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

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