In episode two of Amazon’s hit TV show, Mozart In The Jungle young oboist Hailey Rutledge nervously walks into her first day playing with the New York Symphony – her dream job.
A more seasoned member of the symphony says to her: You seem a little stressed. Could I suggest a light beta-blocker on the house? A little Inderal just to take the edge off?
The moment comes off as nothing more than a brief, light-hearted moment.
But according to Blair Tindall, author of the book the series is based on, it’s a suggestion many, if not most, stressed-out performers have been given at one point or another in their careers.
Inderal, or as it’s more commonly called Propranolol, is a beta-blocker medication. When taken in small doses, it helps prevent the onset of nervous symptoms that can hold a musician back from performing at a level they’re usually more than capable of.
An oboist is able to breathe steadily enough to hold her long notes. A percussionist is sure-handed and able to easily stay on beat. A violinist can focus on her big solo without worrying about sweaty cheeks that might cause her instrument to slip.
Simply put, beta-blockers prevent the body’s sympathetic nervous system response from falling into fight-or-flight mode.
Blair has long been an advocate of destigmatizing performance anxiety and Propranolol. As she notes in an article she wrote for The New York Times:
“Even the most skillful and experienced musicians can experience this fear. Legendary artists like the pianists Vladimir Horowitz and Glenn Gould curtailed their careers because of anxiety, and the cellist Pablo Casals endured a thumping heart, shortness of breath, and shakiness even as he performed into his 90’s.”
To date, Blair has performed with some of the world’s most prestigious symphonies including the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony. She’s earned a Grammy nomination. Her best-selling memoir was turned into a successful Amazon TV show.
But there was a time, early at the start of her career, that Blair experienced such extreme stage fright she almost had to give up her dream of performing. She spent years putting in hours of practice only to nervously stumble through her auditions.
“It feels like you’re going to die. It feels like ‘Oh my god, when is this going to be over?’ And, as a professional musician, you’re supposed to love doing this,” Blair has said in an earlier interview.
She confided her frustration in a fellow musician who recommended she try a beta-blocker. Blair almost blew the suggestion off. At this point, she thought she had tried every trick in the book and this was just another empty promise.
But on her way to an audition for the Marlboro Music Festival, an opportunity she had been dreaming out, she decided to give Propranolol a try. And it worked.
She was nervous during the audition, but her body was calm. Her breathing was normal, her hands steady. She was able to play at the level of expertise she knew she could.
She landed the runner-up position, a huge improvement over her past auditions.
With beta-blockers now on hand, Blair was able to keep her nerves at bay during key auditions and began to earn positions in her dream symphonies.
In her quest to destigmatize both stage fright and beta-blockers, she’s helped other musicians – as well as other working professionals outside of music – discover how they too can overcome performance anxiety.