Confronting Classical Music’s Alcohol Problem (Casting Light #7)

Casting Light” is a 10-part series that explores the often invisible inequities in contemporary arts spaces. Commissioned by ACF and I CARE IF YOU LISTEN, the goal of the series is to highlight the conversations that we need to be having more openly and transparently in order to build diverse, inclusive, and equitable artistic communities. Building on our commitment to anti-racism, a culminating collection of these articles and other resources will be shared for continued learning and dialogue. 

I like to drink. And I like going to concerts. And for many professional musicians, the “best bit” of the concert comes in the bar when it’s all over as the atmosphere of the performance dissipates: a warm, ambrosial extension of the exhale en masse that you feel at the end of a particularly fraught programme. People of all sensibilities forget their worries, coming together as one big happy drinking family.

But is that really the case? The pandemic has brought with it time, space, and a preponderance of pent-up energy which individuals and organisations alike have channelled into deep looks inwards, assessing what they stand for and who they represent. But, at a time when we are more willing than ever to challenge our formative orthodoxies, the continued tangle of classical music and alcohol should also come under the spotlight. By critically assessing our own behaviours, not only might we foster an empathy with increasing numbers who are choosing not to drink, but also to wake up to just how much our industry silently revolves around booze.

Classical music sits in its own little world, quietly reflecting back a selection of society’s problems whilst bringing a fresh load of its own. Everyone can rattle off a list of figures from our community who have had troubles with alcohol, an exercise that comes with prim, proper, and frankly Victorian attitudes: “Look what happened to Beethoven, Rachmaninov, Schumann, all alcoholics who rose beyond their strife.” “The trumpet section aren’t in the second piece – there’s a pub round the corner; they reckon they can get three pints and still make it back for the symphony after the break.” It goes on.

Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

Scything through the myths and legends of classical music’s drinking culture requires more sober analysis. Michael Humphries is an MPhil student at Oxford University looking into these issues during the Covid-19 pandemic. His previous 2019 survey of 609 musicians in the UK revealed that musicians drink 84.4 units per month on average, 33.8 units more than the average consumption by the general population, and 24.4 units over the NHS’s recommended maximum guidance on alcohol consumption. A wider survey of professional musicians conducted by Help Musicians UK and Westminster University in 2016 revealed that, of the 2,211 performers surveyed, 90% drank; over half said they drank regularly and nearly 20% said it was an almost daily or daily occurrence.

That 90% figure is astounding, especially given that the survey’s focus was music and depression, rather than music and alcohol specifically. That focus (or lack thereof) points to a real blind spot in our journey towards making this a healthy, sustainable community. Where is the published research on this issue?

The data simply isn’t there, forcing anybody wishing to speak more widely on the issue into anecdotal chatter. At an Association of British Orchestras conference way back in 2009, the high-profile attendees tasked with addressing this issue relayed stories of whole orchestral sections playing drunk, alcoholics in the section falling off the stage, and of “regrettable incidents,” rather than being in a place to quote statistics.

At a time when we are more willing than ever to challenge our formative orthodoxies, the continued tangle of classical music and alcohol should also come under the spotlight.

Such accounts fuel the mythologising of drinking cultures. “You end up with ridiculous tales akin to the Norse sagas, where you have exaggerated stories featuring silly amounts of drinking that help create a legendary drinking culture,” says Humphries. “All that does is create a cycle that embellishes previous ‘battles.’ People, particularly younger musicians, are encouraged to emulate them again.”

Far be it for me to act as the puritanical fun sponge, who outlaws any drinking in a fit of prohibitionist rage. But this is part of the problem. Any attempt to assess what is a serious, deep-rooted problem is seen as sucking the little joy out of what is a universally difficult profession to navigate.

One obvious measure that should be implemented is an Alcoholics Anonymous-style pastoral care service that specifically serves musicians who are struggling with how much they are drinking, but who cannot follow the usual advice of removing themselves from the places where they feel the need to drink. Drinking is embedded into a fragile musical labour market where workers walk a tight-rope between friendship and networking; those notoriously difficult conversations are lubricated by alcohol. One alcohol-free (AF) musician explains his experience with this at conservatoire: “Chamber groups were forming from getting drunk and clubbing together, and I had to put in about three times as much effort to meet people because there weren’t AF friendly socialising or networking spaces at all. Now within the profession this still often crops up for me, but in a more understated, subtle way.”

Photo by Yutacar on Unsplash

Photo by Yutacar on Unsplash

Past immediately actionable initiatives, attitudes need to be interrogated before we begin to hope for change. Namely: who does classical music’s alignment with alcohol culture exclude, and how might we better understand their situations in order to foster a more empathetic, inclusive space? I spoke to a community of AF musicians who came together during lockdown to discuss their experiences.

There are of course, a multitude of factors involved in musicians’ decisions not to drink. Perhaps the most regularly occurring reason is on religious or faith grounds, but even that runs into problematic assumptions. Jane* is a Christian, and has encountered difficult situations bound up with issues around morality. “Sometimes when I say I don’t drink, people assume it’s because of my faith, and that I think drinking is inherently morally bad, or that I think I’m ‘holier than thou.’ I find it hard to know how to talk about it, because these conversations are often very brief, or people feel uncomfortable, or are very thoughtful but don’t know what to ask.”

The impact of drinking on physical health also plays a big part in the members of the group’s decision to change. “I noticed a huge connection between drinking and my mental and physical health,” says Claire*. “Since giving up, I’m happier and actually sleep at night.” Alice* agrees. “I used to really struggle with anxiety, acid reflux, and dysphonia, which were absolutely connected to how much I drank. I’m a singer, so it was highly stressful to lose my voice on a regular basis.”

Alice’s experience also speaks of the social implications of such decisions. “During my undergrad, I was in a long-term relationship with a very outgoing, social alcoholic. I did get drunk quite often with him. I would absolutely say that we broke up because of his drinking, which obviously really colours the way I feel about alcohol.” To be unexpectedly zapped back into a similar situation has understandably traumatic consequences.

Many in the group also point to alcohol’s dissociative impact on performing. Steve* commented: “Since discovering that I was allergic to sugar, gluten, and numerous other intolerances, when I eat well and honour what my body needs, my focus, energy, and playing feel significantly better. It helps me stay completely present by not drinking, and my body is in a much healthier place because of it.” Alice* agrees – “one of my big anxiety symptoms is disassociation, and I really notice a marked increase when I drink regularly.”

The “origin stories” of these musicians are inspiring, but their diversity of experience points to the multiple levels on which alcohol’s presence is disruptive, from making situations uncomfortable through to feelings of alienation. Not detailed here but mentioned in the discussion are those who can’t drink because of medication, those who have had traumatic experiences with alcohol or who are recovering from alcoholism, and people who hate the taste, the smell, or even the atmosphere of being around drunk or drinking people. What unites these varied circumstances is both their surface-level invisibility and the fact they’re so infrequently discussed out loud in our community.

Such attitudes are hardly being helped by the spaces we increasingly find ourselves in. Post-pandemic, most classical music organisations have concluded that the music they play needs to be made more accessible. This is hardly a new conclusion be drawn, nor is it a difficult one. But many are turning further toward alcohol culture in the name of accessibility, without considering if their actions are excluding people.

“Concert halls are stuffy and elitist,” implies the marketing copy. (They are also extremely expensive to hire, and difficult to fill.) “Let’s play somewhere else!” Super! But which parts of the hallowed concert experience cling on as proceedings move from an auditorium to a bar, and which gain more emphasis?

Post-pandemic, most classical music organisations have concluded that the music they play needs to be made more accessible…But many are turning further toward alcohol culture in the name of accessibility, without considering if their actions are excluding people.

“The pub is a collective safe space in the minds of British culture,” Michael Humphries notes. “It’s that social safe space where we go to do everything essentially. So if you’re trying to take away that threat of the new, well, you pop it in a pub, don’t you?” But really, little else is dislodged from the overall concert experience by moving venues. You’re still expected to listen in considered silence, unmoving, without conversation. Only this time, you have a drink in your hand. And is there a sadder image than a group of people sitting in silence, stock still, not talking or moving, drinking as imperceptibly as possible so as to not incur the wrath of the person behind them?

Imagining a more inclusive musical space for musicians and audience members alike is beset with complexities, but introducing alcohol into fresh situations has the potential to hinder more than it helps. This will undoubtably be met with cries of overexaggeration. But the awkwardness, apathy, and sometimes downright hostility AF musicians face regularly stem from an inability to consider the people left out of the prevailing orthodoxies.

Realising the abundance of drinking in our community requires a clear head and a big shot of empathy. Only then can we move towards the genuinely inclusive, equitable music community we all dream of.


I CARE IF YOU LISTEN is an editorially-independent program of the American Composers Forum, funded with generous donor and institutional support. Opinions expressed are solely those of the author and may not represent the views of ICIYL or ACF. 

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