04/06/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Trumpeter Tipples

The press in Scotland has uncovered the news that orchestral musicians have been known to drink. This is of the "Mob Influence on Waterfront" or "Cronyism in Department of Sewers and Streets" genre. It would be quite easy to dismiss the report that ran on March 1, 2009 in Scotland on Sunday as just so much "What else is new?" were it not for the fact that the examples cited were pretty shocking.

In the year 1910, H.L. Mencken wrote:

It would be interesting to find out why all performers upon the viola are pessimists and all double bass players such heavy drinkers. Alcohol seems to have no effect whatever upon an experienced double bass player. There is one man in the Gewandhaus orchestra at Leipzig whose daily potation consists of 18 liters of Munich dunkle, almost enough to paralyze a whole lodge of Elks. And yet he is always sober, alert and accurate in his playing. He is, indeed, the only double bass player in all Germany who can get through the scherzo of Beethoven's Fifty Symphony without once stopping to remove the rosin dust from his eyes.

So we have, at the very least, a documented history going back nearly a century of the fact that musicians have been known to knock back a few stiff ones. But what Scotland on Sunday reported was considerably more alarming than the news that taking the Temperance Pledge is not a job requirement for orchestral musicians.

It seems that at the annual conference of the Association of British Orchestras, remarks were delivered by one Bill Kerr, described as "the orchestral organizer of the Musicians' Union." Mr. Kerr mentioned certain "regrettable incidents" involving musicians who he claimed drank to overcome boredom and pre-performance nerves.

Mr. Kerr spoke of the unhappy doings of "the heavy brass section" of a major UK opera and ballet orchestra, noting that "They should have been sacked, really, but they would have been very hard to replace." Scotland on Sunday did not further specify the precise crimes and misdemeanors of the besotted brass players.

The press report indicates that the brass section or a significant part of it hit the pub before they were called upon to play. Inebriation with resulting very bad playing likely ensued. "It is indefensible and reprehensible, but it is human nature," Kerr is reported to have said. The report continued: "Another conference delegate recalled an incident in which a percussionist had fallen off the back of a high stage while drunk." One can just imagine the audience reaction to that macabre spectacle. The newspaper report concluded by helpfully observing: "Experts say stage fright is one of the main reasons musicians drink alcohol before a performance, while group culture is another. Anecdotally brass players drink more than other sections of the orchestra."

Now, Mr. Kerr is a union representative, and part of his professional duties requires him to stand up for the lads, minimizing the over-consumption of alcohol by union musicians as "human nature" or, if you prefer, "boys will be boys." This is, for lack of a better word, absurd.

Playing music in an orchestra is decidedly hard work, and at the professional level it is performed by men and women who possess immense talent and a boundless capacity for the dull but necessary labor of practice, practice, practice. And the professional musician, as the old insurance slogan had it, gets paid for results. These men and women are professional musicians because they are good at what they do, and the vast majority of them would rather play music -- and play it well -- than do anything else in the world. The pride that they take in their work, and in their ability to make gorgeous music despite what they often see (with no small amount of justification) as the short-comings of the orchestra conductor is laudable.

Although professional musicians may often look like an old school librarian or a concrete salesman, it is best to view them as having a good deal in common with professional athletes. Athletes and musicians train constantly to meet the physical rigors of their profession; all the talent in the world will not avail the violinist who does not have the strength or endurance to depress the strings and manipulate the bow during an entire concert any more than the greatest strategic mind in the history of the 440 can achieve success if his legs give out at the 400 mark. The need to constantly practice to hone and refine their skills is common to both musicians and athletes.

And like the athlete, the musician cannot make the innumerable spur of the moment adjustments that orchestra playing requires if his or her judgment is impaired by liquor or mind-altering drugs. The finest muscle movements must be carefully calibrated to produce the sound the musician seeks to make, and one need not be a member of some Blue Ribbon Commission on Alcohol Intoxication to know that downing the better part of a fifth of Scotch is not going to have a salubrious effect on the imbiber's ability to negotiate a difficult passage in the music of Richard Wagner. And for every jazz musician who was able to create a masterwork while in a Southern Comfort induced haze, hundreds were brought to ruin by the same means.

The notion that a musician will drink to "calm the nerves" or deal with performance anxiety is as antiquated as the notion that a steel worker requires a tumbler of gin as an "eye opener" before beginning his shift at the mill. All it will do is to make him insensible to the fact that he is playing badly. There are a dozen medications that any competent physician can prescribe that will address the "per-performance nerves" issues without anesthetizing the musician, as half a bottle of Canadian Rye will usually do.

Excusing a performance impaired by alcohol as "boys will be boys" is not unlike excusing drunk driving on the same basis. If the musicians are bored waiting around to perform, there are other, less deleterious ways to while away the idle hours than drinking, such as the poker game, contract bridge, the Game Boy, the Blackberry and reading a book. For despite the comments of Mr. Kerr and apologists of his ilk, the old rule applies: Drinking and Delius don't mix.