Beta Blockers or The Inner Game?

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The post yesterday by Bruce included a link to and comments about a recent article, “Better music by prescription” from The Minnesota Daily. This is a topic that can stir up some passion. I have some thoughts on this topic as well but before I comment this quote gives the flavor of the article.

“At the moment when the conductor looks up and you have a solo, you want it to be perfect,” sophomore bassoonist Katie Bauernfeind said. “It has to be perfect.”

The pressure can be high on stage and even higher during auditions, but some musicians are finding a solution to their big performance anxiety problems in a little white pill.

The drugs, known as beta blockers, plug the body’s beta receptors and prevent adrenaline from taking effect. Without that adrenaline, the sweaty palms, soaring heart rate and anxiety that plague performers largely disappear.

Most students say beta blockers are not commonly used, but some quietly acknowledge that the drug is more common than outsiders would imagine or administrators might like to admit.

Veronica Staupe, a 2008 graduate of the School of Music, posited that a quarter of students use the drug during auditions and solos.

There is a lot more in the full article. I know I have had students who have used beta blockers. In a sense I have no big problem with this but in a sense I always find it a little worrying, as the title of the article linked would also tend to imply as well. The mindset expressed by some students seems to be something like “when I am nervous I can’t play at my peak so I will take a pill to make it better.” Individual results will vary but I think there is a better way, or at least something to try first.

It is harder to do than take a pill but really you are better off to try to really work on your inner game. I tell this story to students often but it is really true; I have had a few students over the years that honestly were not as talented as some of the others but they had a wonderful ability to walk out on stage and play at near 100% of their ability level on demand. Many can’t seem to break roughly a 90% barrier in performance, and this is a real problem that has to be solved individually.

There are many resources that deal with the inner game but the best are to my mind all sports psychology books. Think of a pitcher in baseball. Ever been to a professional game? There are so many distractions they have to focus through and there is so much riding on their ability to pitch through them. They don’t get that focus from a pill; they get it from a lot of mental discipline and training.

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My favorite resource overall still remains the classic Inner Game of Tennis. Almost everything in the book translates easily to horn playing, and I find it more effective in a way to just read it in the original form rather than read the companion volume The Inner Game of Music. If you have never read it, get a copy of this classic and read it! At the official Inner Game website they introduce the concepts behind the book as follows:

In every human endeavor there are two arenas of engagement: the outer and the inner. The outer game is played on an external arena to overcome external obstacles to reach an external goal. The inner game takes place within the mind of the player and is played against such obstacles as fear, self-doubt, lapses in focus, and limiting concepts or assumptions. The inner game is played to overcome the self-imposed obstacles that prevent an individual or team from accessing their full potential.

In simple terms the game can be summarized in a formula: Performance = potential-interference, P=p-i. According to this formula, performance can be enhanced either by growing “p” potential or by decreasing “i,” interference.

It is impossible to achieve mastery or satisfaction in any endeavor without first developing some degree of mastery of the relatively neglected skills of the inner game. Most of us have experienced days when our self-interference was at a minimum. Whether on a sports field, at work, or in some creative effort, we have all had moments in which our actions flowed from us with a kind of effortless excellence. Athletes have called this state, “playing in the zone.” Generally at these times our mind is quiet and focused. But whatever it’s called, when we’re there, we excel, we learn, and we enjoy ourselves. Unfortunately most of us have also experienced times when everything we do seems difficult. With minds filled with self-criticism, hesitation, and over-analysis, our actions were awkward, mis-timed, and ineffective. Obviously we all would prefer to have more of the first and less of the second.

As I have said in other posts, I read and re-read this book many times taking auditions. Looking for a cover image to link I found this interesting post from the LA Times Blog from 2007. USC football coach Pete Carroll besides being in favor of winning is also a big fan of this book. I will close with a quote from the LA Times article.

Carroll first picked up the book when he was a graduate student, and it had a profound influence on his coaching philosophy. Written by W. Timothy Gallwey, the work was one of the first to dive into the now popular topic of sports psychology. While it focuses on tennis, the lessons are easily applied elsewhere.

The Inner Game has developed a big following since it was first published in 1972. Carroll is such a big fan that he wrote the foreword of the latest edition. He also reportedly had his three Heisman winners — Palmer, Leinart, and Bush — read the mere 122 pages. The latest Trojan to subscribe to the philosophy is team captain Lawrence Jackson.

To sum it up, Jackson pointed to an example in the book about a cat stalking a bird. “He doesn’t have to think about how high to jump or how far to jump. When the bird takes off, he takes off. Whatever’s necessary to get it, he’s got it because he’s so focused. When you start to calculate, ‘I’ve got to jump this high’ … then you lose who you are and your natural ability to get it done.”

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