Orchestras run on drugs and alcohol!

A somewhat misleading headline in the Guardian some weeks ago introduced a documentary which followed a number of classical musicians who succumbed to the stress of the music industry and became addicted to alcohol or drugs. I say misleading because the headline implies that all orchestras are rife with alcoholics or beta blocker addicts, which is simply not true. The documentary followed these musicians as they took part in a very worthwhile programme in collaboration with the LSO and Paul Rissman. The aim was to help them re-engage with the music profession by working towards a performance with members of the LSO. Leaving aside the ethical questions as to what happened to these musicians at the end of the programme – having been given a taste of something they may never aspire to again – the documentary reminded me that there are so few opportunities for young musicians to learn their profession.  Training orchestras, like repertory companies are becoming a thing of the past. Many of the problems referred to in the documentary are the cause of too much pressure at a young age. This is not a new syndrome. One doesn’t have to look far to see the number of ‘child prodigies’ who fail to nurture their talent into maturity. Learning to deal with pressure is just as important as learning to play the notes. There are currently a number of UK orchestral musicians who have managed high profile positions for as long as thirty or forty years. They do so by using their experience to develop individually based strategies to help cope with stress and burn-out. Importantly, many began their careers with regional or training orchestras. Unfortunately in a society where youth is valued over experience, many more musicians may fail to reach their full potential due to over exposure in a highly competitive market.

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