One To Watch: Addicts’ Symphony

Rachael Lander


Tonight at 11PM UK Time, Channel 4 will screen the documentary Addicts’ Symphony.

The documentary showcases a project that took place last year, a collaboration between Big Mountain Productions and the London Symphony Orchestra’s LSO Discovery programme, to explore ways that music could help recovering addicts with prior musical experience.

From the LSO Discovery blog:

The project, Addicts’ Symphony, was the brainchild of the composer and musician James McConnel, whose 18-year-old son Freddy, an aspiring and talented musician, died of a heroin overdose in 2011 at the age of 18. James, himself a recovering alcoholic, was inspired to create the project by a determination to save others like Freddy from a similar fate, and a firm belief in the transformative power of music.

After a summer of recruitment, the ten participants came together for the first time at the beginning of October 2013. Led by workshop leader and composer Paul Rissmann and supported by LSO members Bindi McFarlane (violin) and Matthew Gibson (double bass), the group were reunited with their instruments; some having not played for 20 years, and some just beginning. All they were told at this point was that they needed to put together a performance.

This topic is of particular interest to me for a number of reasons. For a number of years I was a Patron of the London Symphony Orchestra, making financial contributions to support the orchestra’s work and subsidise the price of tickets so that other people from poorer backgrounds such as myself could experience the transformative, life-changing power of classical music.

But what I didn’t realise then was that I was to have personal experience of the ravages of addiction. I remember hearing discussion of a certain musician, an accomplished professional instrumentalist who played with some of the UK’s most prestigious orchestras, who exhibited alcoholic behaviour and drank to manage and suppress terrible stage fright – a theme that is explored in the Addicts’ Symphony documentary. But I never for a moment thought that I would one day exhibit many of these same behaviours myself.

My experiences of addiction, treatment and recovery probably merit a blog post, if not a book, of their own. And I will leave that topic for another day, except to say that despite not being a professional musician, my career outside of journalism is similarly high-stress, and that music was a key part of my recovery as it has always been a fundamental part of my life. The healing, restorative power of music is well known, and music therapy was very much a part of my own personal treatment plan.

The Addicts’ Symphony documentary should be one to watch because it addresses an area that is often overlooked by pundits and policymakers when discussing our approach to addressing and treating addiction. Much of the current focus is on treatment among the economically disadvantaged, or the underclass – and after many years of denial, some progress is finally being made in this area. But little attention has been paid to the havoc that can be caused by addiction in people with high-stress and often high-profile careers, such as the world of top-flight classical music.

As I can now personally attest having been through the mill myself, and an official “service user” of some of the patchwork of addiction recovery services available in Britain, many of the treatments and options available are simply not calibrated to people from different backgrounds – say those with more advanced educational qualifications, professional careers, many of the middle class obligations (such as mortgage payments and other financial obligations) and a lack of offending behaviour.

That is not to say that all treatments on offer are inadequate – far from it. Indeed, I was personally brought back from the brink by taxpayer-funded services that were, for the most part, excellent. And yet there were many areas where my particular needs and circumstances diverged almost completely from those of my fellow service users, forcing me to improvise and strike out on my own without the safety net provided to others.

I will expand on these ideas following the screening of the documentary, but it is already clear that Addicts’ Symphony is an important contribution to the discussion about addiction in high-functioning people with high-stress careers.

From the testimony of Rachael Lander, one of the participants in Addicts’ Symphony and a recovering alcoholic herself:

To admit [my addiction] publicly may amount to professional suicide. However, I’m frustrated with the classical-music profession and the fact that stage fright is still a touchy subject, despite the huge pressures on musicians. My story is not unique. Many classical musicians struggle alone, masking their nerves with beta blockers and alcohol, ashamed, as I was. For some reason, it is more acceptable to admit frailty in the world of rock and pop.

All the way through filming, I was aware that my taking part might help someone like me feel less alone. I trusted the integrity of the documentary’s director, Dollan Cannell, from the moment I met him, and I knew I would have more strength to tackle my specific fear of orchestral playing in the company of the other addicts involved in the programme.

Together we composed our piece, Rhapsody of the Tamed, and performed it with pride with the London Symphony Orchestra last November. It was both heartbreaking and empowering to play a concert with the LSO and admit that I was full of fear. I didn’t have to deny or medicate my feelings. For once I could be honest and, in the process, the shame I’d had about myself began to lift. It hasn’t returned since the night of the concert.

It is wonderful to hear the story of someone who experienced the darkness of addiction and not only came out the other side, but was able – with help – to re-engage with the very profession that had been such a source of stress and a trigger for her personal issues. But outside the meeting rooms of twelve-step fellowships, such stories are currently too few and far between.

Not everyone recovering from addiction is able to take a permanent sabbatical from the sources of their stress and anxiety once they leave treatment – though this is always strongly recommended by many treatment providers as the best choice for a successful long-term recovery. Many have families and other obligations which demand that they re-engage with the world more or less on the world’s terms and at it’s pace rather than their own. And here, finally, is a documentary that – among other goals – points to a possible way forward, at least for one specific high-pressure career.

Never one to turn down an opportunity to listen to the London Symphony Orchestra in action, Semi-Partisan Sam will be watching Addicts’ Symphony tonight with great interest.


Cover Image: Cellist Rachael Lander, “Addiction in the orchestra: classical music’s drink and drugs problem“, The Guardian

5 thoughts on “One To Watch: Addicts’ Symphony

  1. Clarissa Smid September 8, 2014 / 10:29 PM

    Hi there Sam,

    Hmmm. This makes me think – and I’d like to thank you for replying. Perhaps what I need to do is to put a post on my own blog about this. It is connected to a number of subjects that I want to write about, especially as this one is something that I have direct experience of. If you’d like to collaborate at all, let me know. It would probably be very worthy to have a different perspective on this.

    Best wishes,



    • Semi-Partisan Sam September 8, 2014 / 10:39 PM

      Hi Clarissa,

      I would certainly be interested in collaborating and discussing this topic further with you. For some reason I get a “Forbidden” 404 error message when I try to click on your blog address, but my email address is on my blog’s “Contact” page so perhaps we can communicate that way.




      • Clarissa Smid September 12, 2014 / 11:37 AM

        Hi Sam – all sorted now – did a stupid wordpress install! Yes – let’s talk about this. I will email you later.


  2. Clarissa Smid September 4, 2014 / 1:02 PM

    Hello – came across your blog on the Telegraph comments section.

    I have also commented upon this documentary – I feel greatly for these fellow musicians; some of them are my peers professionally, although I do not know anyone taking part. But all of them should feel like my peers anyway, as should all musicians everywhere.

    I have taken a different angle on this film. I feel that the issue isn’t so much that we have addicts who need the power of music to help them in recovery – I don’t want to diminish the bravery that sustained their journey. The elephant in the room is that most of the participants emerged as musicians as a result of education – and it is time that we bust the lid open on what happens in specialist music education, and the hurt that has and is being done to these wonderful musicians.

    We have to ask ourselves – in the grand scheme of things; what is the legacy that we want for our country? What is the pinnacle of humanity? Surely at the top is the expression of humanity through the Arts and through the Sciences (arguably, they are interchangeable). Currently, from an alien view point, we insist on our brightest and most vulnerable artists passing through a system that is cold, hard and abusive. And if addiction is something you are born with, God forbid that you are also born musically gifted too. Equally so if you fall foul of mental illness in the course of your career, most of all, when you are young, powerless and ignorant of the greater forces at work around you.

    Not everybody has the same experience in music schools. I have plenty of friends that have sailed through, as if propelled down a gilded path. But it seems to me that there are far more people about in the profession or in college that are victimised by a system that is very much there to serve itself and not the specific needs and concerns of the artists who are growing through it. I should also point out what I said on my own blog; I found it very revealing that not one of the participants in Addicts Symphony spoke about any professional musical individual – even anonymously – who helped them within the musical environment they came from. Not one. By omission, what does this say about the establishments where they were educated?

    If we weren’t all educated to feel so terrified of the process of performing by those who teach us, I have no doubt that there would be less orchestral and operatic performers in the bar after concerts and productions – and while still in a minority, less of them would go on to mainlining heroin or smoking crack behind closed doors after that. I hope that those in power within the industry are listening very carefully to what performers are whispering about in private: the gloves are coming off and we aren’t going to live life in silence and shame for much longer.


    • Semi-Partisan Sam September 8, 2014 / 1:08 PM

      Many thanks for such a detailed and thoughtful comment. I think you raised some very important points about the nature of musical education, which must certainly play a part in exacerbating the mental vulnerabilities of many performers. I wonder how much worse the situation must be in those less democratic countries where there is a real pressure to churn out world-class virtuosi on an industrial scale – compared to these regimes, the British approach must seem positively soft-touch.

      I take on board all of your points, but I also think that the issues raised in the documentary have implications in other high-stress careers beyond the world of classical music. Any field where it is necessary to “perform” in any way – be it on stage, on a sports field, in a conference room or at the head of a boardroom table – is going to lead to some level of collateral damage among those with addictive personalities or emotional difficulties, as I learned at one point in my own career.


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