Documentary Examines Addiction Among Classical Musicians

By McCarton Ackerman 08/20/14

The British-made Addicts Symphony explores the surprising rise of drug abuse among classical musicians.

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A new U.K. documentary is taking a closer look at the surprising trend of drug addiction among classical musicians.

The documentary, Addicts Symphony, brought together several classical musicians who are former addicts and desperate to reclaim their careers. After sharing their life story, the documentary concludes with them performing as an ensemble with the London Symphony Orchestra.

Addicts Symphony primarily features Rachel Lander, a cellist who suffered from alcohol and prescription pill addiction. While she doesn’t place blame on anyone but herself, she also reveals that the long hours and somewhat bizarre lifestyle of a classical musician can exacerbate an addiction problem.

"Many players use alcohol and beta-blockers to control their performance anxiety,” she explained. “After the 'high' of a performance, musicians can struggle to 'come down' and therefore drink to relax—which becomes habitual."

Lander struggled with performance anxiety and panic attacks before performances as a teenager, which was the catalyst for her taking up drinking. "When I drank, these attacks stopped. I also took Valium and beta-blockers…so you could block the adrenal gland and still hang on to your mental capacity,” she said. “The valium was great…because I didn’t really have to be in the room.”

Composer James McConnel led the performance and said he was inspired to do so after the death of his 18-year-old son, Freddy, who passed away in 2011 from a heroin overdose. Freddy was a friend of the late Peaches Geldof and wrote in his diary that he planned to inject heroin for the first time during a visit with her.

"[It’s] one of those rare programs which is not only entertaining and informative, but which has done some real, long-term good,” he said. "For me, watching a group of people brave enough to address their addictions and fear—through music—was both humbling and inspirational."

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.