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?