Most people think of the orchestra as a hoity-toity elevator music club invented for your granny's listening pleasure. And while it's true that most members of their audiences are probably knocking on death's door , playing in one must still be an honorable, noble profession, right?
But like all forms of music, the orchestra has a the seedy underbelly of drugs, horrific injuries and low pay.
5Performance-Enhancing Drugs Are Rampant
Fucking up in baseball is so common that there's a special stat for it. In an orchestra, though, a single fuck-up can mean the difference between a sweet piece of Mozart and The NY Times talking about how shitty you are. And even the best, most practiced musician is going to get a case of nerves when walking out in front of a half-empty concert hall of sedated senior citizens. So what is the modern solution to performance anxiety?
Beta blockers. Magic pills that steady the hand and smooth out the notes.
Her betas ain't going nowhere.
Traditionally used to help with heart issues, these pills work by counteracting the effects of adrenaline. This drops blood pressure, slows the heart, reduces breathing rate and turns Speed into a exercise in zen. The end result is a noticeable increase in playing quality. Yep, it's steroids for violinists.
"That's a perfect rendition of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds! Shame that we're playing Bach."
How widespread is the prescription-strength orchestra? A study way back in 1986 found that 27 percent of musicians admitted that they took beta blockers. Though beta blockers are the reason that a North Korean pistol shooter was stripped of his medal, there's no push to start piss tests before Prokofiev. After all, this is a great alternative to what musicians used to use to settle down: tranquilizers or beer.
Pictured: The BBC Philharmonic.
4Playing is Dangerous
Playing music is goddamn terrible for your body. Hearing aid companies, for example, will advise that all musicians risk progressive hearing loss since the average orchestra is loud enough that it violates OSHA sound regulations. Anyone who practices for more than a few seconds a day could end up with a case of repetitive strain injury. But we're not talking about that (or the fact that string instruments shred your fingertips and violin players get horrifying, oozing sores on their necks). There are nontrivial, potentially life-ending injuries that a wind instrument player can sustain.
Like chronic noogie syndrome.
If death is too scary an outcome, serious trumpet players can merely shred their mouth muscles until they require surgery to play again. It's called Satchmo's syndrome after Louis I-motherfucking-invented-jazz Armstrong. In addition to losing the ability to control his mouth adequately, Satchmo also played enough to start bleeding from his lips, which presumably made him all the more badass.
"That frothing blood-rimmed mouth sure makes Ride of the Valkyries more immersive!"
Trumpet players, and indeed all brass instrument players, use something called a Valsalva maneuver. It sounds like a military tactic but is actually the same thing you do when taking a shit. The Valsalva maneuver transiently raises blood pressure as the body strains against, well, nothing but itself. Now, repeat this daily for years. End result? A whole clusterfuck of symptoms. Increased incidence in eye problems that are related to glaucoma. In fact, brass players could very well end up like this 50-year-old trombone player who tromboned so hard his retinas began to bleed. Holy shit!
"ARE YOU READY TO CLASSIC?"