary aspect of the process. Approach it as a challenge and use it as an inspirational force. By conquering the anxiety, you'll be more likely to improve your performance, and also get over some damaging fears in the process.


Next up: The Most Effective Ways to Crush Performance Anxiety On and Off the Stage


Anthony Cerullo is a nomadic freelance writer and keyboard player. In his spare time, he can be found reading, hiking mountains, and lying in hammocks for extended periods of time.

Topics: Performing, Honing Your Craft


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