When we think of performance-enhancing drugs the first thing that comes to mind are baseball players and stashes of steroids but don’t let that fool you folks because there’s another whole group of people who apparently are known for taking performance-enhancing drugs, and you’d never guess who.
It seems that musicians who perform in orchestras are well known for this behavior due to their intake of beta blockers prior to showtime. Unlike baseball players who have a stats column for their screw ups musicians in orchestras who screw up a single note can find themselves outside the back door and unemployable.
Beta blockers work because they slow the heart, drops the blood pressure, reduces breathing rate and results in a noticeable increase in playing quality.
A study reported in 1986 of 2,122 musicians in major U.S. symphony orchestras showed that 27% reported taking beta blockers. Of that 27%, 19% took them daily under a doctors prescription for heart conditions, etc., 11% had a prescription for occasional use (concerts, auditions, etc.) and the remaining 70% reported occasional use, but without a doctors prescription. (Again, these percentages are of the 27% who reported taking beta blockers, not of the whole population.)
When the musicians who took beta blockers for medical reasons are factored out, slightly under 22% of musicians in this study reported using beta blockers occasionally, with or without a prescription.
Among those who reported occasional use, with or without a prescription, the events they said they used them for were: Auditions, 72% ; solo recitals, 52%; difficult orchestral performances, 50%; concerto performances, 42%; before every performance, 4%.