Recovering Addicts Confront Their Demons through Classical Music

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Rachel Lander, a cellist in the documentary 'Addicts Symphony' Rachel Lander, a cellist in the documentary 'Addicts Symphony' (Channel 4)

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The refined world of classical music is not usually linked to addiction. But a documentary airing on Channel 4 in England this week opens the door to a lesser-known side of the business. "Addicts' Symphony" took ten musicians whose lives have all been plagued by drug and alcohol addiction, and prepared them for a one-off performance with members of the London Symphony Orchestra.

The project's mastermind, composer and filmmaker James McConnel, is himself a recovered alcoholic. He notes how addiction frequently starts in response to performance anxiety. "Quite a few musicians use either a pill or a drink just to steady their nerves and keep calm," he tells host Naomi Lewin. "Unfortunately, what happens is the cure then becomes the curse. It's such a competitive world that no one is likely to own up to it out of fear of losing their jobs, and understandably so."

Little data is available on the percentage of classical musicians with substance abuse problems, but anecdotal evidence suggests it's not uncommon.

Rachel Lander, a London-based session cellist, is one of the ten musicians profiled in the film. "People don't imagine that under the surface of the refined world of classical music there is an element of fear, and medicating that fear," she said.

The film shows the musicians – all recovering addicts – through a mix of rehearsals, personal back-stories, group therapy sessions, and a climactic performance of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. Lander emerges as a central character. Some years ago her promising career came to a temporary halt due to the vodka and prescription drugs she used to ward off panic attacks in the concert hall. She now believes better treatment and awareness is needed at the college and conservatory level: "I felt like I was asking for help and it was falling on deaf ears." (Above: James McConnel, creator of Addicts' Symphony.)

Listen to the full segment above and tell us: have you experienced or witnessed addictions in the classical music world?


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Comments [5]

>Rachel Lander, a cellist in the documentary 'Addicts Symphony' (Channel 4)< Please fix the caption -- Addicts' Symphony -- (plural possessive -- to match the body text of the article). You can't have it both ways.

@ Bernie -- the gray box is hateful. One more hoop to jump through. I view (and proofread) numerous websites that include patron interaction. So far, this is the only site where I've encountered this.

Please, WQXR, delete this posting/reading step for Comments. Thank you, DD~~

Aug. 29 2014 12:41 AM
Carol from nyc

Any kind of performing brings anxiety. Classical or pop. I find it hard to believe the performance of the art brings about the addiction affliction. I think if one is vulnerable to addiction they will have that crutch, whether they're a cello soloist or a grocery store clerk.

Aug. 28 2014 01:56 PM

@Sanford, I think I understand the sentiment behind "issues in the outside world finding their way in"...But Classical music does not, or should not exist in an insulated space. There was a Whoopi Goldberg film called Sister Act which had as a theme the use of music to bring people back to the church. The nuns had been kept apart from the neighborhood but once they interacted with the people and used music as a hook things got better. OK not the best example but I hope to make the point that classical music cannot continue to exist apart from the "real world". There are other examples of music being used to help disadvantaged chldren break out of the confining boundaries of impoverishment. The recent instrument collection by this very radio station is but one of the latest. If the music can also help those struggling with demons well then play on say I.

Aug. 28 2014 10:02 AM
Bernie from UWS

Could someone tell me why WQXR is now hiding the comments behind this gray button? What purpose does that serve? I suppose it's a ploy to clamp down on free discussion on the site by making it less visible. Not very democratic.

Aug. 28 2014 09:38 AM
Sanford Rothenberg from Brooklyn

This is an issue that has occurred periodically in the classical music world.In years past,this was an alcohol-related issue(Tibbett,Steber,Bjorling).In recent years,other drugs have surfaced in addiction issues (Andrea Gruber,Charles Taylor).Unfortunately,issues in the outside world find their way into the realm of classical music.

Aug. 27 2014 07:24 PM

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WQXR looks deeper into the issues affecting the classical music landscape. 

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